Towards a More Human Conservatism
by: Ryan Jepson
The American electorate has given President Barack Obama four more years to govern our country.
The two visions offered by the candidates were strikingly different. The Democrats envision more wealth redistribution and a massive federal government, and the Republicans dream of tax cuts, reduced discretionary spending, and a smaller government.
In an insightful article earlier in the election season, “The Conservative Mind,” New York Times columnist David Brooks observes, “Republicans like Romney often rely on an economic language that seems corporate and alien to people who do not define themselves in economic terms.”
He’s right: just about everything in Mitt Romney’s campaign proposals and rhetoric was about money. Perhaps focus groups have said all people care about is jobs (and a little bit of energy independence). Mitt Romney’s various campaign slogans included: “More take-home money in your pockets,” “Jobs, jobs, jobs,” “Get America back to work,” and “We can’t afford four more years.”
The fundamental problem is that both the liberal and libertarian-conservative philosophies reduce man to an economic unit. Karl Marx defined man in economic terms—according to his role in the chain of production. Many conservatives, and most national Republican figures, follow this error by speaking about man as if he were merely an economic unit. What matters, then, is not man himself but his contribution to the economic output of society. In this worldview, economic freedom is the highest freedom.
Here, I agree with President Obama: The free market is not the solution to all of our problems. We do not exist to be players in a free market. But I also disagree with the liberal vision of man as the object of zealous governmental paternalism, best displayed in the Obama campaign’s abominable Life of Julia promotion, in which a woman is cared for at every step of her life by the State.
What happened to man as fully human?
What John Paul II said in his 1991 encyclical Centesimus Annus is worth quoting in full: “The individual today is often suffocated between two poles represented by the State and the marketplace. At times it seems as though he exists only as a producer and consumer of goods, or as an object of State administration. People lose sight of the fact that life in society has neither the market nor the State as its final purpose, since life itself has a unique value which the State and the market must serve. Man remains above all a being who seeks the truth and strives to live in that truth.”
Man is not the object of state administration (the social Democrats’ error) or merely a producer and consumer of goods (the free-marketers’ error). John Paul II said, and the current Pope Benedict XVI followed him, that economic freedom is onemanifestation of the freedom that exists because man has inherent dignity.
It seems to me that if we ground conservatism in free-market principles, we lose conservatism entirely. We lose any inalienable foundation for economic freedom. If, however, the economy trumps all, and the State can somehow organize our economic activities better than we can, then the State should take control. (I will agree with the conservatives here that central planning does not work, but I still think it is dangerous to speak of economic freedom as the foundation for everything political.)
Instead of heralding economic freedom as the best way to create prosperity, what if Mitt Romney said economic freedom is absolutely essential because we are free, independent of the government.
Instead of calling Obamacare “job-killing,” what if Mitt Romney said Obamacare infringed more egregiously on our inherent rights—including religious freedom?
What if, rather than deplore the costs of a massive group of citizens dependent on the government for food stamps, Mitt Romney lamented the sad case that a huge number of poor children are growing up dependent more on the government than on a biological father.
What if Mitt Romney actually spoke about issues that destroy families—such as divorce and abortion?
And what if Mitt had lamented the poor economy because denying people gainful employment denies them part of what man is intended for—work?
Mitt Romney might very well believe all these things, and he has at times posited them. His rhetoric, however, does sound foreign to those of us who do not consider ourselves primarily in economic terms. In the same way that we do not exist to support the State, we do not exist for the free market.