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Conservative “Core Principles” or Just Political Expedients?

Front and center on the opinion page of The Wall Street Journal yesterday was an article titled “A Conservative Case for Gay Marriage” and opposite was a full-page article titled “Evangelicals in Push for Immigration Overhaul.” Both articles make great points and are breaths of fresh air from the right, but the timing of this one-eighty makes me like the neo-conservative machine less not more.

A year ago, “defense of marriage” and stopping the “flow of illegals” were sold as inviolable conservative “core principles” by Republican politicians and the media who serve them. These were issues the likes of Karl Rove and Paul Ryan solemnly if not rabidly defended, and they were issues used against traditional conservatives and libertarians like Ron Paul. As any traditional conservative can tell you, however, these are not “core principles” of conservatism–not even neo-conservatism! These issues were intentionally manufactured to polarize voters on a single issue that would get their votes despite being betrayed by the Republican Party on the truly universal conservative principle: fiscal restraint.

According to Jason Riley, a member of The Wall Street Journal’s editorial board and author of Let Them In: The Case for Open Borders, the immigration issue was created by Republicans during mid-term election campaigns in 2006 when they wanted to distance themselves and their party from the, by then, deeply unpopular President Bush who was considered pro-immigration. Similarly, federally legislating social issues and politicizing morality was an expedient cynically adopted by the neo-conservatives in an effort to create and co-opt a religious voting block.

Principles–and I would say all principles are, by definition, “core”–are not a hodge podge of political expedients and personal lifestyle preferences. They are a function of informed reflection that, with respect to political philosophy, identifies natural rights (implicitly based on a view of human nature) and the legitimate purpose of government.

One sure principle of all conservatives (outside the ruling class) is fiscal conservatism defined by free markets, economic liberty and a constrained and prudent government. Libertarians, traditional conservatives and constitutionalists will add to that definition personal liberty and constitutional rights. This is not random. What “core principle”-spouting ruling conservatives won’t acknowledge is that economic and personal liberty are not just instinctive correlates, they are inseparable.  One must be free to make choices to operate in a free market and for a free market to operate effectively.

This intrinsic connection between economic and personal liberty is that free choice and only free choice allows the market to clear at equilibrium. That is why the single greatest driver of wealth in history is the pricing mechanism. The pricing mechanism contains and transmits all the information available in the marketplace and it can react instantaneously to the constantly changing data. If choices are unconstrained in a market freely accessed by all, prices reflect all information in the market, from resource availability to personal preferences. This communication of information will result in as close to a perfect allocation of resources as possible, maximizing individual and total utility in society. This freedom to choose must include the right to smoke what you choose, mate as you choose, and migrate as you choose–the only rightfully barred choices being those that use force or fraud and infringe on the rights of others.

Similarly, personal liberty is not possible without economic liberty. For example, Obamacare, which is based on collective economic coercion, cannot use the price mechanism to influence behavior. You can’t count on people to quit smoking because they can’t afford the insurance or the doctor’s bills, so smoking must be banned or curtailed by fiat lest the overall cost of healthcare be too great.

These are the genuine principles that lie at the heart of fiscal conservatism and they cannot be abandoned without a fundamental reassessment of human nature or the role of government. For ruling conservatives, issues like anti-immigration sentiment and federal definitions of marriage can be abandoned because they were never based on principle. Principled conservative arguments concerning these issues might have had Republicans railing against the welfare state, not immigration, and against social legislation of any kind, not gay marriage.

Conservatives should reevaluate what they call “core principles,” but this time, it would be wiser to drill down to a fundamental understanding of economics and natural rights rather than scramble for voters they’ve already alienated. Seeing them blow with the wind like this makes me wonder what Republicans would actually do if they returned to power. 

Now if the ruling right came to understand what principles (core or otherwise) really were, the next time I opened the Journal the articles facing me would be titled “Republicans Call for an End to the Drug War” and “Continuing US Intervention in the Middle East: Illegal, Unjust & Counterproductive.” Until then, dear voter, proceed with caution.

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