Conservative godfather Russell Kirk (1918–1994) wrote lengthy philosophical treatises on “the six canons of conservative thought” and “ten conservative principles.” Throughout his writings on conservatism he praised natural law, order, virtue, restraint, custom, convention, continuity, tradition, prudence, permanent things, an enduring moral order, property, and voluntary community, while he disdained hasty innovation, collectivism, uniformity, egalitarianism, utilitarianism, and those who would “reconstruct society upon abstract designs.”
The conservative mantra
Present-day conservatives take a much different and simpler approach than that of Kirk. It has been said by numerous people in a variety of ways that if you repeat something loudly enough and often enough, people will eventually come to believe it, whether it is true or not. That is certainly the case of conservatives in the Internet Age. Although I am a libertarian, I am on the email list of many conservative organizations. Not only do I want to keep up with what they are doing, they many times publish valuable studies on the failings and outrages of liberal policies, proposals, and politicians — even if they don’t always provide solutions equally as valuable. In all of the emails I receive from these conservative organizations — and especially the fund-raising ones — they generally recite some mantra in an attempt to convince the conservative faithful — and especially the donating ones — that they are real conservatives who can be counted on to uphold conservative principles.
Although the mantras recited by conservative organizations differ slightly, even sometimes when recited by the same organization, they all generally read thus: We believe in the Constitution, limited government, individual freedom, private property, traditional values, free enterprise, and a strong national defense. Now, on the surface this mantra sounds good, even to libertarian ears. The most hard-core libertarian opponent of the Constitution would at least acknowledge that things would be much better in this country if the federal government actually followed its own Constitution. Limiting the government is what libertarians live for. Individual freedom and private property are two of the pillars of libertarianism. There is nothing inherent in libertarianism that would make it opposed to traditional values. Free enterprise is the cry of every libertarian. And libertarians certainly believe in the legitimacy of defense against aggression.
But no matter how many times conservatives recite their mantra, the fact remains that they only selectively believe it. And sometimes very selectively. Conservatives don’t follow the Constitution in many areas. They prefer a government limited to one controlled by conservatives. They don’t accept the freedom of individuals to do anything that’s peaceful. They don’t believe in the inviolability of private property. They think traditional values should be legislated by government. They don’t yearn for free enterprise in everything. And they confound the idea of national defense with national offense.
The conservative blueprint
Although one would think that the conservative mantra would be incompatible with the welfare-warfare state, such is not the case. Conservative support for the welfare-warfare state shows just how meaningless the elements of their mantra really are.
One of the oldest and largest conservative research and educational institutions is the Heritage Foundation. Founded in February 1973, and headquartered in Washington, D.C., “The Heritage Foundation is the nation’s most broadly supported public policy research institute, with hundreds of thousands of individual, foundation and corporate donors.” Heritage has “a staff of 275 and an annual expense budget of $82.4 million.” Its vision is “to build an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.” Its mission is “to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense.” To that end, “Heritage’s staff pursues this mission by performing timely, accurate research on key policy issues and effectively marketing these findings to our primary audiences: members of Congress, key congressional staff members, policymakers in the executive branch, the nation’s news media, and the academic and policy communities.” Heritage says that it believes that “the principles and ideas of the American Founding are worth conserving and renewing,” and “the most effective solutions are consistent with those ideas and principles.” The current president of Heritage is the former Republican senator Jim DeMint.
The Heritage Foundation last year published, in March, July, and November, a three-part “Mandate for Leadership Series of documents.” Each document “educates the American public, specifically including Congress, the new American President, and the new President’s team.” They “deliver a clear, unified policy vision for Congress and the President to preserve and create opportunities to enable all Americans [to] provide for their families, contribute to their communities, and pursue their dreams.” Part 1 is “Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2017.” It “provides detailed recommendations for the annual congressional budget.” Part 2 is “Blueprint for Reform: A Comprehensive Policy Agenda for a New Administration.” It “establishes a long-term vision, and policies to achieve that vision, that requires presidential leadership and congressional action.” Part 3 is “Blueprint for a New Administration: Priorities for the President.” It “details specific steps that the new Administration can take immediately upon assuming office to demonstrate its commitment to the long-term vision presented in the second volume.”
The Heritage “Blueprint,” it is claimed, will:
- Slow the growth of entitlement spending
- Reform entitlement programs
- Update the tax code to promote economic growth and opportunity
- Streamline federal departments and agency operations and personnel costs
- Responsibly bring spending under control
- Reduce total spending by $10 trillion over 10 years
- Reduce the national debt
- Rein in interest spending
- Balance the budget while reducing taxes
- Balance the federal budget on a unified basis by 2024
- Fully fund national defense
- Provide the framework for budget process reform
Although the Heritage “Blueprint” contains many good policy proposals, it is still a blueprint for a welfare-warfare state with a government that is anything but limited. A look at the “Blueprint” recommendations for a few federal departments will make this abundantly clear.
The Heritage “Blueprint” has much to say about the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). The USDA has been around since 1862. It is one of the largest federal departments, with about 95,000 full-time civilian employees and a budget of more than $150 billion. But over the years,
the USDA has evolved into a federal executive department that oversees some of the most market-distorting policies in the nation, distributing an endless array of costly subsidies. Beyond the agricultural subsidies, the USDA has become a welfare agency, running the food stamp program along with other nutrition programs. It also has a wide range of programs covering everything from conservation to biofuels.
So what does the Heritage “Blueprint” propose should be done with the USDA? The USDA’s Catfish Inspection Program should be repealed. Its Conservation Technical Assistance Program and Rural Business-Cooperative Service’s Discretionary Programs should be eliminated. Funding should be prohibited for the new National School Lunch Program Standards (the standards, not the program itself). The secretary of Agriculture should work with Congress “to eliminate the provision that expands free lunches to middle-class and wealthy families.” Free lunches at public schools should “only go to those students from low-income families who truly need them.” Farm subsidies should be eliminated. The role of the Farm Service Agency should be “significantly reduced.” The USDA’s Rural Development Agency should be eliminated and “all of its flawed and often duplicative programs eliminated.” The USDA should stop issuing its Dietary Guidelines.
Some USDA agencies should remain “relatively intact,” such as the agencies that undertake research or perform inspections. The Forest Service should be moved from the USDA to the Department of the Interior. Food-aid programs focused on humanitarian and dis-aster relief should be shifted to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The president should urge Congress to consider food stamps and agricultural programs in separate pieces of legislation. The food stamp program should be moved from the USDA to the Department of Health and Human Services, “the primary welfare department of the federal government.” The Heritage “Blueprint” envisions “a new USDA” that focuses exclusively on agriculture. The USDA
should not be a money dispenser for agriculture but rather a source of information, conducting necessary and valuable research that the private sector otherwise would not produce, promoting free trade, and protecting food safety. Its role should be carefully examined and monitored, recognizing that free enterprise and not government intervention is the best way to have a stable and safe food supply.
If the conservatives at the Heritage Foundation who wrote those recommendations concerning the USDA for the “Blueprint” really believed in the Constitution and limited government, they would have called for the complete and total elimination of the USDA and all of its agencies and programs instead of eliminating just a few, cutting back on others, and transferring some to other departments of the federal government. The Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have anything to do with agriculture. No department, no agencies, no research, no subsidies, no loans, no guarantees, no inspections, no aid, no relief, no assistance, no lunches, no dissemination of information. It is unconscionable that the food stamp program, which is nothing but welfare, and is the largest expense of the USDA, should just be moved to another department and “reformed to include work requirements for able-bodied adults to receive benefits: requiring them to work, do job training, perform community service, or at least look for work in exchange for receiving benefits.”
The same things are true when we look at Heritage’s recommendations for other federal departments; e.g., the departments of Education and Health and Human Services.
The Department of Education should be “downsized.” It should “devolve education dollars and decision making to the states, significantly reducing K–12 programs and limiting spending to a single, flexible funding stream on the basis of low-income student population, which states could use for any education purpose under state law.” The federal Pell Grant and student loan programs should be reformed, not abolished. There is not a word in the “Blueprint” about abolishing the Department of Education — something that conservatives used to call for. There is not a word in the “Blueprint” about limiting government by separating school from state. There is not a word in the “Blueprint” about ending all federal funding of education because the Constitution nowhere authorizes the federal government to have anything to do with education.
Instead of being abolished, the Department of Health and Human Services “should focus on administering the health care entitlement programs in a patient-centered, market-based way and encouraging self-sufficiency by allocating federal welfare assistance only to those truly in need.” Medicare should be “modernized” and transitioned “from a government-controlled health insurance program that isolates individual decisions from costs, and restricts patients’ access to care, to a market-based premium support program with greater choice and improved care.” Medicaid should be restored “as a true safety net for the poor.” Able-bodied persons with low incomes should “be provided with direct assistance to purchase health insurance in the private market.”
Social Security likewise “needs to modernize its outdated entitlement structures.” The president should “establish a bipartisan national commission to devise a comprehensive plan to return Social Security’s programs to meeting their original goals of poverty prevention among the elderly and individuals with disability in an affordable and targeted manner.” A “serious” Social Security reform proposal “should reduce agency spending by at least five percent over the next 10 years.” That is a serious proposal? I would hate to see a proposal to reform Social Security that wasn’t serious. The bottom line is: Congress must “reform the structure of America’s entitlement programs,” not abolish them.
The Heritage “Blueprint” recommendations for the Department of Defense are laughable. The Defense Department (DOD) should “cut research funding for programs that are not related to increasing military capabilities,” “cut subsidies to its commissaries,” “end renewable energy mandates,” and “close the Defense Department’s Domestic Dependent Elementary and Secondary schools (DDESS) on military bases in the continental United States.” Congress should “reform the military’s health care system by introducing a private-sector health insurance option for military family members.”
But the minuscule amount of money that would be saved by doing those things is offset many times over by the other “Blueprint” recommendations for the DOD. The military is “getting weaker while threats to U.S. interests are rising.” The military is “too small.” The Army needs more combat brigades. The Navy needs more ships. The Marine Corps needs more battalions. The Air Force needs more fighter aircraft. The size of the military should be increased. Defense spending should be increased. There should be “a significant funding increase for combat readiness.” The United States should have more alliances. NATO should be strengthened. Ballistic-missile defense systems should be deployed to the Middle East and in space. The United States should defend the world from “Russian adventurism in Eastern Europe, Chinese expansion in the South China Sea, and radical Islamist terrorist organizations inciting violence across swaths of Asia, the Middle East, and North Africa.” To be more accurate, the conservative mantra should be changed to read “a strong national offense,” since that is precisely what conservatives mean when they talk about “a strong national defense.” A strong national defense doesn’t need foreign military bases, U.S. troops deployed on foreign soil, or entangling alliances. And having a strong national defense doesn’t mean being the world’s policeman.
The Heritage “Blueprint” is merely a blueprint for a conservative welfare-warfare state that makes a mockery of the Constitution and the concept of limited government. It says, in effect and practice, that no American has the individual freedom to use his private property (which includes his money) as he sees fit. The poor, the elderly, the hungry, the sick, the disabled, and the disadvantaged cannot be taken care of under a free- enterprise system where individuals and organizations exercise the traditional value of charity. It is the job of the government to take care of them.
A look at some other issues shows just how deceptive the conservative mantra really is, especially when it comes to individual freedom, private property, and free enterprise.
The drug war. Conservatives are the most ardent drug warriors. They don’t believe that anyone should have the individual freedom to use drugs for recreational purposes, even on his own private property. They oppose free enterprise in drugs and instead support the criminalization of drug trafficking. They oppose the legalization of drugs on the state level and don’t want the federal government to have limited powers when it comes to waging war on drugs. They support the federal Controlled Substances Act, the federal Office of National Drug Control Policy, the federal Drug Enforcement Agency, and the federal war on drugs, even though there is nothing in the Constitution that gives the federal government the authority to have or to do any of those things. And what traditional value is being practiced when conservatives support the government’s locking people in cages for possessing too much of a plant it doesn’t approve of?
Gun control. Conservatives say they support the Second Amendment and oppose gun control, and compared with liberal “gun grabbers” it appears that they do. But they don’t really believe in free enterprise when it comes to guns. They support the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS). They support waiting periods for gun purchases. They support the federal government’s licensing of gun dealers. They support the existence of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives (ATF), even as they say they believe in limited government. And even though the Second Amendment says that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” they support most federal gun laws — laws that infringe on the right of the people to keep and bear arms.
Organ sales. Conservatives oppose free enterprise in the sale of voluntarily offered body organs. They oppose anyone’s having the individual freedom to sell one of his organs to the highest bidder — while he is alive or after he is dead. They support the federal government’s National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 that outlawed the sale of organs and established the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network even though the Constitution nowhere gives the federal government the authority to have anything to do with such a thing. They oppose anyone’s being able to dispose of his private property (which includes his body if it includes anything) as he sees fit.
Prostitution. Conservatives are adamantly against free enterprise, individual freedom, limited government, and private property when it comes to people’s wanting to privately, peacefully, voluntarily, and consensually exchange a sexual service for money. They oppose the repeal of any and all laws against prostitution. And yet, even though fornication and adultery are anything but traditional values, conservatives have no problem when sexual services are legal and given away as long as no money changes hands.
Anti-discrimination laws. Conservatives support federal anti-discrimination laws even though they are an attack not only on the Constitution, limited government, free enterprise, private property, and individual freedom, but also on freedom of association, freedom of contract, and freedom of thought. They are, of course, very selective, since they oppose the efforts of liberals to include as part of anti-discrimination laws sexual orientation and sexual identity. Conservatives don’t believe that employers have the right to hire or not hire anyone they choose. They don’t believe in the absolute right of business owners to refuse service to anyone for any reason or property owners to refuse to sell, rent, or lease to anyone on any basis.
On issue after issue, the conservative mantra rings hollow.
Summary and conclusion
The conservative mantra of the Constitution, limited government, individual freedom, private property, traditional values, free enterprise, and a strong national defense is a lie from start to finish. Conservatives are so selective in adhering to their mantra as to render it meaningless. They have no problem with the federal government’s violating its own Constitution if it means furthering some conservative agenda. The only limited government they seek is a government limited to control by conservatives. Conservatives oppose the individual freedom of adults to engage in selected activities that are peaceful, consensual, and don’t violate the personal or property rights of others. They oppose the right of people to do what they want on and with their private property. Conservatives think traditional values should be legislated and regulated by government. They don’t believe in a free-enterprise system for all goods and services. And there is nothing defensive about conservatives’ concept of national defense.
The libertarian philosophy of liberty, property, and peace is alone a consistent and moral political philosophy. Libertarianism says that people should be free from individual, societal, or government interference to live their lives any way they desire; pursue their own happiness; accumulate as much wealth as they can; assess their own risk; make their own choices; engage in commerce with anyone who is willing to reciprocate; participate in any economic activity for their profit; and spend the fruits of their labor as they see fit as long as their actions are peaceful, their associations are voluntary, their interactions are consensual, and they don’t violate the personal or property rights of others. The rule of government should be strictly limited to keeping the peace and exacting restitution from those who violate the personal or property rights of others.
The only difference between liberals and conservatives — and everyone in between — is the degree to which they deviate on any particular issue from the libertarian philosophy of liberty, property, and peace. On some issues it is liberals who diverge more; on other issues it is conservatives who stray further; and on most issues they both deviate considerably from the libertarian standard.
This article was originally published in the April 2017 edition of Future of Freedom.