Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve definitely been amongst the minority of Americans who paid close attention to politics and government. Throughout the majority of my 33 years, I’ve been involved in some way in politics or the government, either through volunteering for campaigns, working in congressional offices, or my current tenure with the Department of Defense. My path to politics and government was the path of a conservative who believes strongly in the greatness of America, and that our great country provides lessons in prosperity that leaders all over the world would do well to heed.
My answer to why I’m a conservative cannot necessarily be condensed into once sentence as Brian Williams condensed his liberalism in his article Why I’m a Liberal. I, like anyone else, could have been born into any situation, good or bad. My fortunes in this regard were good, however, and I had a comfortable middle-class childhood and was raised by two wonderful parents. These were all blessings I certainly did not earn, and I am grateful God bestowed them upon me. Certainly, I am not naïve enough to think that everyone is born into such ideal circumstances.
During my six month deployment in Afghanistan, it was apparent how many people lacked the basic comforts we consider necessities in the United States. On many occasions I flew around the country during the day and returned to my “home” (Bagram Air Base) in the evenings. It was striking to look out the window of the rickety prop plane and see the villages on the ground in total darkness, revealing their complete lack of electricity. Going to sleep in a climate-controlled wooden shack didn’t seem like such a tough existence after that, and it certainly didn’t seem like one when, on other flights, I would sit a few feet away from frightened and dirty detainees. It was surreal to think that these people had probably never been this close to an airplane below, much less flown on one. It was a very vivid illustration of how being born in America is a blessing that bestows a number of advantages that simply aren’t present in most of the world.
Indeed, such poverty as exists in places like Afghanistan and elsewhere is relevant to America. It is relevant because it should lead us to ask, why does the United States enjoy a greater degree of prosperity than has ever been seen in world history? What have we done differently, and how can our blessings best be spread throughout the world?
The reason America has succeeded and created a prosperous nation can be summed up in two words: freedom and capitalism. Socialism, though its aims are noble, has instead locked people into poverty rather than lifting them out of its depths. Capitalism, through all its faults, has lifted people out of poverty and created an environment where people are able to transcend the circumstances of their birth and become successful because of their own talents, not because of who their parents are. In the United States, such stories are not needles in a haystack, they are part of the very fabric of our nation and its history. Not everyone born into poverty or poor circumstances can become President of the United States the way Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Bill Clinton (all born to very poor families) did, but they can nonetheless become successful and live comfortable, middle class lives. My grandfather is one of these millions of success stories, as he and grew up in poverty on a farm in Virginia, but went on to run his own successful business for 40 years. These success stories are not exceptional (though my grandfather was certainly an exceptional man) in America – they are simply examples of the benefits of capitalism and freedom.
None of this is to say that there are not poor people in the United States who need help. There are millions of American citizens who do need assistance from the government, and many of them are doing the best they can to scrape by. However they wound up where they are, the goal should be to lift them up and give them a chance to leave poverty behind – not to make poverty more comfortable for them without any regard to whether or not they can ever escape it. In January 1964, President Lyndon Johnson announced a “War on Poverty”. By any objective standard, we are at best in a stalemate, despite $16 trillion spent by the anti-poverty side (the government). Thus, new ways of thinking are needed. Simply screaming “You’re hurting the CHILDREN!” every time conservatives suggest that maybe throwing endless dollars at programs that have questionable results might not be wise isn’t going to help a child escape the poor neighborhood he was born into. Conservatism dares to ask for a positive result, not merely a noble intention.
Conservatives believe in one ideal of equality just as liberals do. And just like liberals, we want people to be prosperous and successful. As conservatives, we believe in a safety net placed underneath a citizen to catch them if they fall – not one thrown over top of them to ensnare them while they’re standing (an example of the latter situation is the millions of health insurance policy cancellations resulting from the Affordable Care Act). And as conservatives, we believe inequality matters when it comes to how low the floor is, not when it comes to how high the ceiling is. Giving those at the bottom an opportunity to move up is necessary and important, and helping those who can’t help themselves attain a life where they can live in comfort is a necessary function of any government.
What conservatives do not believe in is dragging down the economic ceiling and punishing people simply for being successful. This is not because we think all wealthy people are noble and should not pay their fair share in taxes, but because we know that soaking them can drag them – and even middle class Americans – down a rung on the economic ladder, while doing nothing to help those at the bottom rise up. A clear example of this was a luxury tax enacted in 1990 that applied to expensive boats and other items. The tax, designed to get more money from the rich, failed to raise significant revenue, but succeeded in decimating Maine’s boating industry. Yacht sales fell 70 percent over the next year. Some businesses went under, while restaurants, marinas, and boat repair shops saw major drop-offs in their already struggling bottom lines. At the urging of liberal Democrat Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-ME), the tax was repealed in 1993, and the industry made a rapid recovery.
Conservatism is not about economic Darwinism or wearing rose-colored glasses when it comes to poverty in America or the world. It’s about recognizing that the best way to lift people out of poverty is to create an environment where they can climb out of the circumstances of their birth – just as my grandfather did – and live a better life than their parents, while creating a better life for their own children. Policies intended to help those in poverty should be carefully considered, and when those policies aren’t working, conservatism believes in changing them because of their poor results, not keeping them simply because of their good intentions.