Last week, we left off with the two most fundamental concepts of conservatism: liberty and equality of opportunity.
These concepts need to be balanced, however, with the reminder that conservatives have a deep understanding of the natural rights doctrine.
In the history of political thought, the key component of natural rights is that, by being born into this world, all individuals are equally endowed within the same parameters of likeness, similarity, dignity and traits. Simplistically, we are all equal in the eyes of God, and for those who don’t believe in the Omnipotent, whatever is the First Cause, we are all equal according to it.
Therefore, as set out in the Declaration of Independence as well as various international compacts preserving human rights, conservatives, too, must uphold and protect natural rights.
Doing this properly is where the rift between the left and right begins.
Both believe in the natural equality of dignity in all humans. Of course, we all differ in actual equality of talent; and merit is obviously a trait that will never be held with any equality.
As Tocqueville opines, “The gifts of intellect proceed directly from God, and man cannot prevent their unequal distribution.”
But we are not speaking here of talent. We are speaking of rights endowed to us by our Creator. Protecting these natural rights, then, is another quintessential foundation of “Millennial Conservative” thought. Again, according to Tocqueville, regardless of the uneven distribution of natural talent, the Creator has doubtless intended that all “are submitted to the same method of treatment.”
However, for conservatives, this must be balanced with limited government, which is the next foundational concept. The Founding Fathers, almost to a tee, feared big government, or tyranny as they called it. They feared tyranny in all its forms — not just of the government, but of the people as well.
Any government seeks power naturally. The more power one gives to the government, the more it naturally seeks. All regimes – even, and perhaps especially, democratic ones – lust insatiably after unchecked power.
The Founding Fathers understood this, and understanding that human nature can’t be changed, they designed a Constitution to adapt to our lust for power. Thus, the Constitution enshrines a system of checks and balances that are intended to prevent all forms of tyranny by limiting all forms of power.
This system is not designed to check the thirst for power. It is designed to enhance this thirst. As James Madison writes, “ambition must be made to counteract ambition. … If men were angels, no government would be necessary.”
But Madison understood correctly that we cannot remake man into earthly angels. So the system must use our faults to our advantage. Therefore, not only are the branches of government meant to wage war with one another, but so too are the forms of our government: central versus state. The Constitution was meant to create a limited central structure where most of the key decisions of day-to-day living were left to the states under the 10th Amendment.
Thus, the reason we have federalism (governing powers divided between the national and state governments) is to preserve individual liberty by slowing down the process of legislation through each government entity battling the other for power.
What most Americans are unaware of is that the slow process of governing, the battling, the lack of getting anything done is precisely the system the Founders designed to preserve citizens’ rights and liberties.
By creating such formidable obstacles to lawmaking, the Founders believed whatever law made it through the process must actually be in the general interest of the entire society, and therefore, “good.” Thus limited government is a necessary principle of Millennial Conservative thought.
How, then, are natural rights ensured for all? When it comes to upholding a person’s dignity and providing for the basic necessities of life, conservatives of all forms believe it is the responsibility of the family, community, religion and business interests to be the first responders. Only when they fail should citizens turn to the government.
And in this instance, the protection of rights and liberties must devolve to the local and state governments. They are the first authority.
The system is designed this way to preserve our freedom from government interference. This is necessary because, make no mistake, all regimes use providing for the comfort of the people in the name of equality as a form of gaining control of people’s lives.
Tocqueville calls this “soft-despotism.” The government controls you, but you don’t mind because you are living a minimally comfortable life on the dependence of the government. However, the central government ought to come into the picture only when all else fails.
Thus, liberals and conservatives alike believe in natural rights. Well-meaning liberals, on the one hand, tend to run first to the central government, failing to recognize that giving it more power actually feeds this insatiable leviathan our Founders so feverishly wanted to limit.
Conservatives, on the other hand, believe natural rights are only to be protected by the central government as a last resort in order to preserve liberty and balance the constitutional soul.
The writer is associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Augusta University. Follow him on Twitter: @polscountrydoc.