Matthew Spalding of the Heritage Foundation was the speaker at a recent Hillsdale College event. Spalding is the author of the upcoming book, We Still Hold These Truths, which will be released later this month.
Spalding’s presentation focused heavily on America and the conservative movement in a historical context. He began by pointing out that the issues we face now have their roots in the far past—most certainly not recent history. The first compulsory national health care, he noted, was promoted by the Germans in the early 1900’s. “[The Kaiser] was so proud of national health insurance that he wanted the rest of the world to accept it…At the World Fair in St. Louis in 1905, the German government had a display advocating national health care.” Spalding went on to explain that American politicians have been advocating national health care ever since.
Spalding explained that America is unique because of our past as a nation. America is unique because of ideas—ideas like equal rights to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and property. These ideas, Spalding asserted, “were later known as ‘capitalism.’” He went on to note that “Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations came out in 1776; this was no small coincidence.”
Next Spalding examined the ideas behind modern progressivism. Spalding argued that modern progressivism, or liberalism, is rooted in ideas that were imported to America from Germany in the late 1800’s. German proto-progressivism was made up of two major ideas: relativism and historicism. These ideas both revolve around the notion that values and ideals are always relative, both in absolute terms and in historical terms. What one person may see as right, another person may see as wrong, and both can be correct; and what one nation may see as correct may have been seen in other lights in the past, and both views can also be valid. This inconsistency, Spalding argued, is the root of liberalism. To a progressive, rights are “always evolving, not inherent,” Spalding said. “And if rights grow and change, so must government—hence the ‘living Constitution.’” This view, Spalding said, is the opposite of the conservative view, which states that human beings come to Earth with certain fundamental and inalienable rights which do not change over time.
“The debate we are in today is a debate over the core meaning of what America is,” Spalding said. “It is essentially a debate between these two broad views…one argument is for limited government based on an understanding of the core, fundamental rights of man and humanity, and the other denies all of that in favor of evolving unlimited government, based on a completely murky understanding of what man is.”
Spalding argued finally that the crucial mistake of the conservative movement has been its willingness to let other redefine it. Conservatism has allowed itself to be relabeled as a “reflection of various forms of traditionalism,” when in fact it is not a form of “traditionalism” at all, Spalding asserted—rather, it is a philosophy grounded in the nature of man. He concluded by inviting the audience to “act worthy of yourselves,” and join in the effort to bring conservatism back to government.