“Small government” has increasingly become the credo of modern-day American conservatism. Conservatives assume that they cannot use the power of the law to enforce their morality; otherwise, they would become “just as bad” as the left, who are more than willing to use state power to shape the social order according to their vision of the good. In truth, however, small-government conservatism did not exist until the latter part of the 20th century, when libertarians and classical liberals began predominating in the conservative movement during the Cold War fight against communism. Noteworthy is that although conservatives, libertarians, and classical liberals may have shared a similar disdain for totalitarianism, their conceptions of government, its origin, and its proper role are considerably different, stemming from root philosophical disagreements. In this article, I shall cover several such disagreements and sketch a genuinely conservative account of government.
The greatest exemplar of the classical liberal tradition is English philosopher John Locke, perhaps remembered most for his formulation of the social contract in his Second Treatise of Government. Locke saw the origin of the state in a contract brokered among equal and autonomous individuals in a state of nature, understanding the state as being formed for the sole purposes of protecting private property and expanding individual freedom. If the state should infringe on the “natural” right to life, liberty, or property, he contended, the people have a right to overthrow it and institute a new government in its place. Locke’s argument effectively reduces the relationship between citizen and state to one of what Aristotle would have called “utility”—these relationships are based on what both parties can provide to each other and tend to dissolve when what is provided becomes insufficient. In the case of Locke’s social contract, individuals submit to the state in exchange for the protection of their personal freedoms and are obliged to obey the state only to the extent that it fulfills this purpose. The shallowness of the Lockean social contract repelled Edmund Burke—the founding thinker of modern conservatism—who offered an alternative conception in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. Burke argued that citizens’ relationship to their state should never be looked upon as one of utility, “considered as nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, callico or tobacco, or some other such low concern, to be taken up for a little temporary interest, and to be dissolved by the fancy of the parties…” but with increased reverence, because it is “… a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” The principal issue Burke took with Locke’s social contract theory is that it utterly disregards the will of previous generations and the interests of future generations. Burke understood that our political inheritance is maintained chiefly by our respect for the dead and concern for posterity’s well-being; it is not within the capacity of any one individual to create a new society out of thin air. No single generation has the right to experiment with revolutionary change, to haphazardly jeopardize their political inheritance at the expense of society’s future, and with irreverence for the dead. In this sense, conservatives’ attitude toward government is markedly different—and arguably much more profound—than the classical liberal or libertarian.
Moreover, on the conservative view, government is not a “necessary evil,” hostile and oppressive to individuals and valuable only insofar as it protects private property, but beneficial and necessary for the fulfillment of human nature. The belief that we become freer by removing the shackles of government assumes that we are free in the state of nature, but this assumption is false. We are not free in the state of nature; still less are we individuals, endowed with rights and duties and able to order our lives as we see fit. We are not individuals with goals and desires who then secondarily choose to participate in society; instead, society shapes our individuality, elevates us to a level of mature self-knowledge, and helps form our goals and desires. As Aristotle remarked, any individual capable of flourishing outside the conditions of society must be “either a beast or a god.” The social and political order precedes the individual and their freedom, not the other way around. People generally take cues from the law and the culture under which they live. Hence, for the conservative, the state can play a vital role in providing the conditions which lead people to make good choices and to flourish as human beings—crucially, not every social order equally contributes to human fulfillment (e.g., it will be harder to make good choices in a society that promotes vice). In practice, this role entails protecting and supporting the institutions of civil society that discipline people to use their freedom well (including family, church, schools, etc.) and dealing with threats to public morality and well-being, such as the threat of ubiquitous internet pornography. A conservative government is not in the business of mandating or coercing a particular way of life. Nor is it in the business of remaking society through top-down intervention according to what Edmund Burke called a “geometric” (or abstract ideological) plan. Put plainly, the purpose of a conservative government is to make it easier for people to live meaningful, flourishing lives in the context of their inherited social arrangements. A conservative state ensures that citizens can enjoy the fruits of civil society and so makes the good life more common, if not the default, for ordinary people.
A further notable philosophical divergence between conservatives, classical liberals, and libertarians revolves around the idea of a morally neutral government. Many liberals and libertarians believe that the state should remain neutral on those matters about which rational beings might disagree. To enforce a particular morality, they argue, is to privilege that morality and its proponents. Yet, others might be just as reasonable in affirming a different moral creed and are entitled to live as their conscience dictates. It is assumed that we cannot know what is objectively good for each individual, so best we allow maximal freedom for people to decide for themselves how to order their lives. Many self-proclaimed conservatives today express a similar form of relativism, promoting a society where the individual is the measure of what is true, good, and beautiful. Nevertheless, the position that we cannot know what is objectively good for each individual, so we must extend to each the freedom to do as they please, assumes precisely that what is objectively good for each individual is the freedom to author their lives. It presupposes, in other words, that anyone who does not value individual freedom for its own sake is wrong. In the end, to take a political stance is always to pass a substantive moral judgment. Conservatives recognize that morality and politics are inseparable, that moral neutrality in politics is a myth, and that libertarian “live and let live” philosophy still constitutes a normative belief system. Considering all that has been said, it is essential for conservatives today to recognize that government is not unconditionally bad and to break free from the “small government” dogma which has clouded their thought for decades.