What does it mean to be a conservative in 2016? For the Left, it’s simple. You are a racist-sexist-bigot-homophobe.
Racist because you don’t acknowledge white privilege while white Leftists do;
Sexist because you respect the personal decision by women to raise children in the home;
Bigoted because you trust the FBI’s statement that Syrian refugees cannot be vetted for terrorists;
Homophobic because while you respect the political right of gays to wed, you are wary of a government that assaults your personal beliefs against catering their weddings.
If you’ve ever wondered why it’s so hard to be conservative in 2016, this is it. From its consolidated tower of Hollywood, Big Business, and Academia, the Left has shamed, distorted, straw-manned, and maligned conservatives. And their criticisms are nothing but character attacks.
But conservatism isn’t any of these things. Conservatism means believing in a free and open market, individual freedom, and a strong national defense.
The Free Market
A free market relies on voluntary exchange. Voluntary exchange protects people. Because businesses compete, prices drop and the standard of living rises. Free marketers, such as Milton Friedman and Adam Smith, believe that voluntary exchange creates new value. In fact, value creation is the spark for growth and innovation. To them, trade is not a zero-sum game. Voluntary exchange does not discriminate. If a black person wants a mortgage, but a bank won’t offer one despite good credit, another bank will take its place. Free markets only care about one color: green. The free market provides equality of opportunity. Equality of opportunity places the responsibility of personal decisions on the individual to determine their own success in life.
By contrast, a command economy relies on government control. Friedrich Hayek likens early feudalism to communism, socialism, and crony capitalism, explaining that in each system economic power rests with the central government. And an empowered government capable of great good is by definition capable of great evil. Each system provides equality of outcome—not opportunity—for people outside the central government. Whether by confiscation of private property, nationalized sectors, progressive taxes, or cronyism, command economies carry out this task. History is replete with these command economies that choke economy and constrain freedom.
Individual freedom means, in general, as the number of laws increases, freedom becomes constrained. It means, with some notable exceptions, valuing negative rights over positive rights in order to preserve freedom. For example, the U.S. Constitution restricts the powers of government, a design unlike most founding documents in world history. The Constitution places checks on our three branches of government while the Bill of Rights ensures that government cannot circumscribe individual freedom.
The notion of valuing negative rights over positive rights informs conservatism in several ways. For example, negative rights do not compel an atheist to attend church on Sunday. Similarly, they do not compel a Christian to cater gay weddings. Negative rights also assuage the frenzy surrounding transgender bathroom laws. As laws increase, they typically constrain freedom. This is no exception. By keeping the issue uncodified, transsexuals that look like women have used and will continue to use the women’s bathroom. However, a government law could constrain freedom by violating women’s privacy. Perverse individuals—transgender or not—could take advantage of such a law.
Negative rights also inform the safe space debate on college campuses. Quelling an opponent breeds fascism. Instead, respond to speech with more speech. This concept of free speech is not new. In fact, it is the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights and is rooted in the concept of negative rights and individual freedom. With individual freedom as the goal, conservatism balances risks and rewards of policy.
Strong National Defense
America is fragile and requires protection against outside threats. In this manner, a strong national defense undergirds our free market and individual freedom. A current threat to America is Islamic terrorism although terrorism itself is nothing new. The Declaration of Independence provides a telling description as “an undistinguished destruction of all sexes, ages, and conditions.” This description informs our foreign policy by understanding terrorism’s many forms. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, and Maoist China are all examples of terrorist groups that also controlled territory. ISIS has recently added to this evil.
In order to deter and defeat terrorism, conservatism believes in fighting wars to protect the freedoms we enjoy. It means understanding realism and national interest for America. This approach to foreign policy does not justify all intervention. Mistakes exist in foreign policy. However, a strong national defense secures our political and economic freedoms.
The Bleeding Heart Conservative
Conservatism is neither narrow-minded nor heartless. It is because you care about people and want to help them that you believe in conservatism. Arthur Brooks, the president of the American Enterprise Institute, describes this in his book The Conservative Heart, summarized in his TED Talk. So the next time a leftist attacks your character and not your opinion, call them out on it. Conservatism cares and this generation can show it.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Arthur Brooks TED Talk