Conservatives Should Claim the Future

Neoconservatives and libertarians have something in common that they tend not to share with traditional or classical conservatives. I don’t mean some policy, but something philosophical. Unlike nostalgic conservatives (to which camp I admit to belonging), neocons and libertarians are future-oriented, comparatively optimistic about where things are going. Less hindered by a view of human nature from which it follows that institutions and morals decay, both persuasions are able to “claim the future” in their politics and policy: neocons tend to trust the energy of government to “shape the future,” while libertarians put faith in the market and individuals to do the same.

I once wondered why a libertarian like Charles Murray could owe so much to the father of neoconservatism, Irving Kristol. Aside from the fact that Kristol is a terrific social science writer like Murray aspires to be, both have an optimism that a more “Tory” outlook would find foreign. The fact of the matter is that the majority of Americans have long been future-oriented (and inherently unconservative in a certain sense). It is part of our culture — and our politics necessarily reflect this.

It was once observed (I forget by whom) that in the early American debate between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson, Hamilton’s type of policy won and Jefferson’s style of politics won. Jefferson’s politics were more democratic and egalitarian — and therefore more populist — than the elitist natural aristocracy propounded by Hamilton. Codified by the popularity of Jacksonian populism, American culture has come to expect an energetic Hamiltonian government while individuals are granted a lot of personal freedom and political power.

This is why Americans can simultaneously disapprove of Obamacare, spending, and debt and yet blame those who oppose it by means of a government shutdown. Though it would be almost entirely harmless, a shutdown is certainly not “energetic government.” Though most Americans don’t like the idea of government health care, they want forward-looking improvements to the system. While it is true that leaving health care the way it was would have been leaps and bounds better than Obamacare, few want to “just go back to the way things were.” Health care will change, for better or worse — American culture requires it. Conservatives are best served by remembering to offer their own alternatives, not just opposition.

Fortunately, modern American conservatism is not completely lacking in examples of optimistic, future-oriented politics and policy. The fusionism primarily wrought by William F. Buckley injected much of traditional conservatism with the more futuristic outlook of libertarians, anti-communist neoconservatives, and those politicians and thinkers who emerged from that movement were atypically forward-thinking.

Ronald Reagan, who helped to renew our faith in America and foresaw the downfall of the Soviet Union, is the prototypical model. Additionally, no one on the Right pays more attention to future possibilities than Newt Gingrich, which is part of what made him such a great leader of the conservative movement in the House in the early nineties. However, a circular firing squad within the Right could break up this inheritance of fusion, pitting prudent adherence to first principles against future-shaping reform when we need it most to combat Obamacare, the national debt, and more.

Of course, the Russell Kirk fans among us (who, incidentally, consider the foregoing examples as false conservatives) ask why one would want to make anything, particularly conservatism, political. The answer isn’t that we do, but that America is politicized already. While one may fight to make the culture less political on one front, to become elected and make policy and governmental reforms from office, one must acknowledge the state of American politics as it is.

Because institutions and morals really do decay, the primary instinct of conservatives should be — in Buckley’s words — to stand athwart history yelling “stop!” But this should not be our only instinct. Edmund Burke, often considered the founder of modern conservatism, was not a member of the Tory party, but a conservative Whig. His standard of a statesman was “a disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together….” Burke recognized both the need to defend the permanent things and to reform with an eye to the future.

We should too.