The Serious Conflict in the Modern Conservative Movement-Becker
The roots of conservatism go back to philosophers of the 17 and 18th centuries, such as John Locke, David Hume, and Adam Smith. They opposed big government, and favored private decision-making, primarily because they argued that individuals were generally better able to protect their interests than could government officials tied down by bureaucracy and special interests. They claimed further that making decisions for oneself and suffering the consequences were usually good for people, even when these decisions led to bad outcomes, because learning from one's own mistakes helps improve future choices.
Modern conservatism is only partly built on these roots. Its support of competition and private markets, and hostility to sizable regulations, is a direct descendant of the classical liberal views, as espoused for example in Smith's Wealth of Nations. Competition and markets puts faith in the power of individuals and firms to satisfy their own and society's wants better than when governments manage firms and whole industries. To such conservatives, the present US government's management of the American auto industry is an invitation to disaster for that industry. It would be much better to have allowed GM and Chrysler several months ago to be reorganized through bankruptcy proceedings. Classical conservatism would recognize that the intervention of the Fed and Treasury in the finance sector may be necessary, given the crisis in that sector, but classical conservatives would look for this involvement to end as soon as possible.
The other pillars of modern conservatism are aggressive foreign policy to promote democracy in other countries, and government actions to further various social goals, such as fewer abortions or outlawing gay "marriage". These views fit less comfortably in the conservative tradition that is hostile to big government and skeptical about the use of government power to override individual decisions. Classical conservatives would argue that governments are no more effective at interventions internationally or on social issues than they are on economic matters. So governments should usually not get involved in such issues, except when its intervention has enough benefits to compensate for governmental inefficiency and ineffectiveness. This usually is not the case.
A political party, like the Republican Party, may encompass both economic conservatives, and social and international conservatives, even though the philosophies behind each type are inconsistent with each other. The reason is that for parties to compete at the national level, or in other large political arenas, they have to put together coalitions of groups with different interests, such as different types of conservatives, or market interventionists with laissez faire internationalists. However, even large parties are generally stronger and more coherent when different factions share most of the same philosophy. The Democratic Party is now fairly well united in the belief that governments frequently do better than private decision makers in both the economic and social spheres.
Similarly, the Republican Party under the leadership of Eisenhower and Reagan had a more consistent classical conservative philosophy of supporting private markets in the economy, little military involvement in other countries, and even little interference in social arrangements. Neither Eisenhower nor Reagan was particularly religious, and they did not have strong views about gays or abortion rights. The shift in the attitudes of the Republican Party toward more interventionist views on social issues, and to some extent also on military involvement to create more democratic governments in other countries, has created this crisis in conservatism. Better stated, it has created this crisis in the conservatism of the Republican Party.
I believe that the best way to restore the consistency and attractiveness of the conservative movement is for modern conservatism to return to its roots of skepticism toward governmental actions. This involves confidence in the capacity of individuals to make decisions not only in their own interests, but also usually in the interests of society at large. Such a shift in attitudes would require more flexible approaches toward hot button issues like gays in the military, gay marriage, abortions, cell stem research, and toward many other issues of this type. It will not be easy for the Republican Party to emerge from the doldrums if it cannot embrace such a consistently skeptical view of government.