If you are seeking a guide to the basic arguments and ideas behind modern political conservatism you could do worse that Dinesh D’Sousa’s Letters to a Young Conservative. It has a number of advantages:
– It is relatively short at under 230 pages.
– It is broken down into short, easy to read chapters on major topics.
– The prose is lively and conversational – again easy to read.
– The issues discussed are topical and relevant.
It does have a few drawbacks however:
– It is aimed at college students and so involves a world that is often quite different than the “real world.” (Being a conservative on campus is often quite different than being an adult conservative)
– It is focused on politics and policy more than foundational principles.
– The prose is conversational (if you are looking for a more serious tone that could be a drawback).
Still, all in all, I think it is an useful and enjoyable read. The book uses the device, made obvious by the title, of D’Souza exchanging letters with a college student that attended one of his speeches. We get to read only the D’Souza side of the correspondence obviously. Using this device, the author gives his advice on a range of subjects. D’Souza starts with his basic views on liberalism and conservatism – where they come from, where they are going – and then proceeds to touch on a variety of political and cultural hot button issues from political correctness, multiculturalism, feminism, and education to gun control, abortion, gay marriage, and immigration. On each issues he outlines the ideas he believes are at stake, discuss he social and political ramifications, and often touches on effective ways to engage campus liberals on these issues. In this way the book is sort of a guided tour through the ideas and issues involved in espousing a conservative worldview in a hostile environment like a college campus. As such, it is an quick and easy read. The chapters are loosely connected but could easily be read separately if needed.
In setting out what it means to be a conservative D’Souza describes the changing use of the word liberal. For D’Souza American conservatism is an outgrowth of the classical liberalism of the Founding Fathers. American Conservatism is different than European conservatism because it is “modern” and “American.” It is also different because America is a “revolutionary nation.” This means that “being conservative in America means conserving the principles of the American Revolution.” Added to this mix is a particular conception of virtue and its role:
What unifies the vast majority of conservatives is the belief that their are moral standards in the universe and that living up to them is the best way to have a full and happy life.
D’Souza contrast this conservatism with a liberalism gone awry; a liberalism based on the “sovereignty of the inner self.” At base, D’Souza asserts, the difference is a substantive disagreement about what constitutes the good life. These differing views of the good life come from different conceptions of human nature. Liberals adopt Rousseau’s faith in the inherent goodness of human nature while conservatives hold to a more calvinistic view of original sin. D’Souza also distinguishes conservatism from libertarianism. He describes libertarianism as a philosophy of government as opposed to conservatism as a philosophy of life. He sums it up succinctly:
Conservatives defend freedom not because they believe in the right to do as you please, but because they believe freedom is the precondition for virtue. It is only when people choose freely that they can choose the good. Without freedom there is no virtue: A coerced virtue is no virtue at all
Lest you think this introduction signals a philosophical treatise, D’Souza outlines the ramifications with political red meat:
For all its grand proclamations, today’s liberalism seems to be characterized by a pathological hostility to America, to capitalism, and to traditional moral vales. In short, liberalism has become the party of anti-Americanism, economic plunder, and immorality.
This philosophical introduction does however lay the foundation for an interesting discussion of the conservative position on the issues of the day. I am biased of course, in that I share most of D’Souza’s philosophy and politics, but I still think his arguments are clear and well stated. You may not agree with him but you will know where he is coming from; why he says what he says.
So if you are conservative and looking for a gift for a young person, a young person looking for some insight in to conservatism, or even a liberal trying to understand the other side Letters to a Young Conservative would make for an enjoyable and useful read.
P.s. If you are looking for a more philosophical and less polemical book on traditional conservatism I recommend Russell Kirk’s recently reissued The American Cause.