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 Title

How to Explain Conservatism to Your Squishy Liberal Friends: Individualism 'R' Us

 Author

P.J. O'Rourke

 Author Notes

Author, columnist, and humourist, former editor-in-chief of National Lampoon Magazine, now Foreign Affairs Editor for Rolling Stone Magazine. Author of the bestselling books Age and Guile Beat Youth, Innocence, and a Bad Haircut (1995), All the Trouble in the World, Parliament of Whores (1991), Give War a Chance, Republican Party Reptile, Holiday's in Hell, Modern Manners, Bachelors' Home Companion, Eat the Rich and The CEO of the Sofa (2001). An unofficial website celebrating his work can be found here.

Books by P.J. O'Rourke
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All the Trouble in the World (1995)
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Give War a Chance (1993)
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Parliament of Whores: A Lone Humorist Attempts to Explain the U.S. Government (1992)
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The CEO of the Sofa (2001)
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 Essay -

The individual is the wellspring of conservatism. The purpose of conservative politics is to defend the liberty of the individual and - lest individualism run riot - insist upon individual responsibility.

The great religions (and conservatives are known for approving of God) teach salvation as an individual matter. There are no group discounts in the Ten Commandments, Christ was not a committee, and Allah does not welcome believers into Paradise saying, "You weren't much good yourself, but you were standing near some good people." That we are individuals - unique, disparate and willful - is something we understand instinctively from an early age. No child ever wrote to Santa: "Bring me - and a bunch of kids I've never met - a pony, and we'll share."

Virtue is famously lonely. Also vice, as anyone can testify who ever told his mother, "All the other guys were doing it." We experience pleasure separately; Ethan Hawke may go out on any number of wild dates, but I'm able to sleep through them. And, although we may be sorry for people who suffer, we only "feel their pain" when we're full of baloney and running for office.

The individual and the state

The first question of political science is - or should be: "What is good for everyone?" And, by "everyone" we must mean "all individuals."

The question can't be: "What is good for a single individual?" That's megalomania, which is, like a New Hampshire presidential primary, the art of politics, not political science.

And the question can't be: "What is good for some individuals?" Or even: "What is good for the majority of individuals?" That's partisan politics, which, at best, leads to Newt Gingrich or Pat Schroeder and, at worst, leads to Lebanon or Rwanda.

Finally, the question can't be: "What is good for individuals as a whole?" There's no such thing. Individuals are only available individually.

By observing the progress of mankind, we can see that the things that are good for everyone are the things that have increased the accountability of the individual, the respect for the individual and the power of the individual to master his own fate. Judaism gave us laws before which all men, no matter their rank, stood as equals. Christianity taught us that each person has intrinsic worth, Newt Gingrich and Pat Schroeder included. The rise of private enterprise and trade provided a means of achieving wealth and autonomy other than by killing people with broadswords. And the industrial revolution allowed millions of ordinary folks an opportunity to obtain decent houses, food and clothes (albeit with some unfortunate side effects, such as environmental damage and Albert Gore).

In order to build a political system that is good for everyone, that ensures a free society based upon the independence, prestige and self-rule of individuals, we have to ask what all these individuals want. And be told to shut up, because there's no way to know the myriad wants of diverse people. They may not know themselves. And who asked us to stick our nose in, anyway?

The Bill of Rights tries to protect our freedom not only from bad people and bad laws but also from the vast nets and gooey webs of rules and regulations that even the best governments produce. The Constitution attempts to leave as much of life as possible to common sense, or at least to local option. The Ninth Amendment states: "The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people." Continues the 10th Amendment, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."

It is these suit-yourself, you're-a-big-boy-now, it's-a-free-country powers that conservatism seeks to conserve.

But what about the old, the poor, the disabled, the helpless, the hopeless, the addled and the daft?

Conservatism is sometimes confused with Social Darwinism or other such me-first dogmas. Sometimes the confusion is deliberate. When those who are against conservative policies don't have sufficient opposition arguments, they call love of freedom "selfish. " Of course it is - in the sense that breathing is selfish. But because you want to breathe doesn't mean you want to suck the breath out of every person you encounter. Conservatives do not believe in the triumph of the large and powerful over the weak and useless. (Although most conservatives would make an exception to see a fistfight between Norman Schwartzkopf and George Stephanopoulos. If all people are free, George Stephanopoulos must be allowed to run loose, too, however annoying this may be.)

But some people cannot enjoy the benefits of freedom without assistance from their fellows. This may be a temporary condition - such as childhood or being me when I say I can drive home from a bar, just fine, thank you very much, at three a.m. - or, due to infirmity or affliction, the condition may be permanent. Because conservatives do not generally propose huge government programs to combat the effects of old age, illness, being a kid or drinking 10 martinis on an empty stomach, conservatives are said to be "mean-spirited."

In fact, charity is an axiom of conservatism. Charity is one of the great responsibilities of freedom. But, in order for us to be responsible - and therefore free - that responsibility must be personal.

Not all needful acts of charity can be accomplished by one person, of course. To the extent that responsibility should be shared and merged, in a free society it should be shared and merged on the same basis as political power, which means starting with the individual. Responsibility must proceed from the bottom up - never from the top down, with the individual as the squeezed cream filling of the giant Twinkie that is the state.

There is no virtue in compulsory government charity, and there is no virtue in advocating it. A politician who portrays himself as "caring" and "sensitive" because he wants to expand the government's charitable programs is merely saying that he's willing to try to do good with other people's money. Well, who isn't? And a voter who takes pride in supporting such programs is telling us that he'll do good with his own money - if a gun is held to his head.

When government quits being something we use only in an emergency and becomes the principal source of aid and assistance in our society, then the size, expense and power of government are greatly increased. The decision that politicians are wiser, kinder and more honest than we are and that they, not we, should control the dispensation of eleemosynary goods and services is, in itself, a diminishment of the individual and proof that we're jerks.

Government charity causes other problems. If responsibility is removed from friends, family and self, social ties are weakened. We don't have to look after our parents; they've got their Social Security check and are down in Atlantic City with it right now. Parents don't have to look after their kids; Head Start, a high school guidance counselor and AmeriCorps take care of that. Our kids don't have to look after themselves; if they become addicted to drugs, there's methadone, and if they get knocked up, there's always AFDC. The neighbors, meanwhile, aren't going to get involved; if they step outside, they'll be cut down by the 9mm crossfire from the drug wars between the gangs all the other neighbors belong to.

Making charity part of the political system confuses the mission of government. Charity is, by its nature, approximate and imprecise. Are you guiding the old lady across the street or are you just jerking her around? It's hard to know when enough charity has been given. Parents want to give children every material advantage but don't want a pack of spoiled brats. There are no exact rules of charity. But a government in a free society must obey exact rules or that government's power is arbitrary and freedom is lost. This is why government works best when it is given limited and well-defined tasks to perform.

The preamble to the Constitution states: "We, the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare..." It doesn't say "guarantee the general welfare." And it certainly doesn't say "give welfare benefits to all the people in the country who aren't doing so well even if the reason they aren't doing so well is because they're sitting on their butts in front of the TV."

A liberal would argue that those people are watching television because they lack opportunities, they're disadvantaged, uneducated, life is unfair - and a conservative might actually agree. The source of contention between conservatives and liberals, the point at which the real fight begins, is when liberals say, "Government has enormous power; let's use that power to make things good."

It's the wrong tool for the job. The liberal is trying to fix my wristwatch with a ball peen hammer.

Government: Robin Hood or just robbing hoods?

Government is an abstract entity. It doesn't produce anything. It isn't a business, a factory or a farm. Government can't create wealth; only individuals can. All government is able to do is move wealth around. In the name of fairness government can take wealth from those who produce it and give wealth to those who don't. But who's going to be the big Robin Hood? Who grabs all this stuff and hands it back out? (Remember: even in a freely elected system of government, sooner or later that person is going t o be someone you loathe. If you're a Republican, think about Donna Shalala; if you're a Democrat, think about Ollie North.)

When government takes wealth from those who produce it, people become less inclined to produce more of it - or more inclined to hide it. Conversely, when government gives wealth to those who don't produce it, they too become less productive since they're already getting what they'd produce in return for not producing it.

If government is supposed to make things good, what kind of good is it supposed to make them? And how good is good enough? And who's going to decide? What person is so arrogant as to believe he knows what every other person in America deserves to get? (Well, actually, all of Washington, press and pundits included, is that arrogant. But never mind.)

We don't know what people want. By the same token, we don't know what people need. The government is going to wind up giving midnight basketball to people who don't have shoes to play in. Then there will be a block grant to provide shoes, which people will boil because what they really lack is something to eat. And that brings us to expanding the school lunch program. Pretty soon, it's not government, it's shopping. It's not Congress and the White House, it's Mall of America - and a bunch of politicians have your charge cards.

Individual liberty is lost when government stops asking "What is good for all individuals?" and starts asking "What is good?" To ask the latter question is to abandon a system in which all people are considered equal and to adopt a system in which all people are considered alike. Collective good replaces individual goodies. Government will make life fair. But since limited government is hardly suitable to a task of this magnitude, the role of government will need to be expanded enormously. Government will have to be involved in every aspect of our lives. Government will grow to a laughable size. Or it would be laughable except for our experience in this century.

Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, Communist China and dozens of smaller places around the world did indeed create just such leviathan governmental engines of "good," and the dreadful history of the 20th century is in large part a history of the terrible results of these collectivist endeavors. Once respect for the individual is lost, then what do 100 million dead individuals matter - especially if their deaths are for the "collective good"?

Of course, a liberal would say that a sharing and caring government doesn't have to turn out this way. It could be something like Sweden. And there you have it - the downside: 100 million people killed; the upside: ABBA, Volvos and suicide.

Why collectivism doesn't work

Why can't life be more fair? Why can't Americans take better care of each other? Why can't we share the tremendous wealth of our nation? Surely if enough safeguards of liberty are written into law and we elect vigorous, committed leaders...

Have another hit on the bong.

Collectivism doesn't work because it's based on a faulty economic premise. There is no such thing as a person's "fair share" of wealth. The gross national product is not a pizza that must be carefully divided because if I get too many slices, you have to eat the box. The economy is expandable and, in any practical sense, limitless.

Under collectivism, powers of determination rest with the entire citizenry instead of with the specific citizens. Individual decision-making is replaced by the political process. Suddenly, the system that elected the prom queen at your high school is in charge of your whole life. Besides, individuals are smarter than groups, as anybody who is a member of a committee or of a large Irish family after six in the evening can tell you. The difference between individual intelligence and group intelligence is the difference between Harvard University and the Harvard University football team.

Think of all the considerations that go into each decision you make: Is it ethical? Is it good in the long run? Who benefits? Who is harmed? What will it cost? Does it go with the couch? Now imagine a large group - imagine a very large group, say, 250 million people - trying to agree on every decision made by every person in the country. The result would be stupid, silly and hugely wasteful - in short, the result would be government.

Individuals are not only smarter than groups, they are also - and this is one of the best things about them - weaker than groups. To return to Harvard for a moment, it's the difference between picking a fight with the football team and picking a fight with Michael Kinsley.

Collectivism makes for a very large and, hence, very powerful group. This power is centralized in the government. Any power is open to abuse.

Government power is not necessarily abused more often than personal power, but when the abuse does come, it's a lulu. At work, power over the whole supply cabinet is concentrated in the person of the office manager. In government, power over the entire military is concentrated in the person of the commander-in-chief. You steal felt tip pens. Hitler invades Poland.

Most government abuse of power is practiced openly, and much of it is heartily approved by The Washington Post editorial board and other such proponents of the good and the fair. But any time the government treats one person differently than another because of the group to which that person belongs - whether it's a group of rich, special-interest tax dodgers or a group of impoverished, minority job-seekers - individual equality is lessened and freedom is diminished. Any time the government gives away goods and services - even if it gives them away to all people equally - individual dependence is increased and freedom is diminished. Any time the government makes rules about people's behavior when that behavior does not occasion real and provable harm to others - telling you to buckle your seat belt or forbidding you to publish pornography on the Internet - respect for the individual is reduced and freedom is diminished.


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