The Conscience of a Conservative

The Conscience of a Conservative

The Book in 1'

Barry Goldwater, presidential candidate of the Republican party, presented an ambitious political program in 1964. He didn’t promise to increase productivity, he didn’t promise to raise up wages, nor he promised to end inflation. What he promised was waaaaay more ambitious.

He is the first who promised that he would not do anything for you.

He wouldn’t make laws but repeal them, he wouldn’t use taxes for government spending but decrease them. He wouldn’t increase the power of democracy but would restore the Republic.

"My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden."

The book, published when he was running against the Democratic candidate Lyndon B. Johnson, represents a short ideological program. He engages with Liberals (i.e., leftists) on the ground of ideas. His main point is that liberal policies are leading and will always lead to the dependency of citizens from the state (welfare programs, taxes, civil rights, public employment, etc.). His proposal, instead, is to go back to and revive the good old Republican values that can be summarized in “limited, extremely limited, government.”

On the left, Lyndon B. Johnson. On the right, Barry Goldwater. 1964.

His major concerns are with the actuality of Conservatism, neglect of the Constitution, Federal encroachment of power at the expense of states, state taxation and welfare programs.

The missing part of the book, in my opinion, is that Goldwater does not truly address the bedrock values and "truths" of Conservatism. It's portrayed as merely a political program that evidently appeals to the emotions of American citizens in a society that was fading and with a government that was constantly gaining more power.

Overall, the book tries to address the following issues.

Is Conservatism Out of Date?

You’ve probably heard over and over again that Conservative principles are just antiquated, that society progresses, times and situations change, “truths” change, and with all of them you should also change mindset.

That’s a common fallacy, Goldwater argues. The fact that circumstances change, and their change affects the nature of problems does not automatically imply that the principles used to solved problems must be thrown away. The wisdom and the revealed truths and virtues of the past can still successfully apply today.

“To suggest that the Conservative philosophy is out of date is akin to saying that the Golden Rule, or the Ten Commandments, or Aristotle’s Politics are out of date.”

Conservatives HAVE NO HEART for People

You may have been told that Conservatives just want to maintain and secure the status quo for their advantage, and all they care about is money, money, and more money. They prioritize economics at the expense of “people.”

The Potato Eaters, Vincent Van Gogh (1885).

Goldwater debunks this myth and turns upside down the Liberal argument. He tells that actually, those who are merely interested in wealth and material resources are Liberals, as they always advocate in favor of any kind of material redistribution.

Far from leveling the playing field, by so doing socialists consign men to ultimate slavery. They regard the satisfaction of economic wants as the dominant mission of society. Instead, Conservatives look to preserve and extend freedom and order and their economic theory aims at rendering man independent of the state, of redistribution, and of taxation.

The Constitution is Something Serious

Liberals tend to interpret and mold the Constitution as if it were a “handbook in political theory.” Nobody is enforcing the Constitution as the Founding Father meant it anymore. Goldwater contends that governments and especially Liberals have transformed the original Republican system into a Levithan governed either by a too powerful President or by the tyranny of the masses. This occurred slowly but constantly.

“All too often we have put men in office who have suggested spending a little more on this, a little more on that, who have proposed a new welfare program, who have thought of another variety of “security.”

His focus is mostly on the 10th Amendment (States’ rights) which must be understood as a prohibitory rule of law instead of “a genuine general assumption.” Federal government must not take over states’ rights. The result would be the accumulation of power at the central level and the impossibility to properly dealing with local problems.

Taxes? How Much Taxes?

Goldwater is no libertarian, so he allows for raising taxes. He actually thinks it is a duty for citizens to contribute their fair share to the legitimate functions of the government. However, he thinks that those “legitimate functions” must be quite restricted. For example, the government shall not provide for social welfare programs, education, public power, agriculture, public housing, or urban renewal.

The problem with taxes is that they hinder individual freedom and property cannot be separated from freedom. Moreover, it advances the idea that the government has an unlimited claim on the wealth of the people. Failure to realize that government claims on your wealth must be restrained, has led citizens “to look upon taxation as merely a problem of public financing: How much money does the government need?” Just ask and you’ll get it.

What’s Wrong with the Welfare State?

The Welfare State is just a different up-to-date version of Socialism. If free enterprise, high level of productivity, and wealth have made the class struggle impossible, Welfare State policies are still an instrument of collectivization. They aim at subordinating individuals to the state not only providing them with “public” employments but most importantly through “free” healthcare, public schools, and state funded programs that will take from citizens responsibility and will put them at its mercy.


My Take Today

Barry Goldwater and Ayn Rand

Barry Goldwater differs from previous American Conservatives in terms of ideas. American conservatives defended capitalism not because it was the most moral system and therefore more compatible with the defense of individual rights, but they defended it out of tradition, against the reformist drive of progressives.

His vision of capitalism is strongly influenced by the Objectivist positions of Ayn Rand, from whom he received public endorsement and whom he openly embraced.

However, Goldwater remains deeply conservative regarding government involvement in war and military spending. It's not unlikely that if he had won, instead of truly reducing taxes, he would have simply shifted them from education to the military field.

Certainly, Goldwater is a conservative of a unique kind, and the United States has not seen many like him. The same conservatives would later become proponents of a more corporatist system that seeks and receives favors from the government.