Why I am a conservative
Richard Parncutt

22 June 2015

Many will be surprised to find out that I am a conservative, having already placed me firmly in the leftie-greenie camp. Many will also be surprised to find out that I have always been conservative, even if I did not brag about it. I am not suddenly going conservative in my old age, as some lefties are wont to do.

Many people have not thought very hard about conservatism and what it really means, it seems, which has lead to big misunderstandings both within and outside of conservative circles. What is a conservative? If someone asks innocently what conservatism is - your son or daughter, perhaps - and why it is good, she will get seven different answers from seven different people, all proudly calling themselves "conservative".

We conservatives are forgetting our fundamental ideals and losing our political roots. In the past few decades, many of us have been sidetracked by irresistible opportunities for self-aggrandisement offered by ever expanding global markets. Our age-old cause has been undermined by unscrupulous capitalists who, by their unchecked greed and sometimes breathtaking dishonesty, have brought about widespread misery and environmental degradation - not to mention death, when you consider major environmental catastrophes, or the consequences of making massive profits out of producing and selling armaments or cigarettes across the globe, for example.

Contrary to popular opinion, that is not what conservatism is about, and true conservatives should please stop quietly accepting such abominations. Allow me to attempt to put the record straight.

We conservatives are not bad people, as many lefties blindly assume. On the contrary, we want the best for everyone; we merely believe in the application of tried and tested methods to achieve that goal. We don't like risky experiments that could cause irreparable damage to our most treasured institutions and traditions. Communists tried for decades to make communism work, but instead of eliminating poverty they made almost everyone poor. From what we have learned about human nature, it seems that communism (in which all people share ownership of the means of production and belong to the same class) will never work, regardless of whether human nature is a consequence of God's creation or Darwinian evolution. But that is no argument against democratic socialism, defined as a system in which democratically regulated capitalism and the welfare state exist sustainably side by side, and essential services such as water supplies and public transport, and possibly some of the "means of production" as well, are publicly owned. Conservatives who like to conserve tried-and-tested institutions and traditions (as conservatives do) should by definition support any sustainable balance between capitalism and socialism. Laissez-faire capitalism is about as sustainable as the French aristocratic system that led to the French revolution, which makes it about as un-conservative as "pure" communism.

So what exactly is conservatism?
The Wiki page on Conservatism is at once too simple and too complicated. There is more to conservatism than "retaining traditional social institutions in the context of the culture and civilization", as I will explain below. The page also lists an enormous number of differing interpretations of "conservatism". Which is correct? If you enter "Why I am a conservative" into Google, you will find all kinds of arguments, but you will not find a simple, convincing explanation based on the meaning and etymology of the word "conservative". In "First Principles", the web journal of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (a conservative student thinktank), Ewa M. Thompson explained in 2007 that the term conservative "designates an attitude grounded in philosophical and existential premises"; in her view, "the most persuasive arguments about the meaning of language and reality also came from the Right". That is too abstract for me - I would rather talk about real issues and situations. The Canadian Senator Mike Duffy writes that he is conservative because many conservatives in the past did a good job of governing Canada. But they could also have been called "The Pinks" and done a good job, so that line does not convince me either, and besides he does give the impression of being a bit biased in his choice of people to praise and people to criticize. In an anonymous essay from the April 1940 issue of "The Atlantic" entitled "But - I'm a conservative!", the author argued that communism was bad, therefore conservatism is good, which of course is a non-sequitur, because these are not the only two possibilities. We learned in the 1950s that fear of communism can be irrational. S/he also talked about "conservation of our cultural, spiritual, and individualist heritage". That is more positive and interesting, but I was unimpressed by attacks against the "self-styled Liberty Leaguers" and "soft-hearted liberals". Accusing lefties of being "anarchists" does not help, even if it is true sometimes; perhaps it would be more appropriate to accuse conservatives of being anarchists, given their penchant for small government. In any case all of this is just a game of us versus them. It is generally easier to trash your opponents than to convince others that your approach is better, regardless of the opposition. 

A simple definition

In contrast to these examples (which are probably not representative, but they are the first ones that I found), I believe that conservatism can be defined rather clearly, concisely, and above all positively. One need only ask a few simple, obvious questions and consider the simplest, most obvious answers.

As the word implies, conservatism is about conserving things. The logical next question is: What things should be conserved? The obvious general answer to this question is: Things that are valuable for human beings. The next obvious question is: How do you define "value"? The obvious general answer is: Things are valuable if they promote human happiness. It's no coincidence that "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" are listed as inaliable rights in the American Declaration of Independence of 1766, which along with the American Constitution is widely acclaimed as a foundation of conservatism by conservatives the world over.

On this basis one might say more generally that something is valuable if it promotes life, liberty or happiness, or any combination of those things. Since life and liberty make you happy, or should do if you have the right attitude toward them (by which I mean a conservative attitude, of which more later), then the idea of "value" reduces logically to anything that sustainably promotes happiness. In a conservative mind-set, we should also add the word "sustainable", and talk about "sustainable happiness". We conservatives don't think in terms of short-term fixes, but like to maintain long-term traditions. So for example chocolate may make you happy in the short term, but that could hardly be described as sustainable happiness.

Many people are forced by their circumstances to live in poverty in the long term, which of course restricts their freedom and their sustainable happiness. You are not "free" if you are forced by circumstances beyond your control to spend almost all your time and energy on menial work (if there is any paid work at all), and are paid only enough to survive (or less). It follows that the elimination of poverty is, or should be, a foundation of conservatism, because eliminating poverty is a prerequisite for universal liberty. Many so-called "conservatives" reject this argument, claiming that poverty is the fault of the poor. The poor are simply lazy, they say. Of course that is possible in individual cases, but to my knowledge it is never true as a generalisation about a large group of people. That can be confirmed simply by collecting objective data about the income and expenditure of large numbers of people in a sociological study (example). Besides, if you take a random sample of rich people and a random sample of poor people, and by some objective method measure how much laziness or diligence there is in each group, I don't expect there will be a difference. Some rich people are lazy, and some are diligent. Some poor people are lazy, and some are diligent. No-one wants to live in poverty, and almost anyone who is, and has a chance to increase their income to a reasonable extent by doing reasonable work, will do it. Of course there are exceptions, but as the saying goes, they prove the rule. Poverty seldom involves laziness; instead, poor people are often overworked and underpaid (more). For a true conservative, this is an intolerable situation, because it is restricting individual liberties. If we pride ourselves as diligent and creative conservatives, we cannot rest until poverty is eliminated.

Freedom is also an important issue in education. If you ask a bunch of randomly selected adults honestly what they think of their job, most will say they don't like it. Their real passion and their real talent lies elsewhere, they will say. They are not free; they are trapped by their material needs, which depend on their work. This is what Karl Marx meant when he said that workers are alienated from their work. Like a conservative, Marx believed in freedom. He wanted to free workers from alienation. Workers should be able to determine their own actions and destinies. They should choose their own friends and colleagues and determine how those relationships work. For their work, they should own their own tools and machines, and benefit themselves from the products of their labor. In all of these ways, Marx promoted freedom. He thought a class struggle would be necessary to achieve this freedom, but history proved him wrong. A more appropriate, and less violent, strategy is education. Education should put more emphasis on self-discovery. Children need spaces and situations in which they can discover their innate talents and passions. We should then help them to develop and apply those talents and passions. Educators and educational administrators should put less emphasis on competition, which turns children into mice running in wheels, and more on nurturing, which frees children to express themselves and to develop nurturing attitudes toward others. We should regard children as innately good and not innately bad (as some weird religions have supposed) and put more faith in children's innate abilities to discover their true selves and, on that basis, to make creative and highly differentiated contributions to society. For conservatives who truly believe in freedom - and many conservatives are also great believers in diversity of educational opportunity - what I am talking about is a conservative approach to education.

Conservatives also believe in gratitude. This can be related to the word "conserve": if something is good and people make it clear that it is good, it is likely to be maintained. If something is not broken, there is no need to fix it. But whinging and criticism that is not oriented toward practical solutions can lead to stability. Sometimes you can catch us conservatives inadvertently humming or singing "I've got the sun in the morning and the moon at night" (from Annie Get Your Gun, by Irving Berlin), because we are so grateful for the beauty and magic of simple everyday things, even if we haven't got any money. Many non-conservatives do not realise how lucky they are, and are acting as if someone is forcing them to live. We conservatives don't like victim mentality, and I have written in length about that elsewhere. Readers who know a bit about Buddhism may have noticed some Buddhist ideas in this paragraph; that is no contradiction, either. Conservativism is a very old philosophy, with roots all over the world.

The idea of conservative gratitude has surprising implications for how we think about welfare. If welfare payments enable a conservative person to get out of poverty, she will be grateful to the state for those payments. After that, she will favor welfare payments to others, which similarly enable them to get out of poverty. From this point of view, complaining about welfare is not  consistent with conservative thinking - unless there is a problem with incentive. If welfare motivates people to be lazy, then of course the conservatives will complain. Welfare regimes must always motivate people to work: net income should always increase as gross income increases, otherwise people will get stuck in welfare traps. I have showed here how this problem can be completely and permanently solved in a way that should appeal to both left and right.

Inspiration from the US constitution

What I am saying is intended to apply to all conservatives everywhere, but it is also instructive to consider a specific example. Take for example the first sentence of the US constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

The points and ideals expressed in this sentence are widely regarded by many as foundations of conservatism. But first I would like to talk about the first three words, "we the people". These words immediately evoke the fundamental equality of all people, by contrast to the fundamental inequality that the first US-Americans had experienced in Old Europe. In an ideal modern conservative society, everyone should be born with the same opportunity for success, and the US constitution was intended for the first time to establish that equality. But since success is based on good ideas and hard work, which people have or implement in unequal measure (as is their right), people become unequal as they grow older; that kind of inequality was also intended. If we wish to understand and implement conservative ideals, it is very important to understand the difference between initial equality and final inequality, and act on the implications.

To achieve initial equality, it would theoretically be necessary to prevent rich people leaving their money to their children, because that gives their children an unfair advantage right from the start. Unfortunately, this problem is not easy to solve, so conservatives who dream of equality of opportunity have to be realistic about it. If governments decided suddenly to ban inheritance, or more gently to gradually increase inheritance tax so that it would one day become 100%, or perhaps if governments just limited the amount of money that can be left to each individual relative (the rest going to the state), people would just give more and more to their children before they died. Moreover, the rich tend to have better accountants than the middle classes, so they can often find more effective legal (or illegal) ways of avoiding  taxes of all kinds, inheritance taxes included. A more realistic option might be to try to get rid of family trusts. Another would be a global wealth tax: everyone (including companies, trusts and so on) with assets of more than a given threshold (e.g. US$1m) would pay a small percentage of the excess in tax, every year, consistent with the general (conservative!) principle that the amount of tax paid should depend on the ability to pay. Currently, wealth taxes exist in France, Spain, India, Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland. If they wanted to, international groups like UN or G20 could strive for a globally harmonised wealth tax scheme, to be applied independently within each country (further details here). A global wealth tax would be an effective means of gradually reducing the wealth gap, which is widely recognized as threat to democracy, security, and even capitalism itself (Piketty: Capitalism in the 21st Century). Piketty proposed a progressive wealth tax, which from a socialist viewpoint would be fairer, but from a practical viewpoint would be harder to introduce than a flat rate (e.g. 1% per year).

It may never be possible to achieve equality of opportunity. But conservatives who believe in this ideal should be striving to approach it is as closely as possible. One possibility is to combine universal basic income and flat income tax. This propoal mixes  left- and right-wing ideas in equal measure. It would radically simplify both welfare and taxation, reduce the size of government, and promote individual freedom. The basic idea is to take a simple graph of the relationship between gross and net income for individuals, and draw a straight line through it (something like a "line of best fit"). That sounds simple, but it would have profound consequences. Given what I have written about conservativism on this page, this proposal is also conservative; it is an attempt to create a new level playing field upon which conservative ideas can flourish and bring about the greatest happiness for the greatest number. It would give everyone, rich and poor, new freedom to realise their potential without government intrusion into their private affairs. The enormous and growing inequality that we are currently seeing in the USA, and the sheer size of the country, would make it very hard to implement such a radical proposal at the moment; it would be easier to do so in smaller economies, such as the EU countries considered separately.

But I digress.
Returning to the first sentence of the US constitution (above): after the powerful opening reference to "we the people", the sentence goes on to list a number of basic conservative principles. These are
How well have these ideals been achieved by the United States? Not very, unfortunately, and as a small-c conservative I am acutely aware of the responsibility of people calling themselves "conservative" for many such failures. One of the most important aspects of conservative thought is personal responsibility: if our actions as conservatives backfire and cause suffering and inequality of opportunity, instead of the happiness and equality of opportunity that we intended, then we are accountable for those errors. Accountability can often be expressed in financial terms: one can estimate the monetary value of the damage incurred and then undertake to pay the bill, to the best of ones ability. That is the constructive, responsible, reliable, conservative response to error and guilt. Unfortunately, this attitude of accountability has become rare among people calling themselves conservative. It's time to get it back.

These comments apply to all industrialised countries, but it often helps to consider a specific example, so allow me to continue to focus on the US. If we consider the recent development of the US Republican Party, the traditional bastion of conservative thought in the USA, we can see an increasing failure to implement traditional conservative ideals. Wrangling with the Democrats has become increasingly aggressive and dishonest, and is today one of several forces fragmenting American society, endangering both "the union" and "domestic tranquility" - contradicting the original intention of the constitution. At a different level, the cost of achieving justice for individuals has been steadily increasing for decades, while at the same time lower wages have stagnated, making it all but impossible for most people to pay for a lawyer. The common defence of the country has been admirably maintained by well-financed military forces, but military security has been undermined by American military adventures in countless countries, with a result that a large proportion of the world's people hate Americans enough to want to attack them (the "Islamic state" being an example). It is a waste of public money, and an interesting example of victim behavior, to defend the country against attacks that the country itself has indirectly caused by overly aggressive foreign policy in the recent past. Another area of contention is
"general welfare" (please note: I am citing the constitution here), an area in which "conservatives" have consistently undermined constructive proposals, for example by blocking plans to make basic medical care available to everyone, which would give everyone the same opportunity for later success - a fundamental conservative principle. As for the "Blessings of Liberty", so-called "conservatives" have contradicted the intention of the constitution by favoring restrictions on personal liberty, especially in the years following 9/11, such as phone tapping, exaggerated border controls, or just putting people in jail. How can a country calling itself "land of the free" put 1% of its population, that's 2 million people, in prison? You read that correctly: 2 million people are now imprisoned in the US, and the number has been rising steadily for the past few decades. Conservatives should be at the forefront of efforts to solve this problem.

Finally, "conservatives" have been leading the climate denial movement, which totally and blatantly contradicts our duty toward both truth and posterity. As conservatives, it is our first and foremost duty to maintain the best social, cultural, academic, financial and environmental institutions, systems and resources, and to make all of these sustainable for the benefit of posterity. That is what the word "conservative" means, and if we pretend otherwise, we truly have our heads in the sand. The very word "sustainability" has been stolen from the conservatives and claimed by non-conservatives as their own. It is time to reclaim it.


In summary, what are the main traditions and values that we as conservatives should be trying to conserve?
In summary, I am calling for a global return to fundamental conservative ideals as described or suggested in well-known and respected documents such as the American Declaration of Independence and the American Constitution. I am not talking about aspects of the constitution that are obviously outdated and obviously had a different intention when they were written, such as the right of every American citizen to own and carry a gun, as guaranteed in the Second Amendment. Daniel Boone may have carried a gun and used it to excellent effect as he wrote a great chapter in American history, but the world has moved on since then. If people are abusing the Second Amendment to go on shooting sprees, and using modern weapons based on technology that was unimaginable in 1791, then it is clear that the Second Amendment must itself be amended. That is a conservative demand, because it is about conserving "domestic tranquility" (to cite the constitution) and public security, including the security of the most vulnerable members of society. Conservatism is not about getting stuck in the past; on the contrary, we conservatives look forward to the future with an optimistic and entrepreneurial spirit, while at the same time conserving our most important values and traditions. Conservatives are not opposed to necessary reforms; instead, we embrace them.

At the heart of every conservative ideology lie general principles of truth, equality of opportunity, freedom, sustainability, and responsibility. I am calling for conservatives everywhere to reclaim those aspects of conservative idealogy that have been hijacked by the political left. At the same time we will reclaim our integrity, self-respect and authenticity.


You guessed it: I am a leftie-greenie after all. But this is not satire. Everything in this text is consistent with my leftie-greenie political approach.

That raises an interesting question. Are the basic ideals of left- and right-wing politics more similar than they seem? If the commonalities can be identified and clearly described, then it may be easier for the left and the right to work constructively together. I have made similar observations about the conflict between humanities and sciences in academia. In both cases, I am not talking about giving up ideals. On the contrary, I am talking about reclaiming ideals - redefining them, strengthening them.

In politics, neither the left nor the right should not sell itself to hawkish military operations
, as for example Tony Blair did as UK's worst ever Labor (centre left) prime minister. The invasion of Iraq caused at least 100 000 deaths by violence (by which I mean at least 100 000 would not have died if the US and the UK had not decided to invade; more). This catastrophe completely overshadows all the good things that Blair did. Nor should the left or the right sell themselves to dishonest big business, as for example Tony Abbott did as Australia's worst ever "Liberal" (centre right) prime minister. Abbott's climate denial means that Australian massive coal mining and export industry is expanding rather than being wound down. The burning of Australian coal is causing as many as 100 000 future deaths per year in connection with climate change (link), which of course totally swamps any of Abbott's positive achievements. The Terrible Tonies (Tony A and Tony B) gaily abandoned both conservative and progressive ideals, and they are not the only ones. My point is that questions of idealism or idealogy are not merely academic; they can be matters of life or death.

We should be clearly stating  our main political ideals, and consistently and honestly trying to achieve them, in spite of overwhelming pressure from global coorporations and the mega-rich - which, as everybody on both left and right knows by now, are big threats to democracy, prosperity, sustainability, and just about everything else I can think of, up to and including human survival. What many "conservatives" on the centre right don't seem to realise is that by defending the right of the global rich to evade tax, not to mention their right to burn unlimited amounts of carbon, "conservatives" are slowly but surely undermining the very capitalist system and the very conservative ideals for which their stand. For example, those "free trade agreements" (TTIP & co.) currently being pedalled by so-called conservatives would deregulate global markets at a time when we urgently need tighter government regulations over global markets, to prevent a future financial crisis that makes 2008 look like peanuts. Just think of that, combined with
global warming that is gradual but also unstoppable and irreversible. But I digress...

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