Notes on The Conscience of a Conservative
Ever since I read that the former conservative Max Boot never actually read The Conscience of a Conservative until he decided to break with the movement, I figure I should do so myself. After all, it is regarded as one of the most influential books on American conservative thought. While the ideas in the book fully reflect Goldwater’s views, it was ghostwritten by National Review’s Brent Bozell, a brilliant but personally troubled speechwriter for both him and Joseph McCarthy. The book is nearing sixty years old now, but much of what is written remains current to the state of ideology and government in America. I have long considered myself a “Goldwater conservative”, and after reading this book I am more convinced of it than ever. This post consists of my reactions to this book. I will refer to Goldwater throughout rather than Bozell as the book was under his name and text references will be marked by page number alone, as this book is the only work I am citing.
Goldwater defines conservatism thusly, “The Conservative approach is nothing more or less than an attempt to apply the wisdom and experience and the revealed truths of the past to the problems of today”. As a conservative, this is part of why I study history on my own time.
Chapter 1: The Conscience of a Conservative:
Goldwater notes, “I have been much concerned that so many people today with Conservative instincts feel compelled to apologize for them. Or if not to apologize directly, to qualify their commitment in a way that amounts to breast-beating” (9). I feel that way in California!
Part of why conservatism gets looked on badly seems to be the faulty messaging of its advocates according to Goldwater, and that such labeling of themselves implies that “ordinary” conservatism opposes progress. The messaging still has difficulties today, but this is in part due the way its opponents have managed to frame conservatism in the public mind.
Reading through this chapter so far it is striking how little has actually changed in the fundamentals of rhetoric. Goldwater’s take on the “radical camp”: “We liberals,” they say, “are interested in people. Our concern is with human beings, while you Conservatives are preoccupied with the preservation of economic privilege and status” (10). This is very much like the left thinks today, except the difference of course would be how many forms of “privilege” would be added here, namely “white”, “male”, and “cis”. The list I’m sure goes on in ways only the grand entrepreneurs of social thought on college campuses can think up! Goldwater turns this line of thinking on its head: it is Socialism that focuses on material well-being, not Conservatism, which is not in itself an economic theory, but economics is a part of the whole picture. Conservatives, Goldwater believes, “take account of the whole man, while the Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man’s nature” (10). For Conservatives, mankind has spiritual needs as well, and these cannot be satiated by wealth. In fact, he asserts, such needs are superior.
“In this approach, I believe they fight against Nature!” – Barry Goldwater on Liberal collectivism aiming to compel “progress”. I tend to think myself that adherents of the left don’t tend to be big fans of the concept of human nature, and quite a number of modern-day feminists (third wave) don’t strike me as fans of the concept of “mother nature”. Right after I write that, I read: “Surely the first obligation of a political thinker is to understand the nature of man” (11). Ding ding ding! Conservatism, for Goldwater, is an inherently historical viewpoint. A good conservative should take an interest if history, for if not, what is it they are basing their views from? What traditions are they defending and why? What wisdom motivates such a defense? History provides the “why” of conservatism.
“The Conservative knows that to regard man as part of an undifferentiated mass is to consign him to ultimate slavery” (12). There are just a lot of quotable lines in this book! Here’s another one: “man’s political freedom is illusory if he is dependent for his economic needs on the State” (12).
“Throughout history, true Conservatism (as in, Goldwater’s definition) has been at war equally with autocrats and with “democratic” Jacobins. The true Conservative was sympathetic with the plight of the hapless peasant under the tyranny of the French monarchy. And he was equally revolted at the attempt to solve that problem by a mob tyranny that paraded under the banner of egalitarianism” (13). If Goldwater’s definition is what true conservatism is, there are quite a number of people who label themselves conservative but don’t fit here in terms of attitude, I’m sorry to say.
Here’s another solid definition Goldwater offers: “…the Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order” (13). Non-conservatives tend to classify conservatives as believing in the following, in this order: 1. Order, 2. Liberty, 3. Equality. I would either place liberty at #1 or at least make it a tie between #1 and #2. For me, anyway, liberty is #1. Goldwater’s definition at least implies an equality between order and freedom as values.
Next time I will cover Part 2: my notes on Chapters 2 and 3.