When it was first published, The Conscience of a Conservative reignited the American conservative movement and made Barry Goldwater a political star. It influenced countless conservatives in the United States and helped to lay the foundation for the Reagan Revolution in 1980. Just as vital today as it was then, this book addresses many topics that could be torn from today's headlines. Goldwater discusses education, labor unions and policies, civil rights, agricultural policy and farm subsidies, social welfare programs, and income taxation. This significant book lays out the conservative position both politically and economically that would come to dominate the Conservative Movement in America.
Public Domain (P)2011 Tantor
"For a man who proudly described himself as 'simple,' Barry Goldwater remains a historical puzzle." (Angus Burgin, The New York Sun)
Reading Barry Goldwater's landmark (if short) book has been on my to-do list for a long time. But I've finally gotten around to listening to it and I must say that I find it very impressive. Without engaging in hyperventilating "manifesto" rhetoric, it provides about the clearest and most concise statement of conservative principles available anywhere. Although there are several references to events particular to the historical moment in which Goldwater wrote the book (the Cold War with the Soviet Union, the Civil Rights movement), the principles he articulates are timeless. It is quite amazing to hear such forceful and coherent arguments on the issues many of us think are so crucial to our own time (states' rights, the role of federal government, the proper definition of words like "freedom" and "rights," the Constitution, not the Supreme Court, as the ultimate arbiter) written more than half a century ago. It's as if Goldwater is the first modern Tea Party Republican. And in many ways, he was. He was the de facto leader of "conservatism in exile" during an era (the early 1960s) that at least one historian has dubbed "the liberal hour." In an era which saw a drastic expansion of government's role in our daily lives, he went against the grain. Of course, the "moderate" Republicans of his day (Rockefeller, Nixon, etc.) were no help -- they all went against him, arguing that he would consign the party to the margins with his "extremism." But Goldwater's position was vindicated once it became all too clear that the Kennedy-Johnson "Great Society" liberalism against which the Arizona senator had been running was a recipe for disaster on a massive scale. Boy, does any of this sound familiar?
But let me point out a few notable aspects of this little treatise. First and foremost is its clear definition of the conservative philosophy without getting into a long disquisition on the Burkean origins of modern conservatism (for that, see Russell Kirk's book on the subject). Of course, the meaning of "conservative" is relative to its larger context (so for example, a Soviet Communist hardliner in 1980 might be "conservative" in a sense because he wants to "conserve" the corrupt system in which he thrives), but for our purposes "conservatism" is equivalent to "constitutionalism" (or, more specifically, federalism). Conservatives wish to preserve the freedoms guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution, and to maintain the proper relationship between the state and the individual. "Liberals" (actually, statists), on the other hand, who make loud noises about "trampling on the Constitution" or "the Imperial Presidency" whenever a Republican is in office, but often reject the notion that the federal government or the executive branch should be limited by the Constitution (as long as it stands in the way of them implementing their utopian, redistributive schemes).
Goldwater also argues very persuasively against the modern faux-liberal tendency to look toward international law or the United Nations rather than U.S. constitutional law as supreme. Doing so, as he makes clear, is a recipe for yielding our precious sovereignty.
A couple of things that will shock and/or scandalize some readers/listeners:
1. It is taken for granted now (as it was, perhaps to a lesser extent) in Goldwater's day that government has a large role to play in education. We've been conditioned to think that government supervision or operation of our schools is natural, normal, and desirable. But this author puts forth a very convincing argument that government has no business whatsoever interfering in education. Education is a good and/or service, like food or health care, and is not a "right." To designate it as a right involves an unconstitutional imposition on individuals. If there is to be any government involvement in schools, it should be local or state involvement. The federal government should stay out of it.
2. Goldwater has been unfairly tarred with the "racist" appellation (who knew?) because he opposed portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Oh yes, those evil racist Republicans! Tea Party KKK Nazis! (Never mind that Goldwater was part Jewish). But here Goldwater explains his opposition, and it makes perfect sense. There's nothing racist about it. He argues that it is clearly the business of the government to ensure that everyone's voting rights are protected, but that the government has NO business forcing private businesses to serve customers they don't want to serve. That is a clear violation of the principle of freedom of association.
One principle that "liberals" will find it hard with which to disagree is his insistence on the 10th Amendment as the key to solving social and cultural disputes. If it's not specifically spelled out as a legitimate function of the federal government in the Constitution, then it's left up to the individual states. Thus so many of our battles over things like gay marriage or legalizing pot could be solved by letting individual states decide what to do in these matters rather than imposing a blanket solution one way or the other on all fifty states.
All in all, a stimulating and edifying listen. I will be sure to refer back to this classic time and again.
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