What is a Conservative?

Here are some of what one commonly hears are conservative principles. I will discuss why I don't think some of them are below.

Fiscal
1. Low taxes
2. Small government
3. Laissez faire commerce policies
4. Free trade
5. Regulation by the market

Social
1. Support for the traditional family structure
2. Belief in a hierarchical structure for social organizations
3. Strict regulation of human behavior
4. Personal liberty
5. Opposition to compensatory programs for the disadvantaged

Let's tackle the fiscal ones first. The first four are not principles, they are techniques to achieve an end. What is the end? No one is in favor of high taxes and what is high or low varies from time to time and place to place. So when people say they favor low taxes or small government what they really mean is compared to the present level. How will they know when they get to the right level? There needs to be some criteria. This is lacking. One cannot base a philosophy on being against something, one also has to be for something else.

Regulation by the market (instead of by government) is also a matter of degree. Only the most rabid libertarians favor removing all regulation. So, once again, it boils down to a matter of degree. Do we want the government to regulate drug purity? If so, how much regulation is needed? There is no standard to measure against.

On the social side points one and two belong together. Both are manifestations of a belief that "father knows best". This is another way of saying that the rigid gender, race and class distinctions that existed before should be favored. In the US that has meant white Anglo-Saxon men. This is also a group that is closely associated with the current conservative movement. In other societies the favored group has also tried to hold on to their power. Many justifications have been given over the centuries from the divine right of kings (and the aristocracy), to the innate superiority of certain ethnic groups. This is a "conservative" principle: I've got mine and I want to keep it.

From this principle follows the need for control of behavior. To allow others to do as they see fit is to allow a weakening of the power of the elite. What these restrictions are varies. At one time practicing the wrong religion was persecuted. More recently this has shifted to gender issues and reproductive freedom. The chance that power will have to be shared is also why compensatory programs are opposed.

The support for personal liberty (a typical statement is: "the law shouldn't control what I put into my body") is not a conservative principle, it is a libertarian one. The two groups sometimes find common cause on things like taxes, but are mistaken if they think they have similar social philosophies.

Now what are liberal principles?
1. All persons have equal rights within a society
2. The people are best able to handle their own affairs

These simple ideas lead to many things. Among them are that there shall be no privileged group within a society that is based upon birth or inheritance. This implies no racial or gender discrimination. It also implies that society can set up rules for how the disadvantaged are treated.

The second principle leads to a democratic form of government. The people get to chose the laws and how they are to be administered. There is no ruling elite that sets things up for their own benefit. If the majority decide that harmful drugs are to be regulated in a certain way, then that's what is to be done. Those who prefer letting the "market" decide are really saying the don't want democracy to work.

Many of the policies presently condemned by "conservatives" which I have listed above can be seen as examples where democracy has worked (in the past) and the decisions disfavor the privileged so they want to do away with majority rule. The people have chosen the level of government or taxes that we have now.

There will be objections that the people haven't actually chosen many of the present social conditions, that this has been done by special interests. To the extent this is true it represents a failure for democracy to perform as well as it might. It is not a condemnation of liberal principles, it is a sign that democracy needs to be strengthened. In a situation, as at present, where we are in a quasi-plutocracy, restoring balance may be difficult, but that doesn't mean that the principles are wrong.

So what is a conservative? One who wants to see their privilege restored or maintained. What is a liberal? One who wants to see all treated fairly according to rules established democratically. Everything else is implementation.

Moral: A just society is egalitarian and democratic.


Click here to see all my essays in context.

If you have any comments or for further discussions email me at robert.feinman@gmail.com
Copyright © 2007 Robert D Feinman
Feel free to use the ideas, but the words are mine.