So, this post over at Mark Shea's blog got me thinking, "What do we conservatives really mean when we say, 'We need to return to those things which made America great: individual liberty and limited government'?"
Well, I don't know what everybody else means by them--though some seem to mean, "I can do what I want, and neither man nor law has the right to stop me!"--but I know what I mean by it. And what I mean by it has been shaped by my understanding of what our forefathers meant by it. (I would note that by "forefathers" I don't just mean the signers of the Declaration of Independence and the framers of the Constitution. I mean the everyday, ordinary sort of people. You know, the ones who actually made the Constitution law by their approval of it, the ones whose interpretation of the Constitution make for its real original intent?)
So, first let us discuss "individual liberty" and what conservatives should mean by it. I take my understanding of individual liberty from our forefathers, who seemed to take it from Micah 4:1-5. To paraphrase it all into one sentence, it is when every man walks in the name of the Lord, and sits under his vine, and his own fig tree, and there is nothing to make any afraid, or at least as close to this as is possible this side of the Parousia. "Liberty," then, is the product of a proper order--defended not just by law, but by religious conviction and virtue--that allows men to tend to their own families and such without the need for interference to make them do good or keep them from doing evil. There is no need for interference because virtuous men freely choose to live their lives this way.
Then what should conservatives mean by "limited government," you ask? It should mean that first you take care of your family, and your neighbors, and your congregation, and your coworkers, and your employees, and the other guys in the 4-H, and the other members of your fraternal order, and the guys on your softball team, and any of your countless other immediate and personal connections. You do it because you have real relationships with these people, and such relationships mean that you have duties to each other. If that isn't enough, then you turn to your town, or city, or municipality, or whatnot to pitched in. And if that still isn't enough, then you turn to your state. If that fails, then and only then do you turn to the federal government. And when it is necessary to turn to these more remote levels of government, you remember that the limitations on their power were set in place so they couldn't butt in where they weren't needed and make a mess of things. And, as such, you respect these limitations and, if modifying them is necessary, you do so prudently and through the proper legal process.
Now, the problem is that, with a few exceptions, few people use these terms this way anymore. And when we conservatives use them we are often misunderstood. So I would suggest perhaps modifying the terms a little. For example, I try never to speak simply of "liberty," but rather to speak of "ordered liberty," as did men such as Edmund Burke, George Washington and Russell Kirk, to name just a few. This calls immediately to mind the fact that true liberty cannot exist without the proper ordering of the soul and of society. And I try never to speak about "limited government" without discussing the principle of subsidiarity and federalism, which is the framework for the implementation of subsidiarity in the American political tradition.
Now, the election of 2008 makes it likely that conservatives are going to have very little influence in the corridors of power. So be it. Remember that this loss happened, at least in part, because the so-called "conservative" major party was far more right- to center-liberal than truly conservative. Make sure you let them know that. Speak out for virtue, for the priority of the local, the preeminence of the family and for all those things that true conservatives hold dear. And, more importantly, live these things in your life. If the culture is poison, then be the antidote. The counter-revolution doesn't start in the voting booth, or at the party committee meeting, or on the soapbox. It starts in our communities, in our homes, and in our hearts.