December 28, 1998

December 28, 1998 | Commentary on Political Thought

Ideas Still Have Consequences

Republicans ran on conservative ideas in 1994 and captured Congress for the first time in 40 years. Republicans ignored conservative ideas in 1998 and nearly lost Congress after just four years.

The other day I stumbled across The Heritage Foundation's mission statement and I reread it. Even though I helped write it, I had forgotten how crisply it summed up what American conservatism is all about. It states: "The Heritage Foundation is a research and educational institute whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values, and a strong national defense."

If members of the incoming 106th Congress are having a little trouble with "the vision thing," they might try returning to the first principles outlined in Heritage's mission statement.

Free Enterprise

Americans should be free to enjoy the fruits of their labor. When they work, invest, take risks, and build businesses, government should not confiscate what they have rightfully earned. The tax regime in America today is oppressive, with tax rates reaching 40 percent on income and nearly 60 percent on estates. As my colleague Daniel Mitchell has noted, medieval serfs only had to hand over one-third of their earnings to the lord of the manor-and they were considered slaves.

Limited Government

The federal government now consumes more than 20 percent of the U.S. economy, a peacetime record. This fiscal year, the federal government will spend more than $1.7 trillion, a sum larger than the entire economy of France. Forget what you've heard about deep spending cuts these past few years. They haven't occurred. Washington spends more now than it ever has. The Founders' vision of a federal government limited in size and scope now seems as distant as their quill pens and powdered wigs.

Individual Freedom

As government grows, individual freedom recedes. Americans today may not want to give 40 percent of what they earn to government. They have no choice. They may not want to support foreign aid or pornographic art. They have no choice. They may not want their children to attend public schools that teach fifth-graders the facts of life but not how to read. They have no choice (unless they're rich enough to afford private school). Too often the American people see only government's presumed benefits. But government has deep costs too, not only in dollars but in lost freedom.

Traditional American Values

Family. Faith. Community. These are some of the traditional values under assault in America today. Think you have the right to discipline your child the "old-fashioned" way, with a good swift spanking? Watch out: The local social service agency may try to take your child away. And don't get the idea that your faith is welcome in the public square. It isn't. As for communities, government has systematically eroded the civil society-the churches, associations, civic organizations and the like-that once knit communities together. The fans of big government ask: Who needs such things when government exists to solve every problem, meet every need, and minister to every ill known to man?

A Strong National Defense

The one clearly delineated function of the federal government in the Constitution is to provide for the common defense. The American way of life-democratic, free, prosperous-is a source of envy if not outright hatred in parts of the world. In short, America has enemies, and it is the duty of the federal government to protect Americans from threats to their safety. Peace through strength never goes out of fashion.

There we have it: five simple principles of conservatism that, I dare say, still resonate with the American people.

Edwin J. Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation (www.heritage.org), a Washington-based public policy research institute.

About the Author

Edwin J. Feulner, Ph.D. Founder, Chairman of the Asian Studies Center, and Chung Ju-yung Fellow
Founder's Office

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