Bertel M. Sparks is Professor of Law at Duke University School of Law, Durham, North Carolina.
It might appear unnecessary or even redundant to inquire, "What is the role of a conservative?" The obvious answer would seem to be that the role of a conservative is to conserve. But if any serious effort is made to apply that definition to popular usage in present-day society, a number of perplexing problems are raised. The perplexity becomes most apparent in the industrial world where the material goods human beings need or desire are being produced. Those who want to preserve existing ways of doing things and prohibit the introduction of any laborsaving devices or any newer products that might be better and therefore might replace the less attractive ones now in use are called liberals. Those who are eager to accept any new technological development that might enhance the material well-being of mankind or reduce the amount of human drudgery necessary to survival are referred to as conservatives. The very people who want to preserve the old ways stubbornly insist upon identifying themselves as liberals while those who are always ready to discard the old and accept every new development that promises to produce more goods with less effort are dismissed as conservatives. It is a strange world.
A liberal who is confronted with the propositions made in the preceding paragraph is likely to deny them. At least he is likely to deny them so long as they are presented to him in the abstract form indicated above. But when the same statements are reduced to concrete terms, most liberals will embrace them without hesitation. The reason for this paradox is that the typical liberal has already taken flight from reality and has found refuge in his embryonic cocoon where he enjoys spinning his theories without being disturbed by any encounter with the concrete facts of life. A few simple examples, taken from among many that might have been used, will serve to illustrate the point.
If the railroad industry develops a locomotive that is more efficient than the coal burning variety, can haul heavier loads at less expense, will reduce the air pollution problem, and promises to lower the danger of fires caused by flying sparks along the tracks, the liberal objects to having the new machine put into operation. He says it might frustrate some of the employees already accustomed to the old coal burner. The railroad company gets to use its new invention only after agreeing to maintain a seat for the coal shoveler in the cab of the locomotive and pay the shoveler to sit there even though there is no coal to shovel. The one who says that the new device should be put into operation as soon as its effectiveness is demonstrated is called a conservative. The conservative might even point out that the newer and better machine will lower transportation costs and that this in turn will leave more money in the pockets of travelers and shippers and tend to lower the prices of the commodities being shipped. He might also suggest that the money saved would be spent on other products which the travelers, shippers, and consumers were previously unable to afford. If this natural chain of events should be permitted to take place, the obsolete coal shoveler would be needed in the production of the new products. But the liberal will label any such willingness to elevate the material well-being of the entire society to a higher plane as not only conservative but extremely reactionary. And after once being told that it is antisocial to give better services at lower costs, the railroad company will be discouraged from any new undertaking and the community will never know what other improvements it might have forfeited by its adherence to the liberal’s definition of "social justice."
For the one constant in the liberal’s definition of "social justice" is an absolute refusal to make any allowance for possible improvement in the state of the arts. Everything must remain as it now is. If advancing technology reduces the need for coal or introduces the possibility of mining more coal with fewer miners, the liberal sees this as necessitating a compulsory levy in the form of taxes upon the producers—and ultimately the consumers—of other goods to pay the miner to sit near the mine whether he does any mining or not. Any suggestion that the miner should be permitted to engage in the more rewarding task of producing newer products that would be bought by the taxpaying consumers if their incomes had not been expropriated to pay the miner to sit by his unwanted mine is viewed as too conservative to be respectable.
On the other hand, if better ways can be found for heating homes and operating factories or if coal that is needed for these purposes can be obtained at less expense and without the necessity of sending a human body into the ground, the conservative is likely to be in a mood for rejoicing. He will be grateful that the miner can be released to produce something else in order that the material well-being of all, including the miner, can be elevated.
The same result prevails on the farm. If the farmer learns how to produce more food with less work, the liberal insists that all the farmers and farm workers now on the farm must remain there anyway. They must all stay there and the productive capacity of other members of society must be expropriated to pay the ones that are no longer needed. The surplus farmers will be paid to stay on the farm but refrain from producing as much as they could. But the conservative welcomes the improved productive capacity. He will encourage farmers to use the very best techniques of which they are capable. He will be glad as the excess workers leave the farm to enter the production of other commodities which heretofore have been viewed as luxuries by all except the wealthy few but which can now be made available to everyone at modest cost.
One of the best illustrations of the liberal’s passion for maintaining the status quo is his attitude toward growth in population. Periodically throughout history he rediscovers a simple principle the conservative has known all along. That principle is that if the state of the arts, that is to say, the quality or condition of the tools of production, remains constant and the people continue to reproduce at an expanding rate, the quantity of goods per person will decline. The writings of present-day sociologists on this subject tend to indicate that the principle itself has just been discovered. The truth is that it has been known for ages, having had as its most famous exponent a man named Thomas Malthus who was writing his pessimistic pronouncements more than a hundred years ago. The liberal’s remedy for this malady is to search for some way to limit human reproduction. The conservative is more likely to look upon it as a challenge to invent new machines, make new discoveries, and learn ways of producing more goods with less labor.
Thus it can be seen that there is no end to the number of illustrations that can be piled up in the industrial realm, all illustrating the same attitude toward material well being. Liberals always fear that the balance will somehow be upset if any improvements are made. In the 1930′s they conceived the notion that the ideal level of comforts and conveniences had already been passed and that the nation was suffering from having too much. The solution offered was that of plowing under every third row of corn, killing every third pig, and performing numerous similar acts, most of which were viewed by the conservatives as sheer foolishness. The conservative prefers to leave the producer free to produce whatever he wishes in whatever quantities he can.
The Conserving of Freedom
In view of the conservative’s eagerness to accept every new technological development designed to improve man’s lot on earth and in view of the fact that he is always found in opposition to those who want to conserve the existing state of the arts, one wonders what claim he has to being identified as a conservative. A possible explanation is that he did not chose the name in the first place. It was thrust upon him by his enemies as a term of derision. But the conservative has accepted his unsolicited title and in doing so has discovered that he really does have something worth-while to conserve. And that which he has to conserve is of far greater importance than anything he is prepared to discard.
The primary goal of a conservative, as revealed by the writings of persons identified by that name, is to conserve freedom. And by freedom he means personal, individual freedom. It is a freedom of choice, a freedom to work or not work, a freedom to live in the country or move to the city, a freedom to choose his own occupation and to live by the fruits of that occupation. The conservative looks upon this freedom to choose as the thing that separates human beings from the lower animals. It is a part of man’s nature. Thomas Jefferson said it was given to man by his Creator. In any event it is natural and original. It is not the gift of any state or social organization of any kind.
Although the conservative never views the state as the source of freedom, he does view it as the agency whose duty it is to maintain a condition compatible with the exercise of freedom. And as he sees it, that condition of compatibility is a condition of order. Since he realizes that freedom cannot exist without order, he concludes that the greatest problem of government is the problem of reconciling the freedom of choice with which man is born with the exercise of an authority necessary to preserve order. All his views on government are built around that basic core. And if he sometimes appears overzealous in his concern for the preservation of freedom, it is because he realizes that there is always a danger that any authority that is adequate to maintain the order necessary to the existence of freedom might exceed its proper function and encroach upon freedom itself.
As a student of history, the conservative has seen that encroachment take place on too many occasions to be treated lightly. He realizes that although perfect freedom has never prevailed anywhere in the world, economic progress has always been directly related to the extent to which simple freedom of choice has been permitted to exist. Thus he sees a twofold good in the maintenance of freedom. It is an essential aspect of man’s dignity as a man and it is also the quality or condition of life that is essential to economic growth and the improvement of material well-being. Newer and better products are produced and more efficient processes for manufacturing the things human beings need or desire are developed when men are free to develop and produce whatever they desire in the most efficient manner of which they are capable.
The True Apostle of Change
In this light the conservative emerges as the true apostle of change. He is so thoroughly convinced that human wants are insatiable that he never has any fear of having too much. He knows that in a free society all men are both producers and consumers and the only way any member of society can improve his own lot is by producing more of the things other people want and for which they are willing and able to pay. Freedom then becomes the natural stimulant for the development of newer and better ways of relieving human drudgery and providing more comforts and conveniences for all. So convinced are conservatives that an improvement in economic well-being is a desirable goal that they find it difficult to understand the reasoning of modern academicians whose chief worry seems to be that in the "affluent society" which freedom has made possible too many manufacturers are devoting their efforts toward producing the things people want! The professed worry is that in a free market human wants are not properly educated. They are too much influenced by the manufacturers’ competitive advertising of their products. It seems that the liberal academician would prefer to have a government agency tell the people what would be best for them and introduce new products only when the agency was satisfied with their merits. Under this arrangement, if the appropriate agency was unable to find any value in decorative fins on automobiles, individual consumers would be deprived of their use regardless of how much pleasure such consumers might derive from indulging their "uneducated wants." The result could be a rather dull, drab, and standardized world. The conservative accepts Jeremy Bentham’s dictum that "no man can be so good a judge as the man himself, what it is that gives him pleasure or displeasure,"¹ and he would allow every man to select for himself without any official inquiry into whether the selection was wise or foolish.
The true role of a conservative, then, is to conserve freedom. Too often he has failed to make that role clear. He has unwittingly allowed the enemies of freedom to misrepresent their own position and his as well. When accused of being enemies of change, conservatives have often defended themselves by saying, "We are not opposed to change but we do object to this particular change," or "We object to such a rapid rate of change." These defenses are false. The truth is that a conservative never objects to any change, regardless of the speed at which it is accomplished, so long as it is a change made by free human beings acting on their own volition without being coerced by any outside force. On the other hand, he is opposed to any change that encroaches upon the individual’s freedom of choice in matters concerning his own affairs. His one political principle is the preservation of the conditions that make freedom to change—and therein change itself—possible. This is the foundation upon which his entire philosophy rests and it is the foundation that must be made known in the political market place if either the conservative or the society in which he lives is to survive.