Where Have All the Conservatives Gone?

by Harry Browne

June 6, 2002

There used to be two highly vocal political movements in America the conservatives and the liberals.

Although there were subtle variations, the basic difference between them was this:

  • Liberals were impatient with society as it was and wanted to use the force of government to change it.

  • Conservatives were skeptical of change, and were reluctant to use government to force changes on society.

Today, however, it's almost impossible to tell the two groups apart.


The modus operandi of liberals has always been:

  1. Cite a social problem.

  2. Assume that this represents a failure of freedom that only the federal government can repair.

  3. Propose a big-government program. Ignore the constitutional transgressions involved.

  4. When someone objects, accuse him of ignoring the poor folks who are suffering.

  5. When the new program fails to solve the problem (and instead makes it much worse), throw more money at it, pass more laws, make the penalties more oppressive, and then ignore the situation (until it's time to cite the failure as a reason to expand the program again).

In this way they've turned education into a federal responsibility leading to unsafe schools and far too many illiterate students.

They've ruined what was once the best health-care system in history making it terribly expensive, cruelly insensitive, and totally out of the reach of many people.

They've created a permanent underclass of welfare clients, made America's farmers dependent on the federal government, and polluted the environment by putting too much land in the care of irresponsible bureaucrats.

No matter how much and how often and how harmfully government fails at what it does, no matter how many problems it causes, liberals still ask government to bring about whatever they want.


Conservatives used to oppose these government programs fighting them with economic arguments, pointing to unintended consequences, and citing the unconstitutionality of the proposals.

But no longer.

Conservatives have used the federal government to wage a horrendous Drug War. The result has been drug-dealing gangs in the streets, children killed in drive-by shootings, crack babies, increased drug use, and a trashing of the Bill of Rights.

And how do they propose to deal with this enormous failure?

Throw more money at it, make the prison terms more oppressive, take away more of our civil liberties, trash the Constitution even further. In other words, do more of the things that created the problems.

If someone objects, accuse him of ignoring the crack babies and the families hurt by drugs.

If government schools are a mess, cite uneducated children as a reason for a government program to subsidize private schools which will surely turn those schools into clones of the government schools (as happened with private colleges).

If federal welfare is a tragedy, propose putting religious charities on the federal dole so that they, too, can become beggars at the government trough, doing the bureaucrats' bidding in order to keep the subsidies coming.

If it's revealed that our military, the FBI, or the CIA hasn't perform its mission properly, throw more money at it, expand whatever program has failed, give more power to the bureaucrats. And if anyone objects, if anyone cites the Constitution, just accuse him of ignoring the victims of 9/11.

No matter how much and how often and how harmfully government fails at what it does, no matter how many problems it causes, conservatives still ask government to bring about whatever they want.

No Difference

In other words, conservatives now sound exactly like liberals. . . . 

  1. Cite social problems as justification for expanding the federal government.

  2. If anyone opposes the proposal, accuse him of being heartless or anti-American.

  3. Ignore the Constitution if it conflicts with one's pet crusade.

  4. And no matter how bad a program gets, the answer always is to make it bigger, more expensive, and more powerful.

What Did You Get for Your Vote?

Conservative writers and commentators oppose big-government programs only if they're proposed by Bill Clinton or some other Democratic President. Then they're Constitutionalists sounding the alarm against big government.

At least with Clinton, there was an opposition party. But with a Republican in the White House, there's no opposition. Thus government grew more rapidly under Nixon, Reagan, Ford, or Bush than it did under Clinton.

In 2000 many people said they were voting for George Bush because he was the lesser of two evils.

But it turns out that Bush is doing all the things Gore would have done only now there's no opposition.

So it appears that those people who chose Bush actually voted for the greater of two evils big government and no opposition.


After publishing this article, I received the following email from Arthur Torrey which I believe is worthy of your attention.

I somewhat disagree with your latest commentary.

You write about how conservatives used to be defined:

Conservatives were skeptical of change, and were reluctant to use government to force changes on society.

I do not think this is really accurate.  It is a reasonable description of a 'small "L" libertarian, or a "classical liberal," but I don't think it resembles "conservatives" at all.

In my observation and experience, and I think history bears this out, I would define the basic operational motivation, both then and now, as:

Conservatives were skeptical of social change, and wanted to use government to forcibly prevent society from changing, and/or force society to conform to some imagined "good old days" standard.

Thus conservatives have tended to oppose changes in the status quo, usually by passing laws intended to prevent society from changing.  It was conservatives that opposed the classical liberal notion of abolishing slavery, and when that didn't work gave us "Jim Crow" laws to keep the blacks "in their place." 

It was a conservative notion to prohibit people from altering their mental states with alcohol, and when that didn't work, at least make sure that people didn't use any new and different drugs by force of law.

It is conservatives that are attempting to "preserve the institution of marriage" by outlawing alternative marriage arrangements, discourage out of wedlock births by "encouraging" marriage through legal pressures, and by law prevent a woman from choosing to end an undesired pregnancy.

While the conservative/liberal dichotomy is a fuzzy one in many cases, I think this is a better measuring tool as it gives a difference that applies today at least as far as motivation. The end results might be similar due to unintended consequences, but the argument basis is pretty consistent: The liberal wishes to force society to change (in a desired direction); the conservative wants to stop society from changing, or force it to return to a (real or imagined) previous state. 

Meanwhile, the libertarian/classical-liberal position is, and largely has been, to keep the government out of the picture as much as possible, and let society evolve its own solutions to "problems" and change as it desires to meet current conditions.


Comment by Harry Browne:

I agree with the substance of this analysis. I believe it applies to conservative politicians who actually have some principles and try to act on them, as well as to conservative writers and commentators. It doesn't apply (and neither does my definition) to politicians like George Bush who demonstrate no principles whatsoever, but are simply interested in obtaining and maintaining power.

I believe rank-and-file conservatives are more mixed. Many of them may call themselves "conservatives" but are really closer to small-L libertarians, because they truly want much smaller government than we have now in most areas. They remain wedded to the conservative camp because the conservative-liberal choice is the only alternative they know of  or because they don't think libertarians will ever achieve anything. 

So conservative writers, commentators, and the rank and file all promote and defend Republican politicians regardless of those politicians' actions, because they've fallen into the habit of believing that Democrats would be much worse than any Republican. And that's unfortunate. 

As a result, George Bush not only gets away with promoting anti-liberty new programs, he also has free rein to expand existing Democratic programs such as federal education and health care with virtually no vocal opposition whatsoever.