Are We Really “Conservatives?”

 
403px-EdmundBurke1771

Is this really us?

Ricochet is home to a lot of debates; typically among those of us on who identify with the Political Right. As a matter of convenience, we call ourselves “conservatives” and our opponents “liberals.” Much has been written about the derivation of these terms and how they came to be in common usage today. I don’t want to re-hash that history lesson. I’m more interested in figuring out if we here are actually conservatives or if we are … something else.

My Random House Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “conservative” as: “Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., and to restore traditional ones, and to limit change — or — cautiously moderate.” Certainly, there are plenty of people at Ricochet who want to restore traditional institutions. There’s nothing wrong with that per se; there have been some great and admirable times in the nation’s past. There have also been terrible times which are best remembered with a shudder and fear. As to the rest of the definition? I’m not buying it.

To take this definition and apply it to the events of, say, yesterday — when the Congress voted to repeal Obamacare — one could conclude that those actions were not “conservative,” unless you place focus on the “restoring traditional institutions” portion of the definition. We “conservatives” should cheer this action in the sense that Congress is seeking to “restore” the status quo ante that existed before progressive nannyists jammed this camel down the throats of the public. I like it. I approve. I want it to happen. But in my mind, it wouldn’t go far enough even if it had been successful. We ought to appreciate the adherence to process here that the president disdains, but don’t think that goes far enough to explain what we long for.

“Conservatism” of restorationist flavor boils down to a matter of dates. If you limit your view of what is right and good to some specific point in the halcyon past when things were “great” — you know, when we’re staring into the void — you’re nothing more than a “reactionary.” By this definition, one could just as easily claim that someone who wants to restore Woodrow Wilson’s fascist police state, arguing that it was the height of American civilization, is a conservative. In a certain sense, too, he’d be right.

We have to consider: What, precisely, are we attempting to restore? Are we attempting to return the nation to how it was in 2000, before the horrors of 9/11 and the opening of the American mind to the idea that we are involved in an existential struggle with people who are even more “conservative” than we are? No, thank you. Perhaps it’s 2007, before the scourge of Obama-ism? Fat chance. How about the 1950s (as I recall one person suggesting) when our civilizational confidence seemed to be at an all-time high, the economy was growing steadily, and life seemed to have a predictable, peaceful rhythm, with the caveat of the threat of global thermonuclear war? I’ll pass.

I’m asserting that there was no time in the past that holds up to scrutiny so well that we should seek to “restore” it such that it becomes our ideal of the future. In my estimation, the only way out is moving forward — not longing for the past — and I think have some decidedly un-Conservative ideas about how we need to do that (in the sense that “restoration” of traditional institutions is insufficient).

For starters, I’m in favor of the complete voucherization and privatization of the education system while maintaining public funding. This acknowledges that we aren’t going to return to a time when there isn’t publicly funded education, but makes it more efficient and to stop punishing people who choose to send their children to private schools by what boils down to double taxation. Competing studies quibble about the effectiveness of private/charter schools — the secret sauce for academic success seems to be family cohesion) vs. their public school brethren — but most of them miss the fundamental point: even though charter/private schools tend not to produce remarkably better results, they produce similar (or better) results at lower cost. We should do it for that reason alone if nothing else.

This is a radical, borderline revolutionary, position; there’s nothing “conservative” about it.

I’m also skeptical about our capacity (in the long run) to eliminate the welfare state. In some form or another, Section 8 housing, AFDC, WIC, SNAP, SCHIP, Medicaid, Medicare, and Social Security are all here to stay; there are simply too many people who are too deeply invested in them and capable of voting to prevent eliminating them entirely. What I do think we could accomplish is transforming them into something different.

Borrowing from my earlier point, why don’t we voucherize Medicaid? We could also incentivize people to save unspent voucher monies in health savings accounts, rather than what we do now, which encourages them to view the program as a bottomless well of money from which they can pull up a bucket or two as needed. Something similar could be done with most of the rest of the programs. Again, this is not necessarily a “conservative” position, but reflects the reality of where we are today and how we might better incentive our existing structures.

These are revolutionary concepts that would drive progressives — and, I’m sure, plenty of libertarians — crazy. There are a lot of ideas like this on the Right and yet, we call ourselves “conservatives.” I think we do ourselves a disservice by downplaying just how different our thoughts about government and public policy are from from those of the Left. In doing so, we allow ourselves to be tarred with the brush of “regressive” when, in reality, we might have a far better claim on being “progressive,” in the sense that we seek to improve human flourishing. It’s the Left, in this sense, who look downright reactionary in their defense of moribund and failed institutions.

Published in Religion & Philosophy
Like this post? Want to comment? Join Ricochet’s community of conservatives and be part of the conversation. Join Ricochet for Free.

There are 101 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. donald todd Inactive
    donald todd
    @donaldtodd

    Robert McReynolds:One last thing. I don’t wish to conserve anything related to the status quo of the past 50 years in terms of the power of the federal government. Whether you are talking about bureaucracies, federal policies, or the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, I want to destroy each of these all the way down to the foundations. The power belongs to the individual states, and thus to the people in their immediate sphere, NOT the federal government.

    One might suggest that Lincoln’s decisions led to this point: The Feds are in charge.  Some of this might be rolled back, but not a lot of it.  Perhaps letting parents control their children’s education might be a good jumping off point, ridding our children of a government education and whatever taxation is involved in this sham.

    • #31
  2. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Jamie Lockett:

    Majestyk: That doesn’t even mean necessarily incremental change in our preferred direction as much as restraining the growth of those institutions. I don’t like that – but I think it is a reality, and a reality that politicians (particularly those in swing districts) are constrained by.

    This is an extremely important point and one I’ve tried again and again to make around these parts. We’re all driving towards the same place (at least I think most of us here at Ricochet are) – we just have different ideas as to what the speed the vehicle we’re in is capable of.

    Respectfully, I disagree. If that were true and the issue was merely the speed then we would be having debates about eliminating 3 departments in a year vs. 1 department. Republicans are voting and campaigning to grow the government.

    The split between limited government and conservative at the federal level isn’t reconcilable. There is a distinct difference between reduce the federal government and growing it at a different pace than the democrats.

    Ultimately limited government folks will win out when the charade implodes, but I confess that may take longer than I estimate thanks to the power of the Fed.

    • #32
  3. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    BrentB67: service the various members of their coalition. The Republicans seem to have a different view. This vision is not that they were sent to Washington to “Service the coalition” as much as it is to “govern.”

    ECI is a BLS statistic isn’t it? I initially thought to use CPI but swapped it for the GDP-deflator due to it capturing more government factors and being more versatile in its estimate of current spending habits.

    • #33
  4. I Walton Member
    I Walton
    @IWalton

    When the progressives started using our word, “liberal” which had meant limited government under the rule of law, there were so few liberals left they got away with it.  When WFB and others successfully revived a broad “liberal coalition”  he had to call it conservative because the term “liberal” was already in use.  So we are left using an inaccurate word, a word that more appropriately applies to big government Democrats and establishment Republicans  who don’t want to change any government program.  Moreover the old use of the term “liberal” captured reverence for tradition and religion as well as the rule of law, constitutional government and free market economics.  Now we have to cobble together words like, social conservative, libertarian, conservatarian,  constitutionalist.   Now that they are willing to call themselves progressive, a term they had to abandon because they trashed it, allowed it to be stolen by marxists of various stripes, maybe there is a way to recapture our word.

    • #34
  5. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Robert McReynolds:We should start doing the same. Pick a department that isn’t too prominent, or even an agency if you want. You produce a bill that outright ends that entity. If they filibuster it, use budget reconciliation to pass it or change the filibuster rule. Sign it, shut down the agency/department and then bide your time to regain power and do it again. We, as a party, worry too much about winning and holding the power, instead of wielding the power once we have it. We squander opportunities in the pursuit of perpetual praise and you must be realistic enough to realize that perpetual praise is a fool’s errand.

    I’m not convinced that a slash and burn strategy is our best option in the long run.  There’s only so far that we can push the electorate in trying to convince them that our political opponents are dangerous fascists without driving actual, irreparable wedges between the people of the nation.

    I look at what happened after the 1994 elections and I see what ought to be.  If there were ever a time when we could have accomplished some of these goals that would have been it.  Welfare was a sacred cow, but the Congress managed to bring Clinton to heel.

    How did that happen?  I think you have to examine the personalities of the people involved in order to understand why that situation turned out and why the Ted Cruz shutdown situation didn’t.  In the end, I think Bill Clinton was merely a seeker after power, and to that end he was willing to compromise.

    Compare that with Obama.  The President is a true believer, and views his opponents as not merely wrong, but evil.  There can be no compromise with evil, so he doesn’t.

    No matter what happens, we aren’t going to be able to budge that immovable object because he has no incentive to do so, whereas Clinton had plenty.

    As much as I hate to admit it, the nature of interpersonal relationships among the nation’s leaders bears as much responsibility for this as anything.  Obama is happy to give the finger to half of the country.  He is more than happy to do the same to the people who represent them.

    Say what you will about Bill Clinton – he didn’t want to be hated.  I think that led him to soften his stances for a variety of reasons, even if those relationships with Congress ended up as shredded underwear by 1998.

    • #35
  6. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    BrentB67:

    Jamie Lockett:I think it depends on what we’re trying to measure yes? Given that the government is essentially a consumer in our economy, it produces nothing of real value, a combination of the GDP-deflator and ECI would seem appropriate.

    Interesting, because neither of those are BLS statistics.

    We agree that liberty is inversely proportional to the size of government. We differ in our willingness to hide its size and liberty crushing overreach in real vs. nominal dollars.

    Do you do all economic analysis in nominal dollars? That seems…fraught.

    I’m not hiding it in anything that was less than charitable.

    • #36
  7. A-Squared Inactive
    A-Squared
    @ASquared

    Majestyk: My Random House Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary defines “conservative” as: “Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., and to restore traditional ones, and to limit change — or — cautiously moderate.”

    I don’t think this definition of conservatism works in the modern era.

    The example I often use is welfare reform in “Contract with America” era. It was Republicans/Conservatives advocating for change and Democrats fighting to preserve the status quo.  And the conservatives were not attempting to “restore” some traditional definition of the welfare state.

    The “restore traditional [conditions]” definition of conservatives was meant to refer to Monarchists in the French Revolution.  No conservative wants to return to an absolute monarchy.

    I’ve spent / wasted many hours trying to come up a reasonable definition of (set of first principles for) conservative, and the one definition I keep coming back to is that conservative believe that “mankind is fundamentally flawed / sinful” whereas lefties believe that “mankind is perfectible.”   As Russell Kirk put it “Men and women are not perfectible, conservatives know; and neither are political institutions”

    I believe that that the belief of perfectibility is at the root of all left-leaning programs, and they are all destined to fail because (I believe) mankind is inherently flawed.

    • #37
  8. Mendel Inactive
    Mendel
    @Mendel

    donald todd:

    One might suggest that Lincoln’s decisions led to this point: The Feds are in charge.

    One could go even further and suggest that the growth in the scope of government in general and the centralization of power in DC were inevitable consequences of America’s ever-increasing prosperity and prominence in the world. Certainly a number of smart observers at our founding were keenly aware of this possibility.

    The approach one takes to restraining the state is much different if one views its overgrowth as a nearly-inevitable result of human nature, or a deliberate pernicious takeover by an ideological minority.

    • #38
  9. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Majestyk: “Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., and to restore traditional ones, and to limit change — or — cautiously moderate.”

    That’s a terrible definition. It makes no distinction between existing conditions which one sees as beneficial and those which one sees as harmful.

    A much better definition would be “Disposed to agree that some existing conditions, institutions, etc, are worthy of preservation, and that some traditional ones are worthy of reinstatement.”

    • #39
  10. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Misthiocracy:

    Majestyk: “Disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions, etc., and to restore traditional ones, and to limit change — or — cautiously moderate.”

    That’s a terrible definition. It makes no distinction between existing conditions which one sees as beneficial and those which one sees as harmful.

    A much better definition would be “Disposed to agree that some existing conditions, institutions, etc, are worthy of preservation, and that some traditional ones are worthy of reinstatement.”

    At this point that definition could easily apply to what we call liberals.

    • #40
  11. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    These days I usually just refer to myself as a Libertine. As for the opponents, they are anything but liberal, so I usually say Progressives in polite company, although there are other terms, such as Croneyists.

    therightthing

    • #41
  12. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Mendel:

    Robert McReynolds:What we have now are people in leadership positions who do not want to do the heavy lifting of educating their constituents…

    To piggyback on Majestyk, I view this exactly the other way around.

    For most of us, our political views arise from our perception of how the world works. For me, the most powerful insights have come from libertarian thinkers such as Friedman regarding the nature of choice and incentives.

    History has proven time and again that politicians’ strongest incentive is make potential voters feel good about themselves, not tell them they’re wrong. This is exactly how Donald Trump has become popular.

    Politicians tell us everything we believe is correct because that’s what we reward them to do. The only way to change the politicians is to change what the voters believe is correct.

    I think we are saying the same thing when you boil it all down. There is a much bigger incentive to tell us what we want to hear than to tell us how things should be and that we, the citizen, should pick up some of the responsibilities we would rather not deal with. Basically what we are all saying is that Politicians are lazy and have no incentive to change. The ones who are most active seem to be on the Left, but that is because of how intellectually lazy it is to convince people that all they need is for DC to provide for them.

    • #42
  13. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    I Walton: Moreover the old use of the term “liberal” captured reverence for tradition and religion as well as the rule of law, constitutional government and free market economics.

    Exactly. And that’s what I am.

    But the most significant debate, and the one with the most immediate repercussions, is “isolationist versus internationalist.” We have both ideologies in both parties right now.

    I’m not at all necessarily hawkish. I don’t think “carpet bombing” and “making things glow” is the right solution to every threat.

    But I’d go back to the 1950s and “the caveat of the threat of global thermonuclear war” in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, we can’t. We’re now re-entering a world pregnant with that threat — but we’re looking at a multipolar power configuration, not a bipolar one. Managing this will be the biggest challenge the United States has ever faced, and if we screw it up, that’s it, end of story.

    • #43
  14. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Majestyk:

    I’m not convinced that a slash and burn strategy is our best option in the long run. There’s only so far that we can push the electorate in trying to convince them that our political opponents are dangerous fascists without driving actual, irreparable wedges between the people of the nation.

    That’s exactly my point on some level. We are too worried about losing elections, i.e. the long run, than we are in governing based on our principles. Of course there is only so far as we can go. Then you lose an election or two and then you start making gains to win power back and you keep pushing.

    Look, I find it far better for us to disband and then re-enstate agencies and departments every few years than to simply argue about how fast these agencies or departments are going to grown. That is what we are doing right now and that is not good even if you argue for an incremental method. At some point you have to decrease the actual monetary amount going to these entities. So far, incrementalism is not accomplishing that.

    • #44
  15. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Majestyk:Compare that with Obama. The President is a true believer, and views his opponents as not merely wrong, but evil. There can be no compromise with evil, so he doesn’t.

    Then maybe it is time we start adopting the same rhetoric, no? Perhaps it is time we start to consider the idea that it is THEY who are evil and stop trying to negotiate with them.

    • #45
  16. Naudious Inactive
    Naudious
    @Stoicous

    Great post.

    Conservatism in the US is far different from Conservatism by definition.

    Maybe you’d be interested in a proposal from Milton Friedman called the Negative Income Tax. It is a proposal designed to replace to Welfare State without throwing the people dependent on it under the

    • #46
  17. David Sussman Contributor
    David Sussman
    @DaveSussman

    Excellent post and comments. I consider Teddy Roosevelt’s Conservative ideals the closest to mine:

    Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

    • #47
  18. Robert McReynolds Inactive
    Robert McReynolds
    @RobertMcReynolds

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    I Walton: Moreover the old use of the term “liberal” captured reverence for tradition and religion as well as the rule of law, constitutional government and free market economics.

    Exactly. And that’s what I am.

    But the most significant debate, and the one with the most immediate repercussions, is “isolationist versus internationalist.” We have both ideologies in both parties right now.

    I’m not at all necessarily hawkish. I don’t think “carpet bombing” and “making things glow” is the right solution to every threat.

    But I’d go back to the 1950s and “the caveat of the threat of global thermonuclear war” in a heartbeat. Unfortunately, we can’t. We’re now re-entering a world pregnant with that threat — but we’re looking at a multipolar power configuration, not a bipolar one. Managing this will be the biggest challenge the United States has ever faced, and if we screw it up, that’s it, end of story.

    Claire the reason is that we have half of our population who hate the US while the other half is tired of seeing their children die for being sent to wars that we are going to half-arse. We are multipolar because we have, for one reason or the other, decided to abrogate our role as a super power.

    • #48
  19. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Pssst! David! Teddy was a Progressive!

    • #49
  20. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    Robert McReynolds: Claire the reason is that we have half of our population who hate the US while the other half is tired of seeing their children die for being sent to wars that we are going to half-arse. We are multipolar because we have, for one reason or the other, decided to abrogate our role as a super power.

    You don’t really believe that 1/2 the population that happens to disagree with your particular foreign policy hates the US do you?

    • #50
  21. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Robert McReynolds: We are multipolar because we have, for one reason or the other, decided to abrogate our role as a super power.

    That’s not the reason. This is the reason:

    52-3-fig4

    • #51
  22. Claire Berlinski, Ed. Editor
    Claire Berlinski, Ed.
    @Claire

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.: That’s not the reason. This is the reason:

    Or rather, there are many reasons. But that’s an important part of the story, and we need to be utterly honest with ourselves about that, because self-deception is no place to begin when we’re trying to figure out how to manage this. The “We decided to abrogate our role as a superpower” story is a story of being internally stabbed in the back. There’s some truth to it. But the graph above is the much bigger story, and it’s the one we have to start dealing with.

    • #52
  23. David Sussman Contributor
    David Sussman
    @DaveSussman

    Arahant: Teddy was a Progressive!

    Certainly toward the end of this career, yes. But ‘progressivism’ in 1908, while considered left leaning at the time, was a mere taste of what it has become modern day. (ie: Who among us don’t think workers and children needed protection from 16 hour work-days in dirty and dangerous manf. plants?)

    IMO – Teddy, compared to modern day politics, looks very conservative.

    • #53
  24. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Jamie Lockett:

    BrentB67: service the various members of their coalition. The Republicans seem to have a different view. This vision is not that they were sent to Washington to “Service the coalition” as much as it is to “govern.”

    ECI is a BLS statistic isn’t it? I initially thought to use CPI but swapped it for the GDP-deflator due to it capturing more government factors and being more versatile in its estimate of current spending habits.

    You are correct, my apologies. ECI is BLS. The GDP deflator is BEA.

    GDP deflator is preferred by the FOMC, but is generally thought to understate inflation.

    • #54
  25. Hartmann von Aue Member
    Hartmann von Aue
    @HartmannvonAue

    I recall the “Tracked and Targeted” trio making this very point a little more than a year ago. What do we want to conserve? Irresponsible deficit spending? A million babies being tortured to death in utero every year and then thrown away as “medical waste”? A sclerotic military bureaucracy?

    William F. Buckley preferred the term “Christian Individualism”, if memory serves. I prefer “Judeo-Christian Individualism” .

    • #55
  26. BrentB67 Inactive
    BrentB67
    @BrentB67

    Jamie Lockett:

    BrentB67:

    Jamie Lockett:I think it depends on what we’re trying to measure yes? Given that the government is essentially a consumer in our economy, it produces nothing of real value, a combination of the GDP-deflator and ECI would seem appropriate.

    Interesting, because neither of those are BLS statistics.

    We agree that liberty is inversely proportional to the size of government. We differ in our willingness to hide its size and liberty crushing overreach in real vs. nominal dollars.

    Do you do all economic analysis in nominal dollars? That seems…fraught.

    Not all, but consistency matters. When there are literally hundreds of inflation measures the opportunity to selectively employ which one favors a position is much more fraught, in my opinion, than ignoring them altogether.

    I’m not hiding it in anything that was less than charitable.

    • #56
  27. Majestyk Contributor
    Majestyk
    @Majestyk

    Robert McReynolds:

    Majestyk:Compare that with Obama. The President is a true believer, and views his opponents as not merely wrong, but evil. There can be no compromise with evil, so he doesn’t.

    Then maybe it is time we start adopting the same rhetoric, no? Perhaps it is time we start to consider the idea that it is THEY who are evil and stop trying to negotiate with them.

    I don’t think that we’re there.  Why would we call our opponents “evil” when we merely have disagreements with them?

    There are certainly individual instances where corruption or criminality calls into question (or wipes out) the assumption of some politicians’ benign intent, but that cuts in both directions.

    I’m not interested in following an Obama who just happens to be of the Right.  Inevitably, such people are of a populist bent at best, or demagogues at worst.  This is why so many people are horrified at the rise of Trump.  He seems to many of us just like Obama and the few times that he says something we agree with aren’t worth tolerating the other, glaring deficiencies he possesses.

    I don’t want to emulate the Left’s tactics.  The ends do not justify the means.

    • #57
  28. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Arahant: These days I usually just refer to myself as a Libertine.

    Really? You think people should do whatever they want and that they should never have to bear any negative consequences for those actions?

    • #58
  29. Jamie Lockett Inactive
    Jamie Lockett
    @JamieLockett

    BrentB67:

    Jamie Lockett:

    BrentB67:

    Jamie Lockett:I think it depends on what we’re trying to measure yes? Given that the government is essentially a consumer in our economy, it produces nothing of real value, a combination of the GDP-deflator and ECI would seem appropriate.

    Interesting, because neither of those are BLS statistics.

    We agree that liberty is inversely proportional to the size of government. We differ in our willingness to hide its size and liberty crushing overreach in real vs. nominal dollars.

    Do you do all economic analysis in nominal dollars? That seems…fraught.

    Not all, but consistency matters. When there are literally hundreds of inflation measures the opportunity to selectively employ which one favors a position is much more fraught, in my opinion, than ignoring them altogether.

    I’m not hiding it in anything that was less than charitable.

    How about as a percentage of GDP? Easy and simple.

    • #59
  30. Misthiocracy Member
    Misthiocracy
    @Misthiocracy

    Claire Berlinski, Ed.:

    Robert McReynolds: We are multipolar because we have, for one reason or the other, decided to abrogate our role as a super power.

    That’s not the reason. This is the reason:

    52-3-fig4

    So, the US’ global influence from about 1975 to 2000 was right about where it probably should have been if pre-Great Depression trends had continued, but since 2000 has fallen way below what it probably should be?

    • #60
Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.