By: R.J. Moeller
“The Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” -Karl Marx
I understand the skepticism and cynicism many Americans have toward the motives of the typical modern conservative’s opposition to progressive liberalism and its public figure-heads, such as President Barack Obama and Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It can often feel as if the Right in this country only know how to say “No” to any and every policy proposal liberal Democrats put forth. Combine this perceived mindless antagonism with such labels as “The Moral Majority” or “Religious Right”, and you have a recipe for a public relations disaster of the first degree for conservatives, and by extension, Republicans.
Being a Republican is your political affiliation. Being a conservative is your association with a set of ideas, ideals, and values. Just as being a Baptist or Lutheran is your denomination, while being a Christ-follower (aka “a Christian”) is what you are. What you believe about God then leads to the selection of a denomination.
This is analogous to how I feel about the relationship of my conservative beliefs to my decision to support (thus far in life) the Republican Party come election time.
Fundamentally, I don’t oppose nearly everything Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi want to legislatively and economically do to this country because I am a Republican; I oppose them because I am a conservative (and they are progressive liberals). It is their ideas I loathe, not them. There are so many Republicans currently in public office that I think are utter buffoons. There are many self-described conservatives in the public’s eye that embarrass, frustrate, and disappoint me on a daily basis. But then again, I am constantly frustrated and disappointed with my own selfish or short-sighted actions.
It seems to me that while we cannot dismiss or ignore the mistakes we ourselves make, or the mistakes like-minded people in our church or political party make, what must come first (and foremost) is an assessment of the ideas, ideals, and values the groups we associate with (or oppose) claim to advance.
Although many other factors have contributed to the rampant ideological confusion and political mischaracterization that exists today in America, it is my opinion that one of the root causes of the political divide in this country is this: a pervasive lack of a basic comprehension of what the “other side” believes. To compound the matter, many do not fully (or even partially) grasp what the labels they ascribe to themselves, and the ideas behind them, encompass. It’s one kind of problem to be unable to articulate your opponent’s views; it’s an entirely different, and larger, problem if you can’t articulate your own.
I’ve already written a series of essays under the title “Mere Conservatism”, and plan on mining the concepts and principles I spelled out in them much more in the coming weeks and months, but I feel compelled to spend the rest of this column (and one more next week) giving you a brief glimpse into the mind of one conservative who has decided, “as for me and my house, we will not serve the Left.”
I came to the realization years ago that the three most important intellectual prisms one ought to use to analyze his life, and the world around him, are Theology, History, and Economics. The interaction and overlap between these three areas of thought and study seemed too obvious and significant to disregard. So let me, starting from a bit of History, explain to you why I believe the liberal, progressive, Leftist views of the world are inherently and fundamentally flawed.
Ideas have consequences, and they also have babies. Ideas come together with other ideas and give birth to movements. It is impossible to pin all of the good things that come from one man’s ideas on him alone, just as you cannot lay the full blame for all the negative things that transpire as a result of his ideas. This is precisely why History is so vitally important to any diagnosis of competing value systems. One needs to know the fuller cultural, political, and economic context of a society or nation before he can pronounce any semblance of an informed judgment on the consequences of specific ideas.
In A Concise History of the Russian Revolution by Richard Pipes, Dr. Pipes traces some of the ideological, intellectual, and philosophical strains that led to a bloody, violent communist revolution (and 70-year totalitarian state) in Russia back to their original sources. Each society is unique and different, but History has shown us that the ideas which spawned the Bolshevik Revolution have much in common with those that spawned revolutions in Mao’s China, Castro’s Cuba, and, in a more recent, somewhat diluted form, Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. These ideas have cousins on the American Left today and are therefore exceedingly relevant to the discussion of my disapproval of it.
Dr. Pipes recounts how the leading intellectuals in Russia in the late 19th, and early 20th, century were heavily influenced by Western European secular thinkers and what became known as the “empirical method” of inquiry and research. Due to the progresses in science at this time, many believed that mankind’s potential to master the world around him was limitless. This included a mastery of the human condition, of man’s soul itself. Because the empirical method states that the only things which exist are those that can be observed and measured, religion, morality, and metaphysics necessarily took a back-seat to science.
In France, in 1758, the philosopher Claude Helvetius wrote On Mind, a further development of British thinker John Locke’s “Tabula Rasa” theory of knowledge. Locke, who had wonderful and important things to say about private property and natural rights, (incorrectly) believed that human beings are born without “free will” and are entirely defined by their experiences (i.e. their environment).
Helvetius drew on Locke’s epistemology to argue that insofar as man is totally molded by his environment, a perfect environment will inevitably produce perfect human beings. The means toward this end are education and legislation. The task of the political and social order, therefore, is not to create optimal conditions in which mankind can realize its potential but rather to render mankind “virtuous.” Good government not only ensures “the greatest happiness of the greatest number” (a formula attributed to Helvetius) but literally refashions man. This unprecedented proposition constitutes the premise of both liberal and radical (Leftist) ideologies of modern times. It justifies the government’s far-reaching intervention in the lives of its citizens.
Now the reasons why someone in modern-day America supports the increases of government intrusion in our lives are many and varied. The reason your neighbor or relative is a committed liberal today might have absolutely nothing to do with Helvetius and John Locke. Chances are they’ve never even heard of the first, and probably think you’re talking about a character on ABC’s LOST in reference to the second. The reasons they arrived at their Leftist conclusion are seemingly endless.
They might interpret their sacred religious texts as promoting some form of egalitarian socialism. They might have had a bad experience with a mega-company like Wal-Mart displacing the mom-and-pop stores of their local small town, and consequently blame “capitalism” or the “free market.” They might be an ethnic minority and have felt the painful sting of racism or bigotry from someone who presented themselves as being a conservative Republican in favor of “limited government” and “state’s rights.”
I’m not telling you why every American on the political Left is there; I’m telling you how the founding fathers of Leftist ideologies, such as liberalism, progressivism, collectivism, socialism, Marxism, and communism, came to their conclusions about political, cultural, and economic issues. Again, it is the ideas of the Left I despise, not the people (with individual stories and experiences) who adhere to them.
Dr. Pipes continues:
To members of the (Leftist) party, politics was not simply a matter of better or worse, to be tested by experience, but of good and bad, to be decided on principle. Public issues became highly personalized, and the holder of opinions judged incorrect was not merely wrong but, because the truth was self-evident and could be ignored only from bad will, also evil…The theory and practice of socialism, and its off-shoot, communism, postulate that all the existing ways of humanity are irrational and that it is the mission of those in the know to make out of them something radically different: mankind’s entire past is but a long detour on the road to its true collectivist destiny.
A religious conservative and free-market advocate on the Right like me instantly disagrees with the political Left’s stance on most topics. Our “ends” are largely different. But so are our “means.” We have different, and competing, ideas about what American does, could, and should look like. When I speak with other conservatives, libertarians, and moderates on the Center-Right of American politics, we will sometimes disagree about the “means,” but only because we care so much about how to best accomplish our largely agreed upon “ends.”
I know to some the talk of "competing ideas" will sound needlessly divisive, but the longer we continue to pretend that people who think (and legislate) like Barack Obama are really after “the same thing” as are people who think (and vote) like me, the wider the gap between the two sides will grow.
Man isn’t a “Tabula Rasa”; he is a physical and spiritual creature with intrinsic value, worth, and moral competency. Education and legislation aren’t the things that will make “perfect” human beings, if for no other reason than that “perfection” is an unobtainable goal for any person.
But, to acknowledge and accept the fact that mankind isn’t perfectible would require such thinkers and political activists to acknowledge and accept that mankind is inherently flawed (or fallen). In such a world, the last thing we would need is to put more and more power in fewer and fewer (equally fallen) hands.
These are, in large part, spiritual, even theological, statements and therefore out of bounds for Leftists committed to “science”, the empirical method, and the dream of supplanting religion with allegiance to, and worship of, the “State.” The fact that many self-described religious people, whose theology might legitimately conflict with Leftist political dogma, end up promoting Leftist teachings and values only makes their partnership with the Left all the more dangerous (and tragic).
Religious people can be on the Left. Anti-religious people invented the Left.
I used the quote from Karl Marx to begin this column not to directly link everyone who supports higher taxes, social justice, government-run education, and the Democrat Party to the intellectual father of socialism and communism, but to highlight the fact that the vocal and visible leaders of Leftist ideology (since Marx) have all wanted the same thing: radical changes to their nation’s society, government, family structure, church-state relationship and economy.
Conservatism, the brand I subscribe to, seeks change, but also the preservation (and improvement) of the things that have proven to work. When it comes to real change, conservatives believe that we already have the means to amend injustice and improve already-fruitful endeavors or institutions. Those three things are: our faith, our liberty and our Constitution. Our faith gives our minds the moral clarity to decipher what needs to go and what should stay. Our liberty allows us to freely and actively participate in the self-governing system our Founders providentially put in to place more than 200 years ago. For example, it affords to us the ability to boycott a private bus company if it will not fairly transport all law-abiding customers. Our Constitution puts in place a legislative buffer against tyranny: a republican, representative gauntlet through which all significant changes must safely pass.
When I hear rhetoric and policy proposals, from either side of the aisle, that seek to supplant or over-ride those three change-agents, I object with my voice and with my vote. It just so happens that when I use the empirical method to observe and record the number of times I am against what liberal Democrats suggest, it is always more than Republicans.
I suppose Marx is right when he alludes to the fact that the point of analyzing the world and gaining knowledge and wisdom about it is ultimately, in one way or another, to change (or improve) it. However, it all comes down to what you want people to change to, and how you intend on changing them.
On these two critically important and pivotal points, Right and Left fundamentally deviate.
(Tune in next week for the conclusion of my explanation of why I oppose the Left.)