I grew up in a conservative, small-business-oriented family, which thrived on argument and consideration of other points of view, and didn’t like banks, or debt, and thought hard work and savings were the moral way of life. This conservative world seemed to me then and still does now, to be well grounded in reality, and largely devoid of ideological delusions. It worked in markets but didn’t think them infallible like some latter day Papal Encyclical. In comparison, I don’t recognize modern day conservatism, especially in the USA. And I find it very paradoxical, riddled with contradictions and highly ideological, and well outside the ‘reality based world’, as someone in George W Bush’s White House called the world we live in, disparagingly.
Not to say liberalism is not similarly burdened, but I thought it would be interesting to list what I see to be the major paradoxes of conservatism. If someone wants to do the same for liberalism, I would be happy to post it, or I will work up my own. I would stress that in listing the paradoxes of conservatism, I am not trying to put it down, but help it heal and return to the realism and pragmatism I valued growing up. Anyway, here goes:
- Conservatism doesn’t want to conserve. Whether you accept the overwhelming evidence of climate change, or not, it would seem evident that the greatest threat to the status quo on our planet of approaching 9 billion people, is irreversible damage to the environment. And conservatives above all are supposed to want to avoid radical change. There is nothing more radical than your civilization collapsing ecologically, unless it nuclear war. I was first introduced to the ‘costs of economic growth’ by the conservative economist Ed Mishan in 1968. And I have never understood why conservatives aren’t in the forefront of conservation efforts, by all means with their own strategy.
- Conservatism doesn’t understand that the free market does actually need regulating. Left to itself it would alternate between destructive bouts of irrational exuberance and irrational gloom. This fundamental reality of economic history is denied because conservatives don’t like the medicine, so the patient, the free market cannot ever by ill.
- Conservatism doesn’t understand or accept the threat to individual liberties posed by large corporations and their political influence. Their focus on free market economics and suspicion of government, seems to blind conservatives to the impact of large corporations, that effectively run the government they are suspicious of, and also massively damage the small businesses conservatives love. In conservative ideology, there is no obvious counter-vailing power to large corporations, and their impact is largely ignored, making it easy for large oil and other companies to co-opt conservatism for their own ends.
- Conservatives have always valued the family as a primary building block for a stable society. Yet they seem blind to the fact that the free market is often the biggest negative influence on families, destroying jobs or outsourcing them, and making it increasingly hard for blue collar workers to earn a decent living with which to support the family structure conservatives hold dear.
- Conservatives have always valued law and order, yet seem to place overwhelming emphasis on ensuring that low income families obey the law, do not exploit welfare provisions and generally toe the line. While showing no interest in ensuring the really wealthy pay their taxes and don’t offshore their wealth. The scale of theft and illicit activity (20% of global GNP is thought to be criminal enterprises especially drugs and prostitution) is ignored in conservative views of the world.
- Conservatives value national security as one of the most important reasons for a Federal Government, yet they make no effort to ensure that national defense spending is efficient, that veterans of wars are taken care of, or that the defense lobby does not run defense spending in its own rather than the national interest. Given their hatred of government waste, why do conservatives seem so blind to it when it concerns defense and the waste makes us less well defended for the $s spent.
- Conservatives in the main want to diminish the role of the state, yet they are in the US at least set on increasing its role in the sphere of public morality, wanting it to intervene in issues like abortion, gay marriage and if some conservatives have their way, establishing a Theocracy in violation of the separation of Church and State in the US constitution. This is perhaps the conservative stance I find hardest to understand, though I guess conservatism is a broad church and this reflects pragmatic alliance building between social and libertarian conservatives.
- Conservatives value individual effort and a meritocracy, yet they seem blind to the increasingly feudal inherited wealth structure of the USA, and have no policy to address it and ensure the social mobility they proclaim has any basis in reality.
- Conservatives are usually intensely nationalistic, yet they seem to show no concern for the state of the nation’s citizens in terms of their healthcare. The US has one of the lowest life expectancies of any developed country, 79 or approximately equal to Cuba. Yet conservatives are utterly unconcerned about this in a way that would have been inconceivable in conservatives pre 1980.
- Conservatives simply don’t understand dilemmas or paradoxes their stances invoke. At the heart of these issues is a fundamental conservative failure to understand trade offs, between liberty and regulation, between conservation and conservative economic values or whatever. My old friend Charles Hampden Turner used to say, evil arises when one tries to go to extremes without recognition of trade offs or middle ground compromise.
So it would be really helpful to America if some moderate conservatives got working on these paradoxes and started the process of building a realistic conservatism that could contribute to solving America’s problems. Otherwise to paraphrase what Ronald Reagan said about government, ‘conservatism is not the solutions to our problems it is the problem.’
Republican President Dwight D Eisenhower (1890-1969) understood the complexity of the world and might have thrown some light on these paradoxes: