Each year, the President of the Heritage Foundation invites a thinker in the conservative tradition to write an essay to be published under Heritage’s auspices as the “President’s Essay.” Past essayists include Whittaker Chambers, Michael Novak, Russell Kirk, Friedrich Hayek, Midge Decter, William F. Buckley, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Norman Podhoretz, James Q. Wilson, and Ryan T. Anderson. I’m grateful to Heritage’s President Kay Coles James for inviting me to write the 2018 essay. It has now been published. Here is the text.
Returning to Our Principles
2018 Heritage Foundation President’s Essay
Robert P. George
The United States of America is a great country. It has achieved remarkable things. It has proven that republican government–government not only of the people (which all government is) and for the people (which all decent government is, even that of a benign despot) but by the people–can indeed “long endure.” Our nation’s record is not perfect and should not be whitewashed. Slavery and racial and other injustices are, alas, part of our story. But they are not the whole story. The efforts of our people–acting in deeper fidelity to our founding principles–to right historical wrongs and secure “liberty and justice for all” are also part of the story. And there is more.
The United States has created hitherto unimaginable prosperity and provided millions upon millions of people with unprecedented opportunities for economic and social advancement. It has welcomed immigrants–in astonishing numbers–and enabled them to become Americans–as truly and fully American as the descendants of those who came to North America on The Mayflower. It has defeated tyrants and tyrannies that have credibly sought nothing short of world domination.
And yet Americans are uneasy, unhappy, worried. Many are disaffected. At the extremes, small radicalized factions embrace violence against political opponents. Some stop short of endorsing violence but deploy a rhetoric of demonization that if unchecked will surely corrode the civic friendship–what Lincoln in his first inaugural address called “the bonds of affection”–on which the success of republican democracy vitally depends. Incivility in politics is scarcely something new, but some today regard it as a virtue. That is new. Even some who claim the mantle of conservatism seem to have been lured into an attitude of tribalism and identity politics. How should true conservatives understand our problems, and what should we propose to do about them?
As a conservative, I believe that at the heart of our woes is what has so often been at the heart of our woes whenever we have had woes, going all the way back to the original sin of slavery: infidelity to our nation’s founding principles. Those principles include our formal constitutional commitments as well as the moral and cultural norms, practices, and understandings upon which those commitments depend. America is great. And the promise of America remains great. But in many crucial areas we have indeed gone astray. If America is to be true to herself, and if she is to fulfill her promise, things must be turned around.
Because our founding principles are true and good, they are demanding. It is not easy to live up to them, and we will never do so perfectly. Temptations to infidelity will always be with us. All the unsavory qualities of human nature that James Madison identified in the 10th Federalist Paper–and more–make it a challenge for us frail, fallen, fallible human beings to “hold fast to the right,” in the words of the old hymn. We must summon the best in ourselves to overcome the weakest and worst in us if we are to resist temptations to sacrifice justice, virtue, honorable liberties, and the authentic demands of the common good for the sake of this or that shiny object: security, comfort, ease, being looked after, being protected from the possibility of failure, having special or dominant status–you name it.
If we are to overcome our woes, if we are to renew our great nation in the only way that our nation ever can be renewed–by returning to our first principles–then labor and sacrifice will be required of all of us. We must restore our national commitment to limited government and the rule of law. This will include the restoration of the constitutional separation of powers and the recovery of the principles of federalism. In particular, our national government must be returned to its constitutional status–to which even liberal jurists and constitutional scholars pay lip-service, even today–as a government of delegated and enumerated (and thus limited) powers.
More broadly, we must demand respect for what political philosophers call “the principle of subsidiarity.” This principle of justice demands that government and other higher associations avoid taking over tasks that can be performed well by individuals and small associations, beginning with families, religious communities, and other institutions of civil society. If liberty and justice are to prevail, if the common good is to be realized, it is these “mediating” associations–Edmund Burke’s “little platoons,” which Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated for their crucial role in undergirding American democracy–that must bear primary responsibility for the health, education, and welfare of our people and for transmitting to each new generation the values, virtues, and skills necessary for individuals to lead successful lives and function as citizens in a free, democratic political order.
Government, especially central government, must stop usurping the authority, violating the autonomy, and damaging the integrity of these mediating structures. For example, government needs to respect the right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children, including their education on matters of sexuality and sexual morality. We cannot tolerate sex education programs–especially ones from which parents are forbidden to withdraw their children–that expressly or implicitly promote secular progressive dogmas about sexuality, morality, and marriage in defiance of the beliefs of parents and families. It is similarly intolerable when government–in hiring, licensing, contracting, or accreditation–discriminates against religious or other individuals and institutions because of their “traditional” beliefs about, for example, marriage, sexual morality, and the sanctity of human life.
Of course, there are legitimate roles for government to play. Often public health, safety, and morals and other aspects of the common good, including the protection of basic rights, require state action–laws, policies, or programs. But here the principle of subsidiarity demands that power must be exercised by the level of government closest, most responsive, and most accountable to the people over whom it is exercised. What can be done well by local government should be done by local government, not by the states. And what cannot be done well by local government, but can be done by the states, should not be done by the federal government.
We must also restore the democratic element of our republican constitutional system by reversing the outrageous usurpations of legislative authority routinely committed by the executive and by the courts. That reform would be right because it would make our government more faithful to the Constitution. It would also enable us to make critically needed gains in the direction of restoring in law and culture even more fundamental principles, beginning with the sanctity of human life in all stages and conditions; marriage as the conjugal union of husband and wife; and respect for religious freedom and the rights of conscience–including the rights of parents and families.
Social liberalism is riding high, having established itself as the dominant ideology in the elite sectors of the culture–in the media, in academia, in the entertainment industry and the corporate world, and in many professions. Social liberalism also benefited massively from eight years of aggressive promotion by a president who was willing to breach the constitutional limits of executive power at every turn in order to weave his socially “progressive” values into the fabric of our law and public institutions, including the military. But what was done can–albeit with difficulty–be undone. It is a matter of political will: The willingness to “pay any price and bear any burden” to do what is needed for moral-cultural renewal.
Conservatives must banish the thought that we can surrender on moral and cultural issues, letting the Left secure and consolidate its victories–even on the question of marriage–even while we achieve lasting victories of our own on limited government, economic reform, and national security. To give a sense of why that is the case, let me quote Jasper Williams, the fiery preacher who spoke at Aretha Franklin’s funeral. Speaking of the importance of the marriage-based family and of the fundamental moral values that must be in place if families are to form, flourish, and play their critical role in the transmission of competency and virtue, Pastor Williams said:
As the home goes, so goes the street. As the street goes, so goes the neighborhood. As the neighborhood goes, so goes the city. As the city goes, so goes the state. As the state goes, so goes the nation.
His highly “politically incorrect” comments threw the Left into apoplexy. But what he said was true. The success of everything else in society–the educational system, the legal system, the political system, the private sector, the economy–rests vitally on moral foundations.
Conservatives understand that John Adams was right when he said that “our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people and is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” And the reason Adams was right is that our Constitution is, to borrow a phrase from Hayek, “a constitution of liberty,” and liberty can never be sustained where immorality flourishes. A licentious people, a people given to appetite and vice, a people who come to accept or even tolerate the “if it feels good, do it” pseudo-principle of “Me Generation” social liberalism, a people who lose their sense of the need for virtue and the soul-shaping importance of the institutions of civil society–beginning with the family–will rapidly become a people no longer fit for freedom or capable of governing itself.
Now, none of this is to gainsay the importance of economic policy. Economic and moral reform must go hand in hand–indeed, the economic reforms we need have profound moral dimensions. Corporate welfare and crony capitalism (in the form of, for example, regulations preventing upstarts from competing with large firms that can more easily absorb compliance costs) undermine the proper functioning of the market-based economy and are blights on the honor of our nation. Moreover, there is a problem of plutocracy, which the Left derides while frequently taking advantage of, and the Right sometimes denies and more often ignores, supposing that the cultural and political power of big business is just the free market doing its thing.
Donald Trump’s victories in the 2016 Republican primaries and in the presidential election–like Bernie Sanders’ remarkably strong challenge to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries–were driven to a considerable extent by legitimate economic grievances. Economic inequality is not in itself unjust, and any truly effective effort to eliminate it would give us tyranny in no time flat. But justice does require that we maintain fair terms of competition and cultivate conditions for large-scale upward economic and social mobility. A sound truly market-based system will be one in which upstart firms can compete fairly with the big dogs, and hard work, initiative, and the willingness to take investment risks are rewarded. Sound economic policies, by generating prosperity, redound to the benefit of the entire nation–including the poor. This remains true if we break things down into fiscal, monetary, tax, and regulatory policies. Everyone is made better off when money is sound, taxes are reasonably low, inflation is restrained, employment opportunities expand, capital is available, there is genuine market competition, government spending is reasonable, and there is decent wage growth. Everyone is made better off when environmental and other regulatory policies are sensible and evidence-based, and not driven by fads, junk science, alarmism, or corruption.
An urgent matter that most politicians wish to ignore but conservatives know can no longer be ignored is entitlement reform. The federal government’s obligations under Medicare and Social Security threaten to bankrupt the nation unless we put them on firmer financial footing. Doing that will require courage–a virtue that is always in short supply among politicians. A true conservative, however, will exemplify it and provide the leadership in this area that America desperately needs.
In the area of national security, a renewed sense of American exceptionalism–one that would be massively advanced by moral reform and re-dedication to our constitutional principles–would serve us well. American exceptionalism is often misunderstood. It is not a claim that we, as Americans, are superior people. Rather, it is a claim that the principles of our founding are unique and valuable principles. It is an affirmation that the American people are not bound together as a nation by blood or soil but rather by a shared commitment to a moral-political creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these are life liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This creed is what has rallied Americans in the past to the defense of our country. It can once again strengthen us to stand up to the evildoers who threaten us, and it can inspire us to make the sacrifices that–make no mistake–will have to be made if we are to defeat them.
Despite the successes of General James Mattis and his forces, too often unjustly overlooked, “Islamic State” extremists have confidence that they will ultimately prevail over us, despite our overwhelming military power, because they believe in something and we believe in nothing; because they are spiritually and morally rigorous and we are soft and self-indulgent; because they are willing to fight and die and we are not. Our survival against them depends entirely on whether these beliefs about us are true or false. If they are true, then we are doomed, and doomed with us is the noble experiment in morally ordered liberty bequeathed to us by those who, at the beginning, pledged their lives, fortunes, and sacred honor to establish the regime of republican government that is our precious patrimony. The conservative movement in our time must prove them false.
About the Author
Robert P. George holds Princeton University’s celebrated McCormick Professorship of Jurisprudence and is Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions. He is also a Visiting Professor at Harvard Law School. He has served as Chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom and on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and the President’s Council on Bioethics. He was a Judicial Fellow at the Supreme Court of the United States, where he received the Justice Tom C. Clark Award. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of Swarthmore College, he holds the degrees of J.D. and M.T.S. from Harvard University and the degrees of D.Phil., B.C.L., and D.C.L. from Oxford University, in addition to twenty honorary degrees. He is a recipient of the U.S. Presidential Citizens Medal, the Honorific Medal for the Defense of Human Rights of the Republic of Poland, and the Canterbury Medal of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty. His most recent book is Conscience and Its Enemies.