In my article yesterday in National Review Online, and in subsequent discussions here, I have suggested a return to the philosophy of classical liberalism as an antidote to both big-government conservatism (the current-day Republicans) and what I call New Age conservatism (the current-day Democrats). As I pointed out six months ago on Tech Central Station, big-government conservatism is a mess both politically and as policy . And the Democrats’ success in the recent elections suggests that they will stick with their New Age conservatism for the near future.
Conservatism, then, is a position for Democrats for the near future. And in my view, they can have it. This nation does not need conservatism; it needs reform. Badly.
Hence, the Republicans really should look to liberalism as their way out of the woods. Fortunately, classical liberalism is a philosophy that is both easy to understand and easy to like. Here is how I outlined it in my Tech Central Station article on "The Crash of Big-Government Conservatism":
The solution for the Republicans, then, must be philosophical at heart, and that philosophy must drive the party’s policy prescriptions. Their only real answer is to embrace classical liberalism. This includes in particular embracing its crucial components of individual rights, personal responsibility, the belief that human life in general and every human life in particular has meaning, and respect for the reality of nationality.
This vision of classical liberalism derives from Edmund Burke and Adam Smith and their contemporaries, and incorporates the insights of subsequent great thinkers such as Booker T. Washington, Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Thomas Sowell. It is a vision of a true opportunity society, open to all who agree to play by the rules, and one in which the rules are sovereign.
Such a vision provides a comprehensible, consistent, and sensible view of the world and the nation. In this worldview, the nation is a society of free individuals brought together by a common heritage, living under laws that free people to achieve the best that they can and that prevent them from unfairly exploiting one another, a society that respects the need for personal morality regardless of one’s religious background. Classical liberalism provides a way to find clear answers in all policy matters by asking the following question: Which policy approach will create the greatest amount of both individual liberty and social order?
Such a vision is by no means a theocracy; it is in fact based largely on utilitarian concerns. However, it also includes a respect for religion because the latter is part of mankind’s perpetual search for truth and meaning and because religious faith can encourage personal morality and social charity and give great comfort and purpose to individuals in times both good and bad. In its great and abiding respect for the good things religion brings, however, classical liberalism never allows the two kingdoms (in Martin Luther’s great distinction), the City of God and the City of Man, to be conflated or confused with each other.
Classical liberalism holds that the Christian religion is good for society because it encourages the intellectual foundations for an orderly society of free individuals. Whether a particular religion’s claims are true or not is a matter for the Church to decide, as Luther pointed out, not the state; and whether a particular policy or political philosophy is good is a matter to be decided by an empirical calculus, as Luther likewise noted, not religious laws developed for a very different group of people six thousand years ago.
About religion, classical liberalism says: Encouragement of religion, yes; imposition of religious-based laws, no.
This philosophy is much more likely to appeal to disaffected Republicans and others on the Right than the watered-down postmodernism now offered by the Grand Old Party. Classical liberalism is the philosophy that Ronald Reagan eloquently represented, and the party of Reagan could rely on that history to provide quick credibility to an effort to renew a commitment to his approach to government. But rhetoric won’t be enough. A Bush veto of the bloated, pork-laden spending bill recently passed by the Senate would go a long way toward restoring the GOP’s credibility as the party of Reagan, especially if it is followed by a better bill and an intense congressional debate over spending. The policy approach for the rest of the summer and thereafter should likewise be based on the Reaganesque, classical liberal principles outlined here.
That advice went unheeded, of course, although Don Devine reprinted it on his excellent Conservative Battleline Online site, a hotbed of Republican thinking. The Republicans will undoubtedly engage in a good deal of soul-searching in the coming weeks, and getting back to their true, classical liberal roots should be their first priority.