Opinion

Mount Vernon Statement: the contradiction at the heart of this conservative fusion

Do conservatives really think that two of history’s most radical documents – the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution – were conservative?

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Have you heard the one where Ron Paul, Pat Robertson, and John Bolton walk into a bar? According to the “Mount Vernon Statement,” the declaration of first principles signed yesterday at part of George Washington’s estate by conservatives of varied persuasions, the punch line would be “Constitutional conservativism.” Led by Edwin Meese, President Reagan’s attorney general, the collection of prominent economic, social, and “national security” conservatives aimed to clarify and recommit themselves to conservativism’s bedrock political philosophy. 

They modeled the project self-consciously on the 1960 Sharon Statement that ushered in "new conservativism" when the Young Americans for Freedom signed it at William F. Buckley Jr.’s estate in Sharon, Conn. Like those young activists, Frank Meyer's and Mr. Buckley’s vision of a theory able to “fuse” disparate American conservative ideologies inspired Meese and Co. The resulting mix of pabulum, historical revisionism, and internal inconsistency sheds light on enduring and contemporary tensions within American conservativism.

First, their argument. The main nugget of “Constitutional conservatism” is that America needs to return to the “limited government based on the rule of law” ideals of the Founders, who “sought to secure national independence, provide for economic opportunity, establish true religious liberty and maintain a flourishing society of republican self-government.”

In “recent decades,” the statement continues “America’s principles have been undermined and redefined in our culture, our universities, and our politics,” while the ““selfevident [sic] truths of 1776 have been supplanted by the notion that no such truths exist.” The signatories demand that the federal government respect Constitutional limits and apply the principle of limited government based on the rule of law to every proposal. 

They round out their philosophy by arguing that these ideals, embodied in the “conservatism of the Declaration,” connect with the natural law tradition. Without this natural morality, the free market cannot operate; but with too big a government, “moral self-government” fails. Thus the connection between libertarians and social conservatives.

Thomas Jefferson would scoff at the characterization of the Declaration as “conservative.” American conservatives have always had a difficult ideological road to travel. They have to be conservative about the historically radical ideas of democracy, liberty, and individual rights. The result here is an odd reading of the Founders, federalism, and the Constitution.

The signatories call for a small federal government for the sake of small government, but the Founders were more concerned with small federal government for the sake of small central government, leaving the states broad authority to govern and grow as they wish. Dispersion of authority, arguably more than the size of the authority, was the point of the constitutional limits and the 10th Amendment, with its reservation to the states or the people any powers not expressly delegated to the federal government by Constitution. 

As America grew more complex and interconnected, however, federal regulation made increasingly more sense as a means of securing national coordination and public goods, as exemplified in The Interstate Commerce Act of 1887 and the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890. But if the federal government and federal taxes shrunk down dramatically as Mt. Vernon supporters envision, most state and local governments – with the exception of Texas and a few of its conservative friends – would likely metastasize to fill in the regulatory and welfare gap, and we are left at square one. And the constitution, especially on their strict reading, would have little to say about this.

More important, the signatories imply that the limits of the Constitution present historical and political, rather than legal questions. The judiciary, however, is empowered to interpret the constitution. And from Chief Justice John Marshall on down, the Supreme Court has broadly interpreted the Commerce Clause, which allows the federal government to “regulate Commerce … among the several States.”

The federal government can rule on almost any issue that mildly affects interstate commerce, including, as we learned in Gonzales v. Raich, the home cultivation of marijuana for personal use. Healthcare, representing 1/6 of the economy, would be an even easier case of constitutional regulation. If we are to respect “the rule of law” above all, as the signatories admonish, well-established Supreme Court precedent is a good place to start. 

Just because big government is constitutional, however, does not mean government must be big. What constitutes good political theory is a separate issue. On this point, the Mount Vernoners miss more directly, at least in terms of consistency. There’s a reason conservatives feel the urgent need to reassert fusionist principles: earlier efforts to braid the various threads of conservatism have repeatedly unraveled. 

The inherent tensions of conservatism are more glaring today than in 1960. Christian Right domestic policies and neoconservative foreign policy have little to do with small, unobtrusive government. The former’s mission is to use the government to curtail individual cultural and lifestyle choices. And an aggressive belief in the ability of the federal government to create gigantic institutions abroad – indeed, new governments – founds the latter.

The hard-core cold warriors involved with the Sharon Statement, with their opposition to illiberal totalitarianism, were more obvious bedfellows for a libertarian conservativism than neoconservatives. And as to the libertarians, why should they be enmeshed with a conservative cause that sees Christian morality as the basis for economic development, when China and Singapore show that a free market can thrive in countries hostile to religion? 

One reasonable response to this is that ideology is a process, these groups do identify with one another in some sense, and this presents a step in the direction of discovering potentially shared values. Fair enough. Burkean conservativism, however, and its commitment to organic social growth, rather than limited government based on the rule of law, might present more fertile common ground. 

This statement, in the end, is really about Presidents Bush and Obama. Its lamentations of the values of “recent decades” includes Mr. Bush’s eight momentous years and reveals the right’s now desperate attempt to find a way around that history, and return to Reagan. 

As for Mr. Obama, the statement says, “Isn’t this idea of change an empty promise or even a dangerous deception? The change we urgently need, a change consistent with the American ideal, is not movement away from but toward our founding principles.” 

Obama is at an ideological breaking point. Whether his promised reforms represented new American values, as opposed to merely new American policies, was always the lingering question. 

He attempted to sidestep the philosophy debate under the cover of “pragmatism.” But that has failed politically. 

Even if it’s mildly incoherent and historically inaccurate, the right has thrown down the ideological gauntlet. It is time Obama and the left clarify their own values.   

Jacob Bronsther, a law student at New York University and former Fulbright Scholar, writes for ThePublicPhilosopher.com.

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