The conservative confusion

I am conservative. But I am not a Republican. Why? Because a large faction of today’s GOP is desperately confused about what being conservative really means.

What does being “conservative” mean?

In fact, much of the United States seems confused about what it means to be “conservative.” The confusion is understandable, but the result is a frightening Orwellian conflation and dramatic oversimplification of rhetoric that seriously compromises the integrity of our political system.

Most presume that being conservative means being Republican. Likewise it’s often presumed being an environmentalist means being “liberal” and thus a Democrat. But these presumptions are erroneous and egregious.

Not all conservatives are Republican, and certainly not all Republicans are conservative. The religious fundamentalist, anti-environment, anti-gay, anti-science, anti-women, anti-healthcare agendas of much of today’s radical Republican Party are actually hyper-liberal in some important ways.

On the other hand, the secular, pro-environment, pro-gay, pro-science, pro-women, pro-healthcare platforms of many Democrats are ultimately rather conservative.

Being conservative, in a pure sense, means believing in conservation on two main fronts: 1) the conservation of individual liberties and self-determination and 2) the conservation of natural, human, and financial resources. The former amounts to protecting individual freedoms from government overreach—i.e. small government—while the latter pertains to minimizing the financial, environmental, human health, and international risks we take as a society.

It’s also important to mention that being conservative also means being in favor of free markets in a relative sense—but this idea is ultimately subsumed by the principle of conserving resources. And it’s only in a relative sense because no one takes the idea of an absolutely free market seriously anymore. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, the Anti-Trust Act, worker’s rights, emergency services like Police and Fire Departments, the Military, and the regulation of the financial industry are staples of our prosperous modern society—and are, in principle, socialist institutions. But no one questions their importance or goodness anymore.

Being in favor of “free markets” really means being in favor of efficiency—which in essence means conserving resources. The laws of supply and demand that govern “the free market” naturally produce efficient outcomes, otherwise known as the equilibrium price at which sellers should sell their goods and buyers should buy them. Prices represent real resources, so buying and selling goods at market equilibrium means conserving resources. Clearly this is conservative—but it’s not necessarily Republican.

The idea that free markets will produce efficient outcomes assumes that prices represent true cost, but we know that in many instances today this isn’t the case. Costs to the nonhuman environment and human psychology are often omitted from pricing schemes, as are costs to future generations and distant populations. True cost is also often obfuscated by government subsidization.

Fossil fuels, for example, would be vastly more expensive if costs to future generations, costs to the nonhuman environment, and costs to distant populations were taken into account when determining price—and government subsidies help keep the wool pulled over our eyes by further reducing the direct costs of fossil fuels for consumers. If the price of fossil fuels represented true cost, renewables would be far more competitive than they are, and in turn we’d be consuming far fewer fossil fuels to sustain our energy-intensive way of life. In other words, we’d be conserving more of our fossil fuel resources and conserving environmental quality. Insofar as Republicans support the continued subsidization of fossil fuels, they are certainly not being conservative about the conservation of resources or the environment. It takes a profound level of cognitive dissonance or hypocrisy to call oneself “conservative” and then simultaneously support federal subsidies for one of the most profitable industries in human history. Democrats who support subsidizing fossil fuels aren’t being conservative either, but Democrats generally don’t campaign on conservative rhetoric.

Hyper-liberal Republicans

Somehow, baffling as it may be, Republicans today have convinced the country that being reckless with the environment, opposing women’s and gay rights for religious reasons, taking enormous financial risks (e.g.—paying for wars with credit, forcing a federal budgetary shutdown, deregulating the financial industry, etc.), cutting funding for scientific research while increasing the government’s regulation of scientists, and precluding the provision of health insurance for a huge segment of the workforce are conservative ideas. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Being “conservative” in its historical and etymological sense is more akin to being precautionary or risk-averse about whatever issue is at hand, e.g. – the limitation of individual freedoms by the government, environmental quality and protection, technoscientific progress, etc., than it is to being Republican. In fact, many of today’s Republicans are actually hyper-liberal when it comes to some important issues.

Environmental conservation is conservative

Environmental conservation is a fundamentally conservative agenda. Being conservative about the environment means conserving natural resources and minimizing the environmental risks we take as a society by taking precautionary measures. Preserving biodiversity and natural land conditions makes ecosystems more resilient to changes in the environment—e.g. climate change—which transitively makes human civilizations that are part of those ecosystems also more resilient. Environmental protection is both conservative and in our best interest insofar as conserving environmental quality is both good for us and good in itself.

Sustainability, renewable energy resources, and wilderness conservation are all fundamentally conservative positions in that they conserve natural resources and the state of the natural world. Despite the fact that the EPA and several hallmark environmental statues were passed by Republicans, environmental protection couldn’t be further from most Republican platforms today. The problem is that many of today’s Republicans talk as if being pro-environment is synonymous with being anti-business or anti-economy.

In reality, even command-and-control environmental regulation incentivizes innovation and ultimately conserves the very natural resources upon which business builds itself. Without natural resources, business would have nothing to work from. Moreover, the need today for environmental limitations on corporate freedom (i.e.—environmental rights) is just as obvious as was the need for labor rights during the Gilded Age and early 20th century. Certain human and environmental abuses and exploitations by unregulated industry are simply unacceptable by any modern standard of justice.

Opposing women’s and gay rights is not conservative

Republicans generally oppose same-sex marriage and abortion rights for religious reasons. But while these oppositions may be traditional, they certainly aren’t conservative. Setting aside the fact that legislating religious values is illegal and unconstitutional in this country, regulating away people’s freedoms—whether that be the freedom to marry who you love regardless of gender or the freedom to control your own reproduction—is big government by definition.

When it comes to issues as private as what happens in our bedrooms and within our uteri, Republicans today actually advocate flagrant government invasions of personal privacy and freedom—and think they can get away with calling themselves “conservative.” In fact, they’re just the opposite. Whether for religious or secular reasons, the limitation of individual liberty by the government is a liberal agenda.

Religious dogma aside—when it comes to abortion rights, being conservative actually means conserving women’s rights to control their own bodies, putting self-determination over and above the government’s right to dictate women’s lives. Abortion is taking a life (if life doesn’t begin at conception, then when?)—but it should be legal and it should be rare.

Likewise, same-sex marriage is actually both conservative and traditional. It may not be part of the Christian tradition, but Christianity is not the only relevant tradition pertaining to marriage. Legalizing same-sex marriage means conserving and protecting the rights of all citizens to deviate from heteronormative sexuality from big government. Moreover, same-sex marriages represent monogamy—a traditional conservative value. Banning same-sex marriage, on the other hand, as many Republicans have sought and some succeeded, is an obvious big government move.

Health insurance is conservative

While the Affordable Care Act may create a government mandate, its purpose is ultimately a conservative one. Insurance is a fundamentally precautionary endeavor. Insofar as being conservative means being precautionary about risks—human health and economic alike—taking public action to protect the health of our citizens and thus our workforce works on both fronts. At the end of the day, national health insurance means safeguarding both the health of our citizens and the strength of our economy (considering how much labor is lost to otherwise treatable illness).

Moreover, the argument that we “shouldn’t have to pay for someone else’s healthcare” doesn’t hold water. By buying into any insurance plan—public or private—we are, by definition, paying the bills of our provider’s other patrons whenever we aren’t using our insurance. What’s more, hospitals are already legally required to treat emergency room patients regardless of their financial status, and when those who can’t pay receive treatment, the costs are distributed to the rest of us. If anything, we’ll conserve both human health and economic resources by making sure that everyone has health insurance. Health insurance is conservative. And let’s not forget that we are all legally obligated to have car insurance and no one thinks that’s a bad thing.

Being anti-science, anti-education is not conservative

Finally—and I talked about this at some length in Congress’ assault on knowledge—if being conservative means reducing financial risks, then it’s also safe to say that being conservative about how we invest our nation’s money should mean making safe investments. In contrast, the anti-science anti-education positions personified by climate science-denying, NSF-defunding zealots like James Inhofe and Lamar Smith are polar opposites of safe-investment logic.

Scientific research and public education are among the safest investments society can make. The benefits of an educated workforce are clear. Educated workers are likely to be more efficient, more innovative, more industrious, more entrepreneurial, and more promotable. Likewise, the returns on investment in scientific research are often immeasurable and unforeseeable. Scientific progress is piecemeal, serendipitous, experimental, and unpredictable. While scientific progress can be twisted to serve evil purposes, the positive social gains of scientific R&D are all too obvious. Yet Republicans today seem bent on imposing dramatic cuts to science and education funding, while simultaneously increasing regulatory strictures on scientists and educators; the Inhofe-Smith agenda smacks of big government and flies in the face of safe-investment logic.

Reclaiming conservativism

Many Republicans today are not conservative. In many cases, the Republican Party seems to be a strange blend of hyper-liberal value-driven anti-science religious fundamentalism (“let’s legislate away women’s and gay rights, defund and over-regulate the NSF, and deny the simple physics of climate science!”) and radical xenophobic neoliberal anti-environment social Darwinism (“let’s disenfranchise the poor, minorities, and immigrants—who cares if they get sick?—and do away with as many environmental protections as possible!”). In no way are these conservative positions. And in no way should many of today’s Republicans be allowed to call themselves conservative. If anything, the secular, pro-environment, pro-gay, pro-women, pro-healthcare, pro-science politicians out there should reclaim the word “conservative” for true conservatives and true conservativism. Let’s get it together, humans.


To frack or not to frack? That is the question

After a year’s work between Texas and New York studying the science, politics, and ideology of natural gas development–my Master’s thesis is complete. The full text is available through the Bard Center for Environmental Policy and forthcoming for publication. In the meantime, here is the abstract:

To Frack or Not to Frack: The Ideological Roots of Support for and Resistance to Natural Gas Development


The modern vision of the Good Life—indistinguishable from the idea of progress—is energy intensive. We go to extreme lengths to harness energy resources, conducting vast technological socio-environmental experiments to satiate the human demand for energy. But energy development is risk-laden, and people approach the risks of progress differently, which manifests as political contention.

Bookending the continuum of risk-related ideology, the precautionary and proactionary principles have become pillars of philosophic and political debate. Natural gas development—hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, or “fracking”—is particularly risky and, in turn, the politics of fracking have become correspondingly controversial. On one hand, precautionaries about natural gas development spurn fracking as guaranteed disaster, while on the other, proactionaries hail natural gas development as an ideal energy opportunity.

But why are people precautionary and proactionary about natural gas development? To Frack or Not to Frack explores this question using an international survey instrument and statistical causal analysis. Evidence indicates that precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences about natural gas development are a function of relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs.

Precautionaries about natural gas development tend to be knowledgeable of the risk-related scientific literature on fracking and to especially value environmental stewardship and public health and safety. Proactionaries, on the other hand, tend to principally value economic growth, believe that technology is generally trustworthy, and believe that either plenty of scientific research has already been
done on natural gas development orthat more science is still needed.

When determining specific permitting and operating requirements for natural gas development, policymakers should directly engage the relevant knowledge, values, and beliefs that drive the precautionary and proactionary regulatory preferences of their constituents via regular, open participatory policymaking procedures and statistical analysis of risk-related preference data gathered through public polling. Natural gas development policy should reflect the moral nuances of its constituency. Natural gas development policy should also reflect that developers are morally responsible for researching and internalizing the risks of harm related to development, including literal physical or environmental harm and exposure to risk of harm.

Congress’ assault on knowledge

Last month, half of Congress decided that political science isn’t worth NSF funding unless it advances economic development or national security. Imagine, politicians making it more difficult to study politics. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and the 72 other senators who voted for the bill seem to have forgotten that knowledge is the foundation of the economy and the root of our security. But the congressional assault on knowledge does not stop at political science. Science itself is now the target.

Under the guise of impartial austerity, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has drafted a bill—ironically named the “High Quality Research Act” (HQRA)—to replace the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) peer review process with an arbitrary value-latent euphemistic circumlocution of funding criteria. Instead of peer reviewing the broader impacts and intellectual merit of scientific research to decide what projects deserve funding, Smith would rather cut the NSF budget and micromanage.

Jeffrey Mervis of Scientific Insider reports:

(FTA): “Specifically, the HQRA draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) ‘…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) … the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) …not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.’

NSF’s current guidelines ask reviewers to consider the ‘intellectual merit’ of a proposed research project as well as its ‘broader impacts’ on the scientific community and society.”

Regarding HQRA’s first criterion: Is there a nefarious ploy playing out within the scientific community to stagnate national health, prosperity, welfare, or security? Progress in science is a bulwark for national security, so shouldn’t we increase NSF’s budget and make funding more, rather than less, available? Innovation takes freedom. So unless Smith (et al.) can clearly identify other-regarding harm that stems from NSF research, national policymakers should not further limit, i.e. regulate, innovators freedom to innovate. If anything, HQRA would stifle innovative liberty.

To the second criterion: Not all science can or should be “groundbreaking.” Scientific advance is piecemeal. Some research is groundwork for groundbreaking discovery. Think of outwardly banal research like infrastructure: the state must invest in roads before sports cars can cruise. Roads might not be flashy, but they are necessary—and their construction is actually profound when studied in any depth. The seemingly insignificant of today is the foundation for tomorrow’s profundity.

To the third criterion: Duplication is essential to the very nature of science. “Groundbreaking” results should be duplicable. Scientific redundancy hedges against fraud. If results are neither duplicable nor duplicated, how can we tell what research is trustworthy? Precluding scientific duplication de jure strikes me as creating a quack haven. Unless HQRA sponsors intend to protect quackery, stipulating non-duplication is nonsense. More cynically, HQRA’s non-duplication clause would shrink publicly funded competition for “science” advanced by wealthy private political interest groups—re: Oreskes, Conway, & Fox’s concerns about climate change deniers and frackademia.

HQRA smacks of big government—and given its Republican sponsors, libertarian hypocrisy. Congress should not decide what science is worth doing. Natural demand generated within the scientific community should guide research priorities—the invisible hand of the scientific marketplace, in a sense. If Congress shouldn’t “pick winners and losers” in business, why should it in science? Scientists, not Congress, should be the authority on what science is worth doing.

HQRA constitutes an arbitrary imposition of its sponsors’ beliefs pertaining to the value of science—the value of knowledge—in society and policymaking. If HQRA sponsors want to debate the value or proper role of science in society and policymaking, then we should explicitly talk about those values and beliefs. We should discuss the principles underlying the policy. Smith (et al.) should not pretend their motivation is financial. To frame HQRA as a fiscal issue insults public intelligence.

We’re talking about an annual NSF budget of less than 7 billion dollars, people ($6.9B appropriated in FY2013—cut down from the full $7B in FY2012). The US spends $7 billion on defense every three days. Not that defense spending isn’t money well spent, but let’s keep things in perspective when discussing national financial expenditure—and might I reiterate the importance of scientific progress to national defense. NSF’s budget is not the source of US financial woes. In fact, scientific research is among the safest of investments.

Science policy should build roads and get out of the way—unless there are obvious risks of harm related to experimentation, which by rule of the harm principle, can and should be regulated. Scientific innovators do their best work when free to experiment, free to fail without accost, and free to prune the mysteries of the mundane. Of course, freedom means funding. But we, the people, provide that funding via taxes—NSF funded scientists included. We deserve sound public investment with high rates of return. Science satisfies both.

Congress is constitutionally empowered to appropriate the national budget, but to do so on the basis of arbitrary values and beliefs disguised as objective financial necessity is morally questionable at best. Congress is not a group of generous feudal benefactors with absolute prerogative over we peasantry as it seems to have forgotten. Our representatives must be held accountable and to a higher standard of moral sense, which this recent assault on science—on knowledge—offends.

Science is iconic of American idealism: exploration, new frontiers, adventure, accomplishment, mystery, unexpected wealth, innovation, freedom and progress. Unless Congress is in the business of curtailing freedom and progress, the Coburn and Smith policies are a mistake. For all our sakes, Coburn’s anti-political science amendment should be rejected in the House and Smith’s anti-science policy should never see the congressional floor. But only time will tell. Progress in science may be a fact, but progress in ethics is often phantasmal.