Tibor R. Machan
Back in my undergraduate days our college was visited by William F.
Buckley Jr., the then rising erudite journalistic leader of the budding
post war conservative movement. His main theme on this occasion was the
importance of various fundamental truths, especially those of human
community life. He thought and argued that there really are some such
truths, among them those the American founders identified in the
Declaration of Independence.
Back then the operative word in ?American Conservatism? was ?American.?
Today it seems more and more to be ?Conservatism.? An American
conservative embraces certain truths and wishes to have these preserved in
public life, namely, politics?as well as private, namely, ethics. American
Conservatism was unique in that there wasn?t merely the imperative to look
back and learn from the past but to embrace a particularly unique past,
namely, one that laid out for us certain basic principles of community
It is this American Conservatism that helped get rid of slavery by
recalling unashamedly that that institution violated America?s founding
principle, namely, that all of us are created equal, without exception.
When Abraham Lincoln wanted to find a principle on which to base his
emancipation proclamation, he didn?t have to look to Europe or Asia of
Africa?he could find it right here in America?s founding document. It was
a document of basic principles of community life and American
conservatives gladly embraced it and worked to preserve its substance.
Now things have changed. Conservatism has reverted in America to what it
used to be in pre-revolutionary times when a conservative would simply
embrace, rather incoherently, whatever had been around for a long time,
wherever it came from, and whatever substance it contained. This is the
conservatism of Europe and of old and today?s Russia, for example.
Conservatives of this stripe are those who champion only a method, never
mind substance. As their English guru Edmund Burke had taught them,
?...Men have no right to risk the very existence of their nation and their
civilization upon experiments in morals and politics; for each man's
private capital of intelligence is petty; it is only when a man draws upon
the bank and capital of the ages, the wisdom of our ancestors, that he can
act wisely.? This sentiment applies to us all, including the American
Founders, so an old fashioned, as opposed to American, conservative has no
use for the principles that those founders identified since their, like
everyone else?s, ?private capital of intelligence is petty.?
So how does this play out in our contemporary political world? George W.
Bush and his advisers may now and then make vague references for freedom
but they do not mean by it what the American Founders meant, namely,
making sure that all grown men and women get to govern their own lives,
enjoy sovereignty, with the government functioning as the protector of
this sovereignty. No, Mr. Bush?s conservatism is one in which whatever
happens to be in the past, whatever the ?bank and capital of the ages, the
wisdom of our ancestors? instructs, must be followed. And by now this
includes, mainly, the massive welfare state built for us by the likes of
Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and Lyndon B. Johnson.
In this type of conservatism the wisdom of the American founders has lost
out to the far more traditional ?wisdom of our ancestors,? from a much
older history, the wisdom that trust nearly everything to the government
or ?the state,? as some political theorists call it. Your and my
?intelligence is petty,? so it must be sacrificed to those who rule, be it
the mob or some elite or a great leader, to the wisdom of those who
supposedly function rather blindly by following the ancients instead of
figuring things out for ourselves.
I must say William F. Buckley Jr.?s version of conservatism was a much
more healthy, principled one when compared to what conservatism has become
in our time?historical relativism (with each era muddling through with its
inherited, flexible ?truths?). It was informed by firm and lasting
principles that those ?arrogant? founding Americans dared to identify in
defiance of the ancient conservatism that is ruining too many countries
now and has ruined in the past.