This week, we are happy to host a guest post from friend of the Center, John Mozena. John is the president of The Center for Economic Accountability and has been a guest on our podcast. Today, he offers his perspective on the national conversation we are having about justice and why conservatives should support reforming our justice system.
For my conservative friends:
One of the valuable concepts at the heart of traditional conservatism is the importance of protecting the structures of civilization against decline and barbarism. I see that reflected in a lot of conservatives’ responses to everything going on right now, which broadly (although certainly not unanimously) seem to be tending toward “order at all costs.”
The thing is, order imposed through force is fragile and cannot form a lasting foundation for a healthy society.
It’s also un-American.
That was a key point of our Declaration of Independence: Legitimate governments derive their power from the consent of the governed:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
I think it’s deeply important that we stop and think about that for a second. America’s founding document says that our government has power over us because we agree to give it power over us. And the reason we give it that “just power” is to protect our rights to things like life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
It’s hard to look in good faith at the inequities in the American justice system, especially in situations like the killing of George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or any of the tragedies that preceded them, and think that our governments are treating all Americans equally or that everyone’s rights are being protected. In other words, the government’s power is no longer being used justly, or with the consent of the governed.
That’s what people are in the streets trying to change. They are trying to change a system that does not live up to America’s founding principles. As I once heard Hillsdale College President Dr. Larry Arnn say to the audience at CPAC, “Conservatism means conserving something. What do we conserve? There are so many things that are old. Some of them are bad, some of them are good,” and argue that in America, conservatism primarily means protecting both the founding principles of the Declaration of Independence and our nation’s Constitutional form of government.
That’s why, in today’s situation, I argue that the status quo of America’s justice system is not what conservatives should be working to protect. Rather, I suggest you should be siding with those who are calling for reforms that base our justice system more firmly on those fundamental American principles.
You don’t have to agree with their methods or rhetoric to support the same goals. It’s understandable to look at people calling for change and be concerned that those changes will take our society backward; that it will be more difficult to protect hard-won gains against chaos and disorder. It’s legitimately scary when fringe groups are actively working to create chaos, or when anger spills over into violence.
But the overwhelming majority of the protesters out there aren’t trying to tear down American civilization. Exactly the opposite: They’re calling for the benefits of our civilization to be made available to all. They want more of America’s founding principles in action, not less.
They are broadly protesting the reality that in too many situations and in too many communities, the justice system fails to secure American citizens’ rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – and all too often actively erodes those rights.
At their heart, the protests are a call for making America more civilized, not less; to reform a broken system that is eroding some of the most fundamental principles on which our nation was founded. They are literally asking for “law & order” – equally applied for everyone.
I am not conservative; I’m libertarian. I personally value freedom over order, but I like to think I understand and respect the conservative impulse to protect civilization and its benefits. Thing is, most of the people in the streets are asking America for more civilization, not less. They’re not trying to tear down America’s founding principles; they’re trying to see them implemented more consistently and equally.
Protesters are demanding that their government earn the consent of the governed, as we have said is the duty of government from the literal Day One of America. They are demanding that their government use its power to protect every American’s rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which is the purpose of having an American government in the first place.
I put it to you that those demands are wholly consistent with conservative principles, even if you may have a visceral negative reaction to the manner in which they’re often being made.
Justice is a societal construct. “No justice, no peace” is not a call for anarchy; rather, it’s a demand for civilization. It’s a demand for America’s justice system to do what the Declaration of Independence promised, and deliver justice by consistently doing its fundamental job of protecting every American’s rights.
I believe reforming the American justice system to deliver on that promise is not only consistent with the most praiseworthy and long-standing of conservative principles, but also is more practically likely to deliver strong and enduring “law and order” than any amount of force could ever possibly achieve.