Wisdom, like courage, can be found in the most unlikely of places.
Earlier this month NPR aired and interview with a Russian scholar who, while defending President Vladimir Putin’s foreign policy, unexpectedly described the entire purpose of American conservatism.
“The traditional Western perception is that the real borderline in … international politics is the borderline between democracy and authoritarianism,” explained Andrey Kortunov, president of a Kremlin-backed think tank in Moscow. Therefore, he said, “If you’re on the side of democracy, you’re on the right side of history. If you’re on the side of authoritarianism … you’re on the wrong side of history.”
There are strains within the neoconservative and progressive movements that would certainly agree with those thoughts, but the prudence that guides traditional American conservatism forces its adherents to adopt a wider and longer view.
“I think (Putin) would argue that, of course … democracy is good, but the real borderline is the line between order and chaos,” Kortunov said. “And if you intentionally or unintentionally support chaos, you’re on the wrong side. And that’s what he sees the West offering in places like Iraq or Libya or Afghanistan or even Syria.”
Kortunov described this borderline between order and chaos in terms of foreign policy, but it exists in all areas of human behavior, stretching from one’s interior moral code to the laws and policies of an entire nation. This borderline is actually the straight path that conservatism seeks to navigate along, remaining on its course and endeavoring to never fall too far to one side or the other.
Instead of a map, think of this challenge in terms of a compass, and instead of a borderline, imagine a path.
The true north heading keeps us on a path to our desired destination – liberty. Note that our direction doesn’t ensure jobs, or housing, or healthcare, or any of the newly found “rights” that people nowadays ask government to secure. It gives us the ability to secure those things for ourselves.
Behind us, on the southern heading of the compass is tyranny. That’s where the state provides everything you need, including your thoughts. The only price is … well … everything.
To the east is control. This is where one finds our traditions, customs, courtesies, morals, rules, manners, regulations, laws, and constitutional government. The farther one drifts in this direction, the stronger these controls could become.
To the west is chaos. This is where we find a myriad of personal freedoms to include those of speech, religion, the press, to bear arms, of assembly, and democracy. Just as control becomes more hardened the farther away from the path one ventures, these freedoms could eventually lose cohesion and dissolve into a pool of anarchy.
Surrounding this compass on all sides, and acting as the magnetic field, is Human Nature. Our desire for freedom, or our need for security, our hopes and our fears, our personal preferences, our faith, all combine to pull the directional needle to the east or west.
It is our principles that keep us walking the path to true north, to true liberty, which is why principles are so important. Deviations from come from all camps, and one can quickly find themselves drifting simultaneously to the east and west.
For example, progressives can be criticized for veering off course into chaos by their penchant to rip away our customs and traditions, not to mention our moral codes that have stood for millennia. Conservatives can also be criticized for taking us too far in the direction of control by creating a near-surveillance state in the name of national security. And both sides can be faulted for their small but vocal strains of censorship, with some on the left wanting to ban certain forms of speech on campus and some on the right wanting to ban certain books from school libraries.
I am no fan of the Kremlin’s strong-arm tactics or its strategic goals of regional hegemony. I was also raised on Rocky III and Red Dawn, so I have a certain amount of built-in suspicion of Russia. But Putin’s opinion of the chaos introduced to the Middle East by democracy movements is doubly instructive. He goes too far in the direction of authoritarianism where others go too far in the direction of anarchy all because of the same problem — people need authority and freedom.
Austrian writer Stefan Zweig summarized all of this quite well: “Freedom is not possible without authority, otherwise it would turn into chaos. And authority is not possible without freedom, otherwise it would turn into tyranny.”
To avoid becoming lost in a wilderness of authoritarianism or anarchy, one must first know where they’re going. For the American conservative, there’s only one direction – liberty.