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As the anniversary of September 11 approaches, conservatives will again be presented with the opportunity to explain how their view of the proper role of government squares with the harrowing realities made evident by the heinous terrorist attack. For those who do not understand conservatism, or wish to mischaracterize it for political gain, September 11 was supposed to be a death knell for the ideology: A harsh, yet unmistakable reminder of the primacy of the state in the life of its citizens.
The legislative developments since the attack have, in large part, served to validate this view. The federal government has grown faster in the past year than at any time in the past forty years. Parochial interests have used insecurities arising from terrorism to buttress the case for steel tariffs, airline bailouts, farm subsidies, and the enlargement of federal employee union membership. Opposition to the expansion of federal investigative powers has been conspicuously absent. All in all, the case for expanding the role of government and the scope of its power has been much easier to make in nearly all spheres of life.
But this should not be attributed to a failure of conservatism, but rather a failure of the contemporary political custodians of the ideology. Erroneously reduced to a simplistic hostility toward government, genuine conservatism, as articulated by the Founding generation, is grounded in a central government entrusted to protect the liberty and safety of its citizens.
The rhetoric of modern conservatives deserves some of the blame for this misunderstanding. The movement’s leaders from Goldwater, to Reagan, to Gingrich, often painted their opposition to the state in broad brushstrokes, failing to explain the nuances of American constitutionalism. But the temptation to take a metaphoric sledgehammer to the omnipresent state is understandable. Only when the inexorable expansion of government was halted, or even slowed, would it seem appropriate to speak in specific terms about why government is necessary, and in what areas its strength is indispensable.
As heir to the Founder’s philosophic pedigree, contemporary conservatism’s founding document is the Federalist Papers, which argued forcefully for the ratification our nation’s founding document, the U.S. Constitution. Drawing on wisdom derived from antiquity and the Enlightenment, the Federalist explained how the Constitution’s strong executive branch, republican form of government, and usurpation of state authority were all necessary to relieve Americans from the systemic disorder and insecurity explicitly linked to diffuse centers of power and an ineffectual central government.
From a practical standpoint, a central government was necessary to assume and repay the enormous foreign and domestic debts accumulated during the revolution; to secure trade routes and the welfare of western settlers, who endured anarchic conditions; and to provide the unitary voice and military necessary to compel the British and other foreign powers to respect American independence. The Constitution was a social compact to address these problems whereby citizens of the states, and the states themselves, would adopt centralized rule through an arrangement that ultimately allows the people to retain sovereignty.
Importantly, the original arrangement did as much to neuter the states as it did to consolidate federal power. In the post-revolutionary years, state governments became captured by what we would refer to today as “special interests,” which used state authority to rewrite contracts, inflate currencies, award exclusive franchises, and subvert the rule of law. The Constitution dramatically limited the states’ ability to confer such advantages on select groups and forced these constituencies to recognize that the only way for them to improve their station in life was through personal responsibility and industriousness.
By preventing states from allowing something other than gold or silver to be used in the repayment of debts and defending contractual obligations and private property, the Constitution set in motion a new spirit of industry that resulted in impressive economic growth in the 1790s. Instead of simply lobbying elected officials for special favors and franchises, commercial interests were forced to devote their energies to serving consumers. New industries popped up and a new class of entrepreneurs supplanted a stodgy elite that found it difficult to maintain their standing absent overt favoritism.
At the same time, the federal government took its important responsibilities to defend American settlers from attack seriously and forced foreign governments to respect American sovereignty. Ultimately, it was the lack of respect for American nationhood and the rights of its citizens that precipitated the War of 1812, or as was commonly known, The Second War for Independence.
As such, American constitutionalism is quite compatible with a robust central government that seeks to defend the life and liberty of the citizens it is trusted to govern at all costs. The difference, of course, is that constitutionalism sets definitive limits to the political sphere so that government can better concentrate on its fundamental responsibilities.
The lesson for contemporary conservatism is obvious, but seemed to go unheeded this past year. Instead of redefining the political sphere to reflect better the constitutional arrangement and refocus energies on protecting Americans, Congress succumbed to lobbyists who sought to exploit insecurities for factional advantage. Unfortunately, this activity not only diverts resources and attention from new threats, but also serves as a drag on the economy as commercial interests are encouraged to invest in Washington lobbyists instead of labor, plant and equipment, or research and development.
As avatars of American constitutionalism, contemporary conservatives have a responsibility to fight to contract the political sphere as their predecessors did in the 18th century. Far from enfeebling conservatives and their agenda, the one-year anniversary of September 11 should embolden them. If elected officials fail to heed the call of history, citizens must become involved to emulate the Founders’ commitment to a limited central government. In this way, today’s sons and daughters of liberty can provide this generation of Americans with the peace and prosperity the Founding generation gave their lives to secure.