Tuesday, April 18, 2006

True conservatives

William Gairdner makes the provocative claim that:

... all true conservatives (whether or not they believe in God) are "social" in the sense that they accept the reality that we share in a common humanity and therefore have an obligation wherever possible to place the good of all – which is the good of society – before our own individual desires. So in this sense, all conservatives are social. Indeed, there is no such thing as a non-social, or a merely fiscal conservative. The latter is a really a person with strong business and free market interests who doesn’t mind government control by way of lowering taxes and laws that favour business, but who is likely a strict libertarian in personal and sexual matters (which he will define as private and having nothing to do with society).


So for me, at least, it comes to this: all true conservatives, past and present (and I am not using political-party language here) are social because they accept that the good of all must be prior to their own individual desires (and they accept this truth whether they like it or not). So-called "fiscal" conservatives are libertarians in hiding because they support coercive laws that favour commerce, but resist all laws in matters they consider private. The term "social" conservative is thus redundant.

If I was to reduce my political philosophy to a short epithet, I would call myself a "fiscal" conservative or "libertarian" conservative. Consequently, I take issue with the notion that a true conservative is a "social" conservative and that I am not a conservative at all.

In the economic realm, we can thank Adam Smith for his illustrative metaphor of how the invisible hand guides us to economically efficient outcomes. Smith's genius was in recognizing that markets allocate resources to their most efficient use, to the ultimate benefit of society as a whole. For the most part, efforts to interfere with this process are misguided and typically result in less desirable economic outcomes. Consequently, we let individuals make their own decisions regarding what to buy, where to work, in what to invest, etc. Individually, we are responsible for the decisions we make. If we make bad decisions, we adapt. That is how the system works. And it works very well.

Why should it be any different in the social realm? If we have confidence in people to make their own economic decisions, how can we turn around and make their "moral" decisions for them? If some had had their way in the 1950s, Elvis Presley would have been banned. Why should anyone have the right to make that decision? Of course, that won't stop people from trying, but we should rightfully be sceptical of their authority if they should try.

Society is not static. It is a dynamic system. Over time, some forms of social organization will prove to be more adaptable and effective in an evolving environment than others. But it is only through experimentation that the most successful social forms will emerge. In my opinion it is far better to lead by example than to outlaw activities with which one might disagree. Some people will undoubtedly make bad decisions. They will adapt, and if they don’t, others will see the errors of their ways. Society is far more resilient than people give it credit. We must trust our citizens to do what is in their best interests and those of their loved ones.

Ultimately, politics is about the kind of society we desire. Social outcomes concern us all. The difference between a "social" conservative and a "libertarian" conservative is that the "libertarian" conservative extends the faith we have in individuals to make decisions in their best economic interest to the social realm.

While the "social" conservative would impose their morality in an attempt to socially engineer their preferred outcome, there is little difference in method with "liberal" social-engineering schemes which he typically reacts against. In contrast, the "libertarian" conservative eschews such repression and welcomes free and open competition among social forms in the belief that, as in the economic realm, society will converge toward a socially desirable outcome if our citizens are free to choose what is in their best interests.