A while ago, I replied to a self-described conservative acquaintance on Facebook, disputing a claim he had made about what ‘conservatives’ ought to be worried about and focused on.
It was Facebook, so it was brief and lacking in detail — more a quick rebuttal than an actual discussion. As a result, another acquaintance posted the following question to me by messenger:
What do you consider to be the real issues that matter (or ought to) to conservatives versus the shiny objects meant to distract?
That is, of course, a very complicated question that requires a really long answer. I’ve posted many times (for example, here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and here, and…) on various aspects of that answer over the years; but my one attempt at a broad and unified answer was my book (which took over 400 pages).
Alas, I was busy enough dealing with minor crises in my real life, and overwhelmed enough by feelings of helplessness in the face of the damage the lunatics are currently doing to the asylum, that I didn’t feel I could give it the attention and effort — and respect — that the question deserves.
I did, however, manage to put together the following short answer that could fit within a Messenger response (divided into 7 parts to conform to the constraints of that limited medium).
So, here it is: what should ‘conservatives’ be concerning themselves with these days?…
1 August 2023
I pointed you to my book for my complete answer to your question – what should conservatives be focused on? – but I feel I still owe you a pithy answer that can fit into a Facebook Messenger format. This is a quick-cut effort (it took me 10 years to write the book); I will undoubtedly leave out many important things and oversimplify others; and this is, of course, MHO (or my NSHO). Nonetheless, inadequate as it may be, here it is…
(1 of 7) There are many ways to be ‘conservative’ because what you might want to ‘conserve’ is, by definition, relative to current conditions and guided by what potential changes seem more and less dangerous (and frightening) to you. I describe myself as a “libertarian pragmatist (with a small ‘L’ and a small ‘P’)”, so my focus is on different things than what a hard-core “cultural” conservative or a “religious” conservative might focus on. But, in the American context, I would claim that the base of political conservatism – “What is it we should be worried about conserving?” – is the legacy of respect for human liberty, and the systems that protect it, that we inherited from the Founders. They were radicals in the context of contemporaneous European notions of government and society, but we inherited that radicalism from them as “the way things are”. We ought to be protecting that inheritance – ‘conserving’ it — against more modern radical notions of egalitarianism and communalism that give short-shrift to liberty as they pursue a phantasm of ‘equity’. To the extent that many modern American ‘conservatives’ are so obsessed with cultural or religious (or racial) issues that they would also give short-shrift to basic human liberty, I find them at least as dangerous as any modern American ‘progressive’.
(2 of 7) In particular, I am an institutionalist: without institutions – organizational and structural and social/cultural – to regulate and restrain our political interactions, what is left is the simple pursuit of power. It is the jungle. As a polity, on both the left and the right, we have become so obsessed with “winning”, with getting the policies that we want, with completely eliminating anything that is uncomfortable or disagreeable, and with utterly “owning” and silencing those we disagree with, that we have acceded to the urge to tear down any institutions – organizational and structural and social/cultural – that seem like they might get in our way. If we allow that to happen, we will have traded the rule of law for the rule of man – or the rule of the mob – and no one will be safe for long. To me, preserving the integrity and the legitimacy of those institutions should be the highest ‘conservative’ priority, even if it means we end up with a few (or, perhaps, even a great many) specific policies that we don’t like.
(3 of 7) I am not a “Libertarian” precisely because I understand how much society and culture matter to human thriving, and the typical self-described Libertarian is wholly oblivious to that. In another context, I wrote, “There is, indeed, an undercurrent of ego running through our culture, but it is endemic across the political spectrum, not monopolized by one side or the other. On the Right, it manifests mostly as economic solipsism with a side helping of cultural self-sufficiency: hands off my money and my guns. On the Left, it manifests mostly as cultural solipsism with a side helping of economic entitlement: hands off my lifestyle except to subsidize it. And, in our solipsism, we on both sides conclude that neither culture nor politics are communal activities but personal instruments of our vainglorious ends, that whatever we want is Good and that whatever gets us what we want is, therefore, self-justified.” I devoted a chapter in my book to the importance of cultural mores. I wrote that “What frightens “values voters” about the ‘liberal’ world-view is not its assertions about what is “acceptable” but its assertions about what is “normal” – and, ultimately, its assertions about what we will hold up as our cultural ideal.” I wrote that “’Family Values’ is merely shorthand for the notion that public mores should be normative rather than inclusive; that not everything that is permitted is of equal moral or cultural or practical value and that passing social judgment on extreme behavior is not only acceptable but desirable.” And, I also wrote that “’Tolerance’ does not mean never passing judgment, nor does it mean never expressing that judgment. Despite the common protestations of those who have misconstrued and commandeered the term, tolerance doesn’t demand that you not disapprove or criticize.”
(4 of 7) But, that last statement actually ended with a further qualification: “…it <tolerance> merely demands that you not forcibly interfere.” I agree that there are corrosive pressures on our culture. Being homophobic or transphobic is disagreeable and, in the extreme, vile; but being homophilic and transphilic is not the only alternative to those and is arguably equally disagreeable in its own way. It is, indeed, honorable to uphold standards of social behavior and to condemn violations of those standards. But, that is a cultural task, not a political one: it is not OK to use the coercive power of government – the power of arrest and imprisonment and impoverishment – to enforce those cultural standards on those who disagree with you. To do so would be arguably ‘conservative’ in some cultural sense; but it is not at all in the tradition of the American ‘conservatism’ rooted in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. I find sympathy with certain aspects of cultural conservatism, although I find the most strident of cultural conservatives to be, indeed, truly intolerant and anachronistic. But, I can’t abide those who seek to grab the reins of government power to enforce their self-righteous cultural conservatism on everyone else.
(5 of 7) Although I am skeptical of things like government “industrial policy” and find the “no one deserves any more than anyone else” school of progressive economic thought both immoral and destructive, I find that I can’t defend much of what passes as modern “capitalism”, either. There are, indeed, a great many anti-capitalistic and destructive structural flaws baked into our politically-regulated economy, but many of them are the kinds of flaws that people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren complain about. That doesn’t mean either of them sees those flaws clearly or has any realistic idea about how to fix them. But I find myself frustrated with self-defined ‘conservatives’ who are utterly blind to those flaws and would insist that any “interference” with “the market” is no different than Marxism.
(6 of 7) When I wrote about “Socialism and Capitalism”, I echoed the theme from the chapter on Capitalism from my book: “Laissez Faire does not mean “no rules” or “do whatever you want”, for it incorporates a fundamental presumption of ethical obligation: you have the right to be left alone to pursue your own interest in your own way because you agree, in turn, to respect others’ equal and reciprocal rights to do the same. “Caveat Emptor” was intended as a bit of pragmatic and prudent advice, not as a moral directive. And a “free market” is not a free-for-all. To the contrary, it is “free” precisely to the extent that it respects that ethical obligation, to the extent that it operates within the bounds of specific and definite moral constraints designed to allow a collaborative system of production and exchange to emerge freely from autonomous choices. The “free market” has canons: respect others; cooperate with them even as you compete with them; don’t steal from them; don’t deceive or defraud them and don’t take advantage of their obvious ignorance and naive vulnerability; don’t usurp benefits they have earned or foist costs on them that they never agreed to bear; deliver what you promised; pay what you owe. In short, play fair. Honor the Golden Rule. … “Regulated Capitalism” is, in that limited sense, a tautology. A free market and a Capitalist economy depend on the same primary regulatory functions of government that our liberal republic does: a limited coercive authority to rein in the intemperance of those who would prey upon us.”
(7 of 7) There is a reason that many Bernie supporters became Trump supporters: the economy does seem rigged to favor the few at the expense of the many. But, the kind of populism that Trump and Bernie ignite is more destructive than ameliorative. Rigid “pro-capitalism” ‘conservatives’ need to open their eyes to that rigging and suggest ways to fix it before that understandable and righteous populist backlash takes us all down.
© Copyright 2023, Augustus P. Lowell