A lot of uninformed rhetoric exists today about what it means to be an American conservative — especially at Yale. We’re often challenged by those who feel we have a detached fondness for nostalgia or just an obsession with egoism. But I believe conservatism is neither. It is important that we conservatives, at colleges and in the wider world, recognize and explain to others the three key tenets that define our politics: history, logic and morality.
History is the essence of conservatism. From Alexander Hamilton onwards, conservative policies have revitalized the United States’ economy and kept it afloat in the midst of social upheaval. Conservatism’s deference for tradition, in contrast with liberalism’s rejection of it, provides stability. If people can’t be sure that their leaders are working within an efficient margin of ideology, then how can they have confidence in the future? Of course, only God knows what lies ahead. Conservatism, however, represents a body of earthly assurance not found in any other political ideology. Liberalism, in contrast, prides itself on its “progressivism” and ability to adapt and respond to various situations. But what does that mean? Where are the specifics? Indeed, there are none, and I happen to prefer a government with more sophistication than “play-it-by-ear.” Conservatism lets history inform and inspire responses to any and all possible issues.
Why is logic important to conservatism? Logic allows citizens to connect with one another through common rationale and natural law. In discussing logic, one must recognize that conservatives are realists — they believe in objective truth, regardless of an individual’s feelings. Realism allows for the logical approach to tackling a problem; liberal “normative” judgment becomes irrelevant.
Before I’m stoned to death for that statement, let me clarify that normative statements and ethics are vastly important to conservatism; the difference here is that conservatism uses objective values in decision-making instead of allowing an ambiguous assertion of “ethics” to cloud a true, rationally understood path. Economically, this could mean that welfare checks are provided to only those absolutely determined to be incapable of work. This could mean that the age for Social Security is raised, and people are responsible for their own livelihood just a bit longer. On Yale’s campus, these thoughts are deemed evil or backwards; in a rational world, they’re common sense.
The implications of the above hint at the most defining feature of conservatism: morality. Conservatism, I believe, entails living one’s life for a cause greater than oneself, whether for God or country — or in some special cases, maybe even for Yale. Whereas liberals deem conservatives immoral for denouncing progressive tax rates and the sixteenth amendment, conservatives believe that moral decisions, such as charitable giving, are best made by private citizens. Consider: if your chunk of tax dollars goes to fund governmental housing in inner-city projects, are you being morally charitable, or are you simply following the law? Conservatism makes morality meaningful by focusing on an individual’s free choice to give or choice to help — you can’t get that from mandatory tax hikes caused by the failure of the last big stimulus package.
The final and most important thing I’d like to say about my conservatism is simple, but powerful: an individual should be able to cultivate a livelihood for himself, with little to no assistance from the government — in essence, he should be willing and able to seek the American Dream. Amid an ever-growing welfare state, I believe the work ethic that was once so central to our country is diminishing.
Conservatism is the only school of thought that can bring our union back to its most perfect form. Through a freer market, a close recall of history, and the promotion of an objective approach to logic and morality, conservatism most aptly defines what it means to be an American. And that is something of which I am quite proud.
Elaina Plott is a freshman in Silliman College and director of sophomore affairs for the College Republicans.
Correction: September 18, 2011
This column has been corrected to reflect a missed edit, which changed the constitutional amendment mentioned from the tenth to the sixteenth.