[politics] What has conservatism gotten right?

This has cropped up in conversation several times in the past few weeks, so I am finally getting around to laying it down on the blog here. A fairly simple question, one I’m very curious about answers to all across the political spectrum.

What has conservatism gotten right?

Even the most casual accounting will show that conservatives have been wrong, usually destructively so, on a whole range of now-settled issues throughout American history. For example, slavery, Jim Crow, interracial marriage and Civil Rights. Female suffrage, no-fault divorce, and women’s rights. Child labor, wage-and-hour rules, the forty-hour work week, workplace safety and every minimum wage increase ever passed. Environmental quality, pollution control, energy conservation, automobile safety and efficiency. Conservatives opposed our entry into WWII, conservative economic and de-regulation policies brought about the Great Depression, gave us the laughable fraud of supply-side economics and may have brought about the Bush Depression. Conservatives brought us Joe McCarthy, Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. The list is nigh endless.

Things that conservatives are patently wrong about today which will almost certainly be judged harshly by history include global warming, stem cell research, reproductive freedom, Creationism/ID in education, the Iraq War, gay marriage, and Bush-era science policy, Civil Liberties practices and terrorism policy.

I’ve long averred that conservatism is fundamentally a philosophy of fear — fear of change, fear of inequity, fear that someone somewhere might be benefiting unjustly, fear that Bad People will come to your door and take away what you love most. Looking at the above list, you can see where I get that idea from. So what has the conservative movement gotten right? And why is it trusted by millions of Americans today?

9 thoughts on “[politics] What has conservatism gotten right?

  1. Grant Kruger says:

    More specifically, what have conservatives got right that progressives have not. For example most on both sides would agree that murder, rape, incest, etc are wrong. Progressives do have a moral compass (I’d argue it’s a much stronger one in fact).

  2. Kai Jones says:

    What conservatives get right is slowing change by conserving the good and known consequences of previous decisions and working to avoid unintended consequences of change.

    For example, we know that man-woman monogamous marriage “works,” that is, it has loosely supported the survival and growth of the species along with the cultures that have adopted it. We know some of the costs to individuals but as a species and as a culture man-woman monogamous marriage is pro-survival in a Darwinian sense. I’ve yet to see an argument in favor of same sex marriage or polygamy that addresses conservation of the positive consequences of the current form of marriage or mitigates potential negative consequences of changing it. (As you know, Jay, I don’t need to be convinced: I support same sex marriage to the same degree I support man-woman marriage.)

    Unintended consequences are a perfectly reasonable thing to avoid.

  3. tetar says:

    Oh, brother.

    They act as if Conservatives are people, too, when we all know people get virtually nothing “right” except temporarily, according to some, in certain ways, until the next disaster comes along.

    Unforeseen consequences are the only kind there are, even for Delphic straight-line trending.

    Changing the label does not change the bottle’s content, and the existence bottle is full of Unknowable.

  4. tetar says:

    to cite me: Oh, brother.

    They act as if Conservatives are people, too, when we all know people get virtually nothing “right” except temporarily, according to some, in certain ways, until the next disaster comes along.

    Unforeseen consequences are the only kind there are, even for Delphic straight-line trending.

    Changing the label does not change the bottle’s content, and the existence bottle is full of Unknowable.

  5. Kai – not sure that slowing the pace of change is either possible or necessarily good, even with good motives. Change isn’t entirely optative – so what happens when changes are slowed? Where does that energy go? Does it build until it shatters the obstruction, does it get sublimated into other (more or less) productive areas? Do we get blowback?

    Things conservatism *should* get right: adhering to old-fashioned ideas like civil liberties; placing emphasis on the value of humanity, of human individuals; finding the worth in simple things rather than break-neck consumerism; honouring service, of whatever kind; minimising government interference where it’s not needed; cutting useless red tape; plain speaking over spin; recognising the virtue of self-restraint and the need to live within limits…

    At least in the UK, though, and from what I can see of the US as well – it’s not clear that’s what’s actually happening.

  6. Kai Jones says:

    Nick Harkaway–in the US conservative is not a political party, and I would argue the Republicans are only conservative in contrast to the Democrats. Conservatives remind progressives of the positive consequences of the things progressives want to change, and ask how those positives will be affected by the proposed change.

  7. Kai – yes, I know; hence I use the small ‘c’, conservative. The word varies in use between the two countries even after you’ve said that, hence I’m a little cautious about this debate, and your politics are still some distance to the right of ours anyway (one reason why the image of Tony Blair and George W. is so utterly bewildering to many in the UK). That said, there is some interplay between conservatives in the UK and US, and some commonality – in particular, that desire to slow the pace of change and retain the supposed virtues of the past. Trouble is, here at least, those virtues were as elusive in times gone by as they are now when you look closely at the history, and the attempt to retain or reclaim them often works as a blind for rather more unhappy urges.

  8. Jay says:

    @7 – Nick, that’s the whole Myth of the Golden Age at work. It’s been full flower in conservative America through my entire lifetime.

    I can vividly recall a discussion with a co-worker back around 1992, 1993. She was a single woman, divorced from a prior marriage, living with her firefighter boyfriend and holding down a pretty good job as an art director at the ad agency where I was also employed. She also was a strongly committed Evangelical Christian who came to work every Monday talking about how much she’d learned in church. Deeply conservative Reaganaut.

    One Monday she was going on and on about how much better things had been in the 1950s, and why couldn’t America go back to those solid values and safe streets. I pointed out to her that in the 1950s she wouldn’t have been allowed in the *door* of her church, as a divorced woman living in sin; and that further, the job she held at our workplace would have been given to a man who needed to feed his family; and besides that, for anyone who was poor or non-white, the 1950s were a dangerous, difficult time.

    She just stared at me a moment then said, “Well, that’s not what I meant. I want the good parts back.”

  9. @ Jay – yeah: vaccinated time travel… I know that one. Guilty of it myself, of course, from time to time.

    I think maybe the problem with asking this question is that it’s always going to be hard to answer if you’re not a conservative. I know a lot of people here in the UK would say:

    “Well, immigration! We can’t keep taking more and more people for ever!”

    Weird thing about that being the they immediately go on to say:

    “Our resources are already overtaxed – I can’t get my Polish builder to do any more work for me until March.”

    Er…

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