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Sierra Magazine
Ways & Means: Liberty and Tradition

The problem with real conservatives: there aren't enough of them.

by Carl Pope

When House Budget Committee Chairman John Kasich (Ohio) cosponsored the bill by Democratic Representative Elizabeth Furse (Ore.) to repeal the "logging without laws" salvage timber rider, he was the first member of the House Republican leadership to break with the timber industry. His action was that of a consistent conservative--an endangered species in today's Congress.

American conservatism is composed of two main currents, the libertarian and the traditionalist. "Logging without laws" and the many other current vehicles for environmental destruction violate the tenets of both. Kasich takes a libertarian approach, advocating a totally free market and opposing government handouts to anyone--including the big timber companies that receive virtually unlimited government subsidies through the salvage rider (see Field Truths). For similar reasons, the libertarian Cato Institute opposes continued subsidies to ranchers grazing their herds on public lands.

Another libertarian ideal is for all social transactions to be voluntary. It would follow that people should not be compelled to accept the pollution of their air or their water supply without their consent. Rigorously applied, libertarian principles would yield restrictions on pollution more stringent than those embodied in any current federal and state pollution laws (although they would be enforced through individual lawsuits, rather than by the bigger stick of government regulation).

Traditionalists represent the other wing of American conservatism. They honor an intellectual heritage that goes back to the British parliamentarian Edmund Burke, and share many concerns with the religious community. They care about the values of our civilization, among which economic wealth is only one of many. Another important value is "piety," a concept most fully developed by Richard Weaver, the founder of modern American conservatism. The spirit of piety, Weaver argued in 1964, requires that humans discipline their will through respect for nature, other people, and the past.

"[M]an has a duty of veneration towards nature and the natural," Weaver wrote. "Nature is not something to be fought, conquered and changed according to human whims . . . man is not the lord of creation . . . but a part of creation, with limitations, who ought to observe a decent humility in the face of the inscrutable."

Another key American conservative thinker was Russell Kirk, who inspired Barry Goldwater, among others. In 1953 Kirk denounced American attitudes toward the natural world in words considerably more radical than those used by the Sierra Club at that time. "The modern spectacle of vanished forests and eroded lands, wasted petroleum and ruthless mining," he wrote, "is evidence of what an age without veneration does to itself and its successors."

Kirk remained steadfast throughout his life. In 1989 he wrote, "In America we live beyond our means by consuming the portion of posterity, insatiably devouring minerals and forests and the very soil, lowering the water table to gratify the appetites of the present tenants of the country."

But if some conservative thinkers have stayed faithful to their heritage, many avowedly conservative politicians have abandoned libertarian and traditionalist principles. The agenda of the anti-environmental leadership in Congress and the state legislatures--logging without laws, mining and grazing at public expense, denying citizens the right to sue polluters, allowing corporations to hide information about what they spew into the air and water, and granting bureaucrats and politicians godlike powers over the continued existence of other species--is an affront not only to the environment but to three centuries of conservative thought.

Opposition to this decidedly impious agenda comes more from the religious community--both traditional and evangelical--than from the burgeoning numbers of right-wing think tanks. The ideals adopted by the latter are corporate, not conservative. The reason is simple. According to Edward Luttwak of the rightist Center for Strategic and International Studies, "Any conservative who wishes to conserve will not be funded." When the National Taxpayers Union joined the Sierra Club and other conservationists in releasing the Green Scissors report on wasteful, anti-environmental federal subsidies, for example, its corporate contributors threatened to cut it off for selling out to the greens.

Selling out is the problem, but not in the way these nervous corporados fear. Rather, the only connection the so-called conservatives in Congress have with a real free market is that they have sold out to the highest bidder.

Carl Pope is the executive director of the Sierra Club. He can be reached by e-mail at

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