A more American conservatism

What is conservatism? It is a derivative term: it refers to something outside itself. We cannot conserve the present or the future, and the past being full of contradiction, we cannot conserve it entirely. In the past one finds heroism and villainy; justice and injustice; freedom and slavery. Things in the past are like things in the present: They must be judged. Conservative people know this if they have any sense.

What then makes them conservative? It is the additional knowledge that things that have had a good reputation for a long time are more trustworthy than new things. This is especially true of original things. The very term principle refers to something that comes first; to change the principle of a thing is to change it into something else. Without the principle, the thing is lost.

If American conservatism means anything, then, it means the things found at the beginning of America, when it became a nation. The classics teach us that forming political bonds is natural to people, written in their nature, stemming from the divine gift they have of speech and reason. This means in turn that the Declaration of Independence, where the final causes of our nation are stated, and the Constitution of the United States, where the form of government is established, are the original things. These documents were written by people who were friends and who understood the documents to pursue the same ends. Taken together they are the longest surviving things of their kind, and under their domain our country spread across a continent and became the strongest nation on earth, the bastion of freedom. These documents do not appeal to all conservatives, but I argue that they should, both for their age and for their worthiness.


[…] Ours, wrote Madison, is the first nation to adopt purely representative forms. This means that all sovereignty or authority to rule is located in the governed or in the people. But at the same time, the people do not occupy the offices of government — as they did, for instance, in Athenian democracy. America’s pure or simple ‘republicanism,’ as Madison called it, makes possible the separation of powers both between the governed and their government and also inside the parts of the government. The sovereign people delegate their authority to government, separately to separate places. This separation is both horizontal, among the branches of the federal government, and vertical, between the states and the federal government. The people themselves are outside the government, and they may intervene only at election time. Between elections, they watch, judge, and argue — in other words, they think before they act. Over time, but only over time, they may replace the whole lot. This system limits both their power and the power of those in government.

Today, however, the government has grown so large that it is a major factor in everything, including elections, and is in the position of taking on a will of its own. It is on the verge of being too big for private people to manage. This is the political crisis of our time. […]

If this is possible in education, it might work in other places too. Since the Founding, twelve cabinet offices have been added to the federal establishment. In the original federal government there was a Secretary of State to handle the relations of the American people with other countries. There must be such relations. There was a Secretary of War (now Defense) to manage the defense of our nation from enemies. We have such enemies, and we must defend ourselves. There was a Secretary of the Treasury to manage the budget and the money of the federal government. To operate, the federal government must collect taxes and spend money. And there was an Attorney General (not originally overseeing a department) to enforce the laws of the federal government. One can see that these functions are necessary to the federal government in a way that the functions of other departments are not.

The Department of Education was founded in 1979 […]. Education was a thing to behold in the United States long before there was a Department. Likewise people had houses before we had a Department of Housing and Urban Development; they traveled before we had a Department of Transportation; they traded before we had a Department of Commerce. You can see the line of thought. A federal government with four cabinet officers would be a federal government doing what it was built to do. […]