Thoughts on Contemporary "Conservativism"

I recently witnessed a media “conservative” criticize the San Francisco airport for having a compost receptacle beside their recycle bin and regular trash can. She also noted that she does not go in for sorting trash beyond a simple recycling bin and that her desire to sort trash goes down “exponentially” when there are more options offered. When I asked her why she didn’t like to sort trash, she replied that she shouldn’t need a PhD to separate her trash.

This was a Twitter discussion, so I left it at that point without raising the logical question why one would need an advanced degree to separate trash into a few receptacles. That really wasn’t her point anyway.

If I may be so bold as to read beyond the actual words in this individual’s comments, I might suggest that what she really meant was that she didn’t want to be inconvenienced by having to sort her trash. That answer would have had a bit more validity, but it raises some interesting questions about the nature of popular conservativism.

True Conserativism

The heart of legitimate conservativism is that it takes a long time to build good things and very little time and effort to tear them down. Therefore, we should be careful in making sweeping changes—even when we have good intentions—because we may unwittingly destroy something that is good, true, and beautiful in a hasty attempt to make “progress.”

Photo credit:  Mayberry Health and Home  Used by CC License.

Photo credit: Mayberry Health and Home Used by CC License.

Based on that definition, which most thoughtful conservatives that I know share, environmental stewardship is a thoroughly conservative ideal. If we presume that the ecosystem is a natural good and that we all benefit from minimizing disturbances to it, then it takes little to jump from the notion that we should value the nuclear family to the idea we should value the created order. Both have their roots in nature, both have observable positive impacts on the world, both are worth conserving.

But preserving the family and conserving the environment take work. It is inconvenient to invest time into raising children. Before conservative became being “anti-progressive” it was supposed to be about conserving that which is good, true, and beautiful. If you’ve ever spent time dealing with historical artifacts, conservation is always exceedingly inconvenient.

In other words, when it is functioning as a distinct approach to life, conservativism is not about convenience, which is typically self-centered. Rather, it is nearly always concerned with something beyond the self, which is typically inconvenient.

Selfish Anti-Progressivism

Progressivism as a political movement often claims the mantle of selflessness. When it comes to economics, they typically favor a large, centralized government, which necessarily restricts individual freedom. They claim that this inconvenience is necessary to do the selfless good of ensuring some other good is provided—the poor are cared for, emissions are regulated, people are paid a particular amount of money per hour. Often these are legitimate goods that are being pursued at the highest level of bureaucracy available.

At its best, conservativism recognizes legitimate public goods, which are often also celebrated by progressives. However, when they are functioning to conserve the good, true, and beautiful, conservatives have a longer timeframe of concern; they look to pursue future good without creating perverse incentives or undermining existing goods unnecessarily. For example, true conservatives see caring for the poor as a good and necessary goal, but recognize the perverse incentives that permanently subsidizing able-bodied people creates; they tend to remain outside of the workforce and can form a permanent lower class, among other dangers. Thus, blind redistribution of funds is viewed by many conservatives as unjust and ultimately unhelpful because of its long term deleterious effects on society, including those who are the target of the assistance.

However, the position that the federal government is not the proper source of support from the poor must be accompanied by localized efforts to do the same if a conservative is to be consistent. That is, conservatives must engage in the inconvenient practice of engaging with the poor to help them. This is, in fact, the most effective means of poverty alleviation, but also the most difficult. It is the most consistent with conservative principles. One reason for conservatives to resist efforts to create a federal universal basic income is that it is primarily a means for progressives to claim to solve the world’s problems as conveniently as possible; give the poor a steady stream of checks so that we can otherwise ignore them. Regulate the companies producing merchandise to the maximum extent possible, because it would require too much work for consumers to make wise spending choices regarding the environment, employment practices, and product quality of companies they buy from. The convenience is found in gaining a clear conscience with as little effort as possible. Progressive political ideas tend to buy personal convenience at a high cost to the public purse.

Anti-Progressive Convenience Seekers

Unfortunately, in reaction to the high cost of progressive political ideas, anti-progressives have begun to label themselves as conservatives, including the person I interacted with about composting her garbage. In this case, at least, she is opposed to something she perceives as progressive simply because it is inconvenient. In fact, observing her public social media presence, she makes her living as a media persona by claiming to be conservative while really simply being anti-progressive.

Anti-progressives are convenience oriented like many progressives, but without the concern for a clear conscience. They argue there should be less federal welfare because of the freeloaders; they ask, “Why should my money be used to support those that didn’t work for it?” The poor are to be despised as inconveniences. The environment is to be used for convenience without concern for the long-term effects. Convenience is the main aim. One shouldn’t be bothered by having to separate leftover food from a plastic bag, that is entirely too inconvenient.

Many of those who brand themselves as conservative these days are really just anti-progressives who are seeking maximum personal convenience. Those who are true conservatives—those of us concerned with conserving and pursuing the true, good, and beautiful—would do well to differentiate ourselves from media personalities whose goal is to maximize liberal tears and garden variety convenience-seekers whose goal is to maximize their bank account balance and minimize their support for their neighbors.

Resist Bad Alliances

True conservatives are not simply anti-progressive. That would be too simple and too convenient. No, true conservatives are pursuing the common good in a decidedly high-effort, inconvenient manner. True conservatives will be willing to entertain an inconvenience such as sorting one’s trash, as long as it contributes to the true, the good, and the beautiful, whether the idea came from a progressive or not.

If we are pursuing the common good, we will likely be confederated with strange co-laborers at times. It is a good thing to link arms with people in a common cause, but we should be careful about becoming too closely associated with people that hold views ultimately contrary to ours. Confederation—a loose association, typically temporary and for a common cause—is a much healthier approach on many issues than formal alliances. We can build a community park with anyone in our community who has a similar vision for a shared public space, regardless of their position on euthanasia, eugenics, or human sexuality.

At the same time, we should be very careful of making close alliances with people who don’t hold the same positions we do for approximately the same reason. That leads to the sort of confusion we have today with self-centered, convenience-seeking, anti-progressives masquerading as conservatives.