St. Augustine once famously said that he knew what time was until someone asked him. Augustine put his finger on a common problem with words: the more they are used, understanding their meaning does not increase but is more likely to decrease.
Conservatism is another word and concept which is suffering from this increased lack of understanding. Others have pointed out this reality; John Murdock in 2014 remarked that many of the attendees of that year’s CPAC were not conservatives in the real sense of the word; last month, Steve Deace made the same point, that the meaning of the word “conservatism” has mostly been lost. Examples of this fact have increased: former JPTV commentator, Bill Whittle, has described conservatism as loving “fast cars, loud guns, and hot women;” Milo Yiannopolis became a sensation on the Right because of his attacks on the left and his pop-cultural credentials, even though he is not a conservative. Last Friday, Tomi Lahren made herself the latest example when she revealed herself to be pro-choice on The View.
What does conservatism mean? Before any other question can be answered or any position on any issue be taken, that first question must be answered. Although many answers have been given, they, of course, cannot all be correct. An aid in answering the above question might be found in another question: What is conservatism for? It seems that many people today see conservatism as whatever they wish it be–as long as they oppose the Left in some fashion. This can help explain the rise of so many different factions within modern conservatism; there is now, Christian conservatism, social conservatism, fiscal conservatism, libertarian conservatism, moderate conservatism, compassionate conservatism, even “conservatism with liberal leanings.” One of the reasons for this split may be the obsession that many on the Right now have for freedom. This obsession is not hard to understand when every action requires an equal but opposite reaction. As the Left has increasingly called for more and more government power over every facet of life, the Right has called more and more for freedom, so that freedom is equated with conservatism. But this obsession with freedom has polluted and corrupted modern conservatism. This perhaps, was put on display in the clearest light when Tomi Lahren, in defending her pro-abortion comments on Twitter, said, “I speak my truth…I will always be honest and stand in my truth.”
With 1,842 shares and 12, 355 likes on Twitter, it seems that a sizeable number of people share Tomi’s view. The problem is that this is nonsense of the greatest and wildest quality. This is not a personal or ad hominem attack on Tomi; that is simply the nature of the argument she made. If there is such a thing as Tomi Lahren’s truth, then, logically speaking, there must be such a thing as my truth, and your truth. Everyone, in essence and practicality, must have his own truth. But this is an impossible situation. Tomi says that abortion is licit since the unborn child is not a person; I say that abortion can never be justified because the essence of abortion is the killing of an innocent person. Which of us is right? According to Tomi and her defenders, we both are since we are both “standing firm” in our truth. But this is an impossibility; an act cannot both be right and wrong at the same time; likewise, an unborn child cannot both be a person and not a person at the same time. One position must be right and, since the other option is a contradiction of the first, the other must be wrong. To hold otherwise is to throw the principle of non-contradiction out the window. But to do so is to acknowledge that a thing can both be and not be at the same time. This is not philosophical quibbling, the equivalent of the medieval discussion of how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. In the first place, rejection of the principle is wrong and, therefore, should not be tolerated. In the second place, rejection of the principle creates a world ruled by the will to power. If everything is in flux and there is only “my truth” and “your truth” and no objective, transcendent order, there is no reason to say that a particular action is wrong or evil. Communication becomes impossible. There is, in fact, no reason why limited government, the reason Tomi gave for being pro-choice, is a good thing, other than that is what she wants. Further, there is no logical reason why she should continue to attack people on the left for their views and actions since they are simply standing in their truth.
This leads to the very word, “conservatism.” If the principle of non-contradiction is still in place (as it must be) then conservatism, like everything else, cannot both be and not be something at the same time. Conservatism, for example, cannot both be for the protection of innocent life and for its murder. To be sure, there are several areas where conservatives of good will can disagree; the correct remedy for educational reform, for instance. But on issues such as the personhood of the unborn, there can be no divergence of opinion as there can be only one right answer with justice then demanding that we follow the right answer.
What then, again, is the meaning or purpose of conservatism? The common definition today seems to include limited government, low taxes, both staples of conservatism since the days of Ronald Reagan, and a mania for freedom, that, in reality is an obsession with “freedom from” with no regard for “freedom for.” None of these things, in and of themselves, is bad; they are, in the right proportion, good things. The key though is right proportion. Let us take freedom as an example since that is taken to be the root of modern conservatism. Forgotten in all the chatter is that freedom is not a uniform entity but a multifaceted one. The late Archbishop Fulton Sheen differentiated between freedom from, which he defined as freedom from restraint, and freedom for, which he described as the freedom to pursue a specific goal. Neither aspect can exist without the other; freedom from restraint is pointless unless one uses that freedom in order to pursue some goal. The question then becomes, what sort of goal or end should we pursue? As Abraham Lincoln said, “Freedom is the right to do what we ought, not what we want.” The question then becomes: What are those things which we ought to choose with our freedom? The correct answer is that which allows us to flourish. This answer does not allow subjectivism to enter through the back door of our thinking since what we want to do and what allows us to flourish are not the same thing. In other words, what we ought to choose are those things which allow us as human beings to flourish which, in turn, will allow us to flourish as persons. Let us take the virtue of honesty as an example. Honesty is when we express the objective order in the world; it is (to make an obvious example) saying that the clear sky is blue, or that 2+2=4. There are many times when honesty seems to work against our interests; if we are honest, we may be punished, such as when we run a red light, or we may not “get ahead” as when we do not take credit for another’s work. Even if it is not to our immediate advantage though, we ought to choose the truth and honesty. In the first place, we should choose honesty because that is what our minds and our power of speech is for; our minds are there to see and discover the order of the world, the way things are, and our speech is present so that we may communicate that order to others. In the second place, we should always be honest because, as much as it might hurt us in the moment, being honest allows us to truly flourish. On the practical level, we will be known to be honest and so our word will be good on whatever we say. But on a deeper, metaphysical level, honesty allows us to be truly human, since we will be using our faculties as they are supposed to be used and we will thus be aligned with the objective and true order of the world.
Conservatism, then, can be broadly said to be concerned with genuine human flourishing, which comes from allegiance to the “permanent things” as Russell Kirk called them. This is why limited government, low taxes and unrestricted “freedom from” cannot be the essence of conservatism, nor its most important features. Men need beauty, art poetry, history, stories, family, moral order, goodness and truth in order to flourish because we are made for these things. A conservatism that ignores these necessities and which sinks to subjectivism, where everything is chaos, is not conservatism at all but a petty sham.