The Trouble with Conservatism

Dogmatic belief systems are always wrong. They can’t help but be wrong — it’s guaranteed. A dogmatic belief system is one that starts with certain a priori assumptions, or principles. Whatever they happen to be, they are not to be questioned.

Any evidence that arrives from the real world that might throw the a priori assumptions into question must be rejected by those who adhere to the belief system. Such a belief system can only be maintained by rejecting, sooner or later, the evidence offered up by one’s senses.

Conservatism is by definition a dogmatic belief system. The essence of conservatism is the idea that the values we have inherited from our forebears continue to be valid, and therefore need not be questioned. But this cannot possibly be correct. The values and principles that guide our behavior, as individuals and as a society, must continually be subject to examination and questioning. They may need to be refined, amended, or perhaps cast aside entirely.

If for no other reason, this is true because our forebears were not perfect. They were human. Being human, they inevitably erred. If your forebears were Iraqi Shiites, the principles they passed on to you will be somewhat different than if they were Mississippi Baptists or Russian Stalinists. So whose forebears were right? We dare not guide our lives by assuming that one set of inherited principles (ours) are superior to another set (theirs). We might be right with respect to some of our principles, but quite wrong with respect to others. The only way we’ll be able to sort it all out is to examine the world as it actually exists, and accept or reject certain of our inherited principles based on what we discover.

But how are we to judge which principles (inherited or newly discovered) we should be guided by, and which we should reject?

The only test I’m reasonably sure of is this: A principle that leads to greater happiness is good. A principle that leads to greater misery is bad.

The difficult part — and it’s enormously difficult — is evaluating the results (observable or anticipated) of various principles and figuring out how much happiness or misery each of them leads to. We will always be operating on the basis of incomplete information, and we will quite often find that when a principle makes one bunch of people happy, it makes another bunch miserable. That’s why democracy is so messy. Even if our own democracy weren’t hopelessly corrupt, it would still be messy.

I happen to agree with some of the values and principles espoused by my conservative friends. I’m a big fan of personal liberty, for instance. But personal liberty is not an absolute, a priori value. It has to contend with other values. Let’s suppose, for instance, that I own some land near a beautiful beach where hundreds of people enjoy swimming. I decide to build a factory on my land and pump the waste products from the factory out through big pipes onto the beach.

In this situation, my personal liberty to build a factory and enjoy the profits therefrom comes directly into conflict with the ability of hundreds of other people to enjoy their beach activities. This is why we have laws and courts. Somebody has to decide whether my personal liberty should be respected, or whether I am required to take other people’s feelings into consideration.

This is why we have traffic laws. If personal liberty were absolute, there would be no traffic lights, no speed limits, no lanes or crosswalks painted on the streets, and no driver’s licenses. Anybody would be free to get behind the wheel of a car and drive however they like.

Would you want to live in a city with no traffic laws? I wouldn’t, and I’ll bet you wouldn’t either. If there were no traffic laws, most people would probably drive just as safely and considerately as they do now. But a small minority would not. There would be speeders. There would be collisions at intersections. Pedestrians would find it all but impossible to cross busy streets.

So we willingly trade some of our personal liberty for what is understood to be a general public good: safer streets and highways. This is how a complex society functions. It cannot function in any other way. We can agree or disagree about the desirability of some specific trade-offs, but we cannot ignore the fact that trade-offs will always, sooner or later, have to be made.

This is why, for instance, the rabid conservative belief in “the right to bear arms” is so absurd. Everybody understands that this is not an absolute right. Nerve gas is a form of armament, but we don’t have the right to store it in our homes. Grenade launchers are a form of armament, but we don’t have the right to carry grenade launchers down Main Street. In insisting on the right to carry guns, conservatives are making two grave errors. First, they know perfectly well that “the right to bear arms” is not an absolute right, so they’re hypocritically hiding behind a supposed “right” that they don’t even believe in themselves. Second, they’re letting themselves be guided by an absolute principle, a procedure that must inevitably lead to trouble, while failing to evaluate the actual or likely effect of such a principle on the common good.

The Second Amendment offers no exception for the insane. It says, “the right of the people,” period. Does anybody seriously think insane persons have a Constitutional right to be allowed to carry guns? Or are we justified in protecting ourselves against them by taking their guns away?

You and I might disagree about where the line should be drawn. You might feel that carrying a concealed handgun for self-protection should be legal in all cases, while I might feel that it should be legal only if the handgun is registered with the police and the person carrying it has passed a course in firearms safety. Disagreements of that sort are inevitable. I won’t always get my way; nor should I, because sometimes I’ll be wrong. And the same goes for you, and for everyone else. We’re all wrong sometimes. And as the world changes, the rules that work toward the common good may need to change as well! They won’t remain fixed. That’s why an ongoing dialog is essential.

At the time when the Second Amendment was written, the single-shot flintlock rifle was the most powerful armament that could be borne (that is, carried) by an individual. Even if the principle was considered absolute at the time it was made into law, it would have to be re-evaluated on an ongoing basis, as changes in technology make the re-evaluation necessary.

The trouble with conservatives, from the Supreme Court on down, is that they’re not willing to engage in an ongoing dialog when this type of subject comes up. They try to reason from a priori principles (or pretend that they’re doing so, in order to achieve the results that they want). When they get themselves tied in mental knots (as, sooner or later, they’re bound to do), they have no way to get untangled. All they can do is get red in the face and start calling you names.

I was talking about basic principles with a conservative friend over lunch today. He mentioned honesty. I agreed that that was a good principle. He then mentioned that of course honesty needs to be tempered by a respect for the feelings of others. He pointed out that he doesn’t tell religious people what he honestly thinks of their beliefs. (He’s an Ayn Rand atheist conservative, you see.) He feels, and I agree, that that would be an unnecessary invasion of their privacy for him to attack their religion.

I pointed out to him that he was saying that honesty is a relative value, not an absolute, that it had to be weighed against another value — the emotional well-being of others. I smiled at him and said, “And of course, you realize that a concern with the well-being of others is communism.”

He asked if we could change the subject.

He’s a very bright guy, probably brighter than I am. But, you know, I was quite impressed with Ayn Rand, too, when I was in the 8th grade. I outgrew it. He never did. Ayn Rand believed, contrary to John Donne, that every man is an island entire of itself. “Do not send to ask for whom the bell tolls,” Ayn Rand would have said. “It’s nobody you need to be concerned about. And anybody who says otherwise is just a whiner.”

She believed that none of us has any responsibility to work toward the common good. She was quite specific about that. I admire her belief in individual excellence and individual responsibility, but in thinking that we need not take the well-being of others into account, she had the morals of a grabby five-year-old who wants all the toys. She didn’t understand how the real world works, or how democracy works. She idolized arrogance.

No, we have to get past that. We have to learn to live with one another. It will always be messy. That’s what conservatives fail to understand. They’re operating on the principle that “if only everybody would believe the way I do, the world would be perfect!” There are two fundamental problems with that. First, it will never happen. Second, even if it did happen, the world wouldn’t be perfect. The world would be a pale, stilted reflection of the rich complexity that we enjoy.

If everyone had been Christian in the 11th century, there would have been no Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam. He was Iranian, by the way. Diversity: good. Black-and-white principles: always wrong.

You don’t need to be a moral philosopher to figure this stuff out. You just need to be paying attention.

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9 Responses to The Trouble with Conservatism

  1. chukstah says:

    Well thought out. Well presented. But you’re trying to convince people who don’t really want to be convinced. They fail to recognize that they, too, as you say, are human and are just as fallible as the rest of us. But a symptom of megalomania is being dead sure that you are right .. to a fault .. and that you are on the only road warrior on that highway to heaven. We’ve seen it time and time again and, I’m afraid, we’ll continue to see it right through to the end of this world.

  2. Andy says:

    imho, the original intent of the right to bear arms was to enable the people to oppose their government forcefully, which means we should have the right to bear battle-bots soon. right? =)

    • Andy says:

      …but in reality (if that was the original intent) we are so far removed from the ability to oppose our government forcefully that it’s a moot point.

  3. Jerry Martin says:

    I have listened to a group of conservatives (more libertarian) at my local Starbucks and tried to figure out how they believe their belief (Christian conservative) is the only valid game in the world. To try to grasp what they mean I decided to read a book they’ve been passing around to each other. It’s called “Molon Labe” by Boston T. Party. The author is brilliant. Devotes about six pages just to encrypting online messages. But myopic is utter understatement. He warns that our government is going to gradually enslave us and cites examples from the rise of Nazi Germany. Throughout is a love of drama, the kind I saw when I watched cowboy movies as a child. And there’s so much more: Good guys are absolutely good. Bad guys, including liberals and the FBI, are absolutely bad. Unless you wear a gun you just ain’t no American. Children should only be homeschooled, to avoid fascist indoctrination. And the word “global” is beyond sedition. America is the only country. Women are meant to have children and be chaste and chased. I’ll finish this tome because I want to see if the libertarians actually take over the state of Wyoming. Jeez!

    • midiguru says:

      You’re scarin’ me, Jerry. I know these people are out there. I just don’t like to think about them passing around books that reinforce their mindset. (“Set” as in “set in concrete.”)

      The thing is, I think we all pretty much want the same things! We all want to live in safe, pleasant communities. We want the government to let us alone. We want our children (if we have children) to get a first-rate education.

      Where progressives and other inhabitants of the real world differ from these Looney Tunes types is, we understand that there are no black-or-white answers. We understand that we have to share the world with people who may not have the same views we do. We understand that fomenting hatred only breeds more hatred.

      I’d love to engage some of these folks in a quiet, reasonable discussion of how to achieve our common goals, but I’m afraid it just wouldn’t work. They would start mouthing cliches and hate-filled slogans, stuff their fingers in their ears, and stomp off shouting, “I’m right, I’m right, la-la-la-la-la!”

      • Jerry says:

        I’ve tried to engage them in a quiet, reasonable discussion but they quickly escalate the drama, remind that the government wants to imitate the Reich and…well, you get the picture. I give them lots of room, shake my head and pray for rain.

  4. Ben C. says:

    You and I might disagree about where the line should be drawn. You might feel that carrying a concealed handgun for self-protection should be legal in all cases, while I might feel that it should be legal only if the handgun is registered with the police and the person carrying it has passed a course in firearms safety.

    Substitute the right to vote for the right to bear arms, and you may have a better sense of why people oppose mandatory tests. It’s not the most ingenuous parallel but there are certain similarities. Both are largely symbolic at the individual level. There is no natural right to vote, nor is it a right that the government can be trusted to maintain in the absence of strong safeguards. The sad history of enfranchisement in the South stands as testament to that.

    The nature of a bureaucracy is such that it always has more power than the individual in conflicts. Those concerned with individual liberties large and small – and I would argue gun rights are rather small and irrelevant – are at least internally consistent to oppose greater regulation in any one area. And while they may be symbolic, guns are a powerful symbol.

    It’s straightforward to rally people behind the dramatic image of a father protecting his family from armed criminals. It’s harder to do the same with more nebulous concepts like property rights, where the villain is a town council in league with an oblivious developer, even if those conflicts are more credible and more immediately threatening.

    That the potency of that symbol has overshadowed and to a large extent marginalized the more fundamental concern for individual liberties is unfortunate.

    I think the focus on labels like “conservative” and “progressive” is misguided. I would not characterize either political party as especially traditional or radical. Instead, both sides exploit those sentiments in voters around election time with respect to a fixed number of wedge issues.

    There is no unambiguous traditional basis for most modern political decisions; where are the centuries of historical wisdom on regulating Internet discussions, for instance? Do you treat it as free speech by private individuals, or as commercial speech by large corporations? Is one approach inherently more conservative than the other? Which view would you expect Republicans or Democrats to endorse? I’ve voted in equal measure for both major parties and I’ll be damned if I know.

    Politicians have moved beyond such labels. To paraphrase your words: “A principle that leads to election day success is good. A principle that leads to election day failure is bad.”

    The best outcome I could see for US politics would be to locate the nexus for most decisions closer to the people. There’s too much money and too much satisfaction with the status quo at the federal level. State and local politics offer more of an avenue for individuals to influence decisions, a chance for a dialog to actually take place, instead of merely inferred from the latest poll of the party base. Is that a conservative or a progressive attitude? The answer seems to depend on which party is in control at the moment.

    Returning to gun control, I am opposed to regulation at the federal level, slightly opposed to it at the state level, and absolutely fine with it at the local level.

    • midiguru says:

      Thanks for the thoughtful comments, Ben. The argument for returning power to the local level is fairly compelling … except when it isn’t. The Civil War was about that, if I recall correctly. The South insisted that the right to own slaves be decided at the state level, not the national level.

      The question of what’s pornography can run afoul of the same difficulty. Folks who publish books about various ways to have fun with sex can find themselves repeatedly dragged into court in one jurisdiction after another, unless there’s a national standard that allows their books to be published.

      Or consider prayer in school. I’m all for giving local school boards more control over the curriculum, because I expect they’ll often have a better sense of what’s needed than bureaucrats who are thousands of miles away. But do we want the local school board to mandate a prayer to Jesus at the beginning of each school day? Clearly not. The national government has to set a standard to the effect that no governmental agency, even at the local level, can promote any particular religion.

      I’m pretty sure the federal government would be a whole lot more responsive to the needs of the people if corporate lobbying were outlawed. I don’t think a democratically elected government is the enemy. It’s quite clear that privately held corporations are the enemy.

      • Ben C. says:

        Well I certainly agree that some questions are national in scope. But I don’t see the argument for deciding gun control policy at that level. Laws that are appropriate for downtown Seattle may not be suitable for rural Montana, and vice versa.

        One problem with pushing power down to the state level is that voting districts are typically drawn up to cement the hold of one party or another. Voters not aligned with the majority party have little chance of influencing the outcome of a given contest, and even moderate voters within the party are likely to be ignored.

        Despite that problem and the ones you mention, I don’t think it’s a foregone conclusion that the federal government always has to take the first crack at the issue. Much of the current wave of grassroots tea party conservatism is riding on that sort of resistance to government efforts to regulate health care.

        However, it’s not inherently conservative in a historical sense; blind submission to central authority has a much richer tradition. And it’s not necessarily an irrational adherence to an ingrained belief; Massachusetts has done an imperfect but tolerable job of reforming health care within its borders, so the idea that states can manage the process is not completely absurd.

        A perennial problem in any democracy is how to preserve the rights of the minority from being trampled by the majority. Those minorities include non-whites, non-Christians, but also business owners and billionaires. Now, I’ll excuse you if you don’t shed too many tears over the sad lot of the mega-wealthy, but fair is fair: if you pay extra attention to one type of minority, it is logical to treat other minorities equitably. I don’t see how a blanket ban on corporate lobbying is compatible with that.

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