Dear fellow conservative,
I dearly love conservatism – it is the foundation on which most of our small Texas communities are built. It’s the philosophy to which most of us adhere. (Those of you who do not identify as conservatives, I don’t mean to eschew your point of view. The amalgamation of many points of view have made our country great, and though I may not always agree with you philosophically, I value you as an equal voice in our civil discourse. But I wish to directly address my conservative neighbors who have harnessed my personal belief system in a way that is causing more harm, I fear, than good.)
We have forgotten the role of government. I wish to discuss several of the tenets of conservatism and how they play into our concept of what a government should be but before I do that I would like to discuss why we have government to begin with. You may read it in the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution. Government exists for the common welfare. It exists because throughout human history, groups of people have congregated. We are, after all, social creatures, built by our Creator to interact with one another and enjoy relationship with each other. But we are also flawed beings, born into a sinful nature. (After all, has anyone ever needed to teach a toddler to be selfish?) We cannot exist in a purely utopian society where no other person infringes on the rights of another. Since Cain and Abel, jealousy and fury have clouded countless human relationships through the millennia to disastrous effect. Conflict abounds in human relationships. Mix in a sinful nature, flared emotion – and you have a recipe for anarchy. (Lord of the Flies, anyone?)
Thus, government. Government exists (in our Republic, at least) at the will of the people to intervene when we are not able to resolve conflict ourselves. We know who is supposed to turn at a 4 way stop because government. We know not to steal our neighbors new white Ram 1500 with ram boxes, leather trim and the big screen in the console because government. (Also, because it’s not right but for some, the definition of right and wrong is a little more open to interpretation than others.) If someone perpetrates an offense, and you desire recompense, no one decries government intervention as draconian oversight that is pointing us down the same road as Nazi Germany. But if Government asks (not mandates) us to wear a mask or socially distance for the public good, my Facebook feed becomes rife with warnings that we’ll be herded into concentration camps in the coming weeks because the ubiquitous and ethereal “they” have created this current crises for some nefarious purpose as yet determined. The conspiracy theories seem no longer to belong to only those on the fringe of conservatism – it’s invading the mainstream.
Let’s talk about what conservatism is and what it isn’t.
Conservatism believes in limited government. This core tenet of conservatism supposes that individuals are better able to determine what is best for them and their community. It supposes that individuals are knowledgeable and responsible enough to make decisions that benefit themselves and society as a whole. We may not simply hide behind a call for limited government when it suits us or use it as a bludgeon to beat people with opposing points of view over the head in an accusatory fashion. Limited government means that the responsibility for caring for a community lies with every individual, not the government. Conservatism is not a weapon. It’s a responsibility. If we are to limit government, we must act and behave responsibly. When we behave irresponsibly, we open the door for government to intervene in an area that was not necessary.
If you call yourself a conservative, you have a RESPONSIBILITY to behave in a way that will limit government intrusion. During the pandemic, that means you should do everything in your power to limit the spread of a virus that will ultimately cause economic ruin due to the devastation to the health of those among us. If cases of Covid skyrocket, government MUST intervene to protect life and economy and those of us who have behaved irresponsibly will be the culprits who beckoned that intervention.
Conservatism is Both/And, not Either/Or Conservative economic theory is predicated on the notion that my economic well being is tied to my neighbors economic well being. Conservatism does not assume that there is one economic pie that can be cut into a limited number of ever shrinking slices depending on the number of those who come to the dessert table, but that the pie continues to grow as more people come to the table (bringing their unique economic ingredients of talent and resources) and the slices continually increase in size. This is why conservatism espouses the philosophy of limited tax – the more revenue flowing through an economy and not funneled to the government, the more the economy will flourish and the more economic opportunity we all have. We believe that cash in the hands of the individual is a more beneficent power than cash in the hands of the government. This means that we must do what we can to limit the economic impact of the pandemic. On the face, this argument seems to lean in favor of less limitations on commerce, opening businesses up, not limiting how many patrons can sit in a restaurant etc. But, I argue, it’s quite the contrary. Our shut down this spring was an economic setback. But it pales in comparison to the economic setback we will endure if and when our hospitals are overrun. And it’s too late, I fear, in some markets. Houston Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world, has run out of icu beds. Their critical access beds are 100% full and some icu patients are now occupying regular medical beds. Imagine the economic devastation that will follow a panic when patients in need of a ventilator can’t have one and don’t even have a medical bed to be admitted to. Several businesses in our town have been affected by the Coronavirus this week and are at risk for closing if the virus continues to spread. An infected workforce portends economic gridlock that will rival the depression of the 1920s. So if you call yourself a conservative, you have a responsibility to protect our economy by doing everything you can to limit the spread of the virus. We can argue the efficacy of the measures put forth and endorsed by ALL of the nations top medical entities but even if it helps slow the spread a little, we conservatives who so dearly value our economy, must embrace whatever measure we can, no matter how small. We can participate in our economy while protecting ourselves and neighbors from the virus. Refusal to follow CDC recommendations will disallow that participation if the virus spreads out of control.
Government functions best when it is close to the people
Absolutely! Our local government is much more accountable to us than the state or federal government. That is why decisions about mask mandates, economic shut downs, gatherings of people, etc. should be made locally and not at the state or heaven forbid, the federal level. This is why Governor Abbott has asked us to wear masks but not mandated them. He is leaving the decision to those closest to us. I can assure you that our HEAVILY conservative local government agonizes over every decision they make regarding the pandemic and I trust them.
So, if you call yourself a conservative, we have hired ourselves a conservative local government – men and women who understand the principles I am delineating here and who abhor infringing your rights. Believe that if they require us to do something, they have weighed the implications and feel certain that the intervention is designed to protect those values conservatives hold most dear – Life, Liberty and Property. You see, sometimes life and liberty are in a state of conflict. The simplest way to state this is that my right to swing my fist ends at the tip of your nose. Wholly unimpeded liberty is a dangerous thing. I might decide to go sight in my deer rifle in my backyard but my neighbor may have some (absolutely reasonable) concerns about that. So, the preservation of life, from time to time, requires that we sacrifice some liberty.
Regulations should be limited to those that produce a net benefit to the American people as a whole, weighing both financial and liberty costs.Simply stated, limiting the spread of coronavirus produces a net benefit to the American people. Wearing a mask is a very inconsequential financial or liberty cost. The preponderance of evidence shows that masks slow the spread of the virus and cause very little harm. But even if you ignore high powered evidence based trials and believe masks aren’t very effective, (dare I coin the term anti-masker?) the cost of wearing one is minimal. A small minority of respiratory patients might say that wearing a mask limits their ability to breathe or makes them feel claustrophobic or anxious. To them, I say, stay home. If you can’t wear a mask in public because of the severity of your respiratory illness, you are likely to have more distress if you are intubated, prone, alone (your family can’t visit you) in an ICU because you have become infected and your pre-existing respiratory disease that caused you to be unable to wear a mask also likely predisposed you to serious complications from the disease.
Conservatism and Compassion cannot be divorced. During George W. Bush’s presidency, a new concept gained popularity – compassionate conservatism. The concept actually originated in the late 1970s. It is a concept that harnesses the principles of conservatism (those mentioned above and more) to improve the general welfare of an entire society. Conservatism works best when it is unselfish, outward looking. Jesus said, (paraphrasing) “If you loved (fed, clothed, helped when sick) your neighbor, you have loved me.” Compassionate conservatism reaches to the roots of our motivation – am I a conservative because I believe it is the best philosophy for my own personal benefit, or am I a conservative because I believe it is the best philosophy to stabilize and propel forward our entire populace? I am drawn toward the latter. So, the statement, “The government can’t tell me what to do,” is limited, severely myopic and inward thinking. I submit that we replace that selfish concept with, “The government must operate to preserve the sister values of life, liberty and property and mediate between each of these values when they are in conflict.” All three values are crucial, and at times, must be sacrificed to some degree in order to preserve the others. Blood has been shed to preserve our liberty and property, and at times, liberty and property are sacrificed to preserve life when appropriate. (examples: property sacrificed via eminent domain to widen 281 and decrease fatal crashes; liberty sacrificed when seatbelt or speeding laws enforced to decrease fatalities in crashes) In most cases we are all willing to sacrifice a little liberty or property to preserve life. But, when enough liberty and property is threatened, we risk life and limb to secure it back. A conservative local government is built to help us navigate the relationship between these three, often competing, values. The compassionate conservative understands the play between these values and promotes policies and personal activities that maximize all three in society in general. So if you call yourself a compassionate conservative, you must look outside yourself – realize that people around you are impacted by your actions, and limit selfish behavior in favor of maximizing the life, liberty and property of all. Not only is this a much more attractive and pure motivation, it will pay off for the individual. Remember my economic well being is tied to yours – so even a mercenary conservative ought to care about the wellbeing of his neighbor.
Fellow conservatives, this is not the time to sacrifice the health – the life – of our community on the altar of a twisted concept of conservative puritanism. Remember, conservatism and compassion for others cannot be divorced. Conservatism is willing to sacrifice either life, liberty or property at various times to preserve one of her sister values who is under duress. Next time you think, “The government can’t tell me what to do,” ask yourself if your attitude is in line with true conservatism or if you have twisted this venerated philosophy into an ugly self preserving bludgeon and ask if you are part of the problem or part of the solution. Then behave accordingly.
Here’s to life. Here’s to liberty. Here’s to property. All in appropriate amounts.