CONSERVATISM 1: THE REAL DEAL
Part of the confusion comes from perception, many people have a false understanding of what a conservative is and believes, and many of those create a caricature in their heads similar to Archie Bunker, smoking a cigar and badmouthing poor and minorities while trying to keep his wife from free thought. Archie Bunker, in truth, was an exaggeration of the All In The Family writers' perception of what a conservative was like - an idea that was mixed from their limited exposure to such and what they figured must be true. Liberals and leftists will typically be the first to condemn anyone for prejudice or forming opinions on a subject or person without first learning what they are like, but also will be the first to do so with anyone who disagrees with them on policy and politics. To be fair, conservatives often do the same with liberals.
Conservatism has always been around, it is simply the desire to keep and cherish the good in the past that has served us well while we face new challenges and embrace new things. Conservatism is not preservatism which would want to seize a moment in the past and keep all things exactly like that for eternity. The Amish have attempted this, they picked a time in the past where they believe that technology and advancement had offered its most good with least drawbacks to society, and clung to that period. This is not conservatism. Conservatives tend to be most interested in ethics, virtue, and morality, not technology and time periods.
This has been true through all ages - in the 1600s the concern was that renaissance thinking was abandoning classic thought and the values that had served humanity through some of the darkest, most difficult times in human history. At the time of the American Revolution, the ideals of then modern thinkers such as Locke and Rousseau were setting minds afire with ideals of liberty and justice - and conservatives at the time wanted those ideas tempered by virtue and the understanding that each man has a duty to his fellow man. In the 1900s the new technology was embraced and appreciated by conservatives, but the loss of community ethics and the ideals that had built the world to the point this technology was possible concerned them. Radical concepts such as Freud's views of the human psychology tried to replace the idea of morality and the soul, which troubled conservatives, who could see where this would lead.
Today, conservatives want to take culture back to the time when the social contract was heeded by all, when responsibility both to neighbor and family was understood and more important than self-gratification, and to when work and play both were viewed in a light less about personal pleasure and achievement, and more about long term goals and importance to family and culture. This essay will examine various aspects of conservative thought to clarify what they are and what they mean, to dispel misconceptions and confusion about conservatism.
I often mention this, but for those who are unfamiliar with this concept, the social contract is merely the way any culture or society forms and continues to exist. Without this, a culture cannot continue. While each person enjoys rights and personal liberty in their society, each person has a responsibility to those around them and that society as a whole. This concept is called the "Social Contract" which was best described and explained by Blackstone in his Commentaries on the Laws of England from the mid 1700's:
And this is what we mean by the original contract of society...that the whole should protect all its parts, and that every part should pay obedience to the will of the whole; or, in other words, that the community should guard the rights of each individual member, and that (in return for this protection) each individual should submit to the laws of the community; without which submission of all it was impossible that protection could be certainly extended to any.That is to say; each member of a society gains benefits from being in that society, but in order to gain those benefits must be a productive member. They have to defend the rights of others, submit to the laws and will of the society, and protect the other members of the community while in return being protected by those laws and the fellow citizens. I have written in more detail and with greater consideration on this topic in my essay on rights and responsibilities if you care to study the Social Contract in greater depth.
For the conservative, Individualism is paramount, but this does not mean what many believe it does. Alexis DeTocqueville when he toured the United States found a nation that he praised for its individualism - but he did not mean that each person was selfish, self-focused or lacked concern for their neighbor. What individualism means to a conservative is standing up on one's own as much as possible. Taking personal responsibility for what one does and why. Doing one's best, without begging for assistance and relying on the efforts of others as much as possible. The Rugged Individualist of conservative thought is not a hermit living on top of a mountain, but a man part of a community who does not blame others for his problems, does not consider himself part of any niche group (feminist, minority, left-handed, etc), and does his part for the future of them all and to benefit the culture as the social contract requires.
Rugged Individualism, then, is not self-focused, it is focused outward toward the community - I know this seems to be a contradiction in terms, but bear with me. The Rugged Individualist is so not primarily because it is personally beneficial or because it offers the most pleasure and comfort to himself, but because it is the way a responsible citizen should live. It is a sense of duty and honor that preserves this individualism, not a desire for personal gain. The Rugged Individualist properly understands that by not leaning too heavily on others or blaming them for his problems, by standing on his own as much as possible, he not only frees the resources of the community for the truly needy and for the defense of that society, but benefits each individual member of that culture by allowing them to then stand on their own without needing to care about and focus on the complaints of others. Further, by being more self-sufficient and less self-focused by rejecting constant complaint and demands of special treatment, the Rugged Individualist is able to better assist others in their time of need with the resources he has managed to build on his own.
Thus, the Rugged Individualist does not shun society or reject being part of a culture, instead he embraces this by not burdening the culture and by standing as much as he can on his own. For some this will be to a lesser degree, for others this will be to a greater degree. For conservatives, the choice is not between individual and community; this is a false dichotomy. It is a choice between being self-sufficient or dependent on others. The community is part of why one is to be self-sufficient, this self-sufficiency benefits the community.
This impacts charity heavily, and it is reflected in economic policy. In the United States, the richest nation in the world (also the biggest charitable giver), when economic times are hard, or taxes are higher, charitable giving drops. When economic times are better and especially when taxes are lower, charitable giving increases considerably. Why? Because the dependence upon society for continued existence is lessened in better economic times, and the personal wealth of each individual is increased by lower taxes. This in turn allows them to express their side of the social contract by giving to those in need as they see fit.
And make no mistake, conservatives believe in charity and in helping those in need. The difference is not a desire to help, but the understanding of the best way to do so. For the conservative, the primary concern for charity is how to best lift the person in question out of their situation so that they no longer need charity, rather than to assist them in their time of need without concern over duration or affect. The conservative understands that extended charity destroys any sense of Rugged Individualism, and thus the ability of the recipient to fulfill their side of the social contract. When someone becomes wholly dependent upon the kindness of strangers, especially as enforced by government power, they tend to lose the sense of responsibility to provide for themselves, the duty to stand on their own for the benefit of their neighbors, and the honor of being self-sufficient.
Generations of people who are dependent on the government all too often result in children raised with the presumption that others owe them their livelihood, that others are responsible for what they have and are, and thus they are free of this responsibility and may live in comfort upon the burden of others' labors. The step from this to a desire for more, but the lack of drive to achieve this through personal effort - crime - is not a long stride at all. Charity is a tool to help people in their temporary time of need, not lend them a permanent lifestyle.
Further, the conservative knows that the best, most effective, efficient, and genuine charity comes from friends, family, and local community, not the government. Each step one moves away from the person in need, from family to community to local government to federal government reduces the understanding, time allotted, and concern for the individual in need. The individual's immediate family is always best for charitable assistance, and whenever possible, whenever in the means of the family, this is the ideal.
Some lack family to care for them - whether through lack of family members, lack of desire by the family, or lack of means. For them, the immediate community is best: neighbors, members of one's church or other organization. These have a vested interest in keeping their member not only healthy and able to work and contribute, but in getting them to the place they are able to do so without further charity. These are the people most closely associated with the needy outside of immediate family, and thus the people who are able to next best help them.
After this, the immediate culture is the best for aiding someone in need: the local town or borough that the person in need dwells in. This is less desirable, because not only is it likely to be impersonal enough to not understand the person's needs and character, but can apply less pressure and impact their behavior less effectively. The local government must usually take this job, and as such is unable to do so without taking funds from other members of the culture to fund the charity - funds that come from people disinterested or uninvolved in the needy person's life or existence. Joe Blow might live in my town, but I've never met him and don't appreciate having my money taken away to help him out.
Moving further away exaggerates these problems, lessens the impact of societal pressure and shame to move the person in charity away from needing it, if they can, and further eliminates the personal character of the charity, making the money and assistance received and the people from whom it comes distinct and unrelated. If you get ten dollars from your closest friend, you're more likely to try to pay it back and use it in a worthy manner than if you get it from the lottery.
Thus, conservatives oppose government charity in favor of individual and private charity. When taxes are levied to pay for charitable giving, not only does the bureaucracy to disperse this money and keep track of it grow - thus taking a bite out of the funds - but the government is taking the place of what ought properly be done by the people. It removes the societal pressure of getting the money from people one is accountable to by making it come from an indistinct group of people as represented by an impersonal government. It is, in some ways, a tyranny as well: money is wrested from you by force of law and given to another person against your will and without your permission or intent. You might very well want to help those in need, but the money was taken without asking you or even caring what you think.
In the United States, of course, it is unconstitutional for the federal government to take money by force and redistribute it to other people. This hasn't stopped the government from doing so for about a century, but it is still unlawful. So in the US, the reasons for opposing federal welfare programs is even more emphasized.
Note here, the conservative is opposed to welfare programs and endless charity not because of a cold lack of compassion or dislike for the poor. Conservatives oppose these ideas because they are bad for the person in question and society as a whole. Let me repeat that: conservatives oppose open-ended charity and government welfare spending because it is bad for the recipients, bad for the culture, and bad for the nation. The compassion is expressed by conservatives in wanting the person not only to be helped in their time of need, but to be done so in an efficient manner (about 20 cents out of each dollar actually reach the person in need in US welfare spending), by people for whom helping the needy person move past the need for charity is a vested interest, and in a manner that moves the needy person to stand on their own again. To do otherwise is to harm that person by making them effectively a subject of the charitable giver - writer Star Parker calls it slavery.
Both the left and right want to help those in need - but the conservative wants to help them stand on their own feet so they need as little as possible. The conservative is concerned with their future as well as their immediate need. Compassion is not expressed by endless, unconcerned giving to someone. That is the road to destroying someone's soul and honor by endless bondage to the giver for every need.
I've mentioned social pressure several times above without explaining it, and this is an important concept for conservatism. Each individual in the social contract owes their fellow man certain duties for the benefits they receive. The society, then, can exert pressure upon individuals within it who are failing to live up to this contract. This can be by law - imprisoning those who prey on members of the society. Conservatives believe, however, that individual virtue and social pressure rather than law are the best tools to achieve a proper and well-ordered society. While conservatives have a reputation of being strong on law and order, this is in its proper place.
Laws are a poor substitute for individual ethics and social pressure, which can move a person to do what is right, rather than punish them for doing what is wrong. Ideally, a culture will be made up of individual members who want to do right, and when they fail are moved to do so by their neighbors. Laws are powerless to make people do good.
The primary mechanism for this social pressure is Shame. Shame is a concept almost totally removed from our modern culture because it clashes with modern leftist thought about feelings and freedoms. For the postmodernist, shame is brutality because it makes you feel poorly about yourself and your actions, and since personal comfort and pleasure is the highest goal and ideal of a human for whom all that exists is what we can measure and test with senses and science, damaging one's self-esteem is almost as bad as hitting them with a truncheon.
Consider: which is more horrific to you, your first reaction as having been schooled and steeped in postmodern culture
- Having someone shame you for something wrong you have done
- Having someone assist you in doing wrong
Shame is shunned by our culture today to the point it is not even used in advertising, where it used to be a powerful and primary technique: use our product or you'll look bad to your peers. But it is shame that fellow members of society can use to pressure you to doing what you otherwise are disinclined to do. It might be legal to burn a soldier in effigy, but if everyone looks ill at you, yells at you, and nobody supports you, you'll not do so as readily, if at all. Shame is what keeps people from doing what they are technically able to do legally, but ought not to in a proper society. Shame prevents people from pulling their pants down and defecating on a flag. Shame prevents someone from living willfully off others without any effort to reach a point they no longer need to - or from continuing to after they no longer need to.
It is this social pressure, the general disagreement and disapproval of those around you in the culture that artists such as the Dixie Chicks, Linda Rhondstadt, and Tim Robbins called "censorship" when people frowned on their behavior and stopped patronizing their work. Censorship is when an authority prevents you from expressing yourself. Shame is what you feel when people choose to censure you and express disapproval. This is what James Lileks is talking about when he mentions the past:
If you started ranting about FDR - effin' Bolshie crip and his lesbo wife! - at the coffee shop, which I’m sure some did, you probably got a hard look or bum's rush from the counterman, or a AW PIPE DOWN from a guy a few stools away.This is the reaction that prevented people in the past from being really outrageous or being so very extreme in their actions and statements. Thirty years ago, stating that you figure the president probably was responsible for some horrendous catastrophe that befell your fellow brethren in some byzantine conspiracy would be greeted with derision, anger, and dismissal - being shunned even - even by people who disliked the President. Today, the feeling is that we ought not say anything, that it might hurt others or make them feel bad, and worse a lawsuit might result.
Laws are there for particularly egregious violations of the social contract and ethical behavior. Shame was how cultures kept the more extreme members in line. This does not violate the concepts of tolerance, it rather emphasizes them. I'll tolerate you having these thoughts, but if you try to express them in a particularly troubling or societally damaging manner, then you get to face disapproval. For free speech is free of government censorship, not free of consequence. If you say something people don't like, you ought not be surprised if they feel free to express their position on the subject. If a lot of people do so and you feel bad because of it, son... that's your problem.
LAW AND ORDER
Conservatives have a right reputation for being strong for law and order, and this is well deserved. The movement believes in punishment and retribution for criminal behavior, not correction reformation. Conservatives see prison as an unpleasant place people go to pay for their deeds and be set apart from society, not a place to learn trades, become a better person, and live in comfort. For the conservative, breaking the law is an absolute: you did or you did not. Circumstances are taken into account, but how mean someone's parents were does not somehow negate the lawbreaking. The infamous Menendez brothers who brutally murdering their parents were deadlocked in the first trials, in part "because now they were orphans." This kind of is utterly reprehensible to the conservative, for whom the concern they were parentless was irrelevant, given the fact that they were the ones responsible for this condition.
Lawbreakers to the conservative ought to be ruthlessly pursued, laws ought to be strongly upheld, applied to all equally, and without concern for the feelings of those caught and punished. For the conservative, every law ought to be upheld and enforced or removed from the books. If a law is silly or pointless such as the law in Oblong, Illinois where a couple may not have sex while fishing or hunting on their wedding day should be either enforced or removed, not ignored.
For the conservative, if we have millions of people in the nation who are here illegally, then they ought to face punishment and deportation for this illegal activity or the laws must be changed. There is no third way for the conservative: you either keep the law or you abandon it, you do not ignore it and shrug.
Conservatives understand that the purpose of laws is to punish those who break the social contract, those who do wrong must face consequence. They are not to encourage good behavior, because laws are powerless to do so. They are not to shape public opinion or craft a superior, utopian culture, because they are powerless to do that as well. The more laws you hedge around society, the more lawbreakers you will find, as people find loopholes and ways around those laws - or simply are unable to keep them all. It is a common traffic cop statement that nobody can get across town without breaking a law. Not due to wanton disregard, but because there are so many and of such complexity that it is impossible to properly regard them all without mistake or failure.
Further, laws for the conservative are to be heeded, not ignored when it is inconvenient. Laws are absolute in this sense as well: they apply equally in all equal circumstances. It doesn't matter if you are in a hurry, it's still illegal to speed. It doesn't matter if you got really mad at that guy, it's still illegal to shoot him. It doesn't matter if your parents beat you or you were picked on as a child by other kids, you still are breaking the law when you break the law. Your past, your sad stories, your mean parents, your background is utterly irrelevant: you broke the law.
Sentencing can and ought to take into account the circumstances of the crime: if this is your first time stealing and you stole that food because your baby girl was dying, that's different than if you have robbed dozens of times before and were doing so because you wanted to buy some more bling. Yet in each case, both have broken the law and must face the consequences. For the conservative, civil disobedience is not wrong, but one must do so with the recognition and expectation of being arrested for breaking the law.
Laws for the conservative ought to be as limited as possible, no law should take the place of ethical behavior or societal pressure. The more laws a society has, as C.S. Lewis points out, the more likely this is an indication of a lawless society. Those who are living ethical, virtuous, and proper lives will not need many laws to maintain order. A society that requires 500 tomes of laws to keep order is a society that lacks lawful citizens and is a symptom of a loss of ethics. For the conservative, ethics and rightly ordered society replace law as much as possible - those who are shamed away from committing crimes and who have a personal sense of right and wrong that keeps them from doing crime is far better than a hedge of endless laws around everyone.
The reason so many laws come about is because of an abandonment of the concept of ethical responsibility. If you live in a society where you believe and live as if there is something or someone to which you are responsible to for your actions right and wrong, you are less likely to commit wrong. Those who live as if there is no ultimate justice for doing wrong, that there is no point to life beyond immediate comfort and gain, and there is no afterlife to concern with are less likely to restrain themselves from wrongdoing.
Consider this example. Lets say you run the Capitol Widget Corporation. An underling comes to you with a brilliant idea: let's cut the customer service back and buy our widget parts from Freedonia, who use cheaper materials and produce an inferior product. Then we can sell the cheaper Widget for the same price, and make even more money by not having to pay to replace Widgets with that stupid guarantee and eliminate the complaint department's budget. You could even cut prices slightly to undercut the competition and still make more money. For bonus profits, fire the long-term employees who cost so much and get cheaper, newer guys who don't know the job as well but you don't have to pay the same wages and benefits. Don't bother with raises, there's always more where they came from.
For the owner who believes that there is a higher authority and principle of justice, right, wrong, and proper behavior, the temptation of more money - in the short term at least - will be less potent, and easier to resist. For that man, a good product at a fair price, with good customer service means satisfied, long term customers and a sense of having done right by the people who buy your Widgets.
For the owner who believes that there's nothing after death, that all that exists is what he can measure with science and his senses, for the owner who rejects any divine or higher authority of right and wrong... why not go for the immediate gains and short term benefits? So people might get inferior product and the workers are not treated well, who cares? Besides, upon what standard do you insist that paying people 3 dollars an hour to work without vacation time or benefits is misusing them? They can always find work somewhere else if they don't like it. And anyway how can you insist your version of right and wrong is best? I have my morality, you have yours.
The fact that eventually such a company will likely suffer from disgruntled employees, loss of customers, and a bad reputation is irrelevant. Not only will you get the money now - hey, you might get hit by a car tomorrow - but in today's society, you can grab your resumee, point out huge profits for the company, and get a job running another place into the ground for even more pay. The lack of a sense of absolute authority of right and wrong leads to this kind of activity.
So what's the answer? To the left, to modern society, it is to make more laws. Force them to do the right thing, or at least punish them for failing to. Make the government force them to pay better, give benefits. Have laws against using Freedonian products. Have laws that punish someone for earning too much - or just cap their wages. More laws, more laws, more laws. And the man for whom these laws are necessary simply finds ways around them, loopholes, clever lawyers, and offshore accounts. Which means we need even more laws.
The conservative approach is to have a society where these more laws aren't needed, and to enforce the laws we need and ought to have strongly, swiftly, and without concern for the hurt someone happens to feel for being punished. That's where the law and order reputation comes from, and why so often a conservative government reduces crime across the board.
For the conservative, family is the center and basis of all culture and society. The family is held sacred, because it is the place where children are raised and is the foundational structure for civilization. Not that this is a strictly conservative viewpoint - sociologists, historians, and philosophers have all agreed upon this for millemnia. Family, then, ought to be protected by the culture and form the basis for that culture's structure. Family is best defined as a mother, father, and children, although circumstances and tragedy might mar this ideal.
This is where the much-derided "Nuclear Family" comes from: not the idea of radioactive parents, but that the family is the nucleus of society and culture. That from family all of the culture radiates out in shells of influence, such as I pointed out above regarding charity. Parents are to raise children, teach children, and have the primary and final say to how children are raised and educated. It is the duty of parents to feed, clothe, and provide for their family, not anyone else.
Parents have a high duty to their children, especially to the point of self-sacrifice, for the benefit of the kids, their community, and the future of the society. It is wrong for parents to abandon this responsibility for personal comfort or happiness, it is wrong for someone else to step in and take this burden upon themselves. It will, sadly, have to happen sometimes, but this essay is about conservative ideology as it applies to different areas, what the conservative desires and thinks ought to happen.
Thus, day care centers, school breakfast programs, government programs for kids and such are all a violation of basic conservative principles. Children need parents primarily, and those parents need to care for their children. No other force or entity can take this place properly and the sad results of trying to do so are visible in our society today. Personal achievement must never take the place of family welfare. Getting rich or achieving goals and ambitions at the expense of your family is not a conservative concept, it is a violation of the Rugged Individualist concept.
It is also a violation of the conservative ideal to have government or society raise children in the place of parents. All people in the social contract have a responsibility toward the children around them, whether theirs or not. I recall as a child having been dragged to my mom by a neighbor for throwing rocks at a car on a whim. The neighbor didn't even know my mom, but she knew what was the right thing to do. Children used to face punishment for wrongdoing at the hands of any nearby adult, then referral to their parents for more punishment. This is the vague basis for the It takes a Village concept of childbearing, but the left takes this too far: pulling the responsibility (and burden) out of the hands of parents and giving it to the collective whole, so that children are raised in groups to the proper political ideals.
Schools today have those in them, especially in the unions and in those who design curricula and educational philosophy, who reject the parental authority, considering it detrimental to the goals they have. A past report from the National Education Association had this to say:
"The majority of our youth still hold to the values of their parents and if we do not recognize this pattern, if we do not resocialize them to accept change, our society may decay"Those parents have dared to instill what they believe in and hold to be important into these kids - which are at odds with what we believe - so we have to fix that in the kids. Thus we get experiments with Lego to mold children into good little Marxists. Why? Because the family is considered a means of procreation, not a method of building society and passing on traditional values, ideals, and virtues. Conservatives see the family as the basis of instilling in children the beliefs of the past, respect for the good in what has come before, a consistency of culture and ideals, and virtues and ethics that cannot be taught in schools.
ETHICS AND THE CITIZEN
Conservatives understand that the only way a free society can continue to exist is if it has a virtuous, ethical people. The founding fathers understood this keenly and warned against the dangers of abandoning this. They knew that people able to vote themselves benefits and rule themselves would only do so responsibly and properly with ethical and virtuous boundaries to restrain self-interest and selfishness.
When this fails, the people will use their power to benefit themselves immediately at the cost of the future and the society as a whole. In time, the ability to make and change laws will allow the lawless and virtue-less people to do so to the point of chaos and anarchy - at which point tyranny always will take the reins. The republic ends, liberty is killed and a powerful authority begins to force the people to do what they should from the point of a gun.
Ethics, the proper doing of right and wrong, are the basis of a well-ordered, lawful, and free society. Without good citizens doing what is right, freedom is lost. When right and wrong become merely personal choice, the slide is inevitable to the point that the strongest enforce their version of morality upon everyone else, and all liberty is lost. You cannot be free unless you are good. And ultimately, this is what conservatism is about: the freedom that comes from doing right.
Next week: compare and contrast, different branches of conservatism - and those who are not actually conservative in Will the Real Conservative Please Stand Up