He will have a hard road. Today the authority of these two documents is in obvious decline for obvious reasons. In the academy they are rejected as obsolete or evil, and this opinion spreads throughout the talking classes, most everywhere in education, journalism, and entertainment. It has spread widely and deeply into the law. As a result our government has swollen beyond recognition, and it is centralized to a degree unimagined in the Constitution. Laws are made now chiefly by regulatory agencies that combine in themselves all three powers of government. The popular or elected branches may overturn these regulations only when they unite to do so, and this is increasingly rare. So every institution in society is in principle subject to comprehensive regulation. Every employer, every school, many clubs, and family life itself are now the subject of rules too complex for the lay person to grasp. These rules are not always enforced, nor can they be, but Americans sense that they better be looking over their shoulders, careful of what they say.
If American conservatism means anything, then, it means the things found at the beginning of America, when it became a nation. The classics teach us that forming political bonds is natural to people, written in their nature, stemming from the divine gift they have of speech and reason. This means in turn that the Declaration of Independence, where the final causes of our nation are stated, and the Constitution of the United States, where the form of government is established, are the original things. These documents were written by people who were friends and who understood the documents to pursue the same ends. Taken together they are the longest surviving things of their kind, and under their domain our country spread across a continent and became the strongest nation on earth, the bastion of freedom. These documents do not appeal to all conservatives, but I argue that they should, both for their age and for their worthiness.
Conservatives today sometimes make the same mistake that liberals make about America’s past. Reacting to what they regard as the excesses of the modern welfare state, conservatives tend to assume that poor relief in early America was entirely private. They continue to echo Barry Goldwater’s statement in The Conscience of a Conservative, written before he ran for President in 1964: “Let welfare be a private concern. Let it be promoted by individuals and families, by churches, private hospitals, religious service organizations, community charities and other institutions that have been established for this purpose.” Goldwater apparently did not realize that the Founders would have rejected such a policy as heartless.
Scholarly historians of welfare in America present a more accurate picture, but they too tend to dismiss the approach of earlier Americans, including the Founding generation. These historians are generally dismayed by the earlier distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. They tend to present the earlier welfare system as either a well-intentioned or a mean-spirited failure.
About a month ago, on a trip to Dallas, Texas, I had dinner with a young d.j. whose renown as a producer and engineer is steadily growing. We talked about life and music and art and money, and how he’d arrived at this juncture in his still-short career. Out of the blue, he asked me what I thought about the pastor and televangelist T. D. Jakes, whose megachurch, The Potter’s House, is located in Dallas. I hedged, said something about how Jakes—whose books and cassettes and, later, DVDs littered the bookshelves and bedside tables of the apartments I grew up in—has long struck me as a religious corollary to Oprah Winfrey, a vaguely more devout avatar of that now-pervasive gospel of good feeling and well-directed energy.
Quoted in Trattner, From Poor Law to Welfare State, pp. 102–104. See also Robert H. Bremner, The Discovery of Poverty in the United States (1956; reprint, New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1992), chapter 2; Olasky, The Tragedy of American Compassion, pp. 116–150.
This has changed the way we live. Compliance increasingly replaces law-abidingness as the public goal. Laws, the Founders held, must be simple, few, and constant. Then we may all know what they are, live under them, and help to enforce them. This makes us equal, ruler and ruled. It means that we do not quail before the forces of the law. We are the forces of the law. Compliance, by contrast, means adapting constantly to changing and complex instructions from central authorities, and it means the employment of specialists to interpret the regulations and make sure others conform. In addition to this, whole populations, and not only in the inner city, live in long-term dependence on the government (read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance). It means that the government is separate from the people, and it means that the government grows.
U.S. Department of Commerce, Survey of Current Business, Vol. 44, No. 4 (April 1964), p. 11 (percent of American families with less than $3,000 annual income in 1954 dollars). This figure is comparable to the “below poverty level” numbers that the government began to report in 1947, because the below-$3,000 percentage in 1947 was 35, which is close to the 32 percent officially reported poor in that year.
Trattner’s first 75 pages tell the story of welfare in early America; cf. Katz, In the Shadow, and Benjamin J. Klebaner, Public Poor Relief in America, 1790–1860 (1952; reprint, New York: Arno, 1976).
What is conservatism? It is a derivative term: it refers to something outside itself. We cannot conserve the present or the future, and the past being full of contradiction, we cannot conserve it entire. In the past one finds heroism and villainy; justice and injustice; freedom and slavery. Things in the past are like things in the present: they must be judged. Conservative people know this if they have any sense.
Larry P. Arnn is the twelfth president of Hillsdale College. He received his B.A. from Arkansas State University and his M.A. and Ph.D. in government from the Claremont Graduate School. From 1977 to 1980, he also studied at the London School of Economics and at Worcester College, Oxford University, where he served as director of research for Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill. From 1985 until his appointment as president of Hillsdale College in 2000, he was president of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. He is the author of Liberty and Learning: The Evolution of American Education; The Founders’ Key: The Divine and Natural Connection Between the Declaration and the Constitution; and Churchill’s Trial: Winston Churchill and the Salvation of Free Government.
Many today fail to note that antipoverty programs can easily have a corrupting effect if they are not set up in a way that promotes rather than breaks down the morality of self-restraint and self-assertion that is a necessary foundation of what Jefferson called “temperate liberty.” Both Jefferson and Franklin supported laws that encourage responsibility toward family and community, self-sufficiency, and industriousness. They understood that political liberty rests on the moral character of a people.