Skip to comments.The Seminal Restraint of Conservatism (The Conscience of a Conservative book review)
Posted on 12/07/2003 11:13:49 AM PST by MegaSilver
I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue. -Barry Goldwater (1964 Republican Convention Acceptance Speech)
If, as Oscar Wilde opined, homosexuality is "the love that dare not speak its name," then we might say that Conservatism is "the political philosophy that dare not speak the truth." Liberals are wont to bathe the masses in comforting but demonstrably false platitudes, because at the root of their political philosophy they maintain a series of fictions, like: (1) we're all essentially equal--all differences in intelligence, ability, etc. are a function of external factors and these external factors can be corrected by government; or, (2) all problems, both international and domestic, are soluble by government action because basically we all really have each others best interests at heart, we just sometimes need a push from Big Brother to realize it; and so on. Conservatism meanwhile is based on a set of somewhat ugly truths, derived from hard experience: (1) the natural state of man, like that of other animals, is one of competition, not cooperation; (2) it is because this competition was so brutal, often fatal, that men reluctantly gave up some measure of freedom, in order to establish a government to protect them from one another; (3) government, foreign and domestic, is now the greatest threat to man, because those governments will seek ever increasing levels of control over human behavior; and so on. Obviously, conservatives are left with a harder sell here.
Therefore, while conservative academics express themselves openly, you very seldom hear conservative politicians present their ideas in simple unvarnished fashion; for the most part it gets dressed up in warm fuzzy language. Every once in a while though, especially in times of great crisis, someone will step forward and actually enunciated conservative values in blunt terms--modern instances include: Herbert Hoover in his post presidency phase; Charles Lindbergh and the America First movement; George S. Patton during WWII; Robert Taft after the War; Barry Goldwater in the early '60s; Ronald Reagan from 1962 to 1988; and Alan Keyes today. Significantly, most of these men were either destroyed personally or were denied the opportunity to exercise real power, either by voters or by party power brokers. For all the noble cant about how voters wish that politicians were more truthful, their actions at the voting booth tend to indicate the opposite. They would much rather be comforted than confronted.
It is against this backdrop that we must consider Barry Goldwater's seminal treatise The Conscience of a Conservative. And it is only once we understand these circumstances that we can appreciate how significant a book it was; in fact, it may be the single most important written work of ideology ever produced by a practicing American politician of any real stature. Considered first merely in terms of the audience it reached, only Tom Paine's pamphlets can be said to provide it any competition for popularity. Adjusted for population size, it is probably true that Paine's Common Sense is the best selling political treatise in the nation's history, but it is also true that Paine, though obviously political, was not truly a politician, at least not an office seeker. It is also the case that Presidents and presidential contenders have written bestselling books dealing with politics, but they tend not to be ideological. Instead they are wifty things like JFK's ghost written bit of self serving puffery, Profiles in Courage, or Nixon's eminently forgettable, Six Crises. Of course, ex-President Ulysses S. Grant wrote one of the great memoirs of all time, but he did not even deal with his presidency therein. The GOP did issue its Contract with America prior to the 1994 Congressional elections (a document which borrowed from Goldwater's book and philosophy), but there was no single national candidate behind that text (and its elements had been tested in opinion polls prior to inclusion in the final draft). No, there has really only been one great political treatise promulgated by a single man and then used as a campaign platform. For that reason alone, you would think this book would still be in print and be a subject of academic study.
Even more remarkable is the fact that almost all of the book is still topical today. On the very first page, Goldwater talks about his annoyance at Republican leaders who feel compelled to call themselves "progressive Conservatives" or, as he quotes then Vice President Nixon: "Republican candidates should be economic conservatives, but conservatives with a heart." This discussion so closely parallels current Conservative angst over George W. Bush's use of the term "compassionate Conservative" that it's almost spooky. In his discussion of taxes, he comes out in favor of a flat tax in terms that presage Steve Forbes:
I believe that the requirements of justice here are perfectly clear: government has a right to claim an equal percentage of each man's wealth, and no more.
Pessimism is a sort of occupational hazard for conservatives. There's a tendency to say that things are always in decline from an imagined ideal point in the past. But men like Goldwater and Reagan recast conservatism in a much more forward looking mold and made it a philosophy of human progress and their vision has largely prevailed. We won the Cold War, cut and flattened taxes, reformed Welfare, started returning power to the states, etc., etc., etc... But as you read this book and realize that we're still fighting all of the same fights, you realize how little has actually been accomplished. I still believe that Goldwater is largely right--the future of America will be basically fiscally conservative and socially libertarian--but it will always be a struggle, one we're often losing. This slender impassioned polemic remains an important statement of the principles which should guide our public policy and its very immediacy and relevance amply demonstrate Goldwater's continuing political significance. He is without a doubt the most influential losing candidate in the history of presidential politics, one of the seminal figures in American political thought in the second half of the 20th Century, and his influence may well extend far into the 21st Century.
Edward Kennedy is not afraid to pound down with his "Lie after lie after lie after lie" rhetoric. Conservatives, likewise, should not be afraid to bluntly state their position in a straightforward sort of way. The difference is that logic and truth are, if you ask me, on our side. Combine that logic and truth with blunt rhetoric and (above all) decisive action, and you have a winning combination
But as long as they don't, conservatives will never constitute a real majority of the legislature, for in the minds of the less muckraking American voters, logic often takes a back seat to rhetoric and decisive action. The more the GOP leaders kiss up to corporations and wallow in wussy Rockefeller indecision, the more the nation--and the Republican Party--will loose its strength.
Clintoon wishes he had some of that "seminal restraint".
On my copy of The Conscience of a Conservative (actually, my library's), Bozell's name doesn't even appear.
I've looked it up, and I'll keep looking, but thus far, I've seen nothing that would indicate that Goldwater didn't write The Conscience of a Conservative (with Bozell assisting, of course, but not writing the whole thing himself).
Also, don't forget that Barry Goldwater endorsed Gerald Ford over Ronald Reagan in the 1976 primaries and endorsed Bill Clinton over Bob Dole in 1996.
Where are you getting your information? Goldwater was appalled by Nixon's handling of Watergate and called him "the most dishonest man I've ever met," so I'm not sure he'd have endorsed the man who pardoned Nixon. And I know for a fact that he actively endorsed Bob Dole. He was considered controversial in the Clinton years for his support of the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, saying that he couldn't see a reason why being gay would intrinsically hurt another.
I guess I'm the one who's mistaken. Apparently, Goldwater did endorse Ford. My apologies.
Conservatives should bear that in mind before venerating St. Barry of Goldwater.
Goldwater did turn a bit odd in later years, I'll admit. Abortion is first and foremost an issue of the natural right to live, which is the first, most essential freedom. It is not necessarily a religious issue. And it's too bad he didn't realize in time that the Democratic Party was the one that had been hijacked by a move to disintegrate Christianity, and that what conservatives of today really want is just to preserve it, not to "promote" it.
Kirk offers the best characterization of "conservative" that I have ever read: "Conservatives favor liberty over equality." By converse, liberals promote equality -- however artificial -- at the cost of liberty. And there is where the battle line is drawn.
I just might have to do that. Thanks for the info.