Why Conservatism Fails
There are 3 components of American political philosophies: social policy, economic policy and foreign policy. Modern conservatism is a theoretical failure in each. I say this as a former conservative, and as someone who has no sympathy for ideological liberalism (but that is another article).
I talk here of conservatism, as a political ideology or philosophy. Not the Republican party or its policies, which may or may not be truly "conservative."
It is in social matters that conservatism most clearly seeks to "conserve" tradition and established norms. Often this effort at conservation is based not on any rational thinking, but on the perceived value of keeping tradition alive for its own sake.
This idea is destructive and necessarily inhibitive of human progress. Tradition does not have value in its own right. If it did, then the modern American conservative must explain why he supports women's right to vote, since this is a concept totally at odds with almost all human tradition, including his own society's tradition until the early 20th century.
Social conservatism stands for a close relationship between church and state, and a preference for Christian values in public policy at the expense of others. Public policy should:
- Restrain or outlaw abortion
- Legally favor heterosexual relationships over homosexual ones
- Not teach sex education to teenagers
- Give equal time to creationism and evolution in science class
- Restrict people's sexual behavior
- Financially and legally support churches and other Christian institutions
- Keep Christian references in taxpayer-financed monuments or documents, and so on
Each of these positions can be defeated in various ways. But the important point here is that the emphasis on traditional Christian values is flawed. Since there is no rational way to say this Biblical passage is "good" and that one is "bad," the Bible or Christian tradition is a poor basis for public policy, to say the least.
For example, 19th century slavers and Klan members justified themselves by pointing to the Holy Bible and Christian doctrine, while abolitionists used the very same book and the very same religion to assault slavery! Will the real Christianity please stand up?
Modernist Christians may say that their religion has generally come to support human rights, and eschew the opposite. But are we to subject public policy to the slippery "consensus" that some private religious group happens to believe today, but may not in 50 years?
Not to mention the intellectual inconvenience to the social conservative of explaining why she believes Christianity should be the basis of government, but not Islam or Buddhism.
Social conservatism is an abject theoretical and practical failure.
Conservatism defers to the free market, against "big government," excessive regulation or high taxation, and in favor of "consumer choice" and "business freedom."
I have detailed many problems with the orthodox free market capitalist view, in the following hubs:
- 10 Things You Didn't Know About Economics: Numbers 1-3, and Numbers 4-6, and Numbers 7-10
- Capitalism: Myth and Reality: Part 1 and Part 2
The assumptions of modern economics are astonishingly unrealistic. This makes any free market capitalist dogma just as naïve as Marxist utopianism. Any ideology that sees free market capitalism as the sole requirement for human prosperity leads to a pie-in-the-sky faith in the free market and an excessively negative attitude toward government action.
Case in point: I found this little pearl of wisdom on a conservative blog, in a discussion on some smoking ban:
Someone tell me why we are wasting our time trying to ban smoking? If it is profitable for a business owner to say “Come here we do not allow smoking,” then he will do that. If it profitable for a business owner to remove meat tainted with germs then they will do that. This is the free-market the market will provide the most efficient outcome.
Grammatical mistakes aside, this is an excellent example of the narrow-mindedness that is part and parcel of economic conservatism and libertarianism especially. Sure, "if it's profitable" for a business to sell clean meat, they will. And if it isn't profitable, they won't. Hence massive public health problems in late 19th century America, an age of laissez-faire.
Additionally, if there are no government regulators to check the meat, who will ever know if the meat was tainted? By the time the market discovers it, somebody will be dead.
Economic conservatism (not to be confused with fiscal conservatism or good fiscal management, which both Republicans and Democrats have failed miserably at in recent years) is a theoretical and practical failure.
Foreign policy conservatism is based on the fantastic premise that the US is such an inherently good country that any American military or diplomatic action abroad is ultimately to the benefit of the whole world. Basically, America can do no wrong. If this sounds like a simplistic characterization, I invite the reader to suggest one major military intervention that conservatives disapprove of in recent history (submit a comment below).
The default position of conservatism is toward more American involvement in other countries, more military interventionism--not less.
A key position of conservative foreign policy is blind support for Israel. This has many roots, from apocalyptic Christian theology to a pathological obsession with anti-semitism.
The unquestioning support for Israel, in spite of oppression, theft and killing of innocents committed by the "Jewish state," is an example of simpleminded and destructive foreign policy backed by conservatives.
Above all, the presumption that "America is the greatest country" stands as one of the most simplistic and least-developed bases conceivable for a foreign policy paradigm. America may have many good qualities, but it has many bad ones as well. And certainly whatever its good qualities internally, that has little to do with its effect on other societies.
This mentality has contributed to an unaffordable global empire, buttressed by the dogma that America, that "shining city on a hill" is the "last, best hope of mankind." Nationalistic mythology may be romantic and inspiring. It is insufficient for a theory of foreign policy.
Foreign policy conservatism is a theoretical and practical failure.