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We've been documenting the contradictions in conservatism in conservatives own words. Among the contradictions are the interactions between between conservative theory about choice, human nature and liberty.

Conservatives love choice, as long as it is a choice they approve of. If they don't approve of your choice they approve of using the police power of the State to coerce you into not making that choice.

Liberty is the pre-condition to being able to make choices, but people can only make virtuous choices if liberty is total and not circumscribed by the State.

Finally, human nature, according to conservatives, is immutable. This leads to questions of how free we are to make choices or does our human nature determine our choices.

We use a long quotation from a Ronald Reagan speech to demonstrate how he avoided addressing these contradictions.


George Will addressed the question of whether individuals are in some way more than human nature. That "some way" would be circumstances of time and place that influence our human nature and make us distinct individuals.

The conservative movement agrees that human nature is part of and inseparable from nature. It also agrees that both the moral code and liberty have an objective existence external to nature.

We thus have four concepts to organize: human nature, circumstances of time and place, objective morality and liberty, defined as maximizing our ability to choose.

Choosing Morality

Libertarians insist that choices are moral only if they are totally free from coercion. They focus on government coercion but also recognize that another individual or a corporation or other association may coerce individuals. They recognize psychological or social coercion as well as physical coercion.

Does Our Human Nature Limit Our Choices?

Given that we have a fixed and immutable human nature which it is fruitless to try to change or resist how does this affect our ability to choose, where choice is the hallmark of liberty?

Perhaps we can choose anything that we want, but what we want is determined by our human nature.

Do Time And Circumstance Limit Our Choices?

Do the same events that make us into distinct individuals also produce unique preferences in each individual, thus shaping and limiting the choices which are available and acceptable to each of us?

Are Individuals Responsible For What Happens To Them?

If our human nature determines what we want and time and circumstance determine our choices can the individual be responsible for his life in any but the smallest sense, such as choosing chocolate over vanilla ice cream - and even then can we argue that our preference is anything but innate?
Does Personal Responsibility Have An Objective Existence?

The conservative movement has coalesced around the idea of individuals’ taking "personal responsibility" for their lives as a means to assert that we are not determined by our human nature or our time and circumstance.

But can "personal responsibility" be entirely divorced from our human nature? Do we choose personal responsibility ourselves or do we learn it from other people who occupy our unique time and circumstance?

War, Poverty and Racism

The conservative movement has created a tortuous rhetoric in order to disguise its problems with its pessimistic view of human beings.

On the one hand, conservatives say, civilization is fragile and the human beast lies close beneath the thin veneer of our civilization. The institutions of family, church and community are the struggling bulwarks against a mass descent into barbarism. Conservatives see a descent into immorality during the 20th century and are struggling with all their might within an acknowledged "culture war" against the forces of liberalism to stave off and reverse that descent.

The most darkly pessimistic view is that Armageddon is near. Society and State are irrelevant. Some individuals will be resurrected in the Spirit and reap a heavenly reward, while the bulk of mankind will burn in hell.

On the other hand the conservative movement believes that human beings living in freedom from a strong government, within a free market society can, through the application of their own efforts and character, create a meaningful, virtuous, and potentially happy life for themselves, despite the pressures of immorality and impending Armageddon.

The confusion is partly a distinction between what happens to the individual and what happens to society and the causes of each.

On the one hand society can’t be improved because human nature is basically very flawed. We must not trust human reason. Either God or a mysterious, irrational process is the primary architect of human history and the prognosis for that history is unfavorable.

On the other hand individuals can - in the very best scenario - save themselves spiritually and culturally and they, rather than God or mysterious processes are the cause of this happy result.

Conservatives teeter between attitudes of "nothing can be done" for our society and future to "anything is possible for the individual."

Development of Society And The Individual

There has been much speculation about how to characterize the nature and conditions of human beings in a speculative "original state of nature." The conservative movement agrees that society and the State developed [or evolved] over thousands of years. Most American conservatives believe that God has made guidance available - if He hasn’t directly lent a hand - for the development of Western society, and favors Western society.

That which has emerged is called civilization. But, as we’ve said, civilization is only a thin veneer over the original state of nature.

Individuals, in contrast to societies and States, develop from birth to adulthood over a period of about twenty years (if they live that long) and die anywhere from near birth to near 100 years later. That’s not much time for an individual to make a huge impact on society [though many individuals have done so] but whatever success and happiness or failure and unhappiness he experiences must be accomplished in that span of time. The individual, living in a dying, immoral society is still capable of living a moral life.

The individual, nevertheless, can make a choice. The individual can choose to pursue his own spiritual and material well being without regard to how his life may affect his society. He can rely on his faith that he is part of something larger than himself which he can’t comprehend with his reason, but which is nevertheless guiding the movement of history. Or the individual can live his life with the idea he ought to try and affect his society for the better to the best of his ability.

The Reagan Revolution

The schizophrenia of conservatives is they believe that "nothing can be done," while also, simultaneously, believing that "something can be done."

Reagan prescribed a cure for conservative pessimism and schizophrenia: his "morning in America."

[Frank Meyer] pulled himself from the clutches of "The God That Failed"  and then through his writing fashioned a vigorous new synthesis of traditional and libertarian thought - a synthesis that is today recognized by many as modern conservatism.
It was Frank Meyer who reminded us that the robust individualism of the American experience was part of the deeper current of Western learning and culture. He pointed out that a respect for law, an appreciation for tradition, and regard for the social consensus that gives stability to our public and private institutions, these civilized ideas must still motivate us even as we seek a new economic prosperity based on reducing government interference in the marketplace....
This is the real task before us: to reassert our commitment as a nation to a law higher than our own, to renew our spiritual strength....
Those of us who call ourselves conservative have pointed out what’s wrong with government policy for more than a quarter of a century. Now we have an opportunity to make policy and to change our national direction....We can stop the drain on the economy by the public sector.... We can replace the overregulated society with the creative society....
Fellow citizens, fellow conservatives, our time is now. Our moment has arrived....

In these remarks before the Conservative Political Action Conference in March, 1981 Reagan hit the themes we have been describing: History took a wrong turn in the 20th century by rejecting God and individualism. Now that the conservatives have gained the ultimate in political power they would reverse that wrong turn.

We must remove government’s smothering hand from where it does harm; we must seek to revitalize the proper functions of government. But we do these things to set loose again the energy and the ingenuity of the American people. We do these things to reinvigorate those social and economic institutions which serve as a buffer and a bridge between the individual and the state....

This is a statement of optimism about individualism and, so, is primarily libertarian. But Reagan will use government to implement traditional values: libertarian means for traditional ends.

...we seek to protect the unborn, to end the manipulation of school children by utopian planners, and permit the acknowledgment of a Supreme Being in our classrooms....
....We can restore to their rightful place in our national consciousness the values of family, work, neighborhood and religion....

Utopian planners and the "mystique of state power" come in for condemnation.

What Reagan does not do is to tie either the problems he sees or the solutions he advocates to flawed human nature. Blame is placed on selected members of humanity rather than on everyone. In the hands of others Reagan’s Revolution morphed into a culture of "We’re holier and more patriotic than thou." His legacy  resulted in division rather than uniting. His inheritors have embraced the sin of hubris.

Originally posted to infotrage on Wed Feb 28, 2007 at 11:16 AM PST.

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