Why the Conservatives Will Fail, If They Fail

A reply to George Will


A recent instance of George F. Will's syndicated column, "Conservatism Comes of Age," unwittingly brings into sharp focus the contradictions within the conservative movement that are likely to lead to its collapse in the next four years—much like the liberals' collapse in the past four. Will speaks of a maturing conservatism, which recognizes that there is nothing wrong with big and strong government. Indeed, Will contends, "Real conservatism requires strong government."

Will's conservatism also holds that there is too much freedom in American society, that license threatens to replace "durable disciplined liberty." Pornographers are too free. And young men not being drafted are too free.

POLITICAL WATERSHED? This conservative vision, however, is not the mandate of November 4. The destruction of establishment liberals reflected an overwhelming concern with the economy: two-thirds of those polled by the Los Angeles Times after the election cited the economy as the most important issue. What people voted for were budget cuts, tax-rate reductions, control of the regulatory leviathan, and monetary restraint.

They did not vote for a more interventionist foreign policy, either. Carter' policies may have failed, but the greatest barrier to Reagan's victory throughout the campaign was the "warmonger" issue. Only after Reagan's reassuring performance in the last debate did the foreign policy issues finally fade.

Nor did they vote for the new right's social authoritarianism. Polls have consistently found significant public uneasiness about Jerry Falwell and his allies. David Broder of the Washington Post recently reported that Americans believe by a three-to-two margin, that social permissiveness is evidence of "greater social tolerance" and not "moral decay." November 4 was no mandate for social repression.

All three of these issue areas must be grappled with by the triumphant Republicans. They were elected with a broad consensus on the economy; if they implement that consensus by deregulating business, cutting spending and taxes, and controlling monetary growth, they may well turn the 1980 election into a political watershed.

But if, as is likely based on past experience, they increase intervention abroad and social repression at home, they will forfeit their opportunity. For over the years, conservatives have rhetorically supported economic freedom but actively supported a more intrusive and powerful government. And they have lost election after election.

Indeed, it is conservatives who, during the 1960s and 1970s, drove an entire generation towards liberalism and statism by uniformly linking the cause of individual freedom with social authoritarianism/repression and militarism/foreign intervention. For two decades, economic freedom has been sullied by its association with international meddling, involuntary servitude (conscription), and social intolerance. Because of conservatives, a vote for the individual's right to open a business has meant a vote against the rights to smoke marijuana, to read dirty books, and to avoid being drafted. And for two decades a majority therefore voted not to protect economic rights.

FORMULA FOR FAILURE The liberals' economic disaster of 1980 has given conservatives a new chance. It gives them the opportunity to disentangle economic freedom, upon which they won with a landslide, from foreign adventurism and social regulation, upon which they have no mandate. It gives them the opportunity to create a new conventional wisdom—a new consensus. But if conservatives follow Will's advice, they will fail.

On the economic front, they will merely propose minor adjustments to the faltering welfare state. They will not challenge the moral bankruptcy of compulsory compassion nor the fiscal bankruptcy of the social programs, such as Social Security. They will allow government to continue its rampant growth.

On the foreign front, they will project US forces abroad, supporting repressive right-wing dictatorships in the name of freedom. They will intervene in other nations' affairs, again making the United States the world's most hated country. And they will destroy freedom here at home, by instituting a draft, restricting trade, and unleashing the intelligence agencies.

On the social front, they will attempt to force their morals on the rest of Americans. They will require school prayer, impose censorship, and pass draconian drug restrictions. They will continually abrogate individual rights as they further expand government power.

And they will fail. They will lose their chance to build a new political order and will be swept from power, just as the liberals were before them. And a new political consensus will emerge, one based on a consistent commitment to individual liberty. This new consensus will be attuned to the philosophy of libertarianism that Will so reviles and fears.

Robert James Lee is a Washington attorney and a free-lance writer.