Monday, March 30, 2009

What Conservatism Means to Me

I know I promised that my next posts would be a follow up on the Reason v. Faith debate, but that will take a lot of time and effort. With spring break upon us and a few extra projects to finish, it may be a bit longer before I can wrap that up. I did think of something very worthwhile to write about in the mean time. As you have probably figured out, I have fairly strong political convictions. As it is inevitable that these convictions will influence and color this blog, I thought it only fair that I outline my convictions so that the views presented here can be properly understood and appreciated in full light of their foundational premises. With that in mind, I hope to outline what conservatism means to me.

  • Conservatism is not a political party. All too often in our political culture you will see the Republican Party labeled "conservative." While it may be true that many in the GOP would label themselves conservative, the Republican platform has more planks in it than conservatism. On the other hand, while I don't think I've ever met one, it is theoretically possible for there to exist a conservative Democrat. Neither party has an ideological corner on conservatism.
  • Conservatism is not a necessarily religious perspective. Again, in our culture these two ideologies seem to be thought of as necessarily mutually inclusive. Belief in God or a particular religious tradition neither determines your politics nor does it prohibit your politics. While we may observe a correlation between religious belief and practice and conservatism, correlation does not equal causation.
  • Conservatism is not the rejection of progress or change. In many social situations, conservatives are portrayed as simply being opposed to whatever progressives are in favor of. It is as if conservatism has no real agenda, no real ideas; it only exists as the ying to the progressive's yang. This is not true. Conservatism obviously opposes many of the premises of progressivism, but it does not do so simply out of spite. There are real disagreements which prohibit cooperation.

At this point one might ask, "So you've told us what conservatism is not. Then what is it? Are there any real characteristics of conservatism?" I believe there are. Specifically, I believe that, for me, conservatism can be summed up in a single, albeit dense, point: Conservatism is the pragmatic appreciation of the fragility of social order, and the desire to preserve those practices that best protect it. There are two main ideas in this definition that deserve to be explored in greater detail; pragmatism and fragility in regards to social order, and protecting social order.

So what do we mean when we speak of a pragmatic appreciation of the fragility of social order? Simply put, the conservative does not take social order and cohesiveness for granted. The conservative possesses a theory of human behavior and nature that posits that in order for a society to be a healthy and functional society, there must be rules and systems set up that will protect the individual not only from those who would seek his harm, but also from his own desire to inflict harm on others. These systems are never perfect, and so when one does end up working and functioning well, it is prudent to guard the system carefully. If the system is not guarded, if it is tampered with, the whole society stands to lose that integral social structure. This can be contrasted with the progressive's notion of society as something which must be constantly moved forward and revised. The progressive believes that society must be constantly changed to achieve a more equitable circumstance. The conservative acknowledges that while the system may be flawed, it is better than those that preceded it, and before the system is changed we must be extremely sure that it will be for the best.

This leads us to the conservative notion of preserving the practices that best protect the social order. Moving from the previous section, the conservative's natural tendency is then to protect and preserve the systems already in place within society. If the social order is fragile, and if changing things without regard to possible consequences is dangerous, then the conservative will be very hesitant to betray those social institutions already in place to protect the status quo. Again, not because the conservative believes the status quo to be the pinnacle of human society, but because he knows that it is sustainable and better than many of the alternatives.

So how do these principles play out in actual policy? A good example taken from current discourse is the economic crisis and the federal bailout measures. The conservative position argues that by meddling with the market we created the incentives that encouraged the banks to pursue these high risk investments in the first place, and by bailing them out once they invariably fail we only create more incentive. The best course of action would be for the institutions that are failing to fail, allowing the market to organically purge itself of overly risky investors.

Now the critics of this position would argue that not only does this fail to serve the average citizen who has lost his savings in the crisis, but it also ignores the government's responsibility to fix the mess it originally created with those original incentives. The conservative reply to these criticisms is that the citizen who lost his savings was either not aware of where his investments were, in which case it is not the government's responsibility to fix the problem, or he knew and decided the risk was warranted, in which case again it is not the government's obligation to bail him out because he misread the market. To answer the argument that because the government created the original incentive and so bears the responsibility of setting things right again, the conservative position would be to point out that ill-advised intervention is not fixed by more ill-advised intervention, and that by allowing those institutions to fail the government is in fact setting things right by allowing the market to fix itself.

This example is not meant to be exhaustive or offensive. I understand that the situation is more complex than I have here treated it, but I feel that I have made my point in regards to conservatism. Hopefully this post will clarify any further political discourse that takes place in this blog. Feel free to comment.

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