Conservative Creation: New Institutions to Preserve What We Hold Dear

Earlier this year Andy Smarick, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote a compelling piece in Public Discourse advocating “a conservatism of creation.” Noting that conservatives are typically adept at well, conserving, he exhorts them to also “get great at creating new institutions.” For readers who may see “conservative creation” as an oxymoron at first glance, Smarick assures them that it is, in fact, just what our nation needs to maintain “the most important aspects of society, culture and governance.”

Perpetual institutions are necessary for ongoing needs, he acknowledges, though they may require updating and reform from time to time. In times of massive change, however, conservatives might better discriminate between the perpetual institutions we need (family, marriage, national and state legislatures) and those which we simply happen to have. Rather than spending precious time and money doing “the incremental work of fine-tuning” the latter, conservatives should look to those extraordinary eras when America’s civil society exploded with “institutional fertility.”

The years between 1820 and 1860 marked one such period, driven by the Second Great Awakening; reformers championing abolition, temperance and women’s rights and the founding of many new colleges and universities. Smarick also cites the years between 1880 and 1920 when the Red Cross, NAACP, Boy and Girl Scouts and many other organizations were established. For conservatives, however, the real Golden Age was the “two-decade organization spree” between 1964 (Barry Goldwater’s loss) and 1984 (Ronald Reagan’s landslide re-election) when conservative social entrepreneurs and donors established numerous institutions (including the Federalist Society, the Heritage Foundation, and the Manhattan Institute) which pushed conservative ideas forward and continue to do so today. 

In encouraging a rebirth of conservative creation, Smarick deftly links such action to the conservative intellectual tradition, citing Alexis de Tocqueville, Robert Nisbet and Friedrich Hayek. He is equally careful to avoid advocating change in place of continuity, referring to Edmund Burke’s comment that “a state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.” He cautions conservatives to avoid looking to national solutions for the problems they choose to tackle and turn instead on “social entrepreneurialism that is focused more locally, that produces a diversity of institutions and that engages our fellow citizens in collective action.”

And finally, Smarick—aware of the frustrations that conservatives may face in attempting to reform perpetual institutions (and higher education comes immediately to mind)—asks them to stay in those fights. “We need to be part of the debates that take place inside of and about longstanding entities,” he writes. “But we must also appreciate that sometimes in order to preserve principles and practices that we hold dear, we must create new institutions dedicated to such causes.”

For donors and others interested in following Andy Smarick’s work around conservative creation, the Manhattan Institute held an event on June 2 titled “A Conservatism of Creation: Building New Education Institutions.”

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