The Conscience of Conservative

On the very first page of The Conscience of a Conservative,
Goldwater declared that America was fundamentally a conservative
nation and that American people yearned for a return to
conservative principles. He then blamed conservatives for failing
to demonstrate “the practical relevance of conservative principles
to the needs of the day.” He would try in this book, he
said, to bridge the gap between theory and practice.
He began by dismissing the idea that conservatism was “out
of date,” arguing that that was like saying that “the Golden Rule
or the Ten Commandments or Aristotle’s Politics are out of
date.” The conservative approach, he said, “is nothing more or less than an attempt to apply the wisdom of experience and the
revealed truths of the past to the problems of today.” He proceeded
to explain what conservatism was and what it was not.
Unlike the liberal, Goldwater wrote, the conservative
believed that man was not only an economic but a spiritual
creature. Conservatism “looks upon the enhancement of man’s
spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy.”
Indeed, Goldwater stated, the first obligation of a political
thinker was “to understand the nature of man.”
The senator then listed what the conservative had learned
about man from the great minds of the past: (1) each person
was unique and different from every other human being—
therefore, provision had to be made for the development of the
different potentialities of each person; (2) the economic and
spiritual aspects of man’s nature “are inextricably intertwined”—
neither aspect can be free unless both are free; (3)
man’s spiritual and material development cannot be directed
by outside forces—”each man,” he declared, “is responsible for
his own development.”
Given this view of the nature of man, Goldwater stated, it
was understandable that the conservative “looks upon politics
as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for
individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social
order.” But, he said, the delicate balance that ideally exists
between freedom and order had long since tipped against freedom
“practically everywhere on earth” (as a result of what he
later called “the Soviet menace”). Even in America, the trend
against freedom and in favor of order was “well along and gathering
momentum.” For the American conservative, there was no
difficulty in “identifying the day’s overriding political challenge:
it is to preserve and extend freedom.”
Freedom was in peril in America, he said, because government
had been allowed by leaders and members of both political
parties to become too powerful. In so doing, they had
ignored and misinterpreted the single most important document
in American government, the Constitution, which was an
instrument above all “for limiting the functions of government.”
The alarming result was “a Leviathan, a vast national authority
out of touch with the people, and out of their control.”
While deeply concerned about the tendency to concentrate
power in the hands of a few, Goldwater was convinced that
most Americans wanted to reverse the trend. The transition
would come, he said, when the people entrusted their affairs to
those “who understand that their first duty as public officials is
to divest themselves of the power they have been given.” It was
a radical and some would say utopian statement. What public
official would relinquish rather than seek more power? In perhaps
the most famous passage of The Conscience of a Conservative—
Lincolnian in its rhetoric—Goldwater said that the turn
toward freedom would come when Americans elected those
candidates who pledged to enforce the Constitution, restore the
Republic, and who proclaimed:
I have little interest in streamlining government or
in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce
its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for
I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass
laws, but to repeal them. (Emphasis added) It is not
to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old
ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that
have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the
people an unwarranted financial burden. I will
not attempt to discover whether legislation is
“needed” before I have first determined whether it
is constitutionally permissible. And if I should
later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’
“interests,” I shall reply that I was informed their
main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am
doing the very best I can.
Here was a vision of government that aimed to restore the
ideas of the Founding Fathers and throw out the welfarist plans
of the modern liberals. It was what conservatives believed was
still possible in America; it was what liberals believed was hopelessly
antiquated and even dangerous. In the following chapters,
Senator Goldwater got down to specifics, dealing with civil
rights, agriculture, organized labor, taxes and spending, the
welfare state, education, and communism.
Summing up his feelings about government interference in
any area, he said, “I believe that the problem of race relations,
like all social and cultural problems, is best handled by the people
directly concerned. Social and cultural change, however
desirable, should not be effected by the engines of national
power …. Any other course enthrones tyrants and dooms freedom.”
Consistent with his principles, Goldwater had personally
led the integration of the Arizona Air National Guard in 1946,
two years before President Truman ordered the desegregation of
the U.S. armed forces, and had been an active member of the
NAACP and the Urban League in Phoenix well before he ran for
public office.
Regarding farming, Goldwater pointed out that the Constitution
was clear—”no power over agriculture was given to any
branch of the national government.” Besides, like any other
industry, farm production was “best controlled by the natural
operation of the free market.” In the chapter on organized labor,
Goldwater (a ranking member of the Senate Labor Committee)
attacked the enormous economic and political power concentrated
in the hands of a few union leaders. He advocated enactment
of state right-to-work laws, the limitation of contributions
to political campaigns by individuals and neither labor unions
or corporations, and the elimination of industry-wide bargaining,
applying the principle of anti-monopoly to unions as well
as corporations.
Echoing the proposals of economist Milton Friedman,
whom he had known since the mid-fifties, Goldwater proposed
a flat tax, declaring that “government has a right to claim an
equal percentage of each man’s wealth, and no more.” He
bluntly described the graduated tax as “a confiscatory tax.”
As for government spending, he said, the only effective way
to curtail it “is to eliminate the programs on which excess
spending is consumed,” including social welfare programs, education,
public power, agriculture, public housing, urban
renewal, and “all the other activities that can be better performed
by lower levels of government or by private institutions
or by individuals.” He did not suggest that the federal government
drop all these programs “overnight” but that it establish “a
rigid timetable for a staged withdrawal,” encouraging the process
by reducing federal spending in each field by 10 percent
each year. Reducing spending and taxes, in that order, would
guarantee the nation “the economic strength that will always be
its ultimate defense against foreign foes.”
In the chapter, “The Welfare State,” Goldwater conceded
the strong emotional appeal of welfarism to many voters and
therefore to many politicians
. But it was the duty of conservatives,
he said, to demonstrate the difference between being concerned
with welfare problems and insisting that the “federal
government is the proper agent for their solution.” He demonstrated
a remarkable prescience by arguing that the welfare state
eliminated “any feeling of responsibility [on the part of the
recipient] for his own welfare and that of his family and neighbors”
—precisely the argument and finding of welfare critic
Charles Murray, my Heritage colleague Robert Rector, and
other analysts twenty years later. It was one of the great evils of
welfarism, Goldwater wrote, that “it transforms the individual
from a dignified, industrious, self-reliant spiritual being into a
dependent animal creature without his knowing it.” He restated
a fundamental truth for conservatives: If we take from someone
“the personal responsibility for caring for his material needs, we
take from him also the will and the opportunity to be free.”
After listing the several harms that can be caused by federal
aid to education, Goldwater, sounding much like the intellectual
historian Russell Kirk, stated that the proper function of the
school was to transmit “the cultural heritage of one generation
to the next generation” and to train the minds of the new generation
so that they can absorb “ancient learning” and apply it to
the problems of today. The role of our schools, he insisted, was
not to educate or elevate society but to educate individuals.
The last part of The Conscience of a Conservative was devoted
to U.S. foreign policy and the Cold War, which, Goldwater said,
the enemy was determined to win while the United States and
the rest of the free world were not. We have sought “settlements,”
he stated, “while the Communists seek victories.” He
proposed a comprehensive strategy of victory that included the
maintenance of defense alliances like NATO; the limitation of
foreign aid to military and technical assistance to those nations
“that are committed to a common goal of defeating world communism”;
superiority in all weapons, military, political, and
economic, necessary to produce a victory over communism; a
drastic reduction in U.S. support of the U.N.; and the encouragement
of the peoples under communist occupation to “overthrow
their captors.” America’s objective, he said, “is not to
wage struggle against communism, but to win it.”
Risks were inevitable, Goldwater conceded, but the future
would unfold along one of two paths: Either the communists
would retain the offensive, ultimately forcing us to surrender
or accept war “under the most disadvantageous circumstances,”
or Americans would “summon the will and the means
for taking the initiative and wage a war of attrition against
them,” seeking to bring about “the internal disintegration of
the communist empire.”
It was the latter course that President Reagan, with the
backing of the American people, chose in the 1980s, leading the
nation and the world to what Barry Goldwater had predicted—
the disintegration of the Soviet empire and victory in the Cold
War, both without firing a single nuclear shot.
I have selected the first two chapters as a representative
excerpt of The Conscience of a Conservative. The reader will notice
one or two outdated passages—a reference to “the aggressive
designs of Moscow,” the use of the long-forgotten Arthur Larson
as a prototypical big-government Republican. But ninety-eight
percent of Goldwater’s manifesto remains relevant to our time.
As the author of The Conscience of a Conservative and then as a
presidential candidate, Barry Goldwater insisted on addressing
the key issues that have dominated the national debate for the
past four decades: taxes (flatten them); government spending
(work toward reducing and even eliminating subsidies, as in agriculture);
Social Security (it is in actuarial trouble—strengthen it
by introducing a voluntary option); law and order (the right of
victims should take precedence over those of criminals); and
morality in government (the president and all in public office
must avoid scandal and corruption and set a good example for
In his 1988 memoir, Goldwater stated that his campaign for
the presidency helped to broaden and deepen the conservative
movement beyond “any other movement of our times.” Today, he
said, “conservatives come from all regions, every social class,
every creed and color, all age groups. The new GOP,” he wrote,
“was forged in the fires of the 1964 presidential campaign.” And
it emerged triumphant in the 1994 congressional campaign when
Republicans captured Congress for the first time in forty years
and which was based on the ideas first proposed by Goldwater—
smaller government, lower taxes and spending, tougher anticrime
measures, and less Washington meddling in people’s lives.
Barry Goldwater was, in the words of George Will, “a man
who lost forty-four states but won the future.” He placed ideas at
the center of his campaign. He inspired more people, especially
young people like me, to enter the world of politics and policymaking
than any other losing candidate in modern times. And it
all began with a little book that takes about an hour to read but
whose liberating words stay with you for a lifetime.
There are several individuals behind the scenes without
whose help this publication would not be possible. I am grateful
to my colleague Dr. Lee Edwards for his recommendation that I
use these chapters from The Conscience of a Conservative and his
assistance in drafting the text of the foreword. Mike Needham,
Jonathan Larsen, Alex Adrianson, Richard Odermatt, John Cryderman,
and Drew Bond have all helped in the production of
this essay. Finally, sincere thanks to all of our friends who, with
their numerous suggestions and encouragement, continue to
make this annual publication possible.
Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D.
December 2004
The Conscience of
a Conservative
Barry Goldwater



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