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The Threat of Conservatism

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Message Larry Butler

The fortress mentality of conservatism
The fortress mentality of conservatism
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Primary season is upon us, and Republican candidates are jostling for position. Each one wants to be the most conservative. The word is uttered at every opportunity, often in a reverent hush. Conservatives assume that the word carries only positive connotations, and that nobody will open the hood and look at what it really means. Exactly what does it actually stand for?

William F. Buckley, Jr. is perhaps the best known champion of conservatism in the 20th century. He succinctly defines it like this.

Conservatism aims to maintain in working order the loyalties of the community to perceived truths and also to those truths which in their judgment have earned universal recognition.

Okay, that's maybe too succinct to mean anything. So let's look at his friends and enemies. He embraced Joseph McCarthy and his crusade to rid the country of Communists, Socialists, and liberals of any stripe. In a fit of righteous anger, he called Gore Vidal a queer on live television. And he rejected Ayn Rand - not for her cruel social Darwinism, but for her atheism. Perhaps we can best understand Buckley and his conservative principles by knowing his friends and enemies.

Let's dig deeper. Russell Kirk, via Heritage Foundation, in 1987 penned an essay that gives us the most concise and benign interpretation of conservatism. Written during the Reagan years, its was entitled, Ten Conservative Principles. Let's look.

  1. Authoritarianism - Moral truths are permanent and unchanging, and those who stray from them are a threat to order.
  2. Traditionalism - Old customs are what allow society to function peaceably, and any new social order that emerges from defying convention is likely to be inferior.
  3. Anti-modernism - Contemporary thinkers are dwarfs on the shoulders of the thinkers of antiquity, and we are unlikely to make any new discoveries in morals, politics, or taste.
  4. Prudence - We must act only after sufficient reflection and weighing of consequences, and we regard radical liberals as irresponsibly imprudent.
  5. Inequality - The preservation of society requires orders and classes, and egalitarianism in civilization leads to stagnation and tyranny.
  6. Anti-utopian - Because mankind is imperfect no perfect society is possible, and the best we can hope for is a social order in which some evils and suffering are tolerated.
  7. Property - Inter-generational private property ownership is the basis of civilization and freedom, and economic leveling hinders economic progress.
  8. Anti-collectivism - All community must be both voluntary and local, and when community is passed to a centralized authority freedom and human dignity are lost.
  9. Restraint upon power and human passions - People are both good and evil and this requires a balance between authoritarianism and personal liberty.
  10. Anti-progressivism - When a society progresses in one place it declines in another, so it is only the cult of progress that embraces change.
Look over the list again and consider how these principles are applied today. Within these principles you'll find justification for all kinds of evils. Abuse of political power comes with authoritarianism, provided that it's used to maintain law and order. Rejecting scientific consensus comes with respect for the giants of antiquity, provided that we reject only the science that threaten our interests. Wrenching poverty comes with acceptance of class entitlement, provided that it doesn't threaten the property of the moneyed class. Laissez-faire comes with the decentralization of government authority, provided that the passions of consenting adults can be properly controlled. Finally, don't try to fix things, because that will end up costing me money.

As a quasi political platform, this list of principles explains the appeal of authoritarian presidential candidates. It explains the overt disdain for moderates, liberals, and progressives. It explains the deification of wealth and the unprecedented concentration of economic and political power. It also shows us that generational inequality is a feature - not a flaw - in the authoritarian social order perpetuated by conservatives.

Finally, here's a terrifying thought. The principles listed here reflect the very most benign sort of conservatism. It's a sort that lacks the military jingoism of neo-conservatism, the theocracy of evangelical conservatism, and the overt bigotry of tea-party conservatism. Yet these radical extremes exist independently, and exert an increasingly malignant influence on the brand of conventional conservatism described above. This influence is pushing America toward unapologetic military adventurism, the confluence of church and state, and the kind of racial and cultural oppression not seen for sixty years.

Conservatism in all its flavors is the enemy of America, and it always has been. The American Revolution was waged against conservatism - King and mercantilist exploitation back then - using the ideals of the enlightenment and the democratic principles it spawned. Since 1776, we have seen the forces of regressivism at work in our government and in our economy. And in America today we can taste the bitter fruits of their success.

(Article changed on February 27, 2016 at 12:54)

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Thirty five years as a small business consultant, CFO, and university educator specializing in quantitative business and economic modeling - a suite of experience now focused on economic inequality. Carefully attributed data, thoughtful (more...)

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