There was a really interesting book review in the Wall Street Journal last week entitled “Trump Didn’t Kill Conservatism” (search it up on google to read).
In the piece, Micah Meadowcroft reviewed a book by Patrick J. Deneen called Conserving America? Essays on Present Discontents.
The premise of the book is that we are living under a liberal order in which the two sides of the political aisle – classical liberals (misnamed conservatives according to the book) and progressive liberals – are two sides of the same coin. As a nation, we have strayed entirely from the traditional conservatism and Christianity of our roots and are therefore at risk of falling victim to a mode of hyper-individualism that opens the door to government tyranny. When our communities and institutions break down, the government steps in to fill the void.
I have written before that we are indeed living under a liberal order, but I don’t view that as a bad thing. What I see as destructive are the post-liberal forces, authoritarianism on both sides, seeking to destroy it.
My proposed solution was a true focus in our politics on classical liberalism, which I believe to be the strongest permeating factor throughout the American tradition, rather than traditionalism or Christianity. If we are going to win the hearts and minds of the American public, then a focus on limited government in all aspects and logical consistency is going to be necessary. Most Americans can get behind the idea that people can live as they want to so long as they don’t violate the rights of others.
I have no doubt that without our traditional, Christian values, society isn’t as strong. However, these values need to make a resurgence at the societal level, not through government policy. People aren’t going to become good Christians because the government told them to; they’re going to become good Christians if their neighbors can convince them that it’s the right way to live. This is where the conservatism that Deneen speaks of can make a true resurgence – in our communities and local institutions. But this can only happen if the federal government is stripped down to the size the founders intended, a classical liberal idea, so that our communities and local institutions can fill the void.
I’ll leave you with a passage from Thomas Paine’s Common Sense:
SOME writers have so confounded society with government, as to leave little or no distinction between them; whereas they are not only different, but have different origins. Society is produced by our wants, and government by our wickedness; the former promotes our happiness POSITIVELY by uniting our affections, the latter NEGATIVELY by restraining our vices. The one encourages intercourse, the other creates distinctions. The first is a patron, the last a punisher.
Society in every state is a blessing, but Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries BY A GOVERNMENT, which we might expect in a country WITHOUT GOVERNMENT, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer. Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence; the palaces of kings are built upon the ruins of the bowers of paradise. For were the impulses of conscience clear, uniform and irresistibly obeyed, man would need no other lawgiver; but that not being the case, he finds it necessary to surrender up a part of his property to furnish means for the protection of the rest; and this he is induced to do by the same prudence which in every other case advises him, out of two evils to choose the least. Wherefore, security being the true design and end of government, it unanswerably follows that whatever form thereof appears most likely to ensure it to us, with the least expense and greatest benefit, is preferable to all others.
Just months later, the Declaration of Independence was signed following these same principles. That’s the idea of government we should conserve, and that’s certainly the idea of government Trump is seeking to destroy.