Posted by: Tony Carson | 6 October, 2007

Is Conservatism Sustainable?

Conservatism holds “a reverence for tradition and a suspicion of radical change.”

In his column The Republican Collapse David Brooke makes the point that two factions within the conservative movement in the US are pulling the Republicans apart: the so-called creedal conservatives (economic, religious, world-view neocons, etc.) and temperamental conservatives who value social cohesion alongside individual freedom.

Yet at its core, US conservatism is about empowering the individual, never mind that it is at the expense of the community.

We are all self-contained economic units, the creed seems to say, and we should be free from government interference/intervention/regulations to make the most of our lives.

Just as the slogan “A rising tide raises all ships” empowers the entrepreneur and corporations to strive for greater profits no matter what the costs, so the conservatives would have it that the empowered individual  strengthens the community through dint of individual effort.

This made a lot of sense in the days of yore when the cowpoke was riding the range, trusting only his own skills for survival. It may also have made some sense throughout the prolonged shake-down of the industrial revolution when individual work units were desperate for the union movement.

But it doesn’t make any sense today. The world has become an enormous community of communities that has largely stripped the individual of his individuality in order to make him a citizen.

That Montana cowpoke now lives in Billings or Butte, he lives in a community which requires a complex set of rules to operate smoothly: to get his garbage taken away, the ex-cowboy has to put it in a container by the street on Tuesday morning before 9:15.

The question is no longer what to do to protect individual rights; the question now deals with the rights of community.

That conservatism holds “a reverence for tradition and a suspicion of radical change,” shows just how sclerotic conservatism has become in contemporary times:

• What do traditions matter when society has been entirely reinvented?

• Why resist radical change when you won’t be able to relate to your own kids?

Today isn’t an increment of yesterdays, it’s a jump-shift into tomorrow. Conservatism has become another word for dysfunction, a longing for an age already long gone.

What’s the point of preaching family values when the economy prevents the vast majority of those within society from affording a family?

What’s the point of demanding immigration reform when you need those immigrants to grease the machinery of commerce?

What’s the point of railing against the morals of a few when there is an urgent need to advocate for the health and prosperity of the many?

Perhaps the tipping point was that fateful day when cities contained more people than the countryside and the era of the quiet, lonely man was finally over.

Today, romanticized individualism has become a Remington statue, an icon to a long-gone era brought back oh so nostalgically by the brief flicker of Ronald Reagan.

But conservatism was never sustainable — society was always going to trump the individual.

Can the Republicans hold on until the cities become, as they inevitably will, places for the survival of the fittest?



  1. I am no conservative, but I think your argument is flawed. You claim that individualism made more sense in the past “when the cowpoke was riding the range, trusting only his own skills for survival,” but that we have moved beyond that form of social organization and entered a state of mutual interdependence that has made ‘the community’ more important than the individual and rendered individualism obsolete. This argument is backward. “[T]he era of the quiet, lonely man” that you speak of is an era that never existed. The level of direct within-community interpersonal dependence was probably greater in the past than it is today, and it is possible that individualism becomes more important as our communities grow larger.

    ‘The rights of the community’ made sense in prehistoric times, when humans hunted and gathered in small, transitory groups. Under those conditions, the direction of the group’s efforts toward collective aspirations was possible because each group member knew and had a vested interest in the survival of every other member. Groups whose members altruistically served the collective interest were more likely than groups of selfish individuals to survive and pass on both their genetic and social traditions. The inherent human capacity for altruistic behaviour probably goes back to this source.

    But as the small groups became cities and then cities became states, it became impossible for each member of the group to even know about all the other members, let alone care about their individual interests. In order for such extended groups to survive and prosper as they have (particularly in the West since the Industrial Revolution), it was necessary that a system develop to allow individuals to serve the collective interest by means of complex impersonal interactions. Consciously trying to determine what actions would best serve ‘society’ would no longer be reasonable, for who could possibly determine that? No individual can know the interests of all other individuals in society.

    In the context of a society thus reinvented, traditions may actually become more important than ever if they provide a framework within which an individual, actting on his or her own within a framework of social norms or traditions, can serve the collective good without even being aware of what ‘the collective good’ is. This is Adam Smith’s famous (or infamous) ‘Invisible Hand.’ Many leftists hold this in contempt, but there has to be a reason that all of the most (materially) successful societies in history have rested upon market-based (and thus individual-based) foundations.

    Particular ‘social issues’ like gay marriage, abortion, and whatnot, while perhaps important in some moral sense, are probably not important in terms of the direct impact that they have on the organization of society. Those issues are matters of individual preference. But conservatives may be right to oppose radical changes in the social order if these changes would greatly alter the organization of our society. A shift away from individualism toward some kind of fundamental socialist ethic could be such a change. It could destroy the framework within which an individual can best serve the interests of people he or she will never meet in ways he or she does not intend and cannot even understand, and replace it with a system in which the individual would have to make conscious decisions about how best to serve ‘the collective good.’ This could be disastrous, for I know no way that any individual could possibly possess all the information that would be necessary to make such a decision.

    When progressives talk about ‘radical change,’ they almost always mean a radical ideological shift away from individualism and toward socialism. The intentions may be noble, but I suspect that the result would be an absolute decline in the living standards of everybody in society.

  2. Well, sure it’s flawed but I’m not at all convinced it is flawed in the way you suggest.

    First of all, citizenship is, by definition, sacrifice for the community; order: thousands of examples of not J-walking.

    I’d argue that traditions, when they become irrelevent, are just another form of dysfunction. And as society is re-invented by the sheer crush of people and the constant application of new and more invasive technologies, who could contend that contemporary society isn’t radically different than your father’s, never mind your grandfathers. Just look at the state of the nuclear family as an example.

    But it is your final point that, I feel, proves mine: “I suspect that the result would be an absolute decline in the living standards of everybody in society.”

    This is, or course, happening, for the vast majority in western society, a decline in living standards whether it be from over-population, degradation of the environment, an economy loaded against the middle class, the loss of individual rights and on and on.

    A conservative ethic built the economy on the evolutionary priciples of the haves and the have nots and the survival of the fittest. By almost every measurement, from crumbling infrastructure, to the inequitable distribution of health care, to failing education standards, to the gross inequities of inhereted wealth and poverty, the society built on rampant capitalism is starting to rot noticably. That is why I think conservatism is unsustainable: the future belongs to a society concerned about its components, everything from its citizens to its environments and that inevitably means diminished material expectations.

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