Iain Hall’s introductory piece for this blog titled “Conservatism 101” is written as a personal testimony of his own conversion. It appears that at some time he was a social progressive who was advantaged by Gough Whitlam free tertiary education but had some sort of cathartic experience that led to conservatism.This is not a critique of his work but rather an attempt to put an alternative progressive view. What Iain says helps by highlighting some major differences between social progressives like myself ,conservatives like Iain and neo conservatives. Iain asks a number of questions and I throw in my two bobs worth.
He asks: What is a conservative?
I would say that Conservatives (LNP) believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty and traditional values. They believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals. Conservative policies generally emphasise empowerment of the individual to solve problems. And they are cautious about change or innovation, typically in politics or religion.
What is a neo conservative?
Neo conservatism goes back to the 30s however in its modern form it is identified with George W Bush who embraced unbridled capitalism, corporate greed together with literalist Christianity to form a modern neo conservatism. Carl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld and others added global superiority to the mix believing that America in all aspects was above the rest of the world. A further element in this mix is Tea Party Republican politics.
Iain asks: What is a social progressive?
My view is that Social democrats (Labor) believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all. That it is the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights thus believing the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need. Progressive policies generally emphasise the need for the government to solve problems.
Iain asks: What are the three top conservative values?
He lists them as. Firstly, personal liberty and autonomy. Secondly, social civility and good manners. Thirdly, there is the importance of family and the biological imperative to make and nurture our children.
I was puzzled as to why he felt that conservatives like him should identify these particular virtues as being “conservative values” as opposed to being universal ones. Is he suggesting that social democrats like me don’t have similar values and practice them?
This issue of the rights of the individual is another puzzle. Why do conservatives place so much importance on it? I pose one example where I think it falls down. I would argue that there needs to be a drastic reduction in the amount of salt, sugar and fat in processed food if we are to avoid an epidemic of obesity and diabetes. Conservatives are against government regulation because they say it takes away the individuals right of choice. In this case without regulation the cost, in the future will be beyond our health services capacity to cope. It’s a case where the individuals rights are outweighed by the common good. So individual freedom is self-defeating. Safety belts and tobacco smoking are but two other examples of where government can change society for the better. I would have thought that the highest value any ideology has would involve the common good, and that a measure of that value might be related to how it best served the most disadvantaged in the community. Government is best placed to achieve this.
Civility and good manners go hand in hand although discerning the difference is always important. Why does Iain think it is a value important only to conservatives. Mind you he doesn’t actually say this but he seems to be implying it. And the same applies to family and procreation. I would strongly suggest that pro creation is the purpose of life and not necessarily a value in itself.
Iain then asks: Is conservatism the opposite of progressiveness?
With this question Iain addresses the conservatives reluctance for change. I am he says, a very strong advocate for the “if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it” school of thought and to my mind progressives are the ultimate example of “built in obsolescence”.
I have never understood this reluctance for change. My view is that conservatives dislike and resist change in the foolish assumption that they can make permanent that which makes them feel secure. Yet change is in fact part of the very fabric of our existence. I think I have probably seen more change in my lifetime time that any other period in history. Often worthwhile change comes with short-term controversy but the pain is worth it for long-term prosperity. And change sometimes disregards opinion and becomes a phenomenon of its own making with Its own inevitability. Change is in fact one of the only constants in life. Conservatives often become so trapped in the longevity of sameness that they never see better ways of doing things. Science has made in my lifetime the most staggering achievements and they are embraced, recognised and benefited by all sections of society and none of it could have come about without constant change. Resisting change can be folly and one of the best examples is the denial of climate science. Take this quote from the Courier Mail 25 Oct:
“Queensland consumers should be worried about rising electricity prices. But they should be more concerned about a government that clings to a century old energy system, is relying on short-term band-aid solutions such as price freezes, and is refusing to adopt or embrace to the new technologies and business models that will deliver the cost-effective solutions of the future”.
Why is that conservatives live in some sort of time warp and resist change until it gets to uncomfortable to stay the same? Or it is forced on them? Iain also suggests that it is a good thing that our health system has survived but fails to acknowledge that it is always the social progressives that bring about major reform. The “if it ain’t broke” comment is often applied to Australian republicanism. The fact is that until we have an Australian as our head of state, the system is broke.
What I also found disconcerting in Iain’s article was the absence of economics. Surely capitalism is central to conservatism. Conservatives believe In the free market system, competitive capitalism, and that private enterprise creates the greatest opportunity and the highest standard of living for all. They believe that free markets produce more economic growth, more jobs and higher standards of living than those systems burdened by excessive government regulation.
Conversely, Social Democrats believe in the same free market system but one which government regulates. That government must protect its citizens from the greed of big business. Unlike the private sector, the government is motivated by public interest. Government regulation in all areas of the economy is needed to level the playing field and bring about social equity.
It well may be that capitalism over time has won the economic argument and is used by most ideologies. However, unbridled unregulated capitalism as favoured by Conservatives has, as recently been evidenced with the global financial crisis, proven to be corrupt. Without regulation it is a failed system.Capitalism does not allow for an equitable flow of economic resources. With this system a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. Margaret Thatcher’s theory that “There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals making their way. That the poor shall be looked after by the drip down effect of the rich” (Paraphrased) has been proven to be wrong. The rich of the world are becoming more so. In fact beyond imagination.
Iain asks: Can one be a secular conservative or atheist conservative? And in doing so makes the following statement: ” . . . at the core of most of the great faiths is a template for a “just society”. It can be argued that some churches do good works for society. However, on the other hand it must be said that historically the great religions have been, and still are the greatest forces for “injustice” the world has ever see. One only has to look at the comparative behaviours of militant Islam, the invasion of Republican politics in the US by literalist evangelicals and the practiced evil of the Catholic Church. The simple answer to his question is obvious: Yes. Personally I have come to the conclusion that one of the truly bad effects religion (any religion) has on people is that it teaches that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.
Ian also makes this statement: “Mainly though we conservatives think that making the most of how things are now trumps the empty promises of a “better future” that never seem to arrive”. Surely this is the statement of a patronising Luddite? In recent years I have had bowel cancer and suffered a heart attack. Is he suggesting I should have made the most of how things were instead of the hope of a better future? Which I now have. I can further assure him that from the poverty of my upbringing a better future did arrive. I find that to be one of the most dank and demonstratively negative statements I have ever heard.
I welcome Iain Hall’s contributions to this blog and I understand he is not speaking for all conservatives. But there is little we would agree on if this is his own understanding of Conservative ideology. Well except for good manners and civility.