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Building a Society Where Freedom and Opportunity Flourish

R&L: The philosophical roots of American conservatism run deep. For example, one major influence has been the classical liberal thought of the nineteenth century. How do you understand the relationship between conservatism and classical liberalism, especially their similarities and differences?

Feulner: Today, especially, conservatives and classical liberals are more strongly allied against liberals of the left than ever before. They both oppose in principle such intrusions by the left that restrict people’s liberty to pursue their own ends and solve their own problems. Where conservatives and classical liberals always differ is on the question of where government can legitimately and effectively use power. The legalization of drugs is a classic example. Generally speaking, most classical liberals favor it; most conservatives do not.

R&L: These distinctions have become less clear over the years, have they not?

Feulner: That’s right; such lines dividing the two groups have been blurred recently. Milton Friedman once wrote, “In a society, freedom has nothing to say about what an individual does with his freedom; it is not an all-embracing ethic. Indeed a major aim of the [classical] liberal is to leave the ethical problem for the individual to wrestle with. The really important ethical problems are those that face an individual in a free society–what he should do with his freedom.”

I think that, today, with the wreckage of social engineering all around us, conservatives are more wary of the dangers of seeking solutions to social problems through public policy. At the same time, with the wreckage of civil society all around us, classical liberals are paying closer attention to those moral choices that lie inside the boundaries of the individual’s freedom. They are realizing that it is not enough merely to leave moral choice as a problem for individuals to wrestle with; we also need a serious, ongoing public conversation about the standards that guide free people who are acting within their rights.

R&L: This year, The Heritage Foundation celebrates its twenty-fifth anniversary. The American conservative movement has come a long way since 1973. In your opinion, what has been the most significant event for conservatives in the past two and a half decades?

Feulner: The most significant single event for conservatives in the last twenty-five years, in my opinion, was the fall of the Berlin Wall in November 1989. Of course, to achieve this decisive vindication of freedom over totalitarianism, there were many preceding events that were significant. Particularly, I think of Ronald Reagan’s address to the British Parliament on June 8, 1982–the Westminster speech–where he, in effect, threw down the gauntlet and changed our way of thinking by leading the Western world to a notion of transcending communism rather than containing it or submitting to it.

R&L: “Ideas have consequences,” as Richard Weaver wrote, and the American conservative movement has been about ideas from the start. Who are the most important and foundational thinkers for conservatives?

Feulner: The most important, fundamental thinkers for conservatives this century are, to my mind, the individuals I profile in my recent volume, The March of Freedom. Most are intellectuals, and most are not household names, although they include Nobel Prize winners and a Templeton Prize winner–and, of course, a former President of the United States. Let me mention a few from that list who are especially worth noting.

The term conservative mind was considered by many on the left to be an oxymoron–until 1953, when Russell Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind. This book showed conclusively that conservatives have a distinguished intellectual pedigree and, therefore, cannot be dismissed by the left.

F. A. Hayek and Milton Friedman, both Nobel Prize winners, were instrumental in lifting economics from its traditional status as “the dismal science” and integrating it with political, social, and moral philosophy.

R&L: Following Reagan, you often summarize the conservative philosophy in the following five words: family, work, neighborhood, freedom, and peace. Why do these concepts encapsulate the conservative vision?

Feulner: The words family, work, neighborhood, freedom, and peace encapsulate the conservative vision because they represent our primary political ideals and operating moral premises.

R&L: Can you elaborate on how they do that?

Feulner: Conservatives, as opposed to modern liberals, believe that the best solutions to most problems are found as close as possible to the problems themselves. So, for instance, when a child is misbehaving in some way, the best solution does not come from Washington or some agency of local government but from the child’s own family. When families live in close proximity to each other, they form a neighborhood. Here, again, problems that can be solved among neighbors should be solved that way and not removed to some remote authority.

Work represents the individual’s responsibility to earn his own way and provide for his family. When problems arise in the workplace, the best solutions are those worked out amicably between employer and employee.

People who broadly accept and meet the responsibilities of their families, their neighborhoods, and their places of work are people who live freely and in peace. Excepting national defense, those five concepts subsume most of the principles and actions that add up to a free and peaceful existence among people.

R&L: Recently, a few prominent conservatives have made the argument that the free-market system, though perhaps efficient, is destructive of the social order–I am here thinking of the kinds of criticisms made by George Soros, for example. What is your response to these kinds of criticisms?

Feulner: I take serious issue with those who argue that the free-market system is destructive of the social order, because they fail to heed Friedman’s warning that I quoted before. To repeat, the freedom to choose does not tell us what choices we should make in any context–economic, political, social, or personal.

Soros builds his theory on an unsound footing when he writes, “The doctrine of laissez-faire capitalism holds that the common good is best served by the uninhibited pursuit of self-interest.” That needs to be qualified: The common good is best served when the pursuit of self-interest is not inhibited by the state. Self-imposed moral constraints that we adopt as individuals are altogether different; they are not only compatible with laissez-faire capitalism but are also essential to maintaining the social order in a free-market economy.

A second caution I would offer against such critics is that they regard self-interest as including virtually anything one feels like doing. On the contrary, rational self-interest requires us to make choices based on standards of value–and rational values take account of the consequences our actions have for others. Those are among the “really important ethical problems” that Friedman is referring to.

R&L: Even though central planning has been shown in practice to be economically inefficient, politically coercive, and morally bankrupt, many still question the morality of free enter-prise. In your opinion, in what sense is capitalism a morally superior system compared to other economic arrangements?

Feulner: Fundamentally, capitalism is a morally superior system to central planning because it permits individual free choice, which is central to all other freedoms that the individual possesses. In a centrally planned economy, for example, the state will allocate newsprint. Is it safe to assume that the government bureaucrat will allocate a fair portion of that newsprint to publications that criticize the government? Of course not. Yet again, I would repeat Milton Friedman’s observation: Capitalism has nothing to say about how we use our freedom. The moral superiority of capitalism lies in the freedom it gives us to choose. Humans, as distinct from lower animals, are moral beings because we have the capacity to make choices. Capitalism is the only system that recognizes this distinctly moral component of human nature.

R&L: Though a majority of Americans profess a belief in God, religious principles are held suspect by those inside the Beltway. Similarly, many modern thinkers feel that a robust public expression of religion threatens freedom. What is the appropriate place of religion in a free society, and what role do religious leaders have in its preservation?

Feulner: I see some hopeful signs that the elite media are coming to realize the importance of religion and paying it more respect than they have in the past. Religious leaders, of course, should be willing to speak out on the issues of the day, but, even more important, they should remind other believers that real faith is not something only practiced for an hour on the Sabbath. Rather, it is something that should infuse the individual in his every action with his fellow citizens and with the institutions with which he is engaged.

R&L: Much conservative thought focuses on the importance of virtue, that is, being the right kind of citizen and being the right kind of person. What virtues are necessary to sustain a free society?

Feulner: I commend my colleague Bill Bennett for making the virtues central to his two recent books, The Book of Virtues and The Moral Compass. In the first, he opens with a quotation from Plato: “You know that the beginning is the most important part of any work, especially in the case of a young and tender thing; for that is the time at which the character is being formed and the desired impression is more readily taken.” I do not think it was an accident that the first of the ten virtues illustrated in The Book of Virtues is self-discipline. In a free society, in a system of self-government, self-discipline is probably the most fundamental virtue. Courage and honesty also should rank high for people who must deal with one another by voluntary consent and mutual respect.

R&L: How ought such virtues be promoted?

Feulner: We can promote virtue, first and foremost, by restoring the traditional family so that children might acquire through example and practice the virtues they need to succeed in life. We can and should promote virtues elsewhere, of course, but the family is by far the most critical institution for cultivating the virtues that will keep us free.

R&L: As you look to the next twenty-five years, what will be the single greatest challenge for conservatives?

Feulner: I believe the greatest challenge facing us in the next twenty-five years will be rolling back the liberal welfare state and building an America where freedom, opportunity, and civil society can flourish. My colleagues and I at The Heritage Foundation and thousands of our supporters around the country are dedicated to achieving that objective, and I hope that everyone who calls himself a conservative will join us in this challenge for the future.