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The Whys and Lies of Conservatism
By Sean Holliday October 6, 2004

I'm conservative. I have been since I was old enough to think the matter through and decide for myself. My parents are conservative, but I've never really understood why. I'm not sure they have. They just are. My wife to this day claims to be a moderate, but I know she's a closet conservative. The fact that she claimed to be liberal when we got married supports my hypothesis. I grew up in a conservative state and in a traditionally conservative religion, but environment has nothing to do with my conservatism. It's a well-researched, highly analyzed personal choice.

In saying I'm conservative, I should note, that that doesn't make me republican. The two are not always one in the same. In the modern politics of the last half-century, they are increasingly less so. Given the restrictions of a two-party system, I'm forced quite often to vote that way. I've even registered at times, in order to increase my opportunity for political involvement. But despite the voting-record and the endless contribution solicitations, at heart I'm not republican. I'm conservative.

Conservatism is more than politics. It transcends borders and governments. It is a philosophy; an understanding; a way of thinking.

The Great Myth

Shortly after the presidential election debacle of 2000, I was very saddened by remarks made in the national media, stereotyping conservatives (or in this case republicans) as un-educated, bigoted, redneck heathens. It was pointed out that the states won by George W. Bush were the same as those where Matthew Shepherd had been beaten to death because he was openly gay and where James Byrd had been drug to death behind a pick-up truck as punishment for being black.

This was a grotesque and disgusting display of the worst kind of politically based slander and hate. Ironically it was also the height of hypocrisy, stereotyping all people from the infamously "red states" as bigoted hate-mongers who lacked the intelligence to see through stereotypes and draw their own conclusions. Beyond that, though, it was an insight into one of the principal ideas behind modern liberalism; one of the key distinguishing differences between the left and right.

The comments made on CNN were outrageous. Generally they were acknowledged as such. But underneath the acknowledgements lurked a hidden feeling of---at least to a certain degree---concurrence. While they would never come out and say so, the feeling I get from most liberals, is that they share the views of CNN's Paul Begala. It's not so pointed; not so brash. They don't think all republicans are murderers---or even racists---but they do generally see conservatives as unintelligent and/or uninformed. Herein lies the great myth.

I don't talk politics very often; with a liberal almost never. I have in the past, but have learned that it leads only to contention. Part of the fault lies with me. I have a hard time maintaining pleasant conversation with someone who from the onset of the discussion has categorized me as an uncaring, uneducated, neo-fascist intellectual inferior. I find that I spend the whole of the discussion defending my ability to analyze and make decisions, rather than the decisions I have made; my intelligence, rather than my ideas.

It's not at all enjoyable.

We've been spoon-fed the stereotype for years. Ronald Reagan, Dan Quayle, and George W. Bush were smart enough to reach the pinnacle positions of American politics, but were all portrayed as idiots by the mainstream media; incapable of making decisions, pronouncing words with more than two syllables and---in one particular late-night television sketch---opening doors. Gerald Ford (Chevy Chase) answered his stapler on Saturday Night Live. George W. Bush was challenged to an on-camera, geography pop-quiz during an interview with Andy Hiller of WHDH-TV in Boston. The list goes on.

The only other type of conservative (according to stereotype) is at the opposite end of the cognitive spectrum. This conservative is a shrewdly intelligent, ruthless money-monger who has nothing against starving children and knocking-off old people in pursuit of the all-mighty dollar (see Richard Dreyfuss' bad-guy Republican presidential candidate in Rob Reiner's The American President). Here Richard Nixon serves as the favorite poster child of the left. This stereotype is generally reserved only for the upper-echelon of the Republican Party.

The Whys

I, like the majority of conservatives, don't fit the stereotype. I am neither rich nor stupid; bigoted nor ruthless. I am, however, conservative. These are the reasons why.


The heart of conservatism is religious. It is the belief that a wise and all-knowing Creator put man on earth in order to make him an agent unto himself. Like any good parent, God entrusts us with our own destiny. He allows---and expects---us to make our own decisions and to bear the responsibility for the decisions we make. This agency is integral to our development. The purest form of conservatism recognizes the importance of and respects that agency and the responsibility associated with it.

Liberalism on the other hand seizes an individual's agency---and the responsibility respective to it---and transfers it to the state, effectively nullifying a person's ownership of their own life and destiny. Under liberalism, the state is responsible for an individual's or family's well-being. Federal programs are ultimately responsible for feeding people. Schools are responsible for educating children. Courts are responsible for deciding what is taught. Individuals and parents have no responsibility.

The gradual watering-down of individual or parental responsibility is the danger of the transfer of ownership. Such a shift precipitates a culture of laziness, helplessness, and self-victimization, wherein the responsibility for a person's success or happiness in life is perpetually laid at the foot of someone else; the locus of control placed with environmental and other factors outside of an individual's reach. In conservatism, the locus of control is placed primarily with the individual.

The argument can---and has been---made that leaving the ultimate responsibility for a person's life in the hands of the person is a cold and somewhat heartless practice. It is in fact exactly the opposite. The self-sufficiency gained by successfully managing the responsibility for one's own well-being affords a freedom that cannot be duplicated by outside provision.

I am full aware of the falls my children will take in the process of learning to walk. I have no problem imagining the pain associated with those falls---both on the part of the child, and on the part of the parent who has to watch his baby cry. I also realize, however, the liberty and happiness associated with the ability to walk. I would never let an emotional response to the inevitable bruises of growing up rob my children of the experience and joy of growing up. No one would.

The concept of agency in government is a realization of this principle. It is an understanding of the mantra: give a man a fish and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish and he eats for a lifetime.

Principles vs. Problems

Conservatism recognizes and governs by principles. Liberalism recognizes problems and reacts, trying to correct the perceived problems---often without a thorough analysis of the principles involved or the effects of short-term solutions on the long-term future.

Such reactionary government is often an emotional response to perceived suffering or injustice. Sympathy for constituents is a virtue that has a place in any good government. (It is certainly better than indifference.) But emotion cannot be the filter through which government operates. It cannot trump reason and analysis. The recognition of this fact has wrongly contributed to the second stereotyping of conservatism as cruel and heartless. Again the contrary is true. Conservatism has emotion. It has sympathy. (Through empowerment and localization, it has perhaps more than liberalism's procrustean approach.) It allows that sympathy for perceived needs to establish an agenda for discussion and analysis, but does not allow sympathetic emotion to overrule that discussion and analysis.

The alphabet soup of the great depression is a good example of reactionary government. The federal programs initiated by Franklin D. Roosevelt to provide relief to a poverty stricken country were timely and perhaps necessary. The suffering of that time was certainly lessened through governmental intervention. But the absence of an exit strategy from those programs has had the more lasting effect on the country and the culture, leaving the United States with an inefficient, top-heavy government and a societal mindset that proscribes red-tape reduction. Nobody wants his or her program exited. There has been a shift from the principles of self-sufficiency and accountability to dependency and irresponsibility.

A principled approach may well have adopted many of the same programs, in reaction to the emergency situation of the time, but not at the expense of the principles of independence and freedom upon which the government was based. Conservatism recognizes that short-term fixes and emotional band-aids cannot replace long-term solutions and preventative care.

Autonomy and Empowerment

In the last quarter-century, the business world has seen a migration to the principle of empowerment; allowing employees to act with greater authority in matters relating to their individual jobs. The principle is based largely on two ideas: number one, the efficiency of speeding up the decision making process; and number two, the acknowledgement that the employee knows his or her individual job better than anyone else.

Conservatism has long recognized this principle. In conservatism, decisions are made whenever possible at the individual level, or as close to it as is practical. Local governments---cities and states---play a larger role in the government of their respective constituencies. The federal government plays a lesser role, acknowledging that the local governments know better the situations and concerns of their constituents and can act more efficiently address those concerns.

This decentralized approach to government requires the optimistic belief that people can and will for the most part make right decisions. Liberalism centralizes the decision-making power, suggesting a pessimistic lack of confidence in either the intelligence or the morality of the people it proposes to govern. The assumption that the few governing power holders know better the lives and concerns of---or are morally superior to---the people they propose to govern is arrogant, dangerous and absurd. Given that power is finite, centralization increases the relative strength of the power holder, attracting to government the unscrupulous and power-thirsty.

The argument comes down to the nature of man. Conservatism holds that on the whole people are basically intelligent and good---with a few exceptions---and can therefore be entrusted with the government of their own lives. Liberalism suggests that on the whole people are basically unintelligent or evil---with a few exceptions---and hopes those exceptions are the individuals who rise to power.

The Lies

The exceptions to the rule that people are basically intelligent and good and will therefore make right decisions expose the lie of conservatism. Because of these exceptions, conservatism in its purest form does not work in practical application. It is unrealistic. People will not always choose the right, moral or intelligent choice. They will not always govern themselves correctly. There are bound to be mistakes.

The same exceptions that inhibit pure conservatism also stand in the way of socialism, communism or any other form of government. Ironically, it is these exceptions that necessitate the governments they impede. If the conservative belief, that people make right decisions were universally applicable, there would be little need for government. The fact that conservative theory exists at all reveals the fallacy in the theory itself. Therein is the lie.

Faith vs. Fear

Practical conservatism acknowledges these exceptions to the rule and treats them as such. Liberalism treats the exceptions as the rule. Conservatism has faith in the people it governs and in the principles by which it governs. Liberalism has fear for the people it governs and for the problems it perceives. It seeks to quiet that fear by seizing and centralizing the power of the people, in an effort to protect them from themselves.

Conservatism believes that people need principles, rather than protection and that given correct principles and the power to act on them they will, more often than not, succeed in self-government.


Conservatism is not perfect. No theory of government is. Theories are only as strong as the people who carry them out. Conservatism recognizes and makes allowances for its imperfections. It acknowledges the need for a limited centralization of governmental power, but resists the usurpation of individual agency. It trusts in adherence to sound principles more than easy solutions to temporary problems. It places its faith and power in the people and trusts that, more often than not, the people will govern themselves correctly. Conservatism is cognizant of the risks associated with independence. It assumes those risks because of the worth it places in freedom and the faith it places in people.

I believe agency is crucial to our growth and development, both as individuals and as a species. I believe in principles. I believe in people. I understand the pain associated with falling down, but deem far greater the independence and joy of being able to stand, walk, run, dance and leap. I have faith that we can. That's why I'm conservative.

Copyright © 2004 by Sean Holliday

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