The differences between a coherent philosophy and defence of accumulated customs and rituals.
Conservatives themselves appear to identify with traditional values, liberty from too much state interference in life, and as the American Conservative Society has once said in a retort to me: “it’s at most a defence of the value of custom”. Absolutely central to their world view is the idea that people should be allowed to keep the fruits of their own success or else no one will want to create, produce, innovate, or work hard for fear of having the spoils confiscated.
The rest of us tend to associate Conservatives with the right-wing of the political spectrum, with the defence of old-fashioned values, and with economic policies that coincidentally always seem to protect and further entrench the privileges of the already wealthy at the cost of sacrificed access to opportunity for everybody else.
My attention was first drawn years ago to some fatal contradictions in conservative reasoning by George Carlin’s hilarious pointing out of what seems like split-personality fragmentation in their reasoning, and I’ve been taking notes ever since.
As someone who much prefers the original etymological meanings of words to the associations or connotations words can later take on (through use or misuse), it’s handy to set this up by looking at what the Merriam-Webster dictionary entry for the verb ‘conserve’ is (the thing that Conservatives say that they are doing – the italicised parts are mine):
- Keep in a safe or sound state: very understandable for things that are valuable and still relevant, but what if either or neither of these things apply any longer?
- To maintain constant during change: follows on from the first definition, if the environment has changed or new knowledge has emerged that makes the thing you want to conserve irrelevant or even unsuitable, isn’t trying to resist that change a bit like sweeping water up a hill?
- To preserve with sugar: we can come back to sickly sweet and dewy-eyed patriotism and romanticisation of the past later.
The first two definitions show the likelihood that Conservative ‘thought’ can have of valuing things that are no longer relevant, functional, or of good fit to the environment that we are actually in now.
But placing this inward-looking propensity to ignore a changing environment to one side, I want to explore Conservatism’s failure to develop a philosophy that is even internally consistent.
In other words, putting aside the external pressures on Conservative ‘thought’; let’s take a look at how its ideas are collapsing under their own weight of self-contradiction.
Swapping Coherence for Habit
Probably due to our very human attachment for routine and familiarity, certain established ways of looking at things often take on a kind of prestige to the point where questioning those predominant views can make one seem like a bit of a weirdo. But is something consistent and coherent just because it is familiar and established? Conservatives seem to think so most of the time.
If you’re in the habit of seeing habit and coherence as the same thing, it’s easy to imagine how you could end up thinking like this.
Let’s start with George Carlin’s observation about being both ‘pro-life’ and pro-death penalty. If you were learning about these ideas for the first time this second, it would seem ludicrous to hold both of these outlooks at the same time. But customary familiarity with ideas seems to allow it to happen. I don’t mean to claim all conservatives hold this combination of beliefs, but enough of them seem to for it to be surprising.
Conservatives will surely respond that the unborn are defenceless and didn’t ask to be conceived by a woman who is not in a position to give that child a good life and so should be protected from being slaughtered before birth. Murder, however, is a crime that is committed by adults who have made choices to impose suffering on others. This crime should be punishable by death, they argue, to deter people from committing it. The problem is that the same Conservative political movements often also oppose state-funded initiatives to support underprivileged mothers and children, arguing that mothers (and by extension, their children) in disadvantaged positions only have themselves to blame for ending up where they are. If the unborn are so defenceless, then why are the recently-born all of a sudden so capable of taking responsibility for their predicaments?
This is a good time to mention the difference between first-principles thinking and domain-dependent thinking. First-principles thinking involves an understanding of a principle and keeping this principle in mind as a guide to making judgements, solving problems, or making decisions across different settings or domains. Domain-dependent thinking can lead to blindness in recognising the same principle at work in different settings or domains since the domain is what is being given more consideration over the principle.
In the above case, first-principles thinking would start with the idea that the unborn or recently-born have not yet had the time yet to make good or bad life choices and so should be given the best opportunity possible to thrive in life. Emphasis of this principle should lead pro-lifers to feel that the recently-born should be as entitled to education, healthcare, and other social programmes as the unborn are entitled to not be killed in utero. “But this is different, though” is usually what the domain-dependent thinker will say when the setting is slightly different but the underlying principle remains the same, and the debates around this issue seem little different.
‘Deservedness’ and ‘Earning’
The idea that the market dishes out the economic rewards and punishments to everyone according to what is due and fair could be said to be the flagship belief of conservatism. This ‘invisible hand of the market’ that makes sure that supply, demand, prices, and values of things are all where they should be is a (fairly flimsy) rebranding of the Christian God that rewards the virtuous and punishes the lazy and idle. Conservative economists have worked backwards with this desired conclusion in mind to design (ultimately innaccurate) mathematical-looking and sounding models to support it.
While it is undeniable that it is possible to work and study your way to a better life, it is a well established fact that the greatest economic rewards go for owning capital assets, or things that earn for you so that you don’t have to do any work. The overall zoomed-out percentage of return on investment (on things like property, stocks, bonds, or other financial assets) has been higher than the overall zoomed-out rate of economic growth. By zoomed-out, I mean aggregated or taken all together. Some will have made much more return on their investments, some will have made much less or even lost their investments. But taken together and when zoomed-out: owning assets provides a return of about 5% per year (if you invest $20m and do nothing else, the money has grown to $21m by the end of the year) when economic growth has been just roughly 3% per year.
This means that owning rewards more than earning. The conservative counter-argument goes that people who have worked hard enough and generated enough success to own things that earn for them deserve to sit back and extract the value that others create while they get fanned by their slaves. The issue with this is that access to these wealth-producing assets gets more and more restricted the more they get snapped up unless more assets are being produced. Property is a very simple case in point. Conservative political movements consistently oppose the development of more social property as this would eat into the concentrated ownership and relative monopoly of existing property holders.
This effect was turbocharged by the 1980s conservative revolution that saw a massive wave of selling off of public assets to private interests that allowed for the charging of tolls on things that everyone needs to access. For investors, it’s an excellent business model: buy things that everyone needs to use so that they can syringe cash out of everyone for using them. Taken to its (hopefully very far-off) logical conclusion: Why not privatise the air and do the same?
Ironically, if you apply first-principles thinking here, you can see that this impunity and laziness cuts both ways. Both social welfare and owner’s welfare benefit from the work of others. Both reward one for the value produced by another. Precisely what makes you ‘deserve’ to get paid for something just because you’ve stuck your flag into something and had a contract drawn up saying that you have rights to it? Should those rights always be buyable?
Another easy to understand example is how most western economies have a handful of retail banks in operation. They borrow at between 0-2% interest from their central banks, charge retail borrowers like you and I 15-20%, and pocket the difference for themselves (translation: their investors).
How is that ‘earned’? When you process that the central bank is public property, you realise that they’re literally lending the public’s money back to it, and extracting a mark-up on the interest rate the public are lending it at to them in the first place!
Yes, ownership of wealth-producing assets can be seen as ‘earned’ as anyone with the means can purchase them, but where do we draw the line? Outright free-market fundamentalism would mean that anything can be owned, bought, or sold: people included. This exact view is why the slaveowners were more often compensated than slaves when slavery was abolished and why, in other cases (such as in Haiti), millions of slaves were even charged the price of themselves for being freed during the 1800s.
Where does the conservative belief in people keeping the fruits of their own labour suddenly vanish to when we talk about income from owning things? If you are collecting the proceeds of owning something, then someone else is putting in the graft. Might we look back on this arrangement in the future as a form of diluted semi-slavery?
I suspect even Thatcher herself would turn in her grave at how much the Western economies have become skewed in favour of tolls on assets and how unproductive that’s made us as we become less and less interested in competition, innovation, goods, and services in favour of owning things that make money. Thatcher was the daughter of a Northern English shopkeeper who hated the idea of someone collecting the benefit of others’ work and thought that reducing the role of the state would turn Britain into a nation of efficient entrepreneurs. I doubt she foresaw this grotesque model of ownership welfare that has developed as a result of the course she set her country on. If only she were alive to see how sour her dream had turned.
The conservative combination of intolerance of social welfare and approval of ownership welfare shows an associative, as opposed to a meaning-based, understanding of things. At least ownership welfare is associated with success in business and wearing a tie so it doesn’t feel to them like getting rewarded for others’ work, which they associate with social welfare recipients. This associative understanding of reality seems so strong that the fact that many multiples more in rewards flow to the owners of assets than flows to welfare recipients is unable to dent or penetrate this belief.
While the Conservatives are the world’s biggest preachers about the benefits of competition – especially when the poor, the workers, or their suppliers are competing with one another so that they get their labour and supplies for cheaper. But how can you conserve your advantage if you yourself are coming up against competition?
Since the connection between success and deservedness is the flagship belief of conservatism: the acceptance that bad things can happen to good people or good things can happen to bad people would instantly cause conservatism to collapse in on itself, as would the acknowledgement that the greatest rewards go for owning things rather than doing things. The retrospective judging all success and failure to be and indication or proof of deservedness, either way, is conservatism’s flimy keystone.
Love of the Country, Hatred of the State.
Another glaring hole in Conservative thought is the pattern of nationalism combined with disdain for the concept of a shared collective entity called the state. As Martin Lousteau says of populist conservatives : “They make great patriots but shit citizens”.
Now I don’t mean to claim that a nation and a state are exactly the same thing. But you’d have to think that if they were a venn diagram, they’d be 70% or more overlapping.
Applying meaning-based thinking rather than associative thinking here again can lead us to the following question: Why love a flag, a national identity, and the general idea of a country if not to take pride in its ability to take care of its people and provide the best possible platform for the opportunity to live really good lives?
The reason I suspect for this strange disconnect is that conservatives aren’t really thinking about what these things mean, but instead associate the country with things like sporting, military, or some other competitive prowess, and associate the state with college-educated civil servants, healthcare, education, and other “pussy shit”.
In conservative circles, there is a creeping tendency to refer to almost any state-funded programmes as ‘socialism’, painting it as the strong being forced to hand over their money (taxation is theft) to pay for the care and education of the weak or lazy. Almost any state-funded progammes.
Aside from the fact that the claim that government programmes are funded by tax is innaccurate; it is very telling to listen to the things that conservatives don’t think are socialism. A first-principles thinker that is interested in knowing what things actually mean might set a criteria for what we call ‘socialism’. By Conservatism’s extremely loose standards of what socialism is, maybe the criteria could be: publicly-owned things that the government pay for.
Of course, Conservatives are well known for wanting to either privatise public assets or slash public spending on most state programmes. But there is deafening silence among conservatives when it comes to their turn to oppose state spending on military, policing, or on corporate/financial bailouts. Why are these kinds of public expenditures not socialism?
Again, this inconsistency starts to make sense when you imagine what someone that thinks in associations rather than meanings might believe. Socialism is associated with things that help people who need it. Policing, military, and bailouts of banks and multinationals is associated with power and big business. The fact that the money flows come from the state in both instances and can be of similar magnitudes doesn’t really come into the figuring in the first place.
For all the conservative talk about the invisible hand of the market keeping the economy competitive, monopolies are encouraged and participated in wherever they can be established, while conservatives simultaneously have the audacity to call any regulations that are designed to prevent monopoloy power and conserve competition ‘socialism’.
In fact, almost any attempts to frustrate a slide back into capital’s neo-feudalist lordship over society, be it the bargaining power of organised labour, attempts to tax capital appropriately so that the purchase of politicians is beyond its reach, or laws to enable states to punish organisations for poisoning the natural environment; are all dismissed as ‘socialism’.
For all the conservative talk of love of the nation, they take steps to weaken nation-states power to keep private interests in check at every single available opportunity.
Would they hold their hands over their hearts with tears in their eyes while staring at a Walmart or Unilever flag fluttering beautifully in the breeze?
But the Status Quo is Always Moving Anyway!
Before looking at how such a popular and dominant way of looking at the world can be built on such shaky and self-contradicting ideas, let’s wrap up some of Conservatism’s biggest inconsistencies:
- Pro Life and Pro Death-Penalty.
- Welfare for the poor bad, welfare for the rich good.
- State spending on health and education bad, state spending on weapons and bank bailouts good.
- Private property is sacred, but women’s bodies are not their property.
- The notion of competition is capitalist, enforcement of competition is socialist.
- Love of the nation, hatred of the state.
- Protect the unborn, neglect the recently-born.
I’ve tried to emphasise as much as possible how internally inconsistent many key Conservative ideas are, with only side mentions of where external evidence is needed to undermine those ideas. How could such a dominant worldview disagree with itself so much?
Imagine, instead of thinking and reasoning out a coherent and consistent philosophy based on some principles, you collected ideas and customs in a bag as you progressed through time. Now imagine, as a way to get around having to think about the values of principles or indeed even what things actually meant, you substituted the question “is this good?” for the question “are we used to this?”.
Using this way to build your attitude towards life, there is nothing to stop you from placing ideas and customs that are in direct contradiction of one another in that bag, because you are using familiarity as your only judgement criteria for whether something goes or stays in the bag. You’re certainly not checking to see if the ideas and customs that are going in the bag contradict what’s already in there!
This is why I claim that conservatism is not actually a philosophy, but it’s what things look like when there is a total lack of philosophy, much the same way that black is an absense of colour rather than an actual colour in itself. Without principle, how can there be a philosophy?
There is one more scrap of defence left. Conservatives may claim that their one guiding principle is their desire to protect either the past or the present from the future.
If something is past; it cannot be conserved, so advocates of the past need to rechristen themselves revertatives, and there’s another day’s talking in that.
In terms of conserving the present: any given present-time has been arrived at from some past that changed into a present. As obvious as it sounds: the present we have now didn’t always exist.
This brings us to a moment of realisation similar to when searching for your spectacles, you become aware you are already searching for them through those very lenses:
In the past, conservatives would have opposed the things that generated this very present that they are now trying to conserve!