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.

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Geo-ancestral politics

Steve Pinker recently published this NY Times piece on the geo-ancestral cultural roots of contemporary political divisions – my advisor at BCEP was kind enough to bring it to my attention. The underlying point of Pinker’s paper is common sense: understanding our nation’s geo-ancestry can help us understand the political divides of today. We are all vestiges of cultures past. But our cultural heritage stems not just from people, but also from place or topos (hence, “geo”-ancestry). Depending on where your ancestors came from, there’s a certain likelihood that your political allegiances will take one form or another because that place so influenced your ancestral culture and way of life that its remnants have trickled through history all the way to you.

I really recommend reading this piece for yourself because the next few thoughts won’t do his reasoning or research justice (nor will it fully capture all of his ideas), but the upshot is this: Pinker contends that if your colonial ancestors were from England, they were probably farmers, and moved to the Northern/Northeastern US, which translates today into a form of left-wing progressive liberalism. On the other hand, if your ancestors were Scots-Irish, they were probably herders, and moved to the Southern colonies/states, which translates today to right-wing (religious) conservativism.

Of course, many (if not most) Americans hail historically from places other than England, Scotland, or Ireland – this, I presume, is part of why Pinker’s next generalization is useful: forget particular countries; if the place and culture shared by your distant family was herding-based, chances are your ancestors’ relationship with the state partly resembled anarchy. If your family’s heritable culture was farming-based, it’s likely that your ancestors lived somewhere that the government’s role was more prominent. The former (herding and anarchical cultural heritage) corresponds with conservative and libertarian beliefs. The latter tends to correspond to left-wing progressive liberalism. So, the relevant political question then becomes: were your distant relatives herders or farmers?

And then, post-colonialism, Pacific-bound trailblazers were re-exposed to the anarchy of Westward expansion, reinforcing conservative and libertarian views in the mountain and southwest desert states. So this adds yet another dynamic to the system.

At the root of it all, however, Pinker and political philosophers theorize, is a contest between views about human nature – that is, whether you think human nature is fixed, flawed, and must be controlled as if by a strict parent through tried-and-true cultural and religious practices, or if you think human nature is malleable through wisdom and reason, and that public institutions can guide the progress of society like a nurturing care-taker. Pinker refers to these points of view, respectively, as the Tragic Vision and the Utopian Vision of human nature. The Tragic Vision, he suggests, grows out of the anarchical experience, whereas the Utopian Vision stems from living in closer relation to the state. Both of these, again, he says are largely determined by one’s geo-ancestry.

So this line of thought is an interesting one! But how accurate is it? How does it hold up “on the ground?” How about a case study?

In fact, I think I personally make for an odd case for Pinker’s theory — my Scottish ancestors (herders) moved to West Virginia (a northern state) in the early-to-mid 1800s. My relatives moved to Louisiana in the early 20th century, and then my grandfather moved the family to Texas in the 70s (both southern honor culture, with Texas culture being especially anarchical). So how does my geo-ancestry line up with my politics and ideals today?

I think something in between the Utopian Vision of humanity and the Tragic Vision of human nature is probably closest to the truth: human nature is malleable by reason and cultivated skill to an extent, so certain tendencies like violence, while innate and a constant struggle, are largely suppressible or ready to be channeled in constructive ways like martial arts.

I would say children are closer to being Rousseau’s noble savages than Hobbes’ nasty brutes (re: Montessori education). I believe that free markets usually make for freer people than command economies – the state is not omniscient, or really even close enough to make reliable guesses with economic policy. I believe faith has the potential to make individual people nicer and more compassionate, but I certainly don’t think religion has proven to be a work-around for shortcomings like violence and intolerance writ-large. I believe in the purity and sanctity of the body (both human and Earth), and I believe that providing care and avoiding harm are both important.

If you believe the character of the state should be parental (and I’m hesitant to admit that it should), we probably need it to fill both parental roles: one strict, the other nurturing. I think protecting the environment is among the most fundamental, non-arbitrary interests we can fulfill. I believe that a powerful military is necessary and desirable. And I believe that individual freedom in culture and sexuality is paramount for a healthy society.

So, maybe Pinker’s “herder-shepherd : right-left” analogy is more flexible than a strict dipole – beliefs from one set aren’t necessarily inconsistent or incompatible with beliefs from the other. I for one seem to fall on both sides of the distinction in terms of topos and present beliefs. In either case, it’s an interesting topological framework through which to conceptualize today’s politics – here’s to contemplating the politico-ideological impacts of geo-ancestral heritage! What story does your geo-ancestry tell?

Cheers,

JM Kincaid