book review: The Conscience of a Conservative

Was Barry Goldwater a precursor to the modern freedom movement? It appears so, modulo foreign policy. I found the book interesting when taken within historical context.

The first two chapters are filled with theory, including a couple of libertarian gems:

[…] the Conservative has learned that the economic and spiritual aspects of man’s nature are inextricably intertwined. He cannot be economically free, or even economically efficient, if he is enslaved politically; conversely, man’s political freedom is illusory if he is dependent for his economic needs on the State.

Only a philosophy that takes into account 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.

Let us not express our contempt for some men by denying freedom of choice to all men.

Does the following knock your socks off, coming from somebody who labels himself “conservative”?

The Conservative believes that man is, in part, an economic, an animal creature; bat that he is also a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires. What is more, these needs and desires reflect the superior side of man’s nature, and thus take precedence over his economic wants.

I found this somewhat refreshingly at odds with the (common?) view that conservatives are coldly concerned with economic progress.

One of Goldwater’s primary theses is that the conservatives of his day had lost their way by becoming big-government conservatives. Sound familiar? I’m not sure whether to be depressed or excited when I consider that the conservatives have been having this problem since way back when this was written (1960). Depressing that freedom has been moving backwards, and perhaps the latest surge is more of the same.. or excited that maybe it’s different this time!

Libertarians often get challenged by the civil rights question, particularly when talking about states’ rights. Didn’t we need a strong central government to come in and set right the wrongs being performed by the various states? I was pleasantly surprised to see Goldwater tackle this issue directly (there’s a chapter devoted to it), although his answer is somewhat anticlimactic: the right to vote regardless of race or color is a civil right derived from natural rights, the constitution was amended to reflect this realization, and therefore it’s the proper place for the federal government to step in and protect this right, nullifying any state law that tries to deny it.

By far the longest chapter is the last one, “The Soviet Menace,” which, immediately after reading made me think twice about the rest of his ideas (and some of mine!). Is there a connection between this aggressive, fear-driven foreign policy and the affection for a free society? If there is and I just haven’t seen it yet, my affection for a free society may be at risk.

I wonder if Goldwater and others at the time were genuinely frightened. It must have been scary to have nuclear annihilation looming overhead. I find that more frightening than our modern bogeyman of terrorist attack, and by no small measure. Does the fear go beyond reasonable fear, to hysteria? The communists want to destroy us “at all costs”, he writes — sound familiar?

Maybe it’s fear, combined with an affection for the freedom that the American ideal means to some. I don’t know why for sure, but I do think Goldwater and others make the mistake of equating America with freedom. He calls upon Americans to be willing to put freedom before survival: poo-poohing those who wanted to appease the Soviets as traitors who would allow freedom to eventually erode to Soviet tyranny. Yet, it is not clear which of freedom and America comes first, in Goldwater’s view, because the two terms are used interchangeably. I think the “conscientious” conservative must both recognize that America and freedom are not interchangeable concepts, and that in fact freedom is the treasure, and America is ultimately just a name, and a country.

Nowadays, the idea that America is a free society is absurd. Perhaps this is why we’ve gotten such absurd ideas about foreign conquest from the neocons; they’re trying to hold together an absurd contradiction.

Now I’m curious about The Conscience of a Liberal, by Paul Krugman. Do any of my liberal friends want to buy me a copy? 🙂

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