"What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?" So said Abraham Lincoln.Those words are from his Cooper Institute Address on February 27, 1860, in the City of New York, one of Lincoln's most important stepping stones to the Republican presidential nomination and ultimately the Presidency.
The Republican Party had been formed in 1854 in opposition to the plan of the Democratic Party to spread slavery into the western territories. It did so on the basis of the principle enshrined in the Declaration of Independence "that all men are created equal." That principle was, and is, revolutionary in its conception and its application.
It is no small thing to proclaim the equality of all human beings when the existence of oppressive governments and rigid class structures in so much of the world would suggest otherwise. Kings and nobles, warlords and priests, have ground down the liberties of the human race for thousands of years. Yet the human mind can look upon this condition and conceive of the freedom of man based on his natural faculties rather than his political situation.
These comments may seem odd and maybe even ironic as Republicans have been understood as more conservative than the Democrats, their chief rivals for public office. But what is conservative about a principle which has been responsible for overturning monarchies and aristocracies, beginning with British colonial rule in North America, next bringing about the abolition of chattel slavery in the United States, and finally defeating totalitarian regimes in the 20th century?
Even the most revolutionary regimes are established to last, so their future is always more conservative than their past. The United States is a democratic republic which has survived for more than two centuries. Yet because it is a nation founded in revolutionary principles it has undergone considerable reform, the chief cause of its periodic upheavals and wars.
The current challenge is the threat of socialism at home and terrorism and despotism abroad. The Republican party seeks to conserve our constitutional form of government and our free way of life, to be sure, but its principles are as revolutionary as they ever were. Freedom and equality need a stable and energetic government for their security, even as they are a reproach to governments that overreach.
Just now the Democrat party is actually the more conservative of the two parties as its leaders wish to preserve and extend the modern welfare state. Not satisfied with a federal government that manages the retirement and health care of the elderly, Democrats today seek to usurp all private alternatives in the most expensive federal program yet, universal health care (AKA socialized medicine).
Republicans long ago reconciled themselves to the modern welfare state, but fear its tendency to undermine personal initiative, encourage public dependency and transfer wealth from working to non-working people. They understand that today’s health care crisis is mainly caused by a government/private network which shifts the burden of costs from the consumer to third parties, continually driving up costs and limiting availability.
The purpose of our form of government is to secure everyone’s rights, not to assume the responsibilities which rightfully belong to each of us. Republicans know that America’s combination of freedom with responsibility is revolutionary but wish to conserve it against reactionary and elitist Democrat attempts to turn back the clock to the feudal era, when the common people depended upon the generosity of their supposed "betters."
As revolutionary as free enterprise is in the world, it is the "tried and true" method for promoting prosperity and enhancing human dignity. Democrats believe that the cure for the evils of the welfare state is more of the same. Popular majorities are perpetually tempted to use their political power to transfer wealth from the rich to the poor, but the Republican party exists to conserve the free institutions which enable people to prosper without recourse to socialism.
The federal government is now so big–and so costly ($3 trillion annual budget, $10 trillion national debt)–that it may require more than just a holding action to avoid despotism. The Republicans need to "think anew and act anew" (Abraham Lincoln’s phrase) in order to conserve freedom and equality. John McCain’s proposal to encourage individuals, through federal income tax credits, to pay for their health care is a good start.
What we need is the return of limited government and free enterprise, a radical undertaking given the formidable obstacles that stand in the way. But just as Republicans pledged themselves to the ultimate extinction of slavery, so they now would be wise to aim at the withering away of the welfare state. Therein lies the return of our liberty.