RALEIGH — I’m a conservative without a conversion story. Plenty of others have such a tale — they read a certain book, had a certain teacher, or somehow became disenchanted with their previous, leftleaning views. If the conversion happened to them as adults, after first being politically active as a progressive, socialist or communist, they were called neoconservatives. One of the most prominent, Irving Kristol, famously defined a neoconservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality.”
Both here in North Carolina and around the country, the modern conservative movement is an alliance of what used to be called traditionalism and what used to be called liberalism. Traditionalists believed there are fundamental truths and virtues, either revealed by God or confirmed by millennia of human history, that ought to guide human action.
Classical liberals didn’t necessarily disagree with that premise, actually. But they elevated the principle of freedom to the top of the list — the right of individuals to make decisions for themselves above the power of the state to take their property and control their lives.
Traditionalists valued freedom, as well, but observed that individuals aren’t born as human atoms who later, voluntarily, form human molecules. We are born into families and communities, and thus into a thick and complex web of social obligations. Many traditionalists, then, defined freedom in communitarian terms, as “ordered liberty.” Classical liberals emphasized the right of the individual to make decisions, even if the results dismayed their neighbors or injured themselves.
When cultural critics, libertarians, and anti-communists forged the modern conservative movement in America during the 20th century, they were reacting to the rise of populism, progressivism and socialism. It was a case of longtime rivals, traditionalists and classical liberals, forming first an alliance of mutual need and then, through fits and starts, forging a more systematic integration of their ideas.
The result wasn’t a catechism. It was and remains messy and incomplete. There are areas of disagreement and differences in emphasis. But the various strands of modern conservativism have enough in common to work together — and what they have in common, for the most part, is a belief that governmental power should be minimized so that freedom can be maximized.
Why? Because human nature is real, and it is in the nature of humans to thrive, in the long run, when they are free to make their own decisions, rather than being compelled to comply with some central plan. The empirical evidence for this is massive and constantly growing.
For example, a recent peer-reviewed study by North Dakota State University economist Jeremy Jackson employed the Frasier Institute’s Economic Freedom of North America Index and a set of survey data on life satisfaction. All other things being equal, states with lower taxes, smaller budgets, and fewer regulations had a higher share of happy residents than did those with expansive, expensive governments.
My conservative colleagues and I here in North Carolina fight for freedom not as an abstraction but as a practical tool for promoting opportunity, progress, happiness, and virtue. And we welcome converts to the cause. John Hood is chairman of the John Locke Foundation and appears on the talk show “NC SPIN.” You can follow him @JohnHoodNC.