The conscience of a conservative, as Barry Goldwater wrote, revolves around a single, seemingly elegant question: “Are we maximizing freedom?”
Goldwater’s framing of conservatism as conscience, as psychology, is both perceptive and useful. Ideology is something one can — and must — psychologically deconstruct. Consciences breed first principles, and politics enforce them. While Congress may be bloated with rarefied air, it’s anything but a mental vacuum.
Especially when $787 billion is on the line.
The unspoken philosophical debate surrounding the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was rife with folk psychology — people thinking about how people think — and the ghostly neurons of Barry Goldwater fired away.
It was Goldwater’s philosophical forefather, Martin Luther, who first articulated the overjustification effect: works become sustainable habits when they’re performed by a free conscience, and not commoditized or forced. Research by Syracuse professor Arthur Brooks indicates that conservatives donate more money to charity than liberals, which, coupled with a fondness for the free market, reflects a sensitivity to the effects of state welfare on the moral vitality of the people.
On its own, this folk belief is benign, if not also fundamentally American. But the conservative conscience makes bad bedfellows, namely absolutism. Studies suggest that people on the Right tend to be less tolerant of ambiguity, more avoidant of uncertainty, and in higher need of order, structure and closure. While there are plenty of absolutist liberals and liberal-minded conservatives, the Right Wing is, in general, more dogmatic.
Put this together with a simple freedom-maximizing maxim, and you get a rabid hatred of big government, an addiction to freedom as negative, non-interventionist, untaxed liberty, and, in 2009, an ailing populous which would, if it weren’t for Democratic majorities, suffer.
Unemployment is skyrocketing, thousands can no longer afford health care, and homelessness is metastasizing to the white collar population. The downfall of banks and financial firms is a lesson that irresponsibility is not just something practiced by drug abusers and the seemingly indolent unemployed.
It’s not that there aren’t legitimate concerns about any unprecedentedly large stimulus package. But when Bobby Jindal and Sarah Palin gripe about unsustainable social programs that would be hard to get rid of once implemented, potential practicality is clouded by ideology wrought far too large.
What’s more, an otherwise reasonable allegiance to private charity can become so overblown that it loses sight of the conditions under which it is practicable. The non-profit sector relies on donations from individuals and corporations that are currently reeling. The 10,000 non-profits in New York City, for instance, have previously covered $50 billion in annual expenditures with significant support from Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, Merrill Lynch and AIG. Such organizations are seeing a precipitous decline in year-end annual giving, and are simultaneously unable to collect on pledges.
That which is freely given can easily, under the right circumstances, be taken away. Americans are not bad, immoral people for reducing their charitable contributions in a time of deep recession. This is only reasonable. At the same time, America needs Prozac, and the government is the only pharmacist around.
Luckily, the stimulus package is stuffed with opportunities for non-profits and state agencies to be able to provide the services that are needed more desperately than ever before. For example, $2 billion has been allocated to community health centers, $100 million to emergency food and shelter programs and a total of $4 billion to block grants for child care, community services and community development.
Those skeptical about whether non-profits should receive discretionary handouts should know that qualifying agencies are not exactly resting on their morals and milking the system. At a panel sponsored by Shelter Now and Blue State Coffee last Friday, Dwight Hall Executive Director Alex Knopp stressed that a time of crisis serves as a prime opportunity to advocate and implement fundamental and progressive change — both politically and institutionally — with respect to program management, fundraising and volunteer participation.
The United Way of Greater New Haven, for instance, is experimenting with new ways for people to donate time and labor where pleas for funding might fall short. It’s a chance to rally human resources, to “live united,” as the organization’s slogan reads.
Above all, in a time when financial sickness calls for nearly trillion dollar decisions, we must take on an often uncomfortable enterprise: psychological introspection. A folk understanding of the value of freedom will set us free — so long as we temper it with an awareness of idealism’s dogmatic fringes. Conservatism and liberalism aside, that, I hope, is the conscience of an American.
James Cersonsky is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College.