All ideas are subject to misuse and abuse; the idea of constitutional conservatism is no exception. Purists will contend that a return to the Constitution means a return to the most literal and mechanical reading of it. Constitutional conservatism well understood, however, recognizes that the Constitution’s meaning is a function not only of constitutional text but also of constitutional structure and constitutional history and appreciates that the framers of the Constitution so understood the matter.
To take the example you mention, a constitutional conservative would avoid talk of small government, which evokes delusive dreams of preindustrial America, and seek instead to restore limited but energetic government. A government that is limited to enumerated powers but which nevertheless performs its assigned tasks energetically reflects the original aim of the Constitution. Given our unwieldy, inefficient, intrusive — and, if nothing is done, soon-to-be insolvent — federal government, devotion to limited and energetic government demands a robust reform agenda.
Aside from the content of the policy positions, are you concerned that the tone of conservative debate has become anything but “conservative,” that is too imprudent, radical and impatient?
Yes, I am concerned about the impatience, imprudence and even radicalism I sometimes hear in conservative voices. At the same time, we live in a freewheeling democracy. I don’t expect radio talk show hosts to sound like statesman and I don’t begrudge their listeners the pleasure that comes from occasional over-the-top invective directed at political opponents (Republicans as well as Democrats!) or hyperbolic lamentation for the future of the country. I enjoy the occasional polemical take down and evisceration as much as the next guy. And there is a role in our politics for publicists who preach to the choir. But I do worry when candidates and elected officials sound like, take their cues from, and pander to entertainers, polemicists, and publicists.
Say you are a Republican congressman. You signed the anti-tax pledge at a time when debt was manageable and either a GOP president or reasonable Democrat was in the White House. Without necessarily telling us what you think such a person should support, take us through the thought process of a constitutional conservative in trying to wrangle through multiple concerns, public opinion, changed circumstances, etc.
There are certainly circumstances in which it can be reasonable to adamantly oppose tax increases. We live in a progressive era. The federal government is incessantly expanding, and Democrats are refusing to take seriously profligate spending, massive annual deficits and a skyrocketing national debt. In this situation, a determination to oppose tax increases can even be seen as an instrument of balance.
But generally speaking politics is not a sphere in which it is wise to make absolute and irrevocable policy decrees. That’s because you can count on circumstances changing, unanticipated contingencies coming to the fore and emergencies erupting out of nowhere. In addition, it is good to preserve the freedom to maneuver. For example, an absolute refusal to contemplate tax increases takes off the table a deal in which spending cuts substantially exceed tax increases.
The conservative task today is to promote limited government, a strong defense, a dynamic economy, a vibrant civil society, and more individual freedom and more individual responsibility. Resisting tax increases generally serves conservative goals. But we should not forget that the policy of opposing new taxes is an instrument to secure and expand liberty and should not be seen as an end in itself.
Do you see conservative politicians or thought leaders embodying the spirit of moderation that you see? Can you give us some names?
I do, especially among those who represent the future of the GOP. For starters, there is Representative Paul Ryan, Senator Marco Rubio, and my friend, Thomas Cotton, newly elected to Congress to represent Arkansas’s 4th District. All show that firm devotion to conservative principles is not only consistent with accommodation, balancing and calibration on behalf of liberty but that accommodation, balancing and calibration are themselves conservative imperatives essential to translating conservative principles into practice.
Finally, conservatives seem to be mad at the electorate, worried that they’ve gone to seed and are virtually incapable of self-restraint and hence self-government. What would the history of modern conservatism and constitutional conservatism teach us about that perception, real or imagined?
Constitutional conservatism counsels restraint in the face of the perception that the electorate has lost its capacity for self-restraint and self-government.
It is instructive to recall that Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist No. 1, highlighted the numerous obstacles that proponents of the Constitution would face in winning a fair consideration on the merits for the new charter of government. Some, he noted, would oppose the Constitution because of their interest in maintaining a perilous status quo. Some would undermine ratification in the hopes of profiting from the ensuing disarray. Some good men would support the Constitution for the wrong reasons. And, as with all questions of political significance, wise men would be found on both sides of the issue. This chastening spectacle, Hamilton declared, “would furnish a lesson of moderation to those who are ever so much persuaded of their being in the right in any controversy.”
The chastening spectacle, and the lesson of moderation it taught in the 18th century, has much to teach us about our own time. Hamilton’s lesson of moderation did not only concern the debate over the Constitution. In enumerating the difficulties the Constitution faced in obtaining a fair hearing, Hamilton brought into focus the perennial clamor and cacophony of public debate in a free society, and the nature of the human beings — very often contentious, narrowly self-interested, and in the grips of passion and poorly-thought-out opinion — for whom the Constitution was designed.
In addition to keeping in mind Hamilton’s lesson of moderation, common sense counsels that projecting an angry or disdainful attitude toward the electorate is a good way to persuade voters to elect the other party’s candidates.
All that said, constitutional conservatism calls attention to the precarious condition of traditional morality today, the threats to the family, the decline of religious faith and the weakening of civil society. In doing so, it remains keenly aware of the limited tools that the federal government has its disposal, and so will often seek to work with states, local government, the private sector and civil society to achieve reform.
In sum, much work is to be done reforming our politics the better to conserve our liberty. Constitutional conservatism well understood, I believe, describes the spirit in which that work is best undertaken.