Environmental Ethics
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Ernest Partridge, Ph.D

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The Gadfly Bytes -- April, 2002

Conscience of a Conservative

By Ernest Partridge

We the people of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. 

Preamble to the US Constitution.

Conservatism: The practice of preserving what is established; disposition to oppose change in established institutions and methods.

Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary
Second Edition

Like a pending execution, the discipline of editing and writing for a political website concentrates and focuses the mind.

And so, after a year and a half of writing and publishing some fifty or so political articles for various progressive websites, I have come to the startling conclusion that I am a Conservative!

Now hold on a moment – don’t touch that mouse! Hear me out!

This insight comes into focus as I explore the full implications of Websters’ definition of “Conservatism” -- “preserving what is established” and the “disposition to oppose change in established institutions and methods.”

According to this definition:

A Conservative cherishes and defends the founding documents of the American Republic – the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Accordingly, a Conservative defends free expression – in speech, the press, assembly – as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution.

Additionally, a Conservative insists upon due process and protection of the individual from excesses and abuses of law enforcement. In particular, the Conservative opposes “unreasonable searches and seizures” (Fourth Amendment), double jeopardy, and self incrimination (Fifth Amendment), and “cruel and unusual punishment (Eighth Amendment). In addition, the Conservative affirms “the right to a speedy and public trial” and the right to confront accusers and “to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation” (Sixth Amendment).

While respecting the doctrinal differences amongst religions, the Conservative endorses “traditional values” that are taught by all the great world religions: tolerance, mercy, charity, compassion, moderation, peacemaking. 

Conservatism vs. “conservatism”

I suspect that the reader might sense where all this is leading.

There seems to be a disconnect between the Conservatism here described (in part), and the program of a political faction that chooses to call itself “conservative,” but which I prefer to call “right-wing” and “regressive.”

For example, the Founders might look somewhat askance upon the restriction of free expression evident today in the corporate media, and upon the retaliation upon individuals who exercise this right – individuals such as Phil Donahue, Tim Robbins, Bill Maher, the Dixie Chicks, and other citizens who choose to ignore Ari Fleischer’s warning to “watch what they say.”

Nor would the Founders be pleased to learn of the “Justice Department’s” violation of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth Amendment rights of several American citizens – violations upheld by “conservative” appellate judges.

About these clear and explicit violations of the founding principles of our Republic, the (so-called) “conservatives” are generally unperturbed. Moreover, the aforementioned “traditional values” – tolerance, mercy, charity, compassion, moderation, peacemaking – are not conspicuous in the behavior of many self-described “conservative” individuals, nor in the policies of the allegedly “compassionately conservative” Bush Administration.

But there is more, as we continue our list:

A Conservative believes in free markets and free enterprise, and thus upholds anti-trust laws and various government regulations designed to maintain free and open competition. The right wing (self-described “conservatives”), on the other hand, have no use whatever for “government interference” in big business activity. Do they prefer “free enterprise” over monopolies? Ask the founders of Netscape. Or ask the more than forty broadcast corporations that have either been “absorbed” or forced out of business by the remaining ten media mega-corporations. (See Robert McChesney, The Global Media Giants, FAIR, and Media Matters). Unfortunately, as history testifies, “free enterprise,” unregulated and unconstrained, tends naturally toward monopolies -- in other words, "the free market" contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

A Conservative believes in maximum personal liberty, consistent with “like liberty” for all. (John Stuart Mill). The right wing fails to appreciate that “maximum liberty” for the wealthy, privileged and powerful, often infringes upon the liberties of the less fortunate. Once again, “like liberty” is protected by the rule of law, the right to vote (“consent of the governed”), and by legitimate popular government.

A Conservative is suspicious of “big government,” and thus insists upon a separation of powers, a legislature that represents the interests of the public rather than campaign contributors, and restraint of government assaults upon personal liberties along the lines prescribed by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. 

a Conservative insists that it is not the business of government to promote particular religions, or to interfere in the private lives of citizens.

A conservative believes that it is the function of the courts to interpret established law with due regard for legal precedent (stare decisis). Nowhere in the Constitution or in the body of law is the Supreme Court entitled to appoint the President of the United States, nor is it permitted to make law from the bench and then announce arbitrarily that the decision of the Court "limited to the present circumstances," as was the case in Bush v. Gore (December 12, 2000).

A Conservative demands responsibility and accountability – of persons, of corporations, of institutions, and of government. There are no exceptions allowed for “well-placed individuals” (e.g., Ken Lay, Dick Cheney), or firms (Enron and Global Crossing), or governing administrations (regarding, for example, access to information, fiscal responsibility, etc).

A Conservative opposes offensive and "pre-emptive" wars – a sentiment unequivocally endorsed by George Washington, who counseled against “unusual antipathies” toward other nations. This is a sentiment fully endorsed by Jefferson, and Madison, among other founders.

A Conservative is time-conscious – of history and its bestowals, and of responsibility to future generations. Thus a Conservative will not, through budgetary deficits and through unsustainable environmental policies, mortgage and despoil the future for the generations that follow.

A Conservative cherishes the legacy of the past – in science, literature, the arts, and communal institutions -- and seeks to preserve them through education accessible to all, and through public facilities such as museums, concerts, libraries, and media. Thus a Conservative does not dismiss science and learning when “inconvenient” to special interests, or contrary to uninformed “gut feeling.”  Moreover, a Conservative regards the burrning of library records and the looting of museum collections as catastrophic losses to civilization, and not merely "stuff" that "happens."

A Conservative respects language, as a means of encoding knowledge and conveying information, and thus refrains from distorting language in order to employ its as a tool of manipulation, mendacity and evasion.

From this, and much more, it follows that the right wing in general, and the Bush Administrations in particular, accord themselves undeserved merit when they describe themselves as “conservatives.” In a word, most self-described “conservatives” aren’t..

Is the Conservatism described above just another name for libertarianism? I would suggest that this Conservatism is, so to speak, a “semi-libertarianism.” This Conservative endorses the libertarians’ insistence upon personal autonomy, privacy, liberty and responsibility. However, when it comes to economic and social applications, this Conservative parts company with the libertarian. While the libertarian may claim endorsement of “the like liberty principle,” he fails to appreciate that his program of radical personal autonomy and an unconstrained “free market” leads to severe restrictions on the liberty of others.  In addition, the libertarian falsely regards a well-ordered society, with shared values, civil peace and with an educated work force, as a free gift to which nothing is owed in return for its health and maintenance.  (For a defense and elaboration of these points, see my "The New Alchemy,"  "With Liberty for Some,” “Perilous Optimism,” and  “In Search of Sustainable Values”).

As many readers will have noticed, I have borrowed this title “Conscience of a Conservative” from a book by (more accurately, ghost-written for) the late Senator Barry Goldwater. Shortly before his death, Goldwater commented to his successor, John McCain, that today his views would be to the left of the mainstream of the Republican party. In fact, I have many disagreements with the political views that Goldwater held during his active political life, though I much respected his honesty and integrity. Goldwater’s position could generally be characterized as “libertarian,” and thus my agreements and disagreements with him are generally parallel to those remarked above, concerning libertarianism. If his views, and even more his character, were reflected in the Republican party today, the political debates would be lively and productive, but much more important, we would once again enjoy the civility and sense of public service and responsibility that are essential to good government.

What then of “Liberalism?” If this account of Conservatism is essentially correct, then the polar opposition of Liberalism-Conservatism is no longer tenable. By and large, both Liberals and Conservatives (properly so-called, as above) are natural allies, as Conservatives defend the historical, institutional and moral basis upon which the Liberals might seek to improve conditions today, and aspire to a better tomorrow.

That being so, authentic Conservatives and liberals can and must join together in common opposition to “the far right” – that malignant political ideology that dishonors the past, despoils the present. and leaves a ruined and bankrupt wasteland for the future.


Copyright 2003, by Ernest Partridge

Dr. Ernest Partridge is a consultant, writer and lecturer in the field of Environmental Ethics and Public Policy. He has taught Philosophy at the University of California, and in Utah, Colorado and Wisconsin. He publishes the website, "The Online Gadfly" (www.igc.org/gadfly) and co-edits the progressive website, "The Crisis Papers" (www.crisispapers.org).  Dr. Partridge can be contacted at: gadfly@igc.org .