The self-styled ‘Mr Conservative’, Goldwater was a five term Senator from the South-western state of Arizona, who whilst perhaps most famously went down to a crushing Presidential election defeat to Lyndon Baines Johnson in 1964, paved the way for the rise of the conservative movement and the election of Ronald Reagan sixteen years later in 1980.
A true conservative, Goldwater’s only desire was to preserve individual liberty and to defend the system of limited government that had been established by the founding fathers in the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution.
In a political career spanning over 30 years, Goldwater never cast a legislative vote on the basis of political expediency, for either himself or his Republican Party. Instead, when called to make a decision, there was always only one question at the forefront of his mind:
Is it Constitutional?
For Goldwater, a man of deep personal integrity, understood that his first duty as a law-maker was to support the Constitution of the United States. Unlike many of his colleagues, both Republican and Democrat, he took his oath of office seriously, understanding that adherence to the plain meaning of the founding document as regarded the individual and state was the only means by which the rule of law could be preserved and America saved from tyranny. Courageous men and woman would be required to be the vigilant watchmen, ensuring the long-term survival of the great Republic.
Never was his resolve tested so much as over the civil rights era of the 1960s, when he made the difficult decision to oppose to the Civil Rights Act 1964, which he viewed as an unconstitutional Federal intrusion into the rights of states and an encroachment upon the rights of private property owners. As a libertarian, he believed that such an expansion of federal authority could never amount to a real solution to racial tensions, a problem he had always recognised. Blacks could make progress within their own communities within their respective states, and enlightened individuals would lead the way to racial equality as he himself as done when desegregating his family’s department store business back in Arizona.
Was Goldwater wrong on Civil Rights? The question is outside the scope of this piece. Suffice it to say he certainly had powerful Constitutional arguments for taking the position he took. Whether the Act itself actually led to the improvement in race relations in the US in the subsequent decades is itself arguable. With the exception of those parts of the Civil Rights Act that specifically prohibited state-sponsored segregation, most libertarians would be suspicious of any claim that Government force, anywhere and at any time, has been responsible for healing divisions between people.
What Goldwater’s career does demonstrate, however, is that by allowing statutes or court decisions to pass without challenging the Constitutional authority behind them, the principles of limited government and individual liberty become more and more eroded at the drop of a hat for some expedient political end such as “No Child Left Behind”, the “War on Terror” or Obama-care. Not only do such actions have a devastating effect on the principles of constitutional government generally, they tend to make the problems they are designed to address worse. To take but the first and third example, the expansion of federal government authority under cover of supposedly benign objectives in education and health has hindered real progress in these areas at the state, local and individual levels, succeeding only in increasing the size of the Federal bureaucracy and by extension unworkable “one size fits all” solutions coming out of Washington DC.
But of what relevance is Barry Goldwater in 2012? And for the UK, a country without even a written constitution!
The US Constitution was based on a system of natural rights and common law justice that was the preserve of the English legal system centuries before the birth of the founding fathers. A system based on the presumption of individual freedom as opposed to state licensure. In the same way that Barry Goldwater saw the American system come under threat from unconstitutional federal laws and the decisions of activist courts, the UK today faces much the same problems from the EU and its long-standing mission of “ever closer integration”, a neat-sounding phrase for increased political, economic and regulatory centralisation – a mission far exceeding its noble original mandate of a common market and one which has been rigorously pursued at the expense of national self-determination and individual rights.
The principles of Barry Goldwater should not be confined to one state or place in time or location. Whether you are an American concerned about the future of the rule of law, a Briton worried about the expansionary aims of the EU, or a South Sudanese farmer celebrating the birth of their new country, ‘Old Goldie’ should hold something for lovers of freedom and opponents of tyranny the world over.
Photos courtesy of Terry Ballard and Sean Hackbarth.