Conservatism’s recent defeats–in the 2012 election, and in the more recent government shutdown–have provoked a debate among conservatives about what conservatism is and what it should do. A recent installment on that debate was provided by Rich Lowery and Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review, on the one hand, and Erick Erickson of Redstate, on the other. Lowery and Ponnuru criticized some House conservatives for recklessness in trying to use the shutdown as a tool of political reform. In response, Erickson suggested that National Review had become a mere organ of the Republican establishment.
In the course of his critique Erickson suggested that conservatism is “about human freedom,” and I have a piece at Public Discourse arguing that this is an insufficient understanding of what conservatism should be about. I rely a good deal on Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, whose thought is in many respects consistent with the traditional Catholic understanding of human nature.
I don’t think that freedom on its own is an adequate governing philosophy:
Governing inevitably requires regulating human behavior. Nobody could govern a political community simply on the basis of the claim that the governing enterprise is simply “about human freedom.” Securing the good of a community requires making and enforcing numerous rules. Each of these rules must be judged according to its contribution to the common good, which includes a just freedom, but no rule can be debarred simply because it limits freedom.
In the face of any proposed regulation, any rational mind will ask: “Is this rule worth its cost to freedom?” But it is equally true that in the face of any assertion of freedom, any rational mind will also have to ask: “Is this kind of freedom good—for the people asserting it, for other people, and for the whole community?” As long as both questions are unavoidable, no successful governing philosophy can just be “about human freedom.”
And I don’t think that an appeal to freedom alone will work to win elections.
A conservatism that is merely “about human freedom” will fail not only as a governing philosophy but also as a political movement, one that mobilizes voters with a view to winning power. It can’t win enough votes to prevail, because it is inconsistent with human nature. Human beings are by nature moral and social animals. This is a conservative insight, taught by Burke and other conservative thinkers before him. Man, Aristotle taught, is a political animal. His intensely political nature is bound up with his capacity for rational speech. But the constant theme of his speech—at least as it relates to politics—is justice and injustice, good and evil. . . .
Because human beings are by nature moral beings, they will desire an account of the uses of public authority that appeals to their moral imagination. They will want to give their votes in support of substantive principles that they can recognize as dignified and worthy, and not merely in support of an undefined freedom.
Those who are interested can read the whole article here: