With an adoring liberal media bounding along happily at his heels, William Barber has managed to portray North Carolina politics as a moral crusade. Perhaps you used to believe that conservatives simply held a different worldview and a different philosophy about the role of government? How naïve of you. Didn’t you know? According to Barber, conservative legislators only do what they do because they hate the poor, despise women, and want North Carolina to plunge into a thousand years of darkness.
Of course, William Barber isn’t the first person to paint conservatism as something it’s not: Conservatives are often labeled as reactionaries – “old white men” whose politics spring from knee-jerk resistance to change. It is a tired myth whose existence is maintained by constant reinforcement in biased liberal media. Rather than informing and educating the populace about both sides of a major philosophical debate, the media has largely echoed Barber’s demonizing rhetoric. Conservatives discuss pro-life legislation? They hate women. Conservatives argue for voter ID? They’re extreme. Conservatives pass tax reform? They’re immoral. The media’s failure to engage this sort of demagoguery reinforces the straw-man of the “mean” conservative, and makes substantive political discourse impossible.
If it even needs to be said, the legislative agenda currently pursued in our General Assembly is not the product of some regressive conspiracy against the downtrodden. It is, by and large, a rational response to the problems facing North Carolina after decades of failed liberal-progressive policies. What’s more, it comes from a rich intellectual tradition that is guided primarily by moral considerations.
Conservatives and liberals differ on many things, but the central wedge is the question of the role of government. Liberal political philosophy has its roots in the Progressive Era and the “social justice” movement of the 1890s. Basically, progressives believe that the purpose of government is the realization of “social justice,” which they believe can be achieved through scientific administration. In other words, the government should actively work to bring about a just society. The problem, of course, is that the liberal conception of justice is often at odds with the conservative conception of justice.
Conservatives have a different idea about the role of government. They believe that the central role of government is not the realization of social justice — not because conservatives do not find justice objectively appealing, but because they question the government’s ability to provide it. Conservatives do believe in helping the homeless and the poor, but wherever possible they believe that assistance should come from civil society, not from the government. In other words, relief should come from friends, neighbors, churches, and community associations – not from an overweening state authority.
The reason for this is twofold: first, government cannot be trusted to responsibly exercise power. As Ronald Reagan once quipped, “A government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll see on this earth.” This is a problem, for as government grows, it inevitably treads on individual rights.
Conservatives believe that government is not merely abusive, it is also debilitating. Much like a “helicopter parent” who raises a fearful and dependent child, a large government undermines the liberty and entrepreneurial spirit of its citizens. In the early 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville warned that centralized power could produce a dangerous, seemingly innocuous variant of despotism:
Above these [citizens] an immense tutelary power is elevated, which alone takes charge of assuring their enjoyments and watching over their fate. It is absolute, detailed, regular, far-seeing, and mild. It would resemble paternal power if, like that, it had for its object to prepare men for manhood; but on the contrary, it seeks only to keep them fixed irrevocably in childhood … can it not take away from them the trouble of thinking and the pain of living?
Conservatives know that an ever-expanding set of government programs will inevitably descend into a welfare state that robs its citizens of their initiative and freedoms. As a result, conservatives aim to keep the state within the bounds of its proper and essential functions: the protection of individual rights like life, liberty, and property.
Conservatism is not a negative ethic, but a positive one. It does not seek to resist change, but rather aims to preserve those things which allow freedom, hope, and social mobility to thrive. Conservatism does not keep its citizens in perpetual childhood, but treats each citizen like an adult capable of making his or her own choices.
Conservatism is not mean. Conservatism is moral.