I've been piqued by S. T. Karnick's recent statements, in the comments to a couple of his own essays, that he's "not a conservative." Now, he didn't make it sound as if it were somehow an unworthy thing to be; he just stated that he wasn't one. Yet in the absence of those statements, what I've learned of Mr. Karnick's values and general political posture would have caused me to conclude that he is a conservative. You see, I share those values and that posture, and "conservative" (of the libertarian variety) is what I call myself.
Political labels are always at least a tad fuzzy. These days, they appear to be more indistinct than they've been since before FDR. But most people do label themselves one thing or another. One of the reasons has always been to provide others with a condensed guide to their positions. Another has been the psychic comfort that comes with group identification. It seems that despite the gray zones around all of today's conventionally labeled political poles, labels still serve those purposes to an extent sufficient to make them attractive to most Americans. Which compels us to ask:
- If Pat Buchanan, Charles Krauthammer, George Bush, and my old friend Smith who thinks that no one except soldiers should be permitted to cross the border in either direction are all conservatives;
- If William Safire, Mark Steyn, William F. Buckley and my old friend Jones whose favorite pastime is hauling his Uzi and his bipod to Central Park and killing drug dealers in the wee hours are all conservatives;
- If Steve Forbes, Bob Dole, Ernest van den Haag and my old friend Davis who's called for a 50% tax on all profits and the outright confiscation of all estates are all conservatives;
...what does "conservative" really mean? Could it be that the word has been drained of all objective significance?
(Incidentally, the names Smith, Jones, and Davis are used above as pseudonyms for real persons. My friends form a rather diverse lot.)
A century ago, a European observer of our society, a certain Herbert George Wells, wrote in his book The Future Of America that "All Americans are, from the English point of view, Liberals of one sort or another," by which he meant what we would call classical liberals. Wells, a socialist, was hostile to classical liberalism, the dominant political posture of the time. He saw it as the principal obstacle socialists such as he, the Webbs, and the Bloomsbury group would need to surmount to achieve their vision of a just society. This makes his observation all the more striking for the time it was made: the heyday of the Progressives, the muckrakers, and the Benthamites, not one of whom would have endorsed the principles of classical liberalism without first registering heavy qualifications to all of them. More, within fifteen years, the United States would go to war in Europe against powers that had not attacked it, Prohibition would be fastened onto the necks of Americans nationwide, and major elements of the program laid out in The Communist Manifesto would be incorporated into federal law.
Gentle Reader, all of that happened in a nation whose favorite nonfiction author was classical liberal titan Herbert Spencer. Let that sink in for a moment. Clearly, "liberal" had at least as much fuzz around it then as "conservative" does today. So "conservative" isn't the first widely used political label to suffer from a certain indeterminacy in specifics.
I've long been of the opinion that "liberal" and "conservative" more suitably designate particular attitudes of welcome or unease toward large social and political changes than coherent political philosophies. Neither term's adopters command a significant consensus about core principles. The political postures of conservatives, in particular, vary greatly and often contradict themselves on specific issues. Yet "conservative" is at this time the most commonplace political self-assessment in America. It must mean something to the persons who use it.