“Conscience of a Conservative” is succinctly summarized with the letter “x.” Often Barry Goldwater, the author of this iconic book published in 1960, uses the detached and anonymous “x” to refer to middle-class citizens, unionized workers, “Negroes” and people without health insurance.
The former Arizona senator doesn’t cite specific examples or anecdotes for the root of his beliefs. Instead, the former Air Force general quotes constitutional amendments and personal philosophy in his 120-page manifesto. The lack of evidence of real-life experiences as foundation for his convictions makes me believe his conservative principles are contrived and controlled.
By contrast, Paul Wellstone cites many personal experiences — much health related — in “Conscience of a Liberal,” his 41-year-later counter to “Conservative.” Wellstone’s real-life sorrows define conscience. Goldwater’s quoted amendments and philosophy without evidence is caustic conservatism.
Therefore, without specific instances to supplement his policy beliefs, Goldwater is more academic and less pragmatic than liberals, who are constantly lambasted for such seemingly narrow-minded, idealistic principles.
Nature vs. Nurture
Goldwater believed that there was a preordained and insurmountable social order.
“Every man is responsible for his own development.” (4)
On the surface, this statement is justifiable. There must be personal accountability, but without equal opportunity, the heights of individual development differ substantially.
“Only a philosophy that takes into accounts the essential differences between men, and, accordingly, makes provision for developing the different potentialities of each man can claim to be in accord with nature.” (3)
Healthy, white males have typically higher potential than their ill, Mexican women counterparts and according to Goldwater that was OK because it’s in “accord with nature.”
Goldwater often fell back on the 10th amendment when confronted with support for Medicare, Medicaid and welfare.
The 10th amendment: “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.”
“It also recognizes the principle that essentially local problems are best dealt with by the people most directly concerned.”(26)
I agree with Goldwater here. The best solutions rest with local politicians because many societal issues are unique to individual cultures. But this often-used conservative cop-out is dismissive. It doesn’t directly answer the question: Do these people need these services?
Goldwater rendered certain answers as cure-all solutions.
The Civil Rights Act of 1866: “People of all races shall be equally entitled ‘to make and force contracts, to sue, be parties, and give evidence, to inherit, to purchase, lease, sell, hold and convey real and personal property and to full and equal benefit of all laws proceedings for the security of persons and property.’”
“After the passage of that act and the [14th] Amendment [which gave rights to every American-born person], all persons, Negroes included, had a ‘civil’ right to these protections.” (27)
Natural law isn’t enough, there must be constant nurturing.
As Hubert Humphrey said, “The moral test of government is how that government treats those who are in the dawn of life, the children; those who are in the twilight of life, the sick, the needy, and the handicapped.”
Freedom with Status
Retaining freedom was a major – yet contradictory – issue for Goldwater.
“One of the foremost precepts of the natural law is man’s right to the possession and the use of his property. And a man’s earnings are his property as much as his land and the house of while he lives. Indeed, in the industrial age, earnings are probably the most prevalent form of property. It has been the fashion in recent years to disparage ‘property rights’ – to associate them with greed and materialism. This attack on property rights is actually an attack on freedom. It is another instance of the modern failure to take into account the whole man. How can a man be truly free if he is denied the means to exercise freedom? How can he be free if the fruits of his labor are not his to dispose of, but are treated, instead, as part of a common pool of public wealth? Property and freedom are inseparable: to the extent government takes the one in the form of taxes, it intrudes on the other.”(54)
First off, wealth isn’t synonymous with freedom, but in the parameters of Goldwater’s argument, it’s an “attack on freedom” when you have it. When you’re without, an effort to get your own is considered an “attack.” Those who have “freedom” quell others’ opportunity to get what they rightly deserve. It’s simply a matter of perspective.
Goldwater also wrote that Socialism, not Conservatism, was the predominant economic theory. This came as a shock and – in accord with his property rights argument – very hypocritical.
“Conservatism is not an economic theory, though it has economic implications. The shoe is precisely on the other foot: it is Socialism that subordinates all other considerations to man’s material well-being. It is Conservatism that puts material things in their proper place – that has structured view of human beings and of human society, in which economics plays only a subsidiary roll.” (2)
Socialism wants to remove the necessity of “earnings” and “property rights” as the defining attributes of ones character for the improvement of the community. Conservatism wants “property rights” left alone so they can more easily retain those privileges.
Social issues vs. national security in budget squabbles
Goldwater agreed with federal legislation and funding when it paralleled his conservative beliefs. During elections, he, like all politicians, sought voter support to promote that agenda. But Goldwater condemned these practices when they were employed by liberals.
“Surely the wholesomeness of his act [supporting welfare] is diluted by the fact that he is voting not only to have his own money taken but also that of his fellow citizens who may have different ideas about their social obligations.” (67)
Don’t conservative voters and politicians take money away from fellow liberal citizens’ causes when they support exuberant national defense spending?
Everyone has an agenda and they try to promote it. The “wholesomeness” is doing what you believe to be right. If others disagree with your beliefs, it adds fuel, purpose. Consensus isn’t necessary for a wholesome purpose.
Goldwater believed welfare should be a private issue. But national security as a private issue is unconscionable because of its perceived vital nature. Yet, what is more vital than the health of Americans?
That is a constant question I have with political debate: How does it always revert to national defense? Conservatives are quick to point to non-defense spending and how it needs to be diminished. Why doesn’t defense spending need to be controlled? Decreased?
As Thomas Friedman recently wrote, “I’m looking for the 9/12 candidate, not the 9/11 candidate. For me, the candidate of 9/12 is the one who not only understands who our enemies are, but who we are.”
The national defense-first mindset is a tough-guy façade that is counterproductive to our nation’s vital interest – the health of its citizens.
Freedom and National Security
In 1960, the utmost American national security threat was communism and Goldwater, unsurprisingly, took a hawkish approach.
“We are confronted by a revolutionary world movement that possesses not only the will to dominate absolutely every square mile of the globe, but increasingly the capacity to do so.” (83)
“If an enemy power is bent on conquering you, and proposes to turn all of his resources to that end, he is at war with you: and you – unless you contemplate surrender – are at war with him. Moreover – unless you contemplate treason – your objective, like his, will be victory. Not ‘peace’ but victory. Now, while traitors (and perhaps cowards) have at times occupied key positions in our government, it is clear that our national leadership over the past fourteen years have favored neither surrender nor treason. It is equally clear, however, that our leaders have not made victory the goal of American policy. And the reason that they have not done so, I am saying, is that they have never believed deeply that the Communists are in earnest.”(84)
This is a typical absolute-seeking conservative approach. Peace isn’t good enough. Diplomacy isn’t agreeable, it’s cowardly. According to conservatives, there is one solution – imperialism. We must force the communists (1960s) and Islam (today) that our way of life is superior and any discerning approaches is fundamentally wrong.
“But we cannot, for that reason, make the avoidance of a shooting war our chief objective. If we do that – if we tell ourselves that it is more important to avoid shooting than to keep our freedom – we are committed to a course that has only one terminal point: surrender.” (85)
The conservative approach isn’t only imperialism, its isolationism.
“The alliance system cannot adequately protect its members even against an overt aggression … the alliance system is completely defensive in nature and outlook.” (89)
If communism and Islam were/are such graves threat, there should be a majority coalition in opposition.
Dangers of Power
‘“Power,’ as Lord Acton said, ‘corrupts men. Absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ … The legitimate functions of government are actually conducive to freedom. Maintaining internal order, keeping foreign foes at bay, administering justice, removing obstacles to the free interchange of goods – the exercise of these powers makes it possible for men to follow their chosen pursuits with maximum freedom. But note that the very instrument by which these desirable ends are achieved can be the instrument for achieving undesirable ends – that government can, instead of extending freedom, restrict freedom. And note, secondly, that the ‘can’ quickly becomes ‘will’ the moment the holders of government power left to their own devices … Men who possess some power to take unto themselves more power.” (9)
As I read this, I thought about U.S. warrantless domestic spying. Power is corrosive. The “can” became the “will.”
Change in language
Today, conservatives are often credited with controlling political language, but 47 years ago, liberals had that market cornered.
“I suspect that this vicious circle of cynicism and failure to perform is primarily the result of the Liberals’ success in reading out of the discussion the moral principles with which the subject of taxations is so intimately connected.” (53)
It’s astonishing how conservatives are now deemed the “moral majority.” They are the ones that lack the morality to do what is in the best interests of citizens. With health insurance costs skyrocketing, children starving and American kids dying in Iraq (at 3,804 as of today) how can the conservative agenda be associated with morality?
A healthy conscience rests solely with liberals. Anyone believing otherwise is unconscious.