The Moral Case for Conservatism

Commentary Magazine | Published on

By Peter Wehner

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William McGurn of the Wall Street Journal and George Weigel, my colleague at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, have intelligent columns (here and here) about Representative Paul Ryan’s address at Georgetown University last week. There are two elements to the speech worth drawing attention to.

The first is a commendable modesty in Ryan’s remarks. While Ryan, a committed Catholic, provided a robust defense of his budget, he readily admits there is plenty of room for differences over the prudential application of Christian principles to matters of public policy. Too often people on both the left and the right insist the New Testament and Hebrew Bible provide a governing blueprint. In fact, they say virtually nothing about what we would consider public policy. They simply do not offer detailed guidance on (to name just a handful of issues) trade; education; welfare, crime; health care; affirmative action, immigration; foreign aid; legal reform; climate change; and much else. And even on issues that many people believe the Bible does speak to, if sometimes indirectly—including poverty and wealth, abortion and same-sex marriage, capital punishment and euthanasia—nothing in the text speaks to the nature or extent of legislation or the kind of prudential steps that ought to be pursued.

One may believe we have a scriptural obligation to be good stewards of the earth, but that doesn’t necessarily determine where one will stand on cap-and-trade legislation. An individual can take to heart the admonition in Exodus not to “oppress a stranger” and still grapple with the issue of whether to grant a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. A person of faith can embrace the words of Deuteronomy—”Therefore I command you to be openhanded toward your brothers and toward the poor and needy in your land”—and be on different sides of the welfare debate. Nor does the Bible tell us whether the 1991 Gulf War or the 2003 Iraq war was the right or wrong decision.

The Christian ethicist Paul Ramsey put it this way: “Identification of Christian social ethics with specific partisan proposals that clearly are not the only ones that may be characterized as Christian and as morally acceptable comes close to the original New Testament meaning of heresy.”

A second observation is that Ryan is making a moral argument for conservatism—laying out, with some precision, an affirmative case for conservatism based on advancing human flourishing for everyone in society, but most especially the poor, the weak, and the defenseless.

For almost as long as I’ve been interested in politics, it has puzzled me why conservatives have (with some honorable exceptions) more or less ceded the ground of compassion and humane politics to the left. A disinterested analysis shows, in my estimation, that conservative policies in economics, crime, welfare, and education—to take just four areas—have done more to save and better individual lives than the progressive movement. That isn’t the case all the time and in every instance, but it’s true often enough to draw certain judgments.

The reason for this rests in part on the awareness that at the core of every social, political, and economic system is a picture of human nature, to paraphrase the 20th century columnist Walter Lippmann. The suppositions we begin with—the ways in which the picture is developed—determine the lives we lead, the institutions we build, the policies we advance, and the civilization we create.

Conservatives believe in the mixed nature of the human person and the complexity of human society, in the dispersal rather than the concentration of power, in government encouraging excellence and promoting equality of opportunity rather than equality of outcomes, in the principle of subsidiarity and the crucial role played by the family and civic institutions, in eschewing utopianism while embracing reform, in the primacy of a strong national defense and the conviction that America, while an imperfect nation, has been a tremendous force for good in the world.

Those principles, as they work themselves out in the form of achievable policy solutions, will advance the common good, the moral good, and true humanism. That is at the core of what Paul Ryan was saying in his Georgetown speech. It is the frame which conservatives might consider placing around the political battles of the moment.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.