But what you gave me when you gave me nothing at all… is nasty conservatism

It’s difficult to associate anything good with conservatism.

It’s a massive problem for me as I associate myself with conservatism and yet consider myself not to be an entirely horrid and morally dubious person.  It’s a conflict that I can only resolve by distinguishing between conservatism as it is practiced and identified and conservatism as an abstract, intellectual pursuit.

The result is probably unsatisfactory.  It’s no doubt the reason why I’m a swinging voter…

But back to the start.  I conceive of there basically being two kinds of ways to engage with political thought: the first is to argue that all things need to be justified moment to moment; the second is to argue that the status quo has a privileged position.  The difference is whether or not you think that the society we have gets a bit of a free kick when it comes to justifying itself (or, more strictly, that ‘It is currently so’ is a bonus point on the evaluation scale).  This links conservatism to an older, more noble tradition than merely the French and English conservatism commonly identified: the mos maiorum has an intrinsic value and should — at least as a starting point — deserve some respect.

Politics is increasingly becoming a domain of economics (the part of economics which believes that it can make normative claims): arguments about politics are being reduced to which brand of voodoo economic witchcraft is most popular, common, and vulgar at the time.  Despite conservatism being increasingly linked to a particular economic theory (**cough, cough** libertarianism **cough, cough**), ‘liberating’ the market seems to devalue our current social system and demand that State expenditure (such as welfare) be justified on its own merits.  I’m not that kind of conservative.

At the same time, it rejects quite a lot of the nihilism of modernity.  For example, the ‘progressive’ response to the elitism of education was to remove barriers to entry.  Instead of providing a first rate education to everybody, the ‘progressives’ devalued the importance of education to economic considerations: now we try to get as many people as possible to hold tertiary degrees.  And so on and so forth.  A better response would have been to reduce the ‘elite’ control of education without devaluing it: some obscure conservative thinkers have shown ways this could be possible.

I guess this strikes at the heart of the problem.  Imagine my counterpart from the universe next door arrives in this universe.  Universe Next Door Mark is a progressive.  We can both agree that the likely economic position of a person when they’re 35 should not be easily predicted at their birth.  We can both agree that it shouldn’t be the case that a white male child is more likely to end up in a better position than a minority.  What we can disagree upon is the method in which we achieve the outcomes.  Universe Next Door Mark believes that the current system needs to be destroyed and rebuilt.  This Universe Mark believes that radical changes are unnecessary.

There’s a smaller problem: the term ‘progressive’.  The term implies that there’s some utopian future towards which the ‘progressives’ are trying to drag the world kicking and screaming, and that they’d succeed if it weren’t for the cabal of conservatives who block their progress.

On the other hand, I don’t live in a fairy land.  Conservatism today is populist gutter politics.  Appealing to the worst aspects of society — fear and indignation, mostly — has become the calling card of ‘Conservatism’.  Society is short-changed by a conservatism which doesn’t pull its weight.

So there you have it: a loose and vague explanation of my conservatism and why it doesn’t make me a horrible, dreadful person.

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5 thoughts on “But what you gave me when you gave me nothing at all… is nasty conservatism

  1. “I conceive of there basically being two kinds of ways to engage with political thought: the first is to argue that all things need to be justified moment to moment; the second is to argue that the status quo has a privileged position.  The difference is whether or not you think that the society we have gets a bit of a free kick when it comes to justifying itself (or, more strictly, that ‘It is currently so’ is a bonus point on the evaluation scale).  This links conservatism to an older, more noble tradition than merely the French and English conservatism commonly identified: the mos maiorum has an intrinsic value and should — at least as a starting point — deserve some respect.”

    Why should we privilege the status quo? Or, alternatively, why shouldn’t we periodically – whatever the length of the moment – (re-)assess justification?

    “At the same time, it rejects quite a lot of the nihilism of modernity.  For example, the ‘progressive’ response to the elitism of education was to remove barriers to entry.  Instead of providing a first rate education to everybody, the ‘progressives’ devalued the importance of education to economic considerations: now we try to get as many people as possible to hold tertiary degrees.  And so on and so forth.  A better response would have been to reduce the ‘elite’ control of education without devaluing it: some obscure conservative thinkers have shown ways this could be possible.”

    Presumably many (most?) progressives would agree with this. Indeed, the kind of libertarian economic conservativism you talk about probably played a role in the overall reduction of quality in tertiary study, because it is so massively allergic to the idea of public services, including education.

    “I guess this strikes at the heart of the problem.  Imagine my counterpart from the universe next door arrives in this universe.  Universe Next Door Mark is a progressive.  We can both agree that the likely economic position of a person when they’re 35 should not be easily predicted at their birth.  We can both agree that it shouldn’t be the case that a white male child is more likely to end up in a better position than a minority.  What we can disagree upon is the method in which we achieve the outcomes.  Universe Next Door Mark believes that the current system needs to be destroyed and rebuilt.  This Universe Mark believes that radical changes are unnecessary.”

    This probably comes back to the first issue. If there are radical disparities, don’t they necessarily require radical changes? There’s also the question of whether Universe Next Door Mark is a radical progressive, like a smash-the-state anarchist, or a moderate/pragmatic progressive, who doesn’t necessarily value the status quo but acknowledges that given the state of play, the only way to change things is to work within the system.

    “There’s a smaller problem: the term ‘progressive’.  The term implies that there’s some utopian future towards which the ‘progressives’ are trying to drag the world kicking and screaming, and that they’d succeed if it weren’t for the cabal of conservatives who block their progress.”

    That’s a potential issue, though I think the term could equally be thought of in terms of constant progress, with no ‘final goal’, just a continuous striving for improvement

    Regarding the status quo – I’m interested in your thoughts as to why we should value it (or why it has value), but I wonder, if there is such a value, is that value enough to save it from the critiques regarding massive injustice, inequality and oppression. It seems to me that even if the status quo does have some intrinsic value, the value required for it to justify itself to any meaningful degree would have to be massive, because the problems of the status quo are so great.

    • ‘Why should we privilege the status quo?’

      We know for certainty that it works (or the exact extent to which we know that it doesn’t work). Further, I think people should be able to have the reasonable expectation that tomorrow will be pretty much like today. While the frameworks and methods of analysis and justification might go in and out of vogue, privileging the status quo promotes stability. Stability seems like a good thing, doesn’t it?

      ‘Presumably many (most?) progressives would agree with this.’

      Not the ones who see education as a means for the elite to maintain its control over social power structures. Australia suffered a lot of their nonsense in the eighties (and the proportion of adults with a tertiary degree became a measure of a country’s egalitarianism).

      ‘If there are radical disparities, don’t they necessarily require radical changes?’

      Do they?

      ‘just a continuous striving for improvement’

      It still seems value-laden and problematic.

      ‘if there is such a value, is that value enough to save it from the critiques regarding massive injustice, inequality and oppression’

      Yeah, and that’s a really good point and I understand why some people might not be enamored with the status quo. Reframing the position around this question of the role of the status quo means you’re left with intelligent people on both sides of the equation discussing things reasonably. ‘Conservatives’ are currently missing from the conversation.

      • “Yeah, and that’s a really good point and I understand why some people might not be enamored with the status quo. Reframing the position around this question of the role of the status quo means you’re left with intelligent people on both sides of the equation discussing things reasonably. ‘Conservatives’ are currently missing from the conversation.”

        This really is the crux of the issue – your point about stability is fair, so then we have to work out how to balance stability and equality, in terms of our moral duties. I think a big part of the problem is that most ‘conservatives’ aren’t even endorsing the status quo, they’re arguing for regression.

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