Barry – The Conservative Mission in the 21st Century
The Conservative Mission in the 21st Century
John S. Barry, President – America’s Future Foundation
Philadelphia Society, April 25 1999
Henry David Thoreau once reflected, "In any weather, at any hour of the day or night, I have been
anxious to improve the nick of time, and notch it on my stick too; to stand on the meeting of two
eternities, the past and the future, which is precisely the present moment; to toe that line."
These poetic words capture two important aspects of the American conservative movement as we
look toward the 21st century.
For, at "the present moment" we, indeed, "stand on the meeting of two eternities, the past and the
future." Not only as human beings do we stand on the cusp of the 3rd millennium, but as
conservatives and defenders of freedom we stand between–on the one hand–a past filled with
victories over fascism, communism, and the forsaken promise of the welfare state and–on the other
hand–a future of potential and great hope for the re-invigoration of American civil society.
We have stood together against the inherent coercion and manifest evil of fascism. We have stood
together against communism around the globe. We have stood together against the destruction of
civil institutions and squashing of freedom left by the welfare state.
Now we are left with a void. We are left with a scarred landscape created by state coercion and
leftist ideas but brought into being by our successful attacks against these forces hostile to the
We have brought with us a public that now understands the failure of the welfare state, the evil of
fascism, and the void promises of centrally controlled economies. They have supported us in the
destruction of these forces. But they understandably are anxious. Think about it. For the past 40
years, we Americans have been depending on the government to solve our problems. We are like
children riding a merry-go-round. It was a fun ride, a carefree ride, an unbridled, optimistic ride.
But now as we step off we are a bit dizzy. We need something to grab hold of lest we fall to the
ground. Now that we have convinced the American people to step off the merry-go-round of
government dependence, the task of the conservative movement is to provide that something to
To provide this steady hand, we must promote and sell a positive vision. We must move from our
traditionally negative stances to a positive paradigm. In short, we must explain what we mean when
we say, "America should be a nation of free and secure individuals living in a civil society under the
laws of nature and nature’s God in which peace and prosperity flourish." And we must do
everything we can to promote this.
Or as Thoreau said, our mission is to "improve the nick of time, and notch it on [our] stick too."
Such a mission is at the same time an uncomfortable and comfortable one for conservatives.
It is uncomfortable because to be active and positive requires a forward-looking agenda, a positive,
creative vision. And at first blush what may be considered an ideology. This is precisely what many
thinkers within our tradition have warned against.
Russell Kirk reminds us in The Conservative Mind that "Conservatism is the negation of ideology.
Ideology is an attempt to govern all life by political slogans; while American conservatives believe
that no mere political formulas can make a people content."
Murray Rothbard, in his self-described manifesto, For a New Liberty, writes, "On the contrary,
[the libertarian] sees his own position as virtually the only consistent one, consistent on behalf of the
liberty of the individual." Rothbard seems to be implying that any projection of one’s own position
or beliefs is to be strictly avoided as a coercive act and inconsistent with liberty.
But, remember, these warnings came during an era when the temptation was for us to jump on the
merry-go-round of politics. Warnings such as those from Kirk and Rothbard were warnings against
political ideology, political slogans, and political visions. And positive political action-except in the
very rare case of unanimity–must always and necessarily lead to coercion over others.
Today, however, we are not on the merry-go-round of politics. What is needed is action in the
social arena–that is action within society, among men and women as individuals. Action in this
realm must always and necessarily require the acquiescence of free will.
Remember too, that both Kirk and Rothbard follow these stern warnings against ideology and
political action with equally strong and positive statements of belief in social action. Kirk two
paragraphs later, catalogues his six "canons of conservative thought." Among these were number 2:
"Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence" which he supports by
ascribing to conservatism "a sense that life is worth living." And canon number 6: That while
recognizing that "change may not be salutary reform Society must alter, for prudent change is the
means of social preservation." And recall also Kirk’s lecture directed at young people entitled "May
the Rising Generation Redeem the Tide," in which he nearly shouts (as nearly as Mr. Kirk was
wont to shout) "Redeem the time, redeem the dream."
Rothbard, for his part, concludes For a New Liberty with an epilogue entitled, "A Strategy for
Liberty" and goes so far as to observe, "Since the state will not gracefully convert itself out of
power, other means than education, means of pressure will have to be used."
It was Richard Weaver who recognized that the world is intelligible and ideas have consequences,
consequences through the human action they inspire.
Classical Liberals in the lineage of Adam Ferguson have always understoond that while not by
human design indeed through human action is social order maintained.
Mises reminds us again and again in the pages of Human Action that, "Human action is purposeful
Milton and Rose Friedman titled their self-described personal statement Free to Choose.
Frank Chodorov who literally cringed at the idea of "doing something about it" even had to admit
that "If I do a good job on myself in the way of improving my fund of knowledge and my
understanding, and of maintaining a sense of responsibility toward my judgement, the result might
strike the fancy of a fellow man; if he is activated by the example to go to work on himself, my
personal effort will have burgeoned into what we call social improvement."
And Frank Meyer writes that "Conservatism needs to be more than preservative; its function is to
restore, and to do so by creating new forms and modes to express, in contemporary
circumstances, the essential content of Western civilization."
And so, positive action in the social setting is completely natural and should be completely
comfortable for conservatives and defenders of freedom. Yes, we recognize the fallibility of man
but we also recognize the basic goodness and value of the individual. It is our tradition that
recognizes the ability of communities to conduct their own affairs without the interference or
guidance of a state or an enlightened class of thinkers.
Positive ideas and action on those ideas are our intellectual birthright and are within our intellectual
camp and we should not be afraid to act within the social sphere and join Thoreau in not just
notching the passage of time but improving its nick.
Now to reach down into the ash heap of history and pick up a phrase from Lenin since the
Marxists won’t be needing it anymore, What is to be done?
Being early springtime, it would seem that a garden analogy is in order. Thus, let us consider what is
to be done in light of what is necessary to cultivate a garden that has been overtaken by weeds.
Four basic steps are required.
First, we must continue to weed the garden of illiberal practices and ideas.
Despite a general shift in direction toward the positive, we must be ever vigilant against illiberal
encroachments within the political arena in whatever forms or reincarnations these may take.
Despite the hollow proclamation that "the era of big government is over," President Clinton and his
British counterpart Tony Blair speak of a third way that is really just state intervention wrapped up
in fancy sound bites. Quasi-government agencies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac are
increasing their activities even as the federal budget comes into balance. Every day we hear of new
stories of regulatory extortion such as the EPA employee who wrote in a recent e-mail, " [the]
EPA has multiple (and extraordinarily successful) VOLUNTARY PARTNERSHIPS with utilities
and heavy industry to help them AVOID future regulations. "
In addition, We must continue to be watchful on our college campuses for the destruction of
western tradition. And, we must also be on the lookout for what I have termed the politically
correct corporate culture.
Second, we must enrich the soil with new ideas.
Most importantly as we enter the 21st century, we must be on the offensive with new and positive
ideas and new and positive proposals. We must move beyond exposing the vacancy of the left’s
ideas and present some new ones of our own. For a start, we should explain how free markets
work to bring about civil interaction; how individual character and personally-practiced virtue
increase general civility; how tax cuts are a matter of justice not just economic efficiency; and, how
school choice is an opportunity in addition to a solution.
Third, we must sow the seeds of civil society.
My sister, a junior high school teacher, recently interviewed for a position at a newly established
charter school in the heart of Anacostia–perennially the most dangerous section of Washington,
DC. She was immediately struck by the incredible sense of community that flourished around the
reinvigoration of an abandoned school building. The infusion of new ideas and self-determination
was literally awaking an entire neighborhood to the potential within their own community.
Organizations such as the National Institute for the Teaching of Entrepreneurship (NIFTE) and
Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship are doing incredible work to bring the seeds of civil society to
the most desolate areas in our nation, areas and populations in which any sense of self-respect and
personal responsibility had long ago been exterminated by enlightened government policies. We
need more of these efforts and organizations.
Finally, and most importantly, we must nourish the seedlings.
The institutions of civil society are sprouting up throughout the nation. These churches, homeless
shelters, charter schools, non-profit organizations, after-school tutoring programs, schools of
choice, flop houses, soup kitchens, corner ministries, urban gardens, networking organizations,
social clubs, neighborhood orange-hat patrols, half way houses, and adult education programs need
Barnes United Methodist Church in Indianapolis recently purchased two abandoned lots adjacent
to the church building that previously were in use as drug drop zones. No longer, these lots now
support housing for families and juvenile offenders. The congregation of Barnes United Methodist
Church needs our support.
Woman Line is an organization located in Dayton, Ohio that councils and nurtures pregnant women
and then provides them with the resources and knowledge to care for their children. The
organization relies on gifts of used bottles, strollers, cribs, and books to provide its services. The
staff at Woman Line needs our support.
And finally, thinking temporally rather than geographically, the rising generations need our support.
Today’s students and young professionals were educated in state-run schools and on politically
correct college campuses. The names Kant, Rousseau, Marshall, Lenin, Keynes, Roosevelt, X,
and Rigoberta Manchu ring bells. The names Ferguson, Locke, Madison, Solzhenitsyn, Mises,
Taft, King, and Thoreau do not. Government action and state oversight in all areas of human action
are the norm. Family and civil institution guidance in human action are not to be trusted. If the
legacy of such a mass miseducation is to be overcome then we must support organizations such as
the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Young America’s Foundation and my own, America’s Future
Foundation that networks young, conservative professionals after they have left the academy and
keeps them tied to their peers and educated on the truths inherent in western civilization.
Many of the activities that are required of us to ultimately succeed are uncomfortable. Many among
us are reluctant to boldly devise new ideas that will require radical change for their implementation.
Others among us are reluctant to act in a way that affects others around us. But both of these
actions–positive thinking and active society cultivation–are necessary.
We must envision, articulate, and cultivate an America that is a nation of free and secure individuals
living in a civil society under the laws of nature and nature’s God in which peace and prosperity
In sum, the mission of conservatism in the 21st century is to continue weeding the garden of illiberal
ideologies but to start positively and actively enriching the soil with ideas, sowing the seeds of
morality and empowerment among desolate communities, and nourishing the seedlings that are the
rising generation and civil society.