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

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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