A Brief Lesson on Conservatism

Recently, I have come across several articles that seem to be criticizing conservatism because it encourages individual responsibility and suggests that success often comes through hard work. If you run a quick Google search for reviews of the new Hillbilly Elegy film, you can easily find progressive critics trashing the film’s “conservative” message because it “simplistically” suggests that a person can rise above his bad lot and make a success out of himself through his own efforts. Of course, the fact that the movie is a true story seems to have been lost (how can you criticize the plot as unrealistic if it actually happened?).

But this sort of criticism of conservative individualism isn’t merely targeted at books and movies by openly conservative writers like J.D. Vance. A recent review of Willa Cather’s book O Pioneers! (written in 1913 by one of the leading feminist writers of the day) noted that many criticize this and Cather’s other books as pushing the conservative “pipe dream” that one can succeed in harsh environments through hard work and diligence. Of course, these critics can’t seem to understand that all of the immigrants that Cather celebrates in her stories are representative of the millions of immigrants who came to this country and did that very thing—as proved by the fact that people in the Mid-West can still trace their ancestry back to immigrants who pioneered the land 150 years ago.

Even more strangely, The National Museum of African American History & Culture recently claimed that the following are a product of “whiteness”: Individualism, hard work, objectivity, the nuclear family, progress, respect for authority, and delayed gratification among other things. While this is absurd on its surface and they have since retracted the statement, it is clear that these people made a mistake that is becoming all the more common: conflating conservative values with “whiteness.” In another article I may explore this phenomenon further, but for now it has become just another example of how conservatism is under attack, even for values that don’t seem that bad, such as hard work or delayed gratification.

But what makes these simplistic and strange critiques insidious is not merely that they criticize conservative values, even values that seem obvious and good for society. It’s that they don’t even understand conservative values. These and many other articles and interviews I’ve encountered indicate that many if not most liberal and progressive talking heads don’t have the cloudiest notion of what conservatism actually means. The caricatured version of conservatism runs something like this: everyone is an individual who has the personal responsibility to pull himself up by his own bootstraps apart from the help of anyone and if he fails it is completely his fault; a person isn’t a product of his environment but only a product of his individual choices; a person finds his identity solely in his choices and his nuclear family; the government and social institutions (except churches) are bad and do more harm than good; the solution to every societal problem is personal responsibly, hard work, moral choices, and “the market.” 

Of course, you can probably find self-proclaimed conservatives who do believe these things in their simplistic and caricatured form (just as you can truly find progressives who are actual socialists who want to burn down the whole society and rebuild it in Marxian fashion). But the caricatured fringes are not indicative of the beating heart of conservatism; and unfortunately the past few decades have revealed that many Republican politicians are just as clueless about what conservatism is really about. And it is true that this, like all caricatures, represents part of the truth. Conservatives do care about personal responsibility, authority, and free markets. But if you want to truly understand conservatism, there are some good books to begin with: Edmund Burke’s writings are a good place to start, particularly Reflections on the Revolution in France; Roger Scruton’s Conservatism as well as many of his other writings; Alexis de Toqueville’s writings; Friedrich Hayek’s Road to Serfdom; Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences; Russel Kirk’s The Conservative Mind; Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative; the U.S. Constitution (just kidding…sort of). For more conservative/libertarian perspectives on economics read: Adam Smith, Luwig von Mesis, Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, Thomas Sewell.

Having said these things, here are some important things to understand:

  1. In some cases social conservatism and fiscal conservatism are at odds.
  2. Libertarianism and conservatism are hardly synonyms and they are often ideologically at odds.
  3. American conservatism is far more influenced by libertarianism than British conservatism.
  4. Conservatism is wide-ranging and diverse, while libertarianism is relatively narrow.
  5. Conservatism is far more friendly toward social institutions and the power of social custom and taboo than libertarianism.
  6. Conservatism believes that the foundation of society are institutions, not individuals: the family, religious institutions, educational institutions, cultural institutions, etc.
  7. Libertarianism and economic conservatism has made conservatism too materialistic in its value system.
  8. Conservatism can thrive when speech is free, when association is free, when religion is free, when societal health isn’t merely measured in economic terms, and when it’s ok to make people feel bad when they do the wrong thing.
  9. Ayn Rand should never be considered a leading light of conservatism.
  10. Despite some key differences, there is still overlap between libertarianism and conservatism.

Of course, there isn’t enough space to unpack and support each of these assertions, but here are a few takeaways.

  1. The Republican party is more conservative than the Democratic party, but it is hardly the party of conservatism.
  2. Conservatism does not assert that people are only the sum of their individual choices, or that identity stems simply from personal choice, or that someone can succeed by simply pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, or that society is simply a sum of individuals. Conservatism acknowledges that environments and associations are hugely influential in people’s choices, values, and futures, but rejects the notion that the government should be the primary mediator in those environments and associations.
  3. Conservatism asserts that we have success when we help each other as individuals and as communities and institutions.
  4. Conservatism asserts that the government is there to protect our individual rights but citizens also carry individual obligations toward our neighbor.
  5. Conservatism asserts that society will only thrive with a moral compass, personal responsibility, non-government free associations that support the well-being of everyone, and social customs that are strong enough to influence people to do good rather than harm.
  6. Conservatism asserts that social institutions and social custom should have more influence and power than government institutions in directing people’s choices and carrying out personal obligations.
  7. Progressives have coopted conservative moral language to push government-led agendas. It does “take a village to raise a child” (in the sense that we all need community to raise a family and thrive); it doesn’t take a government to raise a child. We do have responsibilities to take care of each other and help people thrive; the government does not have the responsibility to help people thrive.

Of course, many conservatives might object to this brief overview and cite many conservative thinkers who disagree—which may prove that conservatism is far more disparate and broad than many like to think it is. I think it also shows that Republicanism and libertarianism have become far more influential in the conservative imagination, and a true conservative vision has faded.

So what does it look like to be a conservative in the 21st century?

  1. Take personal responsibility for your moral choices and stop blaming the government and the opposite political party for your problems.
  2. Build relationships with your neighbors and your close geographic community instead of retreating into safe sub-groups of like-minded people.
  3. Take your moral and societal obligations seriously instead of only focussing on your personal rights and how they are being infringed.
  4. Start schools, produce art, fight for free speech, create institutions that meet the needs of the soul, not merely the needs of the body. Needs like: order, liberty, responsibility, honor, dignity, truth, community, love, freedom, forgiveness, courage.
  5. Stop looking to political parties and politicians to make America great, and do what is in your power under the law to make America great.
  6. Resist making social issues merely political issues with two “sides.” Poverty, racism, covid-19, abortion, violence, bad schools, etc. are social issues first and political issues second. Making them political issues first keeps you from seeing what’s truly going on and finding helpful solutions.
  7. Speak up for the truth and reject falsehood, even if it’s a Republican who is speaking the lie.
  8. Be courageous and speak with moral authority.

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