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Why I am Not a Conservative

June 14, 2012

I have great respect for any number of writers who self-identify as conservative. I am sympathetic to conservative arguments in favor of small government, individual liberty, private property, and the centrality of the family. Nevetheless, I cannot help but reject conservatism itself.

For one thing, most so-called conservatism is not actually conservative at all; it is cheerleading for moneyed interests. As has become abundantly clear through the primaries, the GOP has no real interest in preserving the welfare state so painstakingly built this past century, from FDR’s New Deal to Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society reforms and onward. Nor does the GOP wish to hearken back to an earlier age in which religion, family, and local community were the organizing principles of society. Or, at least, the Republican party is highly selective in its embrace of traditional conservatism. You can’t have strong families without a strong economic base for the family–precisely what Paul Ryan’s budget what undermine, despite his dishonest rhetoric about subsidiarity. Likewise, you can’t have vibrant local communities in a globalized economy in which capital flows to wherever investors believe it will yield the highest return. As for religion, capitalism depends on it to instill values like honesty, hardwork, and integrity in workers; at the same time, capitalist societies systematically undermine religion by continually subordinating moral and religious values to the imperatives of the almighty dollar.

In short, mainstream conservatism is not actually conservative. Of course, I say that as a liberal. Still, I came to this view not so much through reading liberal diatribes, as through reading this post (and others like it) by the self-identified conservative John Medaille, who makes a far more forceful argument than the one I have sketched out here.

There is another strand of conservatism favored in elite circles–David Brooks is perhaps its most prominent adherent–that turns out to be equally vapid. This is so-called Burkean conservatism, which essentially amounts to an acceptance of every social, political, economic, and technological innovation proposed by liberals except for whatever it is they are proposing to do next. The basic impulse is to take things slow. The fundamental problem with this view is that the pace at which social mores change is actually relative to the observer. The hare seems fast to the tortoise. But the horse seems fast to the hare. Burkean conservatism fails to be rational insofar as it cannot ultimately ground its opposition to rapid vis-à-vis gradual change in anything more than arbitrary and subjective notions of what it means for change to be gradual or rapid.

Let me take a simple example having to do with the gay marriage debate. Just the other day, Noah Millman made the following Burkean defense of gay marriage:

The case for gay marriage – the Burkean case, you might say – is simply that what amount to common-law gay marriages already exist. Numerous gay couples settle down for long-term, even life-long relationships of mutual support. They jointly own property. They bear, adopt, and rear children. These are already existing realities, not hypotheticals. They are not the product of state diktats; they are the product of organic cultural change which, in turn, has shaped changes in the law. The question before the people is whether to recognize these realities, and, if so, as what.

The somewhat more prominent Burkean conservative and outspoken defender of gay marriage, Andrew Sullivan, agreed, adding that “this is basically the point I have been making for twenty years to conservatives.”

As it turns out, however, Rod Dreher opposes gay marriage for precisely the reason Millman and Sullivan endorse it:

. . . SSM proponents always, in my experience, fail to appreciate the more fundamental concern of many folks on the other side of the issue. In the past 50 years, as a result of the sexual revolution and its technological genesis, the Pill, we have lived through a massive re-ordering of our civilization’s fundamental views on the meaning of sex and marriage. This didn’t begin in 1964, as Philip Rieff has shown, but we know that the 1960s were a watershed event in social history. As I have repeatedly contended here, gay marriage may be a radical innovation, but it is the logical next — and final — step in the sexual revolution. Society would not be prepared to accept SSM so readily if the groundwork hadn’t been laid by 50 years of redefining the meaning of marriage. Rieff, who was one of Freud’s great interpreters, has been clear and persuasive that jettisoning the Christian view of sex and sexuality has been at the heart of the social revolution in the West. There’s a great short passage in “The Triumph of the Therapeutic” in which he reflects dryly on the Christian clerics who try to pretend otherwise.

Anyway, it seems to me that a Burkean could say, as Noah does, that like it or not, SSM reflects an organic, historical change in the polity’s understanding of marriage, and ought to be accepted on those grounds. There is reason in that. I get where he’s coming from. On the other hand, as Noah recognizes, it is certainly true that we don’t really know where this sort of thing may take us, because it has never been tried. For many — certainly for Noah — that is no reason not to do it. Let us not fail to understand, though, that by changing the law to reflect that there is no meaningful difference between same-sex marital pairings (and, in turn, parenting) and the standard, which is rooted in biology, theology, and long historical experience, is a very big deal.

For Millman and Sullivan, 50 years is enough time to firmly establish the changes wrought be the sexual revolution as normative; for Dreher, 50 years is a mere blink of the eye relative to “long historical experience” and it remains to be seen whether or not the sexual revolution has ultimately been a force for good or ill.

Conservatism by definition means conserving something. The question then becomes: what should we conserve and why? Burkean conservatives are famously suspicious of abstract reason and opt to place their faith in a mere timeline. In doing so, they end up grounding their views in precisely the arbitrary, subjective preference that they find so destructive in liberalism.

Moreover, they end up endorsing wildly incoherent positions. Dreher, for example, states that: “whatever my views on SSM, I would not favor laws against gay adoption.” This is sheer nonsense. If the whole point marriage, in the traditionalist view, is to provide stability and security for the next generation, then the gay marriage debate hinges in large part on the question as to whether or not gay couples can provide this. If it turns out they can, conservatives haven’t got a leg to stand on, other than perhaps to exclude gay couples on the basis that they are unable to procreate. But this is equally absurd given that many gay couples adopt and many straight couples forgo procreation. I suppose those who agree with the Roman Catholic hierarchy that non-procreative sex is inherently evil could oppose gay marriage on those grounds. And yet this is apparently a strictly religious teaching, having no firm philosophical basis: for why else would opponents of the HHS Mandate frame their arguments in terms of religious liberty?

Gay activists have provided any number of reasons to support their cause. But ultimately, it is the inability of social conservatives to muster up anything approaching a rational argument against gay marriage that makes the case in favor so overwhelming. Likewise, it is not liberals but conservatives who have provided us with the best reasons for rejecting conservatism.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. June 14, 2012 4:29 pm

    As for religion, capitalism depends on it to instill values like honesty, hardwork, and integrity in workers; at the same time, capitalist societies systematically undermine religion by continually subordinating moral and religious values to the imperatives of the almighty dollar.

    Beautifully stated. I think of my mom’s generation, and the attitude so many of them have regarding debt and being a good, loyal employee wherever they work. Of course that so-called “Protestant work ethic” so widely distributed among this generation is a wonderful thing in many cases, but I think you hit the nail on the head when you said that capitalism ultimately destroys it, and I think that extends to values acquired outside of religion, as well. It’s not hard to see how a societal structure that does not value you beyond the profit you may be able to produce for someone else would eventually cause apathy and bitterness. Beyond continually undermining individuals, it is breeding ground for eventual resentment and revolt.

  2. innocentsmithjournal permalink*
    June 14, 2012 7:08 pm

    Agreed. What we’re dealing with is the proverbial serpent that bites its own tail.


  1. Why I am not Voting on the Marriage Amendment « The Innocent Smith Journal

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