The Problem With Conservatism

“he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience.” -Romans 13:4-5

Perhaps the basic problem with modern Conservatism is its underlying cynicism. In this day a Conservative is a person who has given up hope, not only in our institutions’ abilities to solve problems, but in our fundamental aptitude as a species to form societies capable of political virtue. This must be contrasted with the modern Liberal. The Liberal is capable of acknowledging that there are difficult hurdles set before us. Nevertheless, he is gripped with a basic optimism. Solving our social ills may be difficult, he admits, but we can do it if we work together. There is a common grace given to humanity, and men collected together cooperating for the social good can still accomplish much. The Conservative has given up on this project before he even arrives. Indeed, he is not inclined even to attempt such a project. Rather, he asserts we should abandon society to itself, allowing it to settle into whatever form it naturally tends. As is often the case, it is difficult to determine whether such an attitude arises from a deep cynicism or from a deep laziness. When the Conservative sees injustice, and his response is that intervening as a society to forbid such behavior will not only not stop injustice, but increase it, is he truly espousing this morbidly pessimistic viewpoint? The possibility that he merely uses this rhetoric to confound the ignorant out of either a facile desire not to be bothered with the actual work of government, or else out of active evil to which he is recruited by the parties of injustice, must be considered. In any case, it is certainly the Conservative’s given philosophy that everything the government does naturally tends towards inefficiency. Efficiency being the sole political virtue the Conservative believes in, he is forced to consign the entire State to the pit of hell. The government being inherently evil, then, it is unsurprising that it is incapable of aiding society in virtually any way and should be shrunk in every way possible. His political virtue consists in destroying the work of others, building nothing himself. The one exception to this being the branch of the government used to kill people, which he paradoxically believes is to be expanded.

Moral Conservatism

There is, of course, the moral argument for Conservatism. On this idea, the Conservative is the champion of individualistic freedom against the clutches of the collectivist state. There are essentially two issues of note that should be considered in regard to such a moral proclivity. The first is the concept of power itself. The Conservative is here thinking of power exercised by one person over another as inherently evil, and they are thinking of power solely in terms of political power. Their solution, therefore, is to abolish or else cripple political power i.e. shrink all state operations. The problem with this is that the Conservative is here thinking that the exercise of power can be escaped. That by abolishing the one form we have abolished the concept as such. This is not the case, and in fact the disestablishment of political power merely places individuals under the sway of other forms of power, such as economic power. The Conservative’s much loved free market, when placed in a position of unbridled frenzy can rapidly establish itself into the absolute power of company over employee, profit over national interest, bourgeoisie over proletariat. In short, those with economic strength and flexibility over those with limited options. What is at work here, then, is a basic misconception of what comprises the substance of human freedom, which is the second problem. The Conservative does not see freedom as the ability to determine how the substantial aspect of one’s life is lived, which consists of how we choose to live above and beyond what we do merely to subsist. Rather, he sees freedom as a binary. It is the choice to slavishly work under the power of another, or to die. The distinction can be framed by asking who is more free, the unskilled laborer working 16 hours a day, 6 days a week for ten cents an hour and lives in a dilapidated slum, or the person working under the 35 hour French work week but doesn’t get to choose their own health care plan? Does freedom consist of the ability to choose the manner of preventable death one suffers, or which insubstantial health care plan to choose? Or does it consist of the ability to determine what one does above and beyond the eking out of a mere animal existence? Is not existence itself a predicate to freedom? Surely the means of our existence are less important than our existence itself. As such, what freedom actually entails for the Conservative at its most basic is not freedom to determine a life lived, but freedom to choose the manner of oppression one suffers. Not freedom for the masses to determine their choices, but freedom of the few to determine the exact way in which the masses will serve their profit margin.

The Moral Danger of Power

As we have seen, power itself is inescapable. The Conservative thinks to escape from the notion of human power by placing humanity in the hands of market forces. This illustrates one of the odd absurdities of Conservatism, its total lack of faith in all things government coupled with its blind fanaticism for all things Free Market. This once again illustrates the Conservative’s general cynicism. He despises the cooperation of people for the common good, and lionizes the pursuit of individual accumulation. One could justly describe this as a belief in the superior strength of evil over good. Regardless, his assertion that political power corrupts must be answered. In this he is correct, no more correct than the Liberal who points out that economic power also corrupts, but correct nonetheless. What he is not correct in is his conclusion that it is to be universally shunned. Without the exercise of political power, the rich run rampant. Politics is necessary if we are unwilling to merely entrust the human race to the tyranny of profit margins and amoral market forces. It follows that political power must be exercised, regardless of the moral danger entailed for those involved. When Jesus called his disciples, was there no moral danger involved for them? Indeed, was it not said in the end concerning one of them that it would be better for him if he had never been born? Does it follow from this that the Rich Young Ruler was right in rejecting this call? Or if St.Peter had refused to follow Christ, would that not also have been a mortal sin? There are tasks of such importance that they must be exercised, regardless of the danger. Whoever said that a person would never be called to brave danger for the sake of his fellow man? We all must suffer temptation and endure it to win the crown of glory. The person who eschews politics out of fear of corruption is therefore justly called a coward. Are not the scriptures clear that God has ordained just governments? In God’s call to righteous living, the navigating of things dangerous to our souls is often involved. As such, the assertion concerning the corrupting influence political power can have on the human heart is no more argument against the necessity of its exercise than the danger of clerical power is against its exercise.

The Rebelliousness of Conservatism

This leads us to the final point of observation, which is that Conservatism is inherently rebellious. A Conservative of necessity despises the exercise of just law, hates being told about the authorities over him, casts contempt on his social obligations, and in all things asserts with fist in the air his own individual existence in self reliance apart from the whole. This must be the case, for the heart of the Conservative’s entire argument and ideology rests on the idea that an individual person ought to be left to them self and not be subject to government molestation. That it is inherently immoral to demand anything of the individual for the sake of the collective, and that it is shameful to rely on society for subsistence. That what rests at the heart of society ought to be an economics based around individual people pursuing their own profit as stridently and competitively as possible. As such, the authority of the state to mandate certain behaviors and forbid others cannot but be despised and hated. Indeed, the representative state must of necessity be a force on behalf of the collective. The Conservative will therefore always despise it and its laws which both regulate the exercise of human greed, and require the individual to behave in ways that he would not normally behave for the sake of society. If, however, the government has a divine right to exist as I believe it does, and has authority to create laws and require the individual to give monetarily to the collective for the purpose of community well being, and indeed require the very rich to give much more than others, what are we to call the man who hates this just order? Who does everything he can to subvert it? Who asserts the illusion of individual autonomy against the needs of society? Who speaks about its aggression against him and his little individualist bubble as much as he can? Should he not justly be called a rebel? If so, then Conservatism is an inherently subversive and rebellious ideology.


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