I love manifestos — sleek, sometimes sexy statements of principles that distill fuel for a philosophical treatise into something that goes down smooth — neat, without rocks. In an age of verbosity and endless information delivered across multiple media, we certainly need manifestos to lay down the foundation. I applaud, then, the conservative effort to put forward a restatement of founding principles in what is being referred to as the Mount Vernon Statement. Signatories include Grover Norquist, Heritage Foundation president Edwin Feulner Jr., American Conservative Union president David Keene, Federalist Society co-founder David McIntosh, and many others. Bravo to them, I say, for making an effort. You can read the statement here: http://www.themountvernonstatement.com/
Compared to its predecessor document, the Sharon Statement (http://www.fiu.edu/~yaf/sharon.html), signed in 1960 at William F. Buckley’s Sharon, CN, home, the Mount Vernon statement is, however, a far cry from whiskey. Think water, instead. Part of the problem stems from niggling little contradictions, such as asserting individual liberty and limited government – both of which imply religious freedom – while talking about “Nature’s God.” But let’s look at the bullet points expanding on how “A Constitutional conservatism based on first principles provides the framework for a consistent and meaningful policy agenda.”
1. “It applies the principle of limited government based on the rule of law to every proposal.”
2. “It honors the central place of individual liberty in American politics and life.”
3. “It encourages free enterprise, the individual entrepreneur, and economic reforms grounded in market solutions.”
4. “It supports America’s national interest in advancing freedom and opposing tyranny in the world and prudently considers what we can and should do to that end.”
5. “It informs conservatism’s firm defense of family, neighborhood, community, and faith.”
Now let’s ask: Who doesn’t believe in individual liberty, free enterprise, family, neighbourhood, community, faith (defined either in religious or secular terms), the rule of law and only as much government as is necessary? How are these propositions unique to conservatism? Let’s derive some logical applications of these propositions.
“It honors the central place of individual liberty in American politics and life.”
A central manifestation of individual liberty would surely have to be the right to marry whomever one chooses. Under the principle of limited government, it’s not up to government officials to determine who can and cannot marry, but up to individuals to decide for themselves in accordance with whatever religious or secular philosophy they adhere. Therefore, gay marriage should be legal. This also fits into the principle of defending family, because it allows families to form themselves according to their strongest emotional bond.
Another aspect of individual liberty, crucially, must be the right to make decisions in regards to one’s own body. Would we stand for the government telling whether or not we can pierce our ears or get a tattoo? Of course not. Would we stand for the government telling us what medical procedures we can or cannot get to benefit us? No – we have private insurance companies to do that. So what about a medical condition that puts a strain on a woman’s body, can potentially be life-threatening, and involves a cluster of cells whose increasing size applies a greater strain? Shouldn’t women be able to decide what their body undergoes, how and why? Logically, the answer must be yes. And we find that the decision to have an abortion is consistent with principles of individual liberty and limited government.
“It encourages free enterprise, the individual entrepreneur, and economic reforms grounded in market solutions.”
I’ve argued before that there’s no such thing as free markets. Fundamentally, it takes a network of force usually embodied as a government and law enforcement to make possible the operations of a market. Setting that aside, however, we can go with the ten-cent definition of free enterprise as people selling their products or services and getting products or services in return, without encumbrance. The spirit of the entrepreneur, who starts from nothing and builds himself or herself up, is a spirit everyone respects. But what happens when the market behaves against itself? What happens when competition fails and the last corporation standing becomes so big that the barrier to entry in the market becomes too high? For enterprise to be truly free, then, it must have restrictions just as people have restrictions in their behaviour towards others. The principle of limited government is usually held to mean that government makes sure we don’t murder, rape or steal – a necessary and desirable limitation on our liberty. The same applies to the market; the government ensures that business, in order to have the most freedom, does not compete unfairly or unethically.
“It supports America’s national interest in advancing freedom and opposing tyranny in the world and prudently considers what we can and should do to that end.”
For the sake of American national security as well as the values of freedom and, there are a number of policies that follow from this principle; shutting down military bases in unwanted countries and refraining from deploying military troops in war after war. After all, shouldn’t the principle of limited government apply in our dealings with foreign countries as well as our own? And what about torture and the detention of enemy combatants? To be consistent with freedom and the rule of law, the U.S. would adhere to international treaties it voluntarily signed and process every accused individual through the judicial system – the one that presumes innocence until guilt is proven.
“It informs conservatism’s firm defense of family, neighborhood, community, and faith.”
What makes family, neighbourhood and community what they are is not just simply shared respect, but the willingness for people to help each other in time of need. The ties that bind in family or community are the kind that overcome disagreements, achieve consensus, and provide aid and comfort when confronted with disaster. Suppose, then, that in this spirit of community we pooled a small amount of our money into a safety net anyone could fall into in the event of a lost job or disability? Suppose that, as a form of community insurance, we pooled our money to cover costs in cases of sickness? And suppose that, just as we wouldn’t use a family member’s bed as a toilet or throw trash in the refrigerator, we made sure that our environment was clean and beautiful, with bounty available to us and future generations? Social Security, universal healthcare, and environmental stewardship (that includes mitigating climate change) are all consistent with family, neighbourhood, community, and faith. Again, I love the fact that the Mount Vernon conservatives banded together to write a manifesto even though I’m disappointed that they haven’t come up with something specifically “conservative” other than pleasant generalities. Then again, perhaps I should offer my heartfelt congratulations for laying out a progressive agenda.
Frédérik invites you to visit his blog, www.inkandashes.net.