The Moral Case for Conservatism
How to talk to America about big and small things


Lee Habeeb

In the early 20th century, two of England’s towering minds, the socialist George Bernard Shaw and the Catholic G. K. Chesterton, engaged in a series of debates. Shaw was an atheist, socialist, and vegetarian; Chesterton a Catholic, moralist, and meat-eater. Shaw argued against private property, and for redistribution of wealth. Chesterton argued for private property, and warned about the perils of consolidated power. It was like Ali vs. Frazier. A clash of styles and vision.

Shaw, sounding like a modern progressive, said this about wealth and equality:

The moment I made up my mind that the present distribution of wealth was wrong, the peculiar constitution of my brain obliged me to find out exactly how far it was wrong and what is the right distribution. I went through all the proposals ever made and through the arguments used in justification of the existing distribution; and I found they were utterly insensate and grotesque. Eventually I was convinced that we ought to be tolerant of any sort of crime except unequal distribution of income.

In came Chesterton:

We say there ought to be in the world a great mass of scattered powers, privileges, limits, points of resistance, so that the mass of the people may resist tyranny. And we say that there is a permanent possibility of that central direction, however much it may have been appointed to distribute money equally, becoming a tyranny. 

Chesterton added, “Mr. Shaw proposes to distribute wealth. We propose to distribute power.”


The moderator warned the audience that what they were listening to wouldn’t have relevance in 20 years. How wrong he was.

Those men were engaged in a debate that rages today. How do we best organize a society? From the top down or the bottom up? With the individual — and, as Chesterton argued, God — as the ultimate sovereign, or the state, as Shaw argued? Which system drives the most effective and the fairest outcomes?

If there is a single reason why conservatives continue to lose the battle of ideas, it’s because we don’t make the moral case for freedom and free markets. Our political class instead makes the economic case for our philosophy. Our smart guys are so impressed with their own intelligence, they think we can win the debate using numbers and data, charts and graphs, and political tactics and strategy.

It’s the Left’s secret advantage. They create the feeling that they care more about the average American because they make the moral case for their philosophy.

One of the advantages this confers on the Left is this: They get to play large ball, while we play a dour brand of small ball.

When you play large ball, you get to be on offense. When you play small ball, you always feel like you’re playing defense. They make big bold moves about big bold things like Obamacare, while we wallow in the weeds explaining why Obamacare won’t work.What can we do about this regrettable state of affairs? Let’s start by talking about the moral implications of a government that tries to do too much for its people.

Dennis Prager wrote a great column two years ago that included the following formulation: the bigger the government, the smaller the citizen.

He argued:

Not only does bigger government teach people not to take care of themselves, it teaches them not to take of others. Smaller government is the primary reason Americans give more charity and volunteer more time per capita than do Europeans living in welfare states. Why take care of your fellow citizen, or even your family, when the government will do it for you?

From there, we should take Prager’s formulation one step further: the bigger the government, the smaller the private sector.

As more of our money goes to feed ever expanding government bureaucracies, it leaves less money for us to do with as we choose, and less for the private sector. As big government crowds out the private sector, the result is less innovation, a less efficient economy, and less job creation.

Does anyone think government is the engine of innovation, efficiency, and job creation? Will government create the next medical breakthrough? The next iPhone?

We can extend Prager’s formulation further still: the bigger the government, the smaller the church.

As the state takes more of our money, there is less for us to give to churches, synagogues, and mosques who take care of the weakest among us. And not just with a check, but with a caring human being connected to that material support.We can point to 20th-century Europe’s experience. As the state grew, the churches there had less influence and eventually emptied.

From there, we can take Prager’s great line a step farther: the bigger the government, the smaller the family.

As people in Europe left their churches, they lost the connection between love, sex, marriage, and family. Birth rates fell below the replacement rate in many of those countries. In many parts of our nation, too, they are barely at replacement rate. Moreover, as we work longer hours and pay more to the government, it leaves less for our families. Kids are expensive, and parents keep families smaller out of economic necessity.

Now let’s take Prager’s formulation one last logical step: the bigger the government, the smaller the dreams, and the smaller the future.

More than half of recent college graduates are either unemployed or underemployed. And in inner cities of America where government manages nearly every aspect of too many people’s lives, youth unemployment is at rates never seen before.  

When we make the case against big bureaucracies, we are actually making a moral case that the bureaucracy will, over time, generally seek to serve itself at the expense of service to its customers. And even at the expense of its employees, if they have the desire to reform the bureaucracy.

Big, as we all know, too often becomes impersonal and breeds alienation.  Talk to anyone who has attended a high school with 3,000 students, as opposed to one with 800 or 500. No matter how hard the educators try, and no matter what economies of scale a large school creates, something important is lost — something personal, something human.

That is why great innovation often comes from small companies, from a few guys in a garage. And it is why, as companies grow, their greatest challenge is to keep that contact with the customer, and the ability to adapt quickly as the customer’s needs change.

In a similar way, government that is small and close to home can best serve its citizen’s needs and more easily adapt to change.


Sign up for free NRO e-mails today:

Subscribe to National Review