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August 19, 2009

What It Means To Be A Conservative

This is a reprise of a deleted post I wrote three years ago. The original essay is here (for those who are interested in the discussion or in the supporting links). In an essay to be posted later this morning, I'll be referring back to it, so I thought it might be useful to bring it back from the dead.

In response to something Charlottesvillian posted on What It Means To Be A Liberal, my off the cuff ideas on what it means (at least to me) to be a Conservative:

1. Conservatives believe that while many matters are open to debate, there are also some eternal truths. We do not believe right and wrong are flexible concepts, wholly dependent on one's frame of reference.

Like Liberals, Conservatives are skeptical of censorship and celebrate free and open debate. Moreover, we understand that in a society where people use threats or intimidation to force their views on others, enforcing the rules is needed or our rights become meaningless.

One cannot "fairly and open-mindedly consider the truths of others" if speakers are shouted down or forced off the stage, no matter how distasteful their ideas may be. The way to defeat inferior ideas is with better ideas, not with brickbats or heavy-handed threats of government censorship.

2. Conservatives believe we have an obligation to live together peaceably and tolerate each other's differences, but we have no duty to subsidize, support, or lend our approval to choices we find wrong or destructive. Responsible adults understand we must all make our own way in life. While we have no right to interfere with the lives of our neighbors, they have no right to reach into our pockets and ask us to pay for the consequences of lifestyle choices we find difficult to understand or approve of.

We do not ask them to change what they are doing. We only ask that they not expect us to fund lifestyles we don't agree with. Live and let live. This, to us, is the true meaning of tolerance.

3. Like Liberals, Conservatives believe individuals ought to participate in public debate. However we are not inclined to force them, or round them up like cattle come Election Day. We believe voting is an individual responsibility, and we have seen what happens when liberals load first-time voters who don't understand how to fill out a ballot, or know the names of the candidates or what they stand for, onto buses on election day to swell the ranks of Democrat voters.

These people are not stupid, but they are not prepared to vote and the nation is not well served by sending an uninformed electorate to the polls. The nation is also not well served when the parties exacerbate racial tensions at election time.

4. Conservatives see government as a social contract in which individuals freely and intelligently barter some small part of their freedoms for mutual protection from the more rapacious elements of human society. This is a factor which Liberals often forget, preferring to take the benefits of government protection while giving up none of their freedom. This is an unworkable proposition. With their inherent suspicion of all authority liberals cede too much power to the press, setting up a completely unelected and unaccountable fourth branch of government which openly defies the law with complete impunity, releasing classified information at will, blowing federal terrorism investigations, interfering with law enforcement, and defying grand juries. Liberals are fond of talking about reproductive freedom and choice, but their rhetoric conveniently ignores the fact that men have exactly zero reproductive choice:

Legally, from the point of view of a woman: the fetus is a lump of tissue which may be excised at will if she subsequently regrets having conceived a child. It imposes no obligation or legal duty unless she chooses to accept it.

Legally, from the point of view of the man: the fetus is a human being which must be allowed to live, even if he subsequently regrets having conceived a child. It imposes an absolute and irrevocable legal duty, regardless of his wishes in the matter.

5. Conservatives believe that justice ought to be blind. There should not be different laws for whites, blacks, Latinos, females, gays, or other demographics. We are not blind to the fact that humans can and do discriminate, but we do not believe the law should, in addition to the thousand injustices and inequalities which exist in nature, impose additional unfairness via our justice system.

How does a human system weigh unfairness? How do we compensate individuals for the hardships imposed by skin color? Gender? Nationality? What if there are offsetting factors? What then? Does that rich black kid who ends up at Harvard get the same compensation as a poor black kid from the inner city? How about the poor disadvantaged white boy from West Virginia with the alcoholic parents? Does he get nothing, just because his skin is the wrong color? Isn't that institutionalized racism? Or is it just Liberal values in action? Equal protection is often what liberals call a "code word" for making exceptions in treatment based on race or gender. Enforce the laws strictly, across the board, regardless of gender or skin color. Period.

6. Conservatives believe people have a fundamental duty to help themselves and they will be stronger and better if they develop the habit of self-reliance rather than dependence on government. We don't believe people are helped by programs that sap personal industry and initiative and undermine family bonds, as Daniel Moynihan warned in the 1960s. Rather, we prefer to see the private sector handle charitable giving, perhaps with tax incentives to encourage donation. This is a more ethical alternative to forcibly appropriating the paychecks of the more productive members of society to support less productive members, regardless of the wishes of the former.

7. Most conservatives don't wish to see entanglement of church and state either. The difference between liberals and conservatives here is that conservatives understand the purpose of Establishment Clause was to protect the free exercise of religion, not to drive all mention of God from public life. Even non-churchgoing conservatives like me are offended by the ACLU's open persecution of Christians and Christian symbology. Not every historic cross on a county or city seal amounts to state sponsorhip of religion and the miscasting of abortion as a religious debate is beyond dishonest. There are atheist liberals who oppose abortion and religious conservatives who are pro-choice. The Left's near-obsession with, and paranoia about, religion is as good a proof as any that the Party of Tolerance and Diversity, isn't.

8. Conservatives understand that our individual liberties are bound up in many of those larger societal rights liberals love to decry. Try exercising your so-called "individual" rights (your sexual freedom, perhaps?) once the city you live in has eminent domained your home right out from under your feet, a lovely court decision for which you may thank the liberal half of SCOTUS and its stunning disregard for the original, and quite plain, meaning of the Public Use clause. There is such a thing as competing interests, like the tension between freedom and security. Liberals like to argue, because we already have security, that personal freedom should somehow be unlimited. But without the former we will not long possess the latter. They are inextricably intertwined.

Our fellow humans prey on the helpless and on children and liberals (in addition to championing some very valuable causes) have also championed some pretty worthless causes like the freedom to view child pornography (which is illegal) and the freedom of ten year old girls to get abortions without their parents finding out. Personally I am not convinced a ten year old girl really needs the freedom to have sex with pedophiles. She is not a "woman" yet, so it is neither a "woman's right to choose" nor a "woman's sexual privacy" that is at issue. But apparently this shocking opinion makes me some sort of snake handling Jesus freak, though I don't attend church and am something of a libertarian.

Not all individual freedoms are worth protecting.

9. In response to the liberal statement of belief below, conservatives believe government must protect us also. What we believe, however, is that liberals often assert the rights of individuals over the collective right of society to be secure, often to a degree that is unreasonable. A good example is the NSA wiretapping brouhaha. Most Americans when polled don't object to having the NSA monitor and sample from a large number of calls. They understand the risks and they don't wholly trust the government, but they also understand the risks of inaction, and on balance they trust our own government more than they do the terrorists. Liberals, on the other hand, have allowed their dislike of this administration to lead them to make statements like "the administration is more of a danger to our freedoms than the terrorists".

The bottom line is that they may well believe that, but they don't have the right to allow their subjective doubts and fears to imperil the rest of us, and unless and until Congress is willing to call a halt to the NSA program (and so far it is not) they need to stop with the conspiracy theories. The truth is that democracy is functioning exactly as it should. They are simply outnumbered and their side didn't win the argument. Get over it.

Liberals believe government must protect the safety and security of the people, for without such protection liberalism is impossible. This, of course, is less a tenet of liberalism than a reply to those who attack liberalism. The accusation that liberals are unwilling to protect the nation from internal and external dangers is false. Because liberals respect competing values, such as procedural fairness and individual dignity, they weigh more carefully particular exercises of government power (such as the use of secret evidence, hearsay and torture), but they are no less willing to use government authority in other forms (such as expanded police forces and international diplomacy) to protect the nation and its citizens.
10. Conservatives believe there is an inherent tension between the rights of the accused and the safety of law abiding citizens. Therefore government must intelligently balance the rights of accused criminals against the rights of crime victims and ordinary citizens to be secure in their homes and on the streets. There is no liberty without security. On the extreme end of the scale, when we have liberal judges defining pedophilia as a disease and letting defendants off because they're "sorry" (there's an inconvenient truth for you), something is wrong. This is about as fair to your average liberal as tarring all conservatives with the excesses of the religious right, but it is liberal philosophy carried to the illogical extreme: individual rights trumping societal rights. Yet liberals can and do tar conservatives with that broad brush - all the time.

It's time to deep-six the overbroad generalizations. This, like most posts of its kind, is probably full of them. But it was a quick, off the cuff response on my lunch hour.

Feel free to let me have it in the comments section :)

Posted by Cassandra at August 19, 2009 07:22 AM

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To label is to diminish.
To categorize is to diminish.
Unfortunately our minds work in this way, despite whatever we might wish.
Last night I opened a drawer in the kitchen to get the container of plastic wrap. The container has a slide which slices off the wrap. When I picked up the container, the slide moved. My eye immediately characterized the slide as a bug.
That is a very homely example of false labeling.
It is a very human characteristic to seek a framework which can be used to interpret the events which surround us. Two very different frameworks are called liberal and conservative. Historically the liberal framework is collective and the conservative framework is individual.
What I mean by this statement is that a liberal seeks a collective solution to all problems and difficulties, since collective solutions have been shown to be the only solutions possible for some specific types of situations. Defending a country from invasion from another country, for instance, has not ever been possible using individual solutions. When the framers of the Constitution considered what responsibilities a collective should have, they used the lessons of history to limit government to specific situations (common defense, general welfare, blessing of liberty). Thus the Constitution is conservative.
A conservative recognizes that not all situations have a collective solution. The rearing of a child, for instance, does not collectivize. The manufacturing of goods or the provision of services do not collectivize. Endless examples, from history ancient and modern, support the thesis that collectivized manufacturing and services are not helpful. See, for example, the marvelous novel Chernobyl, by Fred Pohl. The collectivized provision of nuclear energy produced the greatest single nuclear disaster in history.
The framework in which one categorizes situations is often called a paradigm. Now paradigms are often very useful. The paradigm of relativity was certainly valuable in consolidating the laws of Maxwell as they applied to the new ability to experiment with objects traveling at a high velocity. Note well: the paradigm of relativity was soon extrapolated to the social sciences, to which relativity did not apply.
The paradigm of collective action might be said to be the bedrock of liberal thought. One size fits all. So we read of a 10 year old girl who sets up a lemonade stand. Whap. She immediately has a $50 citation for peddling food without a license. Whap. We read of a 14-month old child who was expelled from a restaurant for not having shoes. Whap. We read of a woman forced out of her house so that a developer can build a shopping center. Whap. Whap. Whap.
In these uncertain times the ruling class, which for many years celebrated the right to protest as a bedrock principle, has suddenly discovered that protest is un-American. To disagree with the beltway elites is to be an evil monger. To object to any collective system is Nazi.
Thus has the liberal rhetoric been turned on its head. White is black, good is evil, hot is cold, and bills can be approved without being read.
There can be only one response to the Congress-for-Life crowd. They are no longer elected representatives, sent to Congress to do for the voters what the voters do not have the time to do for themselves: to do the work of governing. The Members are now elected royalty, Dukes and Earls, entitled to the same treatment as the Royals in England under George III.
Although conservatives typically are busy earning a living, providing for themselves and their families, and going about their daily lives, I suggest that it is time for conservatives to involve themselves in the body politic, let their voices, letters, faxes, phone calls, contributions, and votes be heard, and demand a return to limited government.
This should mean a complete turnover of the Members, and strict limitations on their perquisites of office, their staffs, their travel, and their tenure.

Your 10 points all fit into this necessary consideration of what situations are collective and what situations are individual.
Otherwise we will have another bloody revolution.

Posted by: mathman at August 19, 2009 09:13 AM

Otherwise we will have another bloody revolution.

Aye yay yay, hombre! You have nailed it.

I agree that attempts to label, categorize, or describe political ideas inevitably risk oversimplification. No one size fits all definition will adequately encompass the rather messy spectrum of thought to be found in real life.

Still, I think it's worthwhile to try because this forces us to think through our own assumptions and identify our priorities. I can't tell you how many times I've had a sudden insight regarding what I *do* believe precisely because someone else articulated my position incompletely, (in my view) wrongly, or just presented an opposing view that crystallized exactly what I *don't* believe in so well that I suddenly realized why I think what I think :p

I believe we take representative government for granted these days. It's a sentiment my spousal unit has often expressed: "These people just *assume* all of this will always be here".

But it took hard work and conflict and discussion and most of all, the ability to compromise to deliver what we call America. We are in great danger of losing that last: the ability to compromise while still holding firm to our private beliefs.

Compromise requires some subordination of individual wants to the greater good. The exact degree of that subordination is a very contentious matter. You neatly identified one of the central contradictions modern democracies face.

Posted by: Chinese-Jewish Mexican American Lawn Chica at August 19, 2009 09:40 AM

It's kind of funny at this moment in history to read about how liberals think the government needs to be kept in check or about how liberals distrust authority. I'm involved in discussions on two different liberal websites in which I'm basically asking Wilkinson's question: liberals think the government repeatedly does bad things (see Iraq war, war on drugs, GWOT measures) so why do you want to let it run health care?

So far I've gotten one no response and one guy who says he trusts government but just doesn't trust some people in some positions in government which - he assures me - is a totally different thing. Of course this is the same guy who told me that if I wanted to insure the uninsured by using unspent stimulus money it meant I didn't want to pay for it myself. Sigh. I guess that stimulus money just dropped like manna from heaven and has nothing to do with, oh, say, taxes.

Sorry, a little off-topic. It's interesting to see you returning to the tension between what is needed to make a society hang together and individual rights. The older I get - and maybe the more conservative I get - the more I suspect there are many, many issues that can never be settled once and for all - at least not and maintain anything like a democracy. Rather the struggle to balance competing sides is an eternal process and one which requires free discussion - even heated argument - but without the paralyzing polarization that makes each side unwilling to live with even the smallest defeat.

Posted by: Elise at August 19, 2009 11:34 AM