Principles, Not Ideology

I’ve always been uneasy with the notion that liberalism and conservatism are competing ideologies. Conservatism differs from an ideology, I’ve always thought, because conservatism is based in experience in the real world, and not upon theoretical abstract beliefs. Conservatism is an intellectual pursuit. Liberalism is overly emotional and not well thought out. When I say this it drives liberals mad. Sorry about that if you’re a liberal. No offense intended.

But I can’t help it, liberals are the ones who cling to their beliefs in spite of facts and evidence that tend to show much of what they believe “just ain’t so.” Such as man-made global warming, or that minimum wage laws help low-skilled workers, or that the War On Poverty helped poor people when in reality it destroyed the two-parent Black family in America and 30 years after it was first enacted there were more people counted as poor than before it was enacted by the Lyndon Johnson administration. I could go on and on. Such as liberals believing it is a reasonable trade off to turn off the water in the Salinas Valley of California and throw thousands of their fellow citizens out of work on the highly theoretical notion that it might help an obscure fish called the delta smelt. As with AGW, when the scientific evidence comes in and shows that the delta smelt will do just fine without turning off the water, liberals will not accept it. In fact, they will argue even more forcefully for the delta smelt. When liberal dreams turn into nightmares, liberals redouble their efforts.

The best analysis, argument or explanation of the difference between ideology and principle I have ever read is Ronald Reagan’s speech at CPAC on February 6, 1977:

I have always been puzzled by the inability of some political and media types to understand exactly what is meant by adherence to political principle. All too often in the press and the television evening news it is treated as a call for “ideological purity.” Whatever ideology may mean—and it seems to mean a variety of things, depending upon who is using it—it always conjures up in my mind a picture of a rigid, irrational clinging to abstract theory in the face of reality. We have to recognize that in this country “ideology” is a scare word. And for good reason. Marxist-Leninism is, to give but one example, an ideology. All the facts of the real world have to be fitted to the Procrustean bed of Marx and Lenin. If the facts don’t happen to fit the ideology, the facts are chopped off and discarded.

I consider this to be the complete opposite to principled conservatism. If there is any political viewpoint in this world which is free from slavish adherence to abstraction, it is American conservatism.

When a conservative states that the free market is the best mechanism ever devised by the mind of man to meet material needs, he is merely stating what a careful examination of the real world has told him is the truth.

When a conservative says that totalitarian Communism is an absolute enemy of human freedom he is not theorizing—he is reporting the ugly reality captured so unforgettably in the writings of Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

When a conservative says it is bad for the government to spend more than it takes in, he is simply showing the same common sense that tells him to come in out of the rain.

When a conservative says that busing does not work, he is not appealing to some theory of education—he is merely reporting what he has seen down at the local school.

When a conservative quotes Jefferson that government that is closest to the people is best, it is because he knows that Jefferson risked his life, his fortune and his sacred honor to make certain that what he and his fellow patriots learned from experience was not crushed by an ideology of empire.

Conservatism is the antithesis of the kind of ideological fanaticism that has brought so much horror and destruction to the world. The common sense and common decency of ordinary men and women, working out their own lives in their own way—this is the heart of American conservatism today. Conservative wisdom and principles are derived from willingness to learn, not just from what is going on now, but from what has happened before.

The principles of conservatism are sound because they are based on what men and women have discovered through experience in not just one generation or a dozen, but in all the combined experience of mankind. When we conservatives say that we know something about political affairs, and that we know can be stated as principles, we are saying that the principles we hold dear are those that have been found, through experience, to be ultimately beneficial for individuals, for families, for communities and for nations—found through the often bitter testing of pain, or sacrifice and sorrow.

One thing that must be made clear in post-Watergate is this: The American new conservative majority we represent is not based on abstract theorizing of the kind that turns off the American people, but on common sense, intelligence, reason, hard work, faith in God, and the guts to say: “Yes, there are things we do strongly believe in, that we are willing to live for, and yes, if necessary, to die for.” That is not “ideological purity.” It is simply what built this country and kept it great.

Private Eye Nero Wolfe is the protagonist in the Rex Stout mystery novels. Whenever he is asked how he knows something he will explain his investigative insight as based upon “intelligence guided by experience.” Amen.

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