This article is from our January symposium issue, in which 53 leading writers and thinkers answer the question: “What is the future of conservatism in the wake of the 2012 election?” Click here to read the entire symposium.
American conservatism has three-part roots. Morally, it is rooted in the biblical metaphysic. Conservatives have an appreciation for the sinful nature of men and women and hence a healthy respect for Murphy’s Law. If something can go wrong, and there are people involved, you should be ready for the possibility that it will.
Philosophically, conservatism goes back to the epistemological modesty of Edmund Burke. The world is a complex place. The power of reason is bounded. Be skeptical of those who think they can grasp the complexities of reality and reorganize it through rational planning.
Economically, American conservatism differs from European conservatism because it goes back to the governing philosophy of Alexander Hamilton, to the belief in social mobility, immigrant possibility, and the idea that, in limited but energetic ways, government can help give people the tools to compete in a capitalist economy.
Today’s conservatism is estranged from these roots. Today’s conservatism is more properly called Freedomism. It is the elevation of freedom as the ultimate political good. If anybody doubts this, listen to any speech at the Republican convention or during the primary season. The theme was overwhelming: We need to get government out of the way to maximize individual freedom.
Freedomism tramples on the biblical metaphysic. Imperfect people can’t simply be let free. Virtuous lives are only possible when organized within the contours laid down by public and private institutions. Freedomism tramples epistemological modesty. It has become an all-explaining and unbending ideology: Whatever the problem, the answer is less government. Freedomism tramples the Hamiltonian agenda. It has trouble embracing affirmative government programs, even ones such as Pell Grants, EITC, and community colleges, which reward and encourage work.
The Republican Party is not going to give up its individualistic, anti-government Freedom Wing. There are too many Republican Party activists, especially in the South and West, who believe in this ideology. But it has to make room for another wing, which we might as well call, after the noble beast, the Rhino Wing.
The Rhino Wing would flow directly from the three springs of American conservatism and draw political inspiration from its early-American embodiments, the Whig Party and the early Republican Party.
The Rhino Wing would reject the Freedomist equation that more government necessarily equals more dependency. It would reject the entire Big Government vs. Small Government frame. What matters is not the size of government but the nature of the citizenry. It would embrace any government program that stokes ambition, energy, and industriousness–the Hamiltonian virtues. It would reject any policy that stifles these things. It would pick an argument with liberals on these grounds. Rhinos would stand for social mobility and dynamism, and liberals would stand for equality and economic security.
The Rhino Wing would be tolerant on social issues. Sinful people need a thick web of permanent commitments to thrive. Rhinos wouldn’t care if those commitments are straight or gay, or if they were conformed to somebody’s idea of natural law or not.
The Rhino Wing would also be incremental and managerial. It would cherish the boring task of governance and the slow but steady virtues–prudence, moderation, and balance. It would see government as a fulcrum, ever shifting to achieve equilibrium between the competing forces in society.
Politically, the Rhino Wing would thrive along the coasts and in the suburbs of the Midwest. Would it agree with the Freedom Wing on every issue? No. But political coalitions don’t have to be uniform. They don’t even have to make sense. It would be nice to have a more traditional brand of conservatism thriving within a broad center-right movement.
David Brooks is a columnist for the New York Times.