Conservatism, like liberalism, has meant a lot of different things throughout the years. Liberals often point that, during the American Revolution, the Tories - that era's version of conservatives - were against independence. But whatever baggage may be attached to the word , I identify as a conservative because I believe that the modern American conservative is devoted to upholding the basic principles that made America a great nation – protection of the individual rights of life, liberty, and property within a republican system of government – while the modern liberal often sees these as mere obstacles to social progress.
It is my intention in this article to make an exposition on the principles I have just mentioned, endeavoring to show, first, why the protection of individual rights must be the central purpose of government, second, why governments that do more or less than this become instruments for oppression of the many by the few, and third, who the Forgotten Man is and why conservatives must be mindful of him.
The Centrality of Individual Rights
The centrality of individual rights in the conservative ideology cannot be overstressed. As written into our nation’s founding law, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…”
Some intellectuals have made quite a pastime of deriding the concept of individual rights as the foundation of political ethics. Many thinkers, operating on the basis that the whole is more important than the part, reject individual rights in favor of collectivism.
Consider, for instance, the mid-20th-century psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg, who developed a theory of six stages of moral reasoning, each more enlightened than the last. Beginning at blind egoism, Kohlberg’s hierarchy advances to a moral philosophy based on respect for the rights of one’s fellow men. However, this is only stage five; specific legal rights are discarded in stage six in favor of universal, abstract ethical values and principles.
I believe that there is a serious problem with this line of thought. Naturally, people disagree on what is best for the community of which they are a part, and they rarely come to a consensus on which ethical values are of the most importance, or how an abstract guiding principle should be made into concrete policy. So if a commonwealth lacks any constitution more rigid than ‘Take care of people,’ ‘Respect human dignity,’ ‘Do what is reasonable,’ ‘‘find a moderate solution’, or ‘Be on the right side of history,’ then inevitably there will arise a ruling class which, proclaiming their own interpretation of these ideals to be the only legitimate one, will crush all others beneath their iron heels.
The only alternative is government based on individual rights – the bold notion that whatever my own ideas are about what is the best way to live or how an individual can best serve his community, I must respect the life, liberty, property, economic and religious freedom, political franchise, and other rights of my fellow men. I must respect these rights even if I disagree with the way they are using them, because that is the only way I can justly expect them to respect my rights
That is not to say that abstract values such as caring, respect, dignity, reason, and progress are unimportant, only that they are not politically enforceable and must remain in the realm of personal morality, not public law or regulation.
My own personal values will inform my own decisions. But when it comes to my dealings with my neighbor, I have got to respect his or her rights: let everyone exercise them in the way they think best, so long as they respect the rights of others. And those who desire that more people live their lives in accordance with universal values of caring, respect, moderation, progress, loyalty, purity, or whatever moral principle is most dear to their hearts, should reject the temptation of trying to get the government on their side, and instead rely on the gentler methods of persuasion to bring about their worthy ends.
We should by all means avoid rash appeals to the coercive power of the state, which destroys the equality of men and the peace of society and all too often places the resources of the entire community in the hands of its cruelest and most power-hungry inhabitants.
Proper Role of Government
The conservative ideal with regard to the role of government, especially the large, distant federal government, is that governmental force should be used only when necessary to defend our God-given rights and freedoms from those who desire to destroy them.
Whatever notions a particular class of people might entertain, of using state power to advance its own social or economic standing at the expense of others, should be abandoned. These notions must give way to a quiet faith that the common man, working alone or in voluntary associations, can in nearly all cases govern his economic, moral, spiritual and intellectual life in a better way than the state can.
The antithesis to this idea, the premise of modern liberalism, is to routinely call upon government as the only remedy to a grab-bag of highly-visible social and economic ills. There is no respect for individual rights, no cautious deference to the independence of those who are out of step with the agenda. As the introductory video from the 2012 Democratic National Convention put it, “Government is the only thing we all belong to.”
It is indeed an ugly thing when a party thinks lightly of the use of force and violence – which is what all government power is – to achieve unity and progress, and it belies the extreme illiberalism of the modern liberal movement.
Equally ugly is the way in which Democrats often argue for their policies: claiming to feel compassion for the victims of some high-profile injustice (be it real or imaginary), they present, as the only reasonable solution, some new curtailment of individual rights. Anyone who questions the effectiveness of the proposal, or doubts the morality of imposing it through government fiat, or dares to call attention to the forgotten man who, though he never figures into the official calculations, would nevertheless bear the brunt of the new policy’s costs, is branded as heartless and mean.
The Forgotten Man
At this point it is worth setting the record straight concerning the Forgotten Man, who he is, and what kind of relationship he has with the government. Those who are politically savvy might be familiar with the term from New Deal rhetoric, but it really goes back much further, to an 1876 essay by Yale professor William Graham Sumner, who described him as follows, using pithy algebraic notation:
“As soon as A observes something which seems to him wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law always proposes to determine what C shall do for X, or, in better case, what A, B, and C shall do for X... What I want to do is to look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man. perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. He is the man who never is thought of.... I call him the Forgotten Man... He works, he votes, generally he prays—but he always pays...”
Thus Professor Sumner endeavors to show how compassion for a few highly visible cases of suffering, combined with indifference toward the many unseen people on the other side of the issue, is the cause for great evil in our political system. It is rather unfortunate that Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal liberals turned this concept on its head, and made X, rather than C, the Forgotten Man, thereby making the analogy into a mere tool for promoting the kinds of policies which Sumner found abhorrent.
For the true Forgotten Man is not the one whose concerns a liberal politician (or any politician) is championing – he is the man who is too obscure, unpopular, or just plain ordinary for any politician to care about. The only way to protect the Forgotten Man is to hold fast to the very conservative principle that the universal rights to life, liberty, and property must take priority over the demands of loud and well-connected interest groups that seek special rights and privileges for themselves at the expense of others.
To the New Deal liberals, the Forgotten Man might be a farmer who needs help to get a decent price for his crops. But to a conservative, the real Forgotten Man is the one who doesn’t enter into the calculation at all – the ordinary working man, struggling to make ends meet, who suddenly sees the cost of food increase when the government begins paying farmers to burn their crops in an effort to manipulate prices.
In modern times, the Forgotten Man might be a youth who can’t find work because of minimum wage laws which force him to compete in the same market with men twice his age, or a single mother who ekes out a living with multiple part-time jobs, unable to advance to full-time work because doing so would bring down a mountain of regulations on the small business employs her.
Concern for the Forgotten Man – not some specific person or group of people for whom the liberals are whipping up an emotional frenzy, but the actual Forgotten Man who doesn’t figure into the political calculations at all – should be the prime concern of conservatives. And the truly Forgotten Man can be defended only by defending the rights, freedoms, and autonomy of all citizens – anything else creates winners and losers.
Liberals, in their process of political reasoning, may follow a cycle of See-Feel-Solve, seeing an injustice (real or imaginary), feeling compassion for some, (seldom most, never all) of the people involved, and solving the problem through an expansion of the government.
But principled conservatives must approach things differently, considering both what is seen and what is not seen, what is felt and what is not felt. Finally, being of a meek and cautious nature, they must be very wary of proposing a solution that would impose their own vision of social progress in place of someone else’s inalienable rights.
Only in a certain type of country, a country where the fierce protection of individual rights is the guiding principle of politics, will the Forgotten Man be remembered.