Social Justice Conservatism: A Personal Manifesto

Donald Trump’s persona clashes with those who respect human dignity and individual liberty. The economic and social principles that once defined conservatism have been rebuked by a significant portion of the GOP Primary electorate. The ideology of major political parties are constantly evolving and this election cycle especially has left many conservatives displaced.

But conservatism in America faces a much larger crisis than Trump’s ascendancy. His emergence is only a symptom of a disease that plagues conservative circles. The Republican Party has driven away people who prioritize social justice as a political objective. By failing to spread a conservatism that applies its principles rigorously against the injustices of our society, the Right has given the Left a virtual monopoly on issues of social justice. Unfortunately, what most of our peers consider conservatism is an ugly caricature of what free markets and individual liberties can do to bring prosperity and dignified living.

We cannot claim to be the party of civil liberties when we stand by uncritically while the few police officers who commit injustice get off with a slap on the wrist or when we support the Patriot Act. It makes little sense to call ourselves fiscally responsible and pro-market when conservative administrations do nothing about the hundreds of billions of dollars in corporate subsidies that are handed out every year and even buttress the legal and institutional privileges that allow companies to subvert free markets to the detriment of the average citizen. And, we are not the keepers of classically liberal values if we allow rapid environmental degradation.

There are pressing issues our country faces that only the privileged among us can ignore. It is immoral to stand by and be a “no” party while millions suffer as a consequence of a host of societal pathologies. It is common and not wrong for conservative pundits and politicians to criticize well meaning policies put forth by liberal legislators. But how often do we put forth our own plan of action that addresses critical issues of social justice while overcoming the legislative downfalls we criticize?

Conservatism has two intellectual traditions that are powerful engines of social justice. First, the Burkean tradition of government seeks deliberate and careful consideration of policies as to minimize the suffering that is caused by reckless legislation. Second, the natural rights tradition, rather than seeing individuals as cogs in a socio-political machine, asks us to respect the autonomy of each person and treat them as an end in themselves. When these two principles mix with the civic-minded and transcendental, conservatism becomes a powerful tool for stability, prosperity, and non-material fulfillment.

Call me crazy, but I don’t think people should have to take out a second mortgage to receive treatment for a life-threatening illness. Perhaps I have a weird conception of individual rights, but I don’t think it’s just to deny someone a dignified life because of their gender or sexual orientation. The fact that 19.6% of undergraduates have to work full-time, year round, while attempting to maintain a GPA and craft a resume that will give them competitive opportunities, is a glaring waste of human capital and institutional resources.

We must refuse the Left a monopoly on social justice. What must differentiate conservative minded reform from that of the Left is its method. Conservatives should understand that the national debt is a social justice issue since the problems associated with debt default and financial ruin harm the poor the most. Conservatives should try to reduce the influence of bloated federal bureaucracies that have become co-opted by big business because limited government is the most democratic and least susceptible to corruption. Conservatives should advocate an effective solution to healthcare inequality without saddling the country with trillions in debt. They should facilitate the role of the market as a bringer of material prosperity, but fight monopolies and privileges that reduce the democratizing influence of competition.

Conservatism does not allow the fundamental liberties of its citizens to be put in peril.
The time has come for us to step up and refuse to be silent. Conservatism has a lot to offer social justice. The question is whether we are willing to fight against the flaws of both major political parties and put the struggle for justice at the head of our agenda or want to continue defending the indefensible structures of privilege in our society under the name of conservatism.

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