Friday, November 28, 2008

Thankfulness -- examining the conservative perspective

With the current financial and economic problems in our country, there's something poignant about the Thanksgiving holiday. It is supposed to be a time that celebrates the abundant blessings that America has received. When that abundance dwindles, maybe it's a little harder to celebrate than usual.

I have been fascinated to read conservative opinion this week on the very topic of thankfulness. Conservatives are just as much affected by the current economy as liberals, and the recent election perhaps adds insult to injury to those truly opposed to Obama's ideology. Yet reading conservative reactions to the current situation is almost downright touching to me.

For instance, while conservatism is often thought of as a defense of laissez-faire capitalism, it is significant that many conservatives are saying we need to focus on correcting the moral problems that led to the current financial crisis--the greed, corruption, and irresponsible decision-making. Ross Mackenzie writes that it is "time to refocus on less materialism" and on a "simpler life" (from the title of his article). Essentially what he is saying is that when the market goes bad, it is time for us to accept the consequences, and not beg for bailouts.

We are all actors in the market. That's what the word "market" implies. As Ken Connor reminds us, whatever happens in the market is merely a sum total of all of our individual decisions. This kind of system gives us great freedom as Americans, but it also gives us great responsibility. And, as Connor argues, there must be some form of regulation if it is all going to work. For a conservative, the ideal is that Americans would regulate ourselves through the transmission of moral values from one generation to the next, values like self-discipline and personal responsbility. It is encouraging to me that many conservatives remain consistent in their ideals, calling on the American people not to ask for hand-outs, but rather to look at our own moral fiber to see where we went wrong in the market.

Michelle Malkin writes an inspiring article about a family who lost half their income when the husband was severely injured in a car accident. This family sold their nice home in suburbia and made a new life for themselves in rural New Mexico, where the cost of living was much lower. It's inspiring to think that, in spite of having lost so much, this family is still thankful. That's why it's good to have a Thanksgiving holiday. It is a good chance to remind ourselves that we really do have a lot, even when it looks like not as much.

Despite the way conservatives are sometimes made out to be apologists for the rich, the truth is, most conservatives are not rich (these days Democrats may actually be wealthier on average than Republicans). In fact, conservatives these days are doing the opposite of standing up for big business. Many (including me) would criticize the bail-outs of GM, Ford, and Chevy precisely on the grounds that these companies have failed the free market test. You can't be in favor of the free market when it's working for you and then ask for hand-outs when it isn't. (I'm not so heartless as to say that we should just let all the workers in the auto industry and related industries suffer, but wouldn't it make more sense to focus our compassion on those workers rather than CEOs who fly in to lobby Congress in their private jets?)

Personal responsibility is just one of many values. Certainly it is right and good for us to help those who cannot help themselves, so that perhaps one day they can stand on their own two feet. My own personal critique of American conservatism is that we are sometimes too afraid of "collectivism" to realize that we do have the capacity to help a lot of people in need in effective ways.

Nevertheless, it's undeniably refreshing to see conservatives stand up for personal responsibility and freedom, not just when it leads to personal prosperity, but also when it hurts. And the result of this integrity is not self-pity, but rather increased thankfulness for what we do have. As Americans who believe in this ideal, even when our prosperity declines, we will always be able to think of ourselves as the richest country in the world.

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