Conservatives fuddy-duddies — in a good way

“Conservative, n: A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.”

— Ambrose Bierce

I unflinchingly claim conservatism as part of my political philosophy, and I am happy to live in a conservative state. In fact, I even wish Indiana would take the lead in trying to foster a conservative revolution in this country.

And “conservative revolution” is not an oxymoron.

A definition of terms is probably called for here.

I am not qualified to declare definitively what conservatism is and to dismiss as inadequate any who fail to live up to the standard. All I can do is say what the concept means to me. I am not now a liberal, but I used to be one, so I’m also qualified to give my personal understanding of that idea.

For a little help with the theories, allow me to turn to Brian Howey, a Hoosier political columnist.

In a recent piece on marijuana laws, he notes that by 2020, Indiana’s prohibition will be nearly unique in this region of the U.S., with Illinois, Michigan and Ohio among the growing number of legal-weed states despite the drug’s continued federal illegality.

He attributes this to Indiana’s political class, which “can sometimes be a decade behind the sentiment of voters,” citing a poll showing 73 percent of Hoosiers approve of legalization at least for medicinal use.

This seems like a positive attribute of conservatism to me. It does not slavishly follow public opinion. Instead, it allows elected officials to take seriously their duties in a representative democracy by doing what they think is right, which can keep foolish mistakes to a minimum.

Howey acknowledges this by reporting that our governors and political leaders “have trailed national trends before. During the 1970s as surrounding states lowered drinking ages to 18 and 19, Indiana resisted. Its neighboring states later reinstated the 21 age limit.” Oops!

He then suggests (without using the word) how federalism provides Indiana with the perfect response to demands for change: Gov. Holcomb “would be wise to form a task force to study the impacts of medicinal/recreational marijuana and learn from legalized states.” This is how it should work in our “laboratories of democracy” — the patient learning from the foolhardy.

I don’t claim he intended it as such, but so far, the column sounds like a ringing defense of conservatism. But then we go astray.

Hoosier leaders, he writes “could also decriminalize marijuana possession during the next legislative session while it researches medicinal and recreational impacts.”

That wants to have it both ways, it seems to me.

“Decriminalization” is just legalization lite. We want to wait-and-see before we act, but behave in the meantime as if we have acted? That looks like a dangerous road all those people are going down. Let’s find out what’s really there, but in the meantime, go ahead on and follow them.

The British politician and philosopher Edmund Burke gave us a pretty good roadmap for this journey almost 230 years ago when he recoiled in horror at the bloody carnage of the French Revolution.

That was a “liberal” revolution, seeking to tear down everything and start over. The American Revolution, by contrast, was a conservative approach because it attempted to save what was valuable and build on it.

The conservative spirit is cautious but not reactionary. It does not oppose all change, claiming the existing is always better than the new.

Human beings are interconnected, not just in the present, but from the past through the future, and our cumulative knowledge based on experience shared generation to generation is a better guide to change than radical theories based on a mistaken belief in human perfectibility.

This sensibility has given us the common law, the gradual evolution of which lets us always know where we stand.

The liberal spirit, on the other hand (as I remember celebrating it), regards history as so much baggage, tradition but an impediment to ever-greater enlightenment.

The future can be mapped out, if only we are willing to recognize our sins and sacrifice now for the benefit of future generations.

If we are too slow to accept our responsibility, well, we just have to be pushed and pulled along, whatever it takes. This sensibility has given us administrative law, which can make illegal this afternoon what was legal this morning, without our consent, or even our awareness.

We have far too much administrative law and too little respect for common law.

We do not need urgings to keep tiptoeing into untested waters to see if, just this once, we don’t get in over our heads.

Indiana is right, at this point in history, to stand watch on shore a little longer. It would even be nice to have a little more company.

So, let’s be fuddy-duddies, not quietly and delicately but proudly. Fools always rush in, but we don’t have to be angels not to tread there.

Leo Morris is a columnist for The Indiana Policy Review. Contact him at [email protected]. Send comments to [email protected].