Sorry for the clickbait headline but this is a question I’ve thought about often over the course of my adult life.
You’ve no doubt heard of the famous Stephen Colbert quote “Reality has a well known liberal bias.” (That quote is nearly 16 years old now, which is scary.)
And you might be familiar with things like Conservapedia, the American conservative attempt to create an alternative to Wikipedia, supposedly free of that site’s “liberal bias.” (Conservapedia has 52,000 articles as of last year, apparently. Wikipedia has 6.4 million articles in English alone. So that project has…gone well.)
As the Republicans in the US become increasingly illiberal and anti-democratic, and as the illiberal and anti-democratic far right in my own country gains more public attention than it used to (both by polling better in the last election and by pulling the mainstream Conservative party back to the right), I can’t help but think about the ideology of conservatism, why it’s appealing, and why it persists.
But I also can’t help wondering whether or not conservatives are right. Because, as a left-leaning Canadian, it sure feels like they’re usually wrong.
Conservatism Usually Relies on Gut Feelings More than Other Idelogies
Yes, all ideologies are internally inconsistent and rely a great deal on gut feelings, or fundamental beliefs about the world that are not based on fact.
But, I’d argue that, throughout the history of ideology, conservatives have relied on more on their fundamental beliefs or gut instincts than those who favour other ideologies more often than not. (That’s not always true, of course. Especially with the early socialists who essentially believed in fairy tales. And there are plenty of “liberals” who do not have evidence to back up their core beliefs.)
Here’s a personal example. I would say I’ve mostly grown out of my conservative streak but I used to have one. Specifically with regard to shopping: it struck me as bad that we could shop more and more frequently. This is back when you couldn’t get everything online. I supported having one day (Sunday naturally) where shops should be closed.
Canada used to not allow shopping on Sundays. That slowly changed though I don’t know if it is true in every single community. (The last time I was in Nova Scotia, for example, this was still the law. However, that was many years ago.)
I’ve come to realize a few things about this belief:
- People really do want to buy things 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and they enjoy being able to.
- If being able to purchase just about anything whenever you want is bad for a plurality of people and the macro effect of this is a net negative for society, I don’t have evidence for this.
So, at some point, I let the belief drop. I realized it doesn’t matter to me any more and, much more importantly, I had no evidence to tell other people they should live their lives differently.
Are other conservative beliefs like this?
An Extremely Brief History of Conservative Ideology
Ideologies are a Western phenomenon, which stem from Christianity and the emergence of the nation state and “mass society” in Europe. They may have become global but, in terms of understanding ideologies, it is extremely important to focus on their origin as sociopolitical adaptations of christian beliefs. If the world had evolved differently – with, say, ideologies originating in China or India – our ideologies would look very different.
Conservatism is one of our three main categories of ideology, along with liberalism and socialism.
Conservatism first appeared as a reaction to liberalism. Liberalism appeared in the Netherlands in the 17th century, and then in England and the UK (and later France) in the 17th and 18th centuries. Liberalism combined ideas about personal moral freedom from the Reformation with Roman and Renaissance political ideas to argue that individual human beings were best able to decide what is good and right, rather than the monarch or the Church. Liberals also asserted that the sum of all free choices would be a net positive for humanity.
Very early conservatism wasn’t particularly coherent and was really just a defense of the early modern status quo. It took some time – until the French Revolution particularly -for conservatism to attract intellectuals who could formulate a coherent ideology that wasn’t just “the old older works just fine” and “change is bad and dangerous.” But those feelings are still essential parts of most conservative ideologies to this day.
More than perhaps either of the other two broad ideological categories, conservatism has changed the most in the ensuing centuries because of the this defense of the status quo. If you accept that, since the industrialization, nearly every generation has experienced a different world, you might argue that there has been a new form of conservatism for each generation since then, one to match that current status quo. (Of course, the industrial revolution occurred at different dates in different countries.)
Because conservatism is goal-directed to present or recent past, it is fundamentally different than liberalism or socialism, as most varieties of socialism and liberalism seek a particular end in society. Traditionally, conservatives are opposed to grand goals for society. (It’s worth pointing out that some forms of liberalism and socialism are also goalless, in this regard, but not that many.)
But though conservatism has changed so much over the centuries, I think we can still identify commonalities throughout its existence that mostly persist within conservative thought to this day. And these will help us understand if it’s possible for conservatives to be right
- Status quo is the best, or at the least bad
- Change is bad and often extremely dangerous
- The Universe does not allow moral and social progress
The Status Quo is Always Preferable to Change
So, more than perhaps any other ideal, conservatives have preferred the status quo. (Well, almost. More on that in a moment.)
Humans have a well-documented status quo bias so it is only natural that one of our ideologies would be all about preserving the status quo.
But that doesn’t make defence of the status quo correct all the time or even some of the time.
What conservatism has often boiled down to is “this group of people over there want to change things and I don’t like it.” In this day and age we call those other people “progressives” more often than not but, for conservatism, they’ve always existed, even if they want different things now.
And it is on this point that I often think conservatives are the most wrong.
If there is one thing we can say about the changes that have taken place for humanity from the industrialization to the present, it is that the world, on the whole, is in a much, much, much better place. There is literally zero doubt that it is better to be a human being in 2022 than it was in 1772. But that’s true for much more recent eras, even. My maternal grandfather grew up in a house without a telephone. The city that I grew up in, that I still live in, has so many more, better things in it now than it did in the 1980s.
Now, of course there are ways in which human life in the aggregate hasn’t improved. And, among the nearly 8 billion of us alive at this moment, there are still billions of plenty of people living lives that could be improved in innumerable ways. But that doesn’t’ change the fact that humanity is better off by just about any imaginable metric in 2022 than at any prior time in the history of the world.
So defending the status quo doesn’t have a great track record at the macro level.
But, before going on, I want to note another issue with the defence of the status quo and that is that contemporary conservatives are often not defending the status quo at all, but are actually desiring a return to a previous status quo. As Richard Hofstadter noted about conservatives in the mid 20th century, many of them were actually seeking a return a to an imagined “recently departed past,” i.e. what they remember of the world from childhood.
And I think you could argue that goal is even more absurd for a number of reasons:
- If the world imagined, it can never actually be made real
- If it’s the world of childhood, the bad things in the world were likely not even visible
- It’s impossible to go back in time, and it’s even more impossible to go back in time to a place that existed before you were born (or before you were an adult).
So let’s temporarily conclude that conservatives are regularly wrong to defend the status quo. And certainly any broad defence of the entire status quo, or most of it will likely prove incorrect in a generation (or less, now, given the rate of technological change).
Change is Always Bad and Sometimes Dangerous
But the verdict is quite different when it comes to conservatism’s fear of change.
And that’s quite simply because “change” itself, especially technological change, is neutral. It’s only how humans handle change that can be judged.
Now the opposition of conservative ideologies to change over time is not just opposition to technological change. In fact, throughout history, some liberals, socialists and conservatives have opposed technological change, sometimes even joining forces to oppose certain technological or scientific changes (or institutional or social changes rooted in technological change).
Rather, the opposition to change that drives conservatism is usually more a belief that social and economic change is bad and can usually be dangerous.
And on this point the track record is extremely mixed.
Yes, as I said, the world is in a much better place in 2022 than it was in 1922 or 1822 or 1722.
But that’s a macro-level view.
There have been more social and economic (and technological) changes that have harmed people over the last few centuries than I can possibly count.
There’s a stupid “philosophical question” here about whether we’d trade what we have in 2022 for the world of the past if we new less harm would come to individual people. But that’s moot (which is why I find it stupid), because we cannot change the past, only the future.
We can look at the 20th century, the most deadly century in history by any measure, and argue that technological change plus social and economic change were the driving factors that led to that death toll. I wouldn’t make that argument, personally, but you can understand why some want to make it. (People who think dramatic social change caused all the deaths in the 20th century clearly don’t read history. The Thirty Years War took place before industrialization and roughly around the beginnings of ideology. And it’s only the worst of countless conflicts human beings had before “mass society.” Technological, social and/or economic change didn’t cause people to kill each other. People do that on their own.)
Where I find myself agreeing with some forms conservatives on some of this is in their fear of rapid change. I do think change is hard for human beings and rapid change is especially hard. When that change is initiated by humans (rather than by nature) there can be issues, especially at the micro level.
My issue with the conservative inclination in this case is that opposing all change or most change is not really a good position. Change is one of our few constants. The forms of conservativism that prefer reform and prudence, I can align myself with much of the time. But many if not most forms of contemporary conservativism just hate change, period. And that I can’t agree with. To be blunt, such a position is stupid and denies a fundamental aspect of reality – nothing ever stays the same.
The Universe Does Not Allow Moral or Social Progress
This is another conservative belief I’ve long been sympathetic to is the idea that “moral progress” is an illusion. In fact, this was a core component of the way I thought about the world for much of my 20s. I know I used the fear of constant commerce as an example of a conservative view I once held, but this anti-progress stance is more accurate.
Most conservatives – if not every single one of them – don’t think it’s possible for society to get better. Underlying that is a belief that people cannot improve. As I noted above, I was with them on the latter until fairly recently, but I’ve long objected to the former.
As I have already stated, evidence of social progress is everywhere, whether you think of it in terms of standards or living or something less quantitative. Despite the pandemic, this is the best time to be alive for a vast majority of human beings alive today. (And a larger majority of people than ever.) Social progress is real, and there’s no question about it.
The bigger issue is whether or not that social progress can be sustained. This is particularly a problem with climate change. But conservatives generally don’t belief in social progress so they cannot come around to the idea that social progress could be under threat by physics.
I disagree vehemently with the idea that we can’t make the world a better place for people. And I also vehemently that we shouldn’t bother to act at the macro level to preserve that progress we’ve made.
Which brings us back to the issue of moral progress. I’m still a little bit of a skeptic here, though I think the moral progress of individual humans is less important that philosophers have long assumed. (The evidence is that, broadly, human beings are far less will-directed than we thought, and far more influenced by circumstance and other people.) But I read The Better Angels of Our Nature about 10 years ago, which makes a strong case that there has been actual moral progress among people, not just material progress. It’s a very compelling argument that caused me to abandon my belief that moral progress is impossible. I have yet to read a counterargument that actually refutes that book’s thesis and I now do believe, given the right circumstances (industrialization, mass media, etc.) it’s possible for our species to progress morally. So, another area in which I think conservatives are wrong.
But I do think the moral progress point is rather moot, if material and social progress happens. Who cares if individuals are more moral than previous individuals if life as a whole is better?
So, once again, I think conservatives are wrong here, to not believe in progress. (This is not the same as having faith in “Progress” as some kind of achievable end or something extra-human that we should worship. And it’s not the same as believing the arc of history bends towards what’s good for us. I don’t think either of those things are true.)
Are Conservatives Ever Right About Anything?
So I find myself disagreeing with conservatives on all three of these fundamental beliefs about the world: status quoism, fear of change and a disbelief in progress.
What’s worse is that I have been charitable (I think) with how I characterize conservatism, at least in light of contemporary conservativism.
I have long said that neo-conservatism was the worst of the major ideologies due not just to its internal incoherence but due to its celebration of that incoherence. (If you don’t want to read all those articles: neo conservatives – the few who still exist – believe that government should stay out of our lives when it comes to economics but should tell us how to live when it comes to moral issues, something I have never been able to reconcile.)
But things are worse now. The loudest “conservatives” are even less coherent than the neo-cons and even more radical. (Neo-conservatism has a radical origin story, if you don’t know, which arguably makes it unconservative.) I don’t even know how many self-professed “conservatives” in the US (or even Canada) would agree with the three fundamental traits of conservativism I outlined above. They might object to the very idea that we should think about how we think. That this very act of examining our cherished beliefs is somehow “liberal” or “dangerous.” (To be clear, there are some on the extreme left who feel this way too, many of whom are way too loud on Twitter. But those people never get political power in North America, so I don’t care about them.)
If willful incoherence has become a fundamental trait of conservatism then I think it is true that conservatives cannot be right about anything.
If the demand that we ignore reality is now a fundamental trait of conservatism then I think it is true that conservatives cannot be right about anything. (Well, except for the whole broken clock thing…)
If the demand that we refuse to solve large-scale, societal problems is a fundamental trait of conservatism then I think it is true that conservatives cannot be right about anything.
Of course, it’s possible and perhaps likely that I have completely mischaracterized conservatives here. I don’t speak to any on a regular basis, any more. Blame social media, blame society at large, but I don’t interact with conservatives. And so I can’t truly know what they think.