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On Civil Conservatism

The Restraint of Reason Over Illiberal License
Beryl P. Wajsman 29 October 2004

“To model our political systems upon speculations of lasting tranquility is to calculate

on the weaker springs of the human character.”

 ~Alexander Hamilton


Many of the approaches of  industrial liberalism, in particular over the past fifty years, have supported the proposition that the state has an undisputed authority to impose a framework of imperatives that not only delineate and define societal affects but provide their constructs and contours as well. Social engineering as statist faith became fashionable and increasingly seen as central to “progressive” government doctrine. Individual expression was to be moderated and sublimated to the supposed greatest good for the greatest number.


It has been an article of faith that appeasing almost every demand of populist “rights” was the course for electoral success. Little thought was given to the legitimate limits of government intrusion. Less still to the efficacy of the policies proposed. Today’s experiment always trumped yesterday’s experience.


It has resulted in a national retreat from reason in the face of a galloping excess of license. A license which not only threatens the economic viability of this country, but has created a feckless and frivolous citizenry dependant on government largesse whose apathy compromises our very constitutional liberties through the verdicts of illiberal democracy returning government after government based on the lowest common denominator of greed.


Civil conservatism stands in vigorous opposition to these profligate fancies of partisan fashion. It is civil because it makes no arrogant call on legislating moral codes of social conduct. It is conservative in that it seeks to preserve that body of natural liberties that have not been, or should not be, ceded to the state in return for the bounty received from it. It constitutes the restraint of reason over illiberal license.


The essence of civil conservatism lies in the belief that the organization of a commonweal is essential for the promotion of those qualities of co-operation and compassion without which the challenges of human existence would find even the most powerful among us quite desolate. That these nobler inclinations of man must triumph over our coarser instincts of competition and contempt so that we can continue our incontrovertible ascent from the jungles of barbarism.  


However, though intuitively democratic, the civil conservative understands the need to restrain illiberal government intrusions with the bridle of constitutional liberty. That society exists to provide each of us with the just consideration to realize the full flower of our individual humanity. And the requisite freedom to express that humanity in our singular poetry and passions.


The conservative prizes independence. An independence that abhors the notion that the state is bound to fund our poetry and vigilantly guards against any dictate of our passions.  The proud title of citizen is not to be compromised by collectivist experiments in quality of life. For he knows that only in the protection of individual diversity can we preserve our national spirit; only in the protection of individual expression can we preserve our national voice, and only in the protection of individual conscience can we preserve our national will.

The civil conservative respects the depth of our institutional memory, our history and inheritance as a civilization. He values the successful adaptations of previous generations, remembering the words of Justice Holmes that “…that the life of the law is experience as much as logic…”

His intellectual approach is suspicious of complete answers, total solutions and centralized controls. It is cautious, remembering the fragility of humanity, the distortions of power, and the failed enthusiasms of any given moment. It puts faith in the rule of law -- and values aspirations as much as prescriptions demanding that citizens meet their responsibilities of engagement as well as collecting their entitlements of rights.

He remembers that this nation, conceived in economic enterprise by European monarchs of centuries past, came to maturity in the bloody trenches of Vimy Ridge and on the cliffs of Dieppe and in the sands of Normandy and through the bitter winters of Korea and under the scorching sun of the Sinai and over the stormy seas of the Atlantic. And too, in the corpse filled jungles of Rwanda and on the muddied fields of Bosnia. And that our national identity was not forged from compromises of public trust nor by the prejudices of social orthodoxy, but was always predicated on a resolve to share in mankind’s struggle to realize its transcendent yearning for redemptive change. A struggle that, though tempered by service and sacrifice, assured the victory of universality over particularity.

Civil conservatism believes that it is never enough for great parties of power and principle to view electoral success as their sole end. This does not fully meet their duty. It believes that a nation’s progress is predicated on the notion that citizens’ sovereignty over their freely elected representatives should be unencumbered by any conditions of special consideration to privilege or preference for partisan gain.


And that in the final analysis when we see wrongs we must try to right them; when we see suffering we must try to heal it and when we see injustice we must try to stop it. In this, our resolve must be unending for it is the only true measure of the authenticity of our engagement in public life. For all of us, at one time, in the deepest recesses of our hearts, have felt the dark mists of despair. We have all looked into the abyss and hoped for courage.


Therefore on the visceral issues of the public agenda the civil conservative makes no claim to objectivity. The priorities are clear. Winston Churchill’s eloquent and elegant expression of almost a century ago is still unrivalled. To raise the poor from poverty. To reconcile private interests with public rights. To attack monopoly. To guard against rewarding private enterprise with untrammeled public spoils. And above all to exalt the individual rights of each citizen over the corporate demands of the state. For what affects one affects all. And in this modern age of instant communication, and instant destruction, all have come to the realization that we are truly a family of man. We are all mortal. We all cherish our future. And pain caused to the least among us diminishes us all.


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