The Conscience of a Conservative is one of the most (politically) inspiring books I have ever had the pleasure to read. Barry Goldwater describes the conservative ideology almost perfectly. He doesn’t just describe what policies conservatives favor, instead he emphasizes and explains the reasons behind conservative policies.
The edition I read, Regnery Publishing, Inc., 1990, has a foreword by Patrick J. Buchanan. In this forward, Buchanan describes the importance of Goldwater’s conservative manifest: he describes this impact this little book had on him and like minded college students, how it made them politically engaged, how this led to a pure conservative movement in the GOP that would, 20 years after the appearance of The Conscience of a Conservative, lead to the conservative Reagan Revolution which would change America (and the world).
Barry Goldwater’s own introduction is meant to explain what his goal is, why he wrote the book. He goes on to describe the situation of conservatism in the time he was writing the book. Which wasn’t good. In his short passionate style, Goldwater lists what was then, in the 1950’s, in essence, not conservative about America. Reading these first three pages, one cannot help but notice that, with a couple of ‘updates’ here and there, this could have been written and published today as well.
The first official chapter carries the same name as the book and is one of the most inspiring chapters of it, at least in a general sense. Progressives who do not find themselves able to read the entire book should, at the very least, read this chapter. It’s a description of conservatism in general: what is the general reasoning behind conservatism? How do conservatives think? What is the essence of conservatism? Why does conservatism matter? What drives conservatives? Questions asked by many back then, and still by many today. Barry Goldwater’s answers, given in the 1950’s are still relevant as well: they are the answers I would give as well, be it – of course – far less eloguently, inspiring and thoughtful.
What drives conservatives? What is the conservative ideology in its purest essence? What’s the role of the government according to conservatism? Goldwater:
“Thus, for the American Conservative, there is no difficulty in identifying the day’s overriding political challenge: it is to preserve and extend freedom. As he surveys the various attitudes and institutions and laws that currently prevail in America, many questions will occur to him, but the Conservative’s first concern will always be: Are we maximizing freedom?”
One of the most interesting points he makes in this chapter is that he uses the argument, so often used against conservatives: that for them it is all about money, around and argues that it is socialism and its offspring that “subordinates all other considerations to man’s material well-being.” Conservatism, to the contrary, has “a structured view of human beings and of human society, in which economics play only a subsidiary role.” He perfectly describes what I too consider to be ‘conservatism’: understanding that man is more than an economic being, an animal, that man is responsible for his own development, that limiting individuals hinders their development and that, finally, the goal of the government is to “preserve and extend freedom.”
After this first ‘official’ chapter, Goldwater deals with different kind of policies / issues: states’ rights, civil rights, agriculture, labor, taxes and spending, the welfare state, education, and of course, finally, the threat the Soviet Union poses to America and to the world. In all these chapters, he stresses the importance of interpreting the Constitution as literally as possible and as much in line with what the fouding fathers had to say about this magnificent document as possible.
The first chapter after “The Conscience of a Conservative” deals with a concept or issue that lies at the very core of American conservatism: States’ Rights. Like on so many occasions when reading The Conscience of a Conservative, when reading this chapter, and especially the passage in which Goldwater writes that “neither of [America’s] two parties maintains a meaningful commitment to the principle of States’ rights” and that the “Republican party, to be sure, gives lip-service to States’ Rights” but that “deeds are what count”, and that “in actual practice, the Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, summons the coercive power of the federal government whenever national leaders conclude that the States are not performing satisfactorily” – the reader cannot help but think “has nothing changed?”
He pleads, passionately, for returning the States “their rightful power”, not just by arguing that the Constitution demands this and that this is what America’s Founding Fathers envisioned, but by explaining why they gave the States so much power, compared to the Federal government. It was very much on purpose, and Goldwater explains why there reasoning is still valid.
In the chapter about Civil Rights Goldwater explains that and why Civil Rights and States’ Rights can, when both are properly defined, never be in conflict with each other. What makes a Civil Right a Civil Right? Easy: “A civil right is a right that is asserted and is therefore protected by some valid law. It may be asserted by the common law, or by local or federal statutes, or by the Constitution; but unless a right is incorporated in the law, it is not a civil right and is not enforceable by the instruments of the civil law.” Before people start accusing Goldwater of having been a racist, he goes on to write that “there may be some rights – ‘natural,’ ‘human,’ or otherwise – that should also be civil rights. But if we desire to give such rights the protection of the law, our recourse is to be a legislature or to the amendment procedures of the Constitution.”
The next chapter deals with agriculture and is called “Freedom for the Farmer”. In this chapter he explains why it has proven “troublesome” (not to mention unconstitutional) that the Federal Government intervened in agriculture. In the very first paragraph of this chapter, Goldwater writes: “Disregard of the Constitution in this field has brought about the inevitable loss of personal freedom; and it has created economic chaos. Unmanageable surpluses, an immense tax burden, high consumer prices, vexatious controls – I doubt if the folly of ignoring the principle of limited government has ever been more convincingly demonstrated.”
The tone is set.
After this he takes his ‘usual’ approach: first explain that government interverence in this field is unconstitutional, and then explain why the federal government was granted no power over agriculture. There is a reason for that. Government should not subsidize farms, since all it does, is keeping farms alive that should not be alive any longer: one creates an unhealthy market that way.
After these chapters follow the chapters that deal with labor, taxes and spending, the welfare state, education and the Soviet Union. This post is quite long as it is, so I will not describe those chapters as I did with the first four. Let me just say this: in the end, Goldwater paints a great, completely picture of conservatism. There is quite some talk among today’s conservatives in America about how they need a new ‘manifesto’, how they need to refocus. My advise to them is: read Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative first. Read it, think about it, be inspired by it, and then, use Goldwater’s reasoning to find solutions for today’s problems.
It’s as easy as that.
Of one thing I am convinced and that is that, as long as people read The Conscience of a Conservative, the American conservative movement will never die and will always be on the forefront of those who demand a maximum amount of freedom for all.
Do I, then, have nothing negative to say about this book? Why yes, I do: it’s too damn short.
Lastly, let me thank the reader – who I know wishes to remain anonymous – who ordered this book for me, from my Amazon WishList: thank you very much.
(To be) cross posted at my own blog.
You can order this book by clicking on the image below.