Updated on 03.12.07

Ten Books That Changed My Life #7: The Conscience of a Conservative

Trent Hamm

The Conscience of a ConservativeThe Conscience of a Conservative
Barry Goldwater
Changed my life in October 2000

I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice. And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.– Barry Goldwater

Don’t let your idea of what the word conservative means in modern politics dissuade you here – I almost made that mistake and passed over this book more than once because I thought conservatives stood for the rich getting richer and various other ideas. That’s not what this book is about.

Until I read this book, I was basically disillusioned with American politics. I believed that politics was nothing more than a crook’s game and that no one in Washington stood for anything at all. I did read political books by the pound, but most of those beliefs were either obvious pandering for votes (like, say, The Audacity of Hope, for a modern example) or espoused such a radical perspective that no real government could follow it (like, say, Noam Chomsky).

I already believed pretty strongly in the individual over the group, but what I continually found was that both Republicans and Democrats seemed inclined to lead America down a path where individuals and small communities were bent to the will of the “greater good.” I pay Social Security whether I want to or not, for example, and I have no choice about it while living in the United States.

It’s based on this general idea that all people are basically equal except for their external environments – which always made me wonder how come I can be good at solving math problems while my classmates were not, but I could be terrible at playing baseball while those same classmates excelled at the sport. It’s also built from a belief that all problems can be solved by the government because everyone has everyone else’s best interests at heart – which makes me wonder why robberies or murders happen, or why anyone doesn’t have enough to eat. Clearly, these ideas that the politicians claim in their speeches are complete falsehoods, then – they’re lying through their teeth when they propose enormous government plans – someone’s collecting the cash somewhere.

This book was like a beacon into my life. I finally woke up to the idea that I didn’t have to subscribe to their philosophies, but I did have to respect that they existed. Instead of just withdrawing from politics or believing it didn’t matter, I watched Al Gore and George W. Bush debate the issues, then I looked at all the candidates on the ballot and voted for the one that gave me the most freedom. And I did it again in 2004. I got involved in local politics and I fight all the time for the power of the individual.

What’s it about?

The book is based on the idea that all people are not equal; we’re all different with different beliefs, different ideas, and different abilities, and that a government that takes resources from these individuals in the form of taxes better have an essential reason for doing so (i.e., things far outside the scale of the individual or the local community, like national defense or a highway system). It explains, in very clear terms, why a tiny government is better than a large one. If you believe in socialism, that’s great – America gives you the freedom to start your own socialist community or state within it. But why should I be required to subscribe to this? On the other hand, if you believe that two people of the same gender shouldn’t be married, that’s fine. But why should I be required to subscribe to this?

This is why our founding fathers founded the nation the way they did; they intended it to be a collection of states with different laws and different philosophies governing each area. If we didn’t like the laws in one state, we could go to another, or work from within to change that state, but the federal government should only concern itself with issues that cross the lines of that state. If you wish to live in an area where alcohol and gambling are illegal, find some like-minded people, move to one community, and work to change the laws there.

You see, this goes far beyond a typical generic definition of what a conservative and a liberal are today. Take, for example, this statement on page 35: “it has never been seriously argued … that the authors of the Fourteenth Amendment intended to alter the Constitutional scheme with regard to education. … I therefore support all efforts by the States … to preserve their rightful powers over education.” In the 1950s and 1960s, a person believing this would have strongly supported a state’s right to have segregated schools. On the other hand, today a person believing this would strongly support a state’s right to have affirmative action in acceptance to their university. In today’s skewed climate, the first is seen as an ultra-right-wing position, but the second is seen as a strongly left-wing position – but the same basic philosophy underlines both of them.

This book is a challenge to everyone who reads it, because it spells out the most clearly articulated, sensible, applicable, and consistent political philosophy I’ve ever seen. Nearly every other philosophy is grounded in a general sense of right and wrong on a number of issues distinctly; this philosophy has only one true litmus test: local governments are better suited to solve local issues, because every person and every community are different.

How did The Conscience of a Conservative shape the person I became?

It helped me to forge my own political identity – and respect that of others. Quite often, when I hear people claim to be a “conservative” or a “liberal,” I find out that their actual beliefs are much more complex in that. We rush too quickly to slap a label on someone and then use that label to unfairly group people or look upon them with a sneer, like when liberals use the phrase “neocons” or when conservatives say the word “liberal.” It’s ridiculous and it does nothing to benefit anyone other than in a “third graders at recess shouting taunts” sense. If you wish to claim you’re a liberal, that’s great – but what does that really mean? What do you believe? That’s what really matters, not the label you give yourself. I may claim to be a Goldwater conservative, but without meaning, it’s just two words.

It made me realize that I control my own destiny – and I shouldn’t rely on the government to help. It’s up to me and me alone to ensure that I have money when I retire, that I have food on my table, and that I have a house over my head. It is up to me to find gainful employment and to enjoy the fruits of that employment. Uncle Sam takes some money out of my pocket (and I think he takes too much), but only for resources that are too big for me alone to create, like the highway system and so forth. In terms of making my own way, it’s up to me to make it happen.

It made me get involved in politics at the local level. Once I got past the bitterness of ideology and began to realize that only by working around partisan rhetoric can anything actually get done, I began to get involved politically at the local level where partisanship isn’t nearly as bitter and I could actually make a difference in the community. Someday, I may become more involved, but right now I can see the impact of my local political awareness and the application of my beliefs. They say that all politics is local – and I completely agree.

What I wouldn’t give to have a man like Goldwater in mainstream American politics today.

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  1. plonkee says:

    It sounds like a book I’d disagree with as I tend to favour the good of society above that of the individual – it can seem to me that too much emphasis on the individual tends to lead to the majority imposing on the minority (in a bad way).

    But if its helped you respect the political views of others, and get involved in local issues, that can only be a good thing.

  2. frank says:

    Trent, I really enjoy these posts. Even though I might disagree with a certain one (:P), it’s like I’m getting an inside peek into what makes you tick. Really neat. I look forward to the next one.

  3. HustlinPete says:

    Isn’t it the opposite? By definition, doesn’t emphasis on the collective (majority) usually turn toward the majority imposing on the minority (individual), in a bad way? What is more of a minority than 1 individual?

  4. I’ve been struggling with my own political identity for the past few years. Am I a Republican, conservative, Libertarian? My desire to preserve individual freedoms isn’t shared by Democrats (who ask me to give up my money and my freedoms for the “Good of the people” as if they could keep from wasting even 50% of what they steal from me) and Republicans who claim to defend freedom while telling me whom I can marry, what websites I can visit and what I worship.
    And then people like “Plonkee” above join in the debate with seemingly serious arguments with glaringly obvious flaws. How can an emphasis on the individual lead to a majority?
    Just reading the definitions of the words “individual” and “majority” should make a person rethink that logic.
    I still don’t know where I stand politically, but much of my philosophical belief was shaped while I read “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand.

  5. plonkee says:

    Yeah, I guess it doesn’t make as much sense written down as it did in my head. I can assure you that I have got a point somewhere in there, I’m just not clear on how to express it.

    This is why I should avoid writing about politics until I can get what I think clearer.

  6. Rebel says:

    I haven’t read this book, but those beliefs are mine as well. I consider myself a consistent conservative. This forces people to actually ask me what I believe. I just need to follow your lead and be more involved locally.

  7. lorax says:

    I don’t think it’s (just) Democrats that are wasting 50% of what is taxed. This administration and the last few congresses have, in my opinion, done a poor financial job.

    That said, I disagree with a tenet here. Not everything can be solved at the individual level. Sometimes a national system or standard is needed. That’s why we have a federal government with a bill of rights afforded to every citizen. The federal government has to create a level playing floor for a number of things in the economy for their would be pandemonium (think of the SEC). The feds are also responsible for national defense and environmental standards. All these things benefit the groups at the expense of the individual. I think most conservatives would agree.

    The question is where you draw the line.

    Personally, I think Ayn Rand was much too idealistic. Sort of a novel-writing Marx for the right-wing set.

  8. terry says:

    The problem I have with many conservatives is that they support free markets everywhere but in their own neighborhood where the poor need free markets the most.

  9. plonkee says:

    I’ve worked out what I meant now.

    An emphasis on the individual which leads to non-interference in the discrimination of minorities is a bad thing. Because the majority is made up of individuals too, and if they each act on their own interests only then that can (but not necessarily does) lead to making things worse for the people in the minority. I think that one of the roles of government (at some level) is to protect minorities – you may or may not agree.

    I also don’t ‘get’ that there is a fundamental difference between state and federal government and its ok for one to interfere and the other may not. But I’m not an American so I happy to accept that I may not/never understand properly.

  10. HustlinPete says:

    Check out the 10th amendment:

    The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

    That is the fundamental difference, as well as the “why”. See how the individual and states are treated differently than the fed? Whether or not this rings true today, or that states’ rights still exist at all, is another topic.

  11. SayJude says:

    We are no longer what the founding fathers desired. One only has to read the Federalist (and Anti-Federalist)Papers to see that we are rushing towards Socialism. The Federal govt. was to be very limited, it’s influence limited.
    We see how the rights (and obligations) of the states have been usurped! And before the “States Rights” abusers get their panties in a wad, that does’nt mean that some states would still have slavery,etc. Please, none that tired argument defending the growth and abuse of the federal govt.

  12. icup says:

    We did away with the concept of states rights when Lincoln squashed the southern rebellion in the ’60’s. Sure, on paper the states have stronger powers than the fed, but in practice that is extremely difficult to acheive when the congress holds the purse.

    Not that that is a complaint. Just an observation.

  13. Sean says:

    You do have a man and his name is Ron Paul, he is getting more mainstream by the day.

  14. mike says:

    As far as I’m concerned, if you had to pick a side, conservative or liberal, Bush is a liberal.
    Hell, the economy gets in a bind he prints MORE money and trys to stimulate it by giving people money and having more government involvement. He’s grew the federal government and specificially the legislative branch more than anyone ever. It took me until just last year until I woke up and realized it, but he is
    I would agree with Sean. Ron Paul is a refreshing return to the conservative values of individual freedoms and limited government.
    It’s unfortunate that we have become larger than the government that we revolted from in the 1700s.
    Fortunately we still may have hope if This truely is a free america, although with the diebold voting issues, to be honest with you I’m not sure people will even be elected anymore unless something changes, as 80% of votes are controlled by 1 machine that’s been proven to be easily hackable in less than 5 minutes.
    Too many people working for the companies and special interest groups that funds both republicans and democrats that help the presidents get elected.

  15. notsure says:

    we gave away our power to the federal reserve first during the federal reserve act of 1913 passed during christmas with only 3 members present.
    Roosevelt made it official when he declared this country bankrupt in 1933.
    One of the Rockefellers in his memoirs basicaly said that the allegations of him and his family using his extrodinary amount of political and economical influence to move towards a world government are true and if that’s the charge he’s guilty and proud of it.

  16. Thomas says:

    mike I think you mean he’s grown the executive branch, but I guess he has appointed supreme court looks like you were in a rush when you posted it… buu I agree with you.
    plonkee… I believe you’ve been mislead. Individuals rights is the foundation that a constitutional republic, the government that this nation was founded on (NOT a democracy which the media constantly tries to portray this nation as). Ben Franklin basically made the point under a democracy 51% of the voters control the other 49%, saying democracy is 2 wolves fighting over the lamb. A constitutional republic is a well armed lamb. In a constitutional republic where the states have rights and the federal government is out. The idea of a democracy was hated by the founding fathers. The concept of limited government federally protects the minority to which not even 99% of the people could take away the rights of the other 1%. So if you believe in the good of society and minorities rights being respected, you almost have to have a limited federal government.

    The reason we revolted from England in the first place is because they were too big, and they would tax too much in order to grow even bigger.
    This nation didn’t have taxes OR inflation for about 150 years and people weren’t worried about their rights or anything. If you think that more government will protect the individual, This book would probably be an eye openner for you.

  17. Keonne says:

    “What I wouldn’t give to have a man like Goldwater in mainstream American politics today.”

    You mean like Ron Paul?

  18. Dave says:

    Read an introductory essay plus the first 2 chapters at this link:


  19. Terry says:

    As a borderline poor person, I have found that local governments cannot be trusted to act in the best interests of the poor. Under federalism, local governments typically find it preferable to drive out the poor (e.g. through exclusionary and discriminatory zoning) than to actually address their grievances.

    My general rule is, if the interests of the poor are in conflict with any other interest, the poor lose. As far as I have been able to tell, the only interests which cannot prevail over the poor are those of sex offenders and other convicted criminals.

  20. Valerie says:

    I believe that the individual and the group are equally important. No one is self-made. Yes, individuals can succeed through their own hard work, but even then they would need to be given opportunities to do the work required for them to succeed. Take Bill Gates for example. He became an expert computer programmer through the thousands of hours he spent working on programming. But he could not have spent all that time programming if he was not fortunate enough to have access to high-end computers from middle school through college at a time when few schools had such computers. I would recommend reading “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell for more on what contributes to success.

    When you place the individual over the group, you end up with a minority that has power over the majority because the individuals in that minority had better opportunities to succeed. They end up gaining a large amount of power and influence to make rules that give them even more power and influence. On the other hand, when you place the group over the individual you stop caring for individuals. Individuals have inherent value just as societies do. We should not place one over the other.

    I agree that not all people are equal, but I do believe that we should do our best to give people equal opportunities. Government cannot solve all problems and not all governments are effective, but some problems can best be addressed by an effective government. Governments can play a part in providing more opportunities to more people, for instance providing funding for computers in schools.

  21. Annette says:

    With all the talk of Reagan Conservatives today, they all need to read this book. Discover true conservatism.

  22. Caroline says:

    I’ve been reading Conservatives Without Conscience by John Dean. He mentions Goldwater as a conservative with conscience. I can live with conservatives WITH conscience. You can’t even argue with those without one.

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