All Commentary
Tuesday, September 1, 1970

The Role of a Conservative

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.

Featherbedding Policies

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. 

  • Bertel Sparks, a native of Jackson County, Ky., was a professor of law at Duke University and taught in Harlan and Jackson County Schools. During World War II, he served as a special agent with the Counter Intelligence Corps. He was professor of law at New York University from 1949 to 1967.