I'm always fascinated by those stories of people who started out as communists or some other version of the left-wing radical, only to eventually become rock-solid conservatives. My own journey to conservatism wasn't as dramatic. But perhaps there is something valuable in its very commonness.
It was a story that started out as a young man with few convictions, not unlike many young people in recent decades, and generally self-absorbed. Sports really ranked my sole passion. But that began to change when I actually started to use that education my parents had paid for since first grade.
Of all places and against long odds, I became a conservative while attending classes in liberal academia.
My undergraduate days were during the administration of President Ronald Reagan. As one can imagine, Reagan was not a favorite with my professors. Except one. I was fortunate to have an economics professor who grasped how the economy worked. Trust me, that's unusual. He explained the success of Reagan's supply-side economic policies, and how much of a surprise this was to many in the economics profession.
Supply-side economics made sense given its emphasis on the role of each individual and firm in the economy, and the impact incentives have on economic behavior. From this foundation, policies of low taxes, a light regulatory touch and smaller government made sense. I wound up writing my undergraduate thesis on supply-side economics, and survived as a supply-sider even through graduate school.
However, economics was only my opening to conservatism. The learning process continued in the areas of national defense, the culture, and social issues. The conservative philosophy emphasized freedom coupled with individual responsibility, the need to defend the country against enemies both internal and external, a robust respect for human life, and a fundamental understanding that we can benefit from traditions and wisdom handed down throughout the ages.
All of this made sense to me. But it was when I came back to and was able to more fully understand my Christian faith that I came to see an even deeper wisdom of conservatism. I had grown up in a Roman Catholic household, and every school I attended through my undergraduate degree had a "Saint" at the beginning of its name. Nonetheless, I wandered from the faith in my teenage years, and while never becoming an atheist or agnostic, I'm ashamed to say that I just did not think about God much at all.
God worked on me, though, including through my wife, and I emerged with a much deeper faith than I could have imagined previously. I became a Lutheran. Of course, I could not stomach the liberal leadership of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), so it was the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod (LCMS) for me. And though the LCMS has its problems, such as an isolationist streak among a vocal minority, this is a church committed to traditional, confessional, and biblical Christianity.
Lutherans also have a strong sense of the sinful aspects of human nature. As it turns out, so does conservatism.
Conservatism is rooted in realism about mankind's capacity for both good and evil. The main political philosophies that contend with conservatism in the U.S. today libertarian and modern-day liberalism fail to to fully grasp the evil in human nature. Hard-core libertarians, therefore, see little need for government. Meanwhile, liberals go in the opposite direction, and see no reason to limit the size and reach of government.
For those of us who acknowledge the sinful aspects of human nature, conservatism makes sense as a political philosophy. It recognizes the need for checks and limits.
The state, as a result, should not be allowed to grow large, for if it does, the incentives in government to build up budgets, payrolls and power lead to waste, sloth, corruption and sometimes horrendous atrocities.
When it comes to the economy, conservatism emphasizes that free markets work best, with government protecting property rights, enforcing contracts and guarding against fraud. Why? Because no matter what one's individual economic motivations might be, true, lasting success only comes if one creates or meets a demand of others. In socialism, the few in government dictate to the masses. In a free enterprise system, entrepreneurs and businesses must work, invent and innovate to please consumers.
Given the dark side of human nature, conservatism also places appropriately strong emphasis on government's role in protecting life, stopping crime on our streets, and in standing up to international dangers, from communism to terrorism over recent decades.
I came to conservatism via the route of economics. I remain a conservative because of its fundamental understanding that mankind, as history has shown, can achieve tremendous good, but also can inflict real evil.
Raymond J. Keating is a columnist with Newsday, and a regular columnist for OrthodoxyToday.org. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.