22 May 2012

CC01 - Political Conservatism

What it Means to be Right-wing

You know, I quite often hear people talking about how conservatives are bad, or hateful, or mean, or incapable of compassion, or whatever happens to be the flavour of the day, without really understanding what conservatism really means. I often hear the phrase "right wing" used as a pejorative, as though it embodies all the evil in the world.

I just want to clear up a few misconceptions about what being conservative means, particularly in the context of being Canadian, and what characteristics can be attributed to being conservative, or to conservatism itself.

First off, let's address political conservatism. At its bare bones, conservatism is simply the resistance to change for simple sake of change. Colloquially, it can be summed up as "If it isn't broken, don't fix it." How this relates to a political position is simply that as governments evolve over time, they tend to get bigger, more invasive, more costly, and less efficient. Conservatives resist this tendency for growing government bureaucracy, and, if they can, force it back. The idea for this is simple: In nearly all cases, less government intervention is better than more government intervention.

I once had an argument with a friend of mine about the definition of right-wing and left-wing. Most people accept that right wing is conservative, and left wing is liberal, and for the most part, this is true. I don't like the word 'liberal', though, because 'liberal' has meant two distinctly different things over the course of political history. The first is what has been often referred to as classical liberalism, and the second is social liberalism.

Classic liberalism is predicated on the notion of personal liberty, that the individual should be granted the freedom to determine his or her own destiny without obligation and interference from a government body. This idea of liberalism grew out of the resistance to the monarchies of the 18th and 19th centuries. Most people in modern democracies will agree that classical liberalism is a staple for a just and productive society. Classic liberalism is concerned solely with a person's individual freedom to determine his or her own destiny. This is the main distinction between classic and social liberalism.

Social liberalism is less about liberty of the person, and more about the liberty of the state. Where classic liberalism advocates for individual's freedom FROM outside interference, and therefore is responsible for his/her own rise or fall, social liberalism advocates FOR outside interference, or, the freedom (or even obligation) OF the state to act on an individual's destiny, in order to support notions of social and economic justice and equality.

For the purposes of this discussion, I will be referring to social liberalism as progressivism to distinguish it from classical liberalism. Since both progressive and conservative ideologies have a basis in classical liberalism.

Now, the fallacy I often hear the most is that on the extreme right wing lies fascism, and that the more conservative one is, the closer to fascist ideology one becomes. This could not be further from the truth. The fact of the matter is that right wing ideology refers to the limiting and restraint of government size and power. The extreme right wing is anarchy, not fascism. Fascism, like communism, lies on the far left wing of the political spectrum. This is because the spectrum is used to describe relative strengths of governments. It scales from no government control at all (anarchy) on the right to absolute government control (despotism) on the left. Most classically liberal ideologies range somewhere in the middle, where the balance of power between the individual and the state varies.

The reason that fascism is not right wing is simply because a fascism is a dictatorship, a despotism lead by a single person. Fascism, a dictatorship, and communism, an oligarchy, are both extreme left wing ideologies. The only reason fascism is commonly believed to be right wing is because it was most often compared to communism in the past and fascism is to the right of communism on the spectrum. Fascism is right wing, but only of the extreme left. Fascism is still far left of all democracies, whether progressive OR conservative.

The other misconception about the right-wing/left-wing spectrum I often face is the idea that all right-wingers are religious zealots, and that all left-wingers are godless heathens. This is also quite far from the truth. In fact, political ideology and religious ideology are not related to one another at all. Most of the people I know who are religious are left wing progressives, and most atheists and agnostics I know are right wing conservatives. The point is that religion has very little effect on political ideology, at least from the perspective of a classic liberal democracy. There are theocracies around the world in which religion is a very large part of government policy, but in the western world, this is not the case.

This is not to say that there isn't a 'religious right', because there is, just as there's a 'religious left'. The distinction I'm trying to make is that there is no relationship between conservatives and theists. Not all conservatives are religious, and not all theists are conservative.

Alright, now that we have all that cleared out of the way, what constitutes a conservative political ideology? To answer this question, we must understand the purpose of government. Government, at its most simplistic, is a tool by which a society organises a defence against common threats. An anarchy is the complete lack of government, in which each person is completely responsible for his/her own welfare, protection, and production. As threats to groups of people emerge, a collective sense of well-being requires that they, as a group, organise a defence against those threats. The tool through which those defences are implemented is government. The earliest governments grew out of benevolent cooperation between individuals who shared common goals and threats.

In the modern age, a government serves to provide the protection and infrastructure required for an individual to dedicate his or her full attention to being a productive member of society. In general, we expect our governments to provide services such as military defence, policing, and utilities, usually under the rule of law. Where we often differ is on the less...mandatory services that a government can provide.

So, we finally come to what it means to be conservative. Quite simply, it means that any time we as a group, or a single individual, faces a threat that we/he/she cannot effective protect himself against, the government should be the last option when combating this threat. This is why you often see conservatives arguing against things like a social safety net, or increased public spending, or ever-expanding laws and powers for governments. It's not because we believe that there shouldn't be a social safety net, or welfare, or whatever. It's because we believe that it's better for the private sector to deal with issues if at all possible. The government should be the last resort.  Privately run charities can serve the needs of the less fortunate far better and more efficiently than can overreaching tax-funded government programmes.

This is why capitalism and socialism, while being mostly economic policies, are attached to right-wing and left-wing ideologies. Socialism is about government intervention in the economy, and capitalism is about economic development free from government interference. Progressives love socialism, because it protects individuals from misfortune at the cost of more government control in the individual lives of the citizenry, and conservatives love capitalism because it precludes the need for government control at all. An argument can be made that progressives prefer to use the government to deal with social issues because their ultimate goal is increasing government control on individual's lives. While there is certainly evidence to support this idea, I don't agree that it's the nature of all progressives to seek more government control simply for its own sake. I believe that they, for the most part, simply value social safety for the few more than political freedom for the many.

One last thing I would like to point out about being conservative. For the most part, conservatives tend to be open and honest about being conservative, and their first duty is to the truth. You will often see conservative columnists openly declare their bias in their issues, much as I will do below. Conservatives openly claim to be conservative, the implication being that opposition to their ideals is non-conservative, or progressive. Progressives, on the other hand, do not often claim to be progressive, they simply claim to be normal, the implication being that opposition to their beliefs is abnormal. Progressive ideology is inherently self righteous, assumed by progressives to be ethical and correct by default, and that the average person already believes in it. By contrast, conservative ideology instead realises that individuals have many different belief systems and conservatives seek instead to convince others of its merits. It's one of the reasons why progressives will often use emotional rather than rational arguments when advocating their positions. Of course, this is not a universal rule, as there are openly biased progressives and sneaky dishonest conservatives, but by and large it's the other way around. A progressive policy is often assumed as self-evident by its proponents and progressives often challenge opponents to their ideas to prove them wrong rather than bear the burden of proof themselves.

In future posts I will be discussing specific issues from a conservative perspective, but for now, I think I've said enough. I hope I've been able to help clear up some of the misconceptions about political conservatism.

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