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Thursday, December 15, 2016

Am I a conservative?

In a Facebook conversation a while ago, somebody linked to this 2012 piece by Conor Friedersdorf listing 21 things that Americans sometimes mean by the word "conservatism." It's a helpful checklist for me, because I think of myself as a conservative more often than not, but often don't fit other people's definition of one. So here's how I stack up against Friedersdorf's list:


An aversion to rapid change; a belief that tradition and prevailing social norms often contain within them handed down wisdom; and mistrust of attempts to remake society so that it conforms to an abstract account of what would be just or efficient.  
By this definition I am mostly conservative, though I have a revolutionary/idealistic side as well.

A desire to preserve the political philosophy and rules of government articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
I respect this kind of conservatism and think it's fine in an American context, though not being an American citizen I can't get myself to care deeply about it, and I am bothered by the religious fervor with which many Americans embrace it. I worry about this particularly in the case of Christians (and let's face it, most American "conservatives" are Christians), since the U.S. founding documents often seem to be treated as equal to Scripture and superior to other traditional Christian sources of authority such as the Creeds.


A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, through cultural norms. 
Yes, with several caveats:
1) "traditional" morality can mean a lot of things, all of them to be taken seriously but some of them to be rejected on the basis of the Gospel:
2) the Gospel (the Christian message) is not simply identical with what is "articulated in the Bible," though the Bible is overwhelmingly the most important source; and
3) while I would like cultural norms to reflect the Gospel, I expect that the Gospel will always be to some extent "counter-cultural."

  • A belief that it is imperative to preserve traditional morality, as it is articulated in the Bible, using cultural norms and the power of the state.

  • More misgivings about this, due to the third concern mentioned under the previous point. Governments rightly use their coercive power for the common good. The Gospel provides important light on what the common good is. But as even St. Thomas Aquinas (no libertarian or Anabaptist) recognized, not every evil can or should be prohibited by governmental authority.

    An embrace of free-market capitalism, and a belief in the legitimacy of market outcomes. 

    No. I think there are some powerful arguments in favor of "economic freedom" as an expression of the Christian view of human dignity. But as a Christian, I believe that "libertarian freedom" is not ultimate freedom, and that in this fallen world exchanges among human persons are never entirely free or untainted by coercion and manipulation. So I don't believe in "the legitimacy of market outcomes."

    A belief that America is an exceptional nation, a shining city on a hill, whose rightful role is leader of the free world.

    Absolutely not. It's certainly a remarkable country, but I find American exceptionalism to be both foolish and idolatrous.

    A belief that America should export its brand of democracy through force of arms.

    Certainly not.

    The conviction that government should undertake, on behalf of the American polity, grand projects that advance our "national greatness" and ennoble our characters.
    Probably not, but this is really vague.

    An embrace of localism, community and family ties, human scale, and a responsibility to the future.
    Yes--this is the primary sense in which I would describe myself as a political/social conservative.

    A belief that America shouldn't intervene in the affairs of other nations except to defend ourselves from aggression and enforce contracts and treaties.
    I wouldn't go that far, but I certainly think that military intervention should be severely limited and that humanitarian action should generally be non-coercive. I wouldn't rule out the use of military force to defend oppressed people in principle, but in most circumstances it seems to do more harm than good.

    A desire to return to the way things once were.
    I definitely feel that desire very strongly, though I'm also critical of it and wouldn't embrace it explicitly as part of my ideology. I'm sure it shapes many of my beliefs, though, and I'm OK with that.

    Affinity for, identification with, or embrace of Red America's various cultural cues. (For example, gun ownership, a preference for single-family homes oriented around highways rather than urban enclaves organized around public transit, embrace of country music, disdain for arugula and fancy mustard, etc.)
    Definitely not, though I rather like country music

    Disdain for American liberalism, multiculturalism, identity politics, affirmative action, welfare, European-style social policies, and the left and its ideas generally.
    No. I don't feel that disdain or regard it with much respect (does disdain ever deserve respect? maybe sometimes, when it's disdain for something truly evil).

    A desire to be left alone by government, often coupled with a belief that being left alone is a natural right. 
    I desire to be left alone by government, but I wouldn't call it a natural right.

    A principled belief in federalism.
    Yes, though I think justice and the common good are more important.

    The belief that taxes should be lower and government smaller.
    To paraphrase Einstein, I think that taxes should be as low and government as small as possible, but no lower and no smaller.

    The belief that the national debt and deficits put America in peril.
    Maybe not to the extent some think, but I don't think they are good things.

    The belief that whenever possible, government budgets should be balanced.
    With the caveat "whenever possible," yes I would agree with this.

    Consciousness of the fallibility of man, and an awareness of the value of skepticism, doubt and humility.
    Yes, definitely I'm a conservative in this sense.

    Realism in foreign policy.
    No, not by the normal definition of "realism," which seems to mean "cynical, ruthless pragmatism."

    Non-interventionism in foreign policy.
    Generally yes, especially if we are talking about military intervention.

    Obviously this is a miscellaneous grab-bag of definitions, but precisely for that reason it's a starting point to think more rationally about how we use the terms "conservative" and "liberal."

    And if someone says, "we should just drop the terms altogether"--well, I have thoughts on that too and will share them in another post.

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