The Conscience of a Conservative Book Summary - The Conscience of a Conservative Book explained in key points
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The Conscience of a Conservative summary

Barry Goldwater

A classic statement of the conservative mindset

4.4 (138 ratings)
22 mins

Brief summary

The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater is a political manifesto advocating for individual liberty, limited government, and free-market capitalism as the foundation of American conservatism.

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    The Conscience of a Conservative
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    Unlike liberalism, conservatism looks at the “whole man.”

    What is a conservative? Before the 1930s, Republicans in the United States had a simple answer to that question: someone who believes in limited government and maximum personal freedom. But 20 years of opposition undermined this idea. By the time Dwight D. Eisenhower became president in 1952, many conservatives believed that it was necessary to – as he put it – be a “liberal when it comes to human problems.” 

    What these “progressive” conservatives were, in effect, suggesting was that their own creed wasn’t a comprehensive political philosophy. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

    The key message here is: Unlike liberalism, conservatism looks at the “whole man.” 

    Liberals often claim that conservatives aren’t interested in the little people, and that theirs is merely an economic theory obsessed with the bottom line. The shoe, however, is on the other foot – it’s liberals who are only concerned with material well-being and who neglect other aspects of life. 

    In fact, only conservatives take account of the whole man. Let’s break that down.

    In the liberal view of things, the job of politics is to satisfy economic needs. Give folks food, clothing, and shelter, liberals argue, and you’ve answered life’s biggest questions. Conservatives don’t see it that way. They also view humans as spiritual beings. Nurturing this superior side of human nature, they claim, is political philosophy’s highest aim. 

    This leads us to a second important point. When you satisfy economic needs, you can treat everyone alike – a full belly, after all, is a full belly. Spirituality is different. It can only be developed if you recognize that everyone is different; what fulfills you might not do the same for me. Satisfying spiritual needs, in other words, is only possible when we are free to decide what gives our own lives meaning.

    Conservatism is thus a holistic creed, buttressed by the view that humans require both economic and political freedom to flourish. Without the former, they are reliant on an external power – the state, which can deprive them of their means of survival. Without the latter, they must submit to the beliefs of others. 

    Crucially, conservatives understand that neither of these freedoms can be absolute. As social beings, we thrive when we can live among others in peace. This requires social order, which in turn requires certain limitations and duties such as paying taxes. In the following blink, we’ll look at how this delicate balance can be struck.

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    What is The Conscience of a Conservative about?

    The Conscience of a Conservative (1960) is a classic statement of the conservative mindset. Penned in an age of bipartisan support for big government, Barry Goldwater’s manifesto rekindled a conservative movement committed to shrinking the state. Over the next 20 years, Goldwater’s positions on topics such as taxation, education, and welfare became commonsensical on the American right, laying the foundations for the 1980s Reagan revolution. 

    Best quote from The Conscience of a Conservative

    The Conservative looks upon politics as the art of achieving the maximum amount of freedom for individuals that is consistent with the maintenance of social order.

    —Barry Goldwater
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    Who should read The Conscience of a Conservative?

    • History buffs and politicos 
    • Advocates of limited government 
    • Liberals interested in the other side of the argument

    About the Author

    Barry Morris Goldwater was a five-term United States senator from Arizona, which he represented from 1953-1965 and again from 1969-1987. Goldwater was the Republican party’s nominee for president in 1964. Although he lost that election, he was credited with sparking the resurgence of conservatism in the United States. Goldwater died in 1998. 

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