Iain Hall's SANDPIT

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Conservatism 102

I promised John Lord a critique of his post about my post (conservatism 101)  at the risk of chasing my own tail I will try to answer John’s observations

He asks: What is a conservative?

I would say that Conservatives (LNP) believe in personal responsibility, limited government, free markets, individual liberty and traditional values. They believe the role of government should be to provide people the freedom necessary to pursue their own goals. Conservative policies generally emphasise empowerment of the individual to solve problems. And they are cautious about change or innovation, typically in politics or religion.

Well I don’t actually see conservatism through any sort of party political prism at all. While its easy to categorise any political position through a pre-existing rubric the simple fact is that for most of us such broad brush classification is at best only half correct  the part emboldened is pretty close to the mark

What is a neo conservative?

Neo conservatism goes back to the 30s however in its modern form it is identified with George W Bush who embraced unbridled capitalism, corporate greed together with literalist Christianity to form a modern neo conservatism. Carl Rove, Donald Rumsfeld and others added global superiority to the mix believing that America in all aspects was above the rest of the world. A further element in this mix is Tea Party Republican politics.

I don’t recall invoking either American politics in general or ‘Non-conservatism” at all in my piece  so I am at a loss to understand why John is mentioning it here. As an Englishman I find American politics incomprehensibly dull. Their religiosity faintly amusing and their thinking often far to lacking in any sort of subtlety or nuance and to be frank my interest in the the tea party agenda is limited to non-existent, as a confirmed tea drinker who enjoys a regular cup of Earl Grey I am horrified that such a fine brew is debased by the nuttier end of US politics.

Iain asks: What is a social progressive?

My view is that Social democrats (Labor) believe in government action to achieve equal opportunity and equality for all. That it is the duty of the government to alleviate social ills and to protect civil liberties and individual and human rights thus believing the role of the government should be to guarantee that no one is in need. Progressive policies generally emphasise the need for the government to solve problems.

Well I can concur with most of that in terms of the aspiration and motivation for progressivism however in my experience the thing that is often lacking in progressives is any sense of pragmatism, they are all too often hot to trot on doing all of that with little concern about ether the bigger picture or the shades and variations in human nature. Take the issue of homelessness as an example. We all see the bedraggled homeless on the streets of our cities and its all well and good for progressives to bemoan this as evidence of the heartless rich raising rents or opposing the building of social housing but the sad truth is that in many cases the homeless are the cause of their own plight and they simply can not be saved from their plight no matter how much money you throw at the problem. They very often have the most serious character flaws  or substance issues that make it impossible for them to make or maintain a place in normal society. Yet we have so many of the well meaning insisting that these broken people can be re housed and re-integrated into  society maybe some can but they would be the exception rather than the rule. We pragmatists look instead to ideas like the “street swags” concept as a more realistic way to address homelessness. Simply put the pragmatic seek to  improve the lot of those who sleep rough by helping them sleep warm and dry but the progressives go for the impossible dream of a home for all.

Iain asks: What are the three top conservative values?

He lists them as. Firstly, personal liberty and autonomy. Secondly, social civility and good manners. Thirdly, there is the importance of family and the biological imperative to make and nurture our children.

I was puzzled as to why he felt that conservatives like him should identify these particular virtues as being “conservative values” as opposed to being universal ones. Is he suggesting that social democrats like me don’t have similar values and practice them?

Sure there is some universality in some of those virtues but they are often far too keen to make things like personal liberty and autonomy secondary to their collectivist ideals (look to the “politically correct” attempts to police thought, words and actions  that might “offend” as an example of this) or the eternal desire to control behaviours that may be considered “unhealthy” like their obsession with tobacco disincentives and ‘fast food” .

This issue of the rights of the individual is another puzzle. Why do conservatives place so much importance on it? I pose one example where I think it falls down. I would argue that there needs to be a drastic reduction in the amount of salt, sugar and fat in processed food if we are to avoid an epidemic of obesity and diabetes.

Right on cue John 😉

OK lets unpack this shall we? I too have strong opinions about food in our society as can be expected from someone who has done teh cooking for his family for many decades.  I don’t “rate” most processed food to be honest, preferring instead to prepare and serve meals made from unprocessed ingredients, Its simply the most economic way to feed a family on a modest budget.  The other problem with this sort of thinking is that it seems to be entirely ignorant of the real cause of our food woes which is, in my humble opinion, our cultural obsession with novelty in our cuisine, it feeds the Foodie Porn industry (that spawns innumerable cooking shows and a plethora of cook books. Thus we are distanced from enjoying the seasonality of different ingredients  and we are distanced from what things actually taste like, and we are distanced from the simple elegance of the foods that we eat.  If every meal is expected to be a gourmet feast it becomes an ever escalating quest for sensation rather than being the staff of life.

Conservatives are against government regulation because they say it takes away the individuals right of choice. In this case without regulation the cost, in the future will be beyond our health services capacity to cope. It’s a case where the individuals rights are outweighed by the common good.

It has to be about balance  and to be honest a light hand on the regulation tiller can be far more effective than trying to proscribe behaviours that some do-gooder or coffee-house moralist considers harmful. Now while  John cites the future cost implications of some of these life style conditions I can’t help thinking that he is ignoring the simple fact that, no matter how virtuous  we are,  as we age we make an ever increasing demands upon the heath system. If its not one thing it will be another and in the end we will have  a zero sum game.

So individual freedom is self-defeating. Safety belts and (discouraging) tobacco smoking are but two other examples of where government can change society for the better. I would have thought that the highest value any ideology has would involve the common good, and that a measure of that value might be related to how it best served the most disadvantaged in the community. Government is best placed to achieve this.

But what is the common good?

Safety in the  design of cars is something that I have personally explored in my car building project.  While I agree that seat belts have been instrumental in improving the survivability of many accidents it is not the only way to do this. In fact in the United  States where there has never been the same compulsion to wear seatbelts and that has led to what is arguably a more effective safety measure which is the explosive deployed air-bag.  So I would argue that you don’t always have to employ compulsion or legal coercion to get the “common good” that you desire.

Civility and good manners go hand in hand although discerning the difference is always important. Why does Iain think it is a value important only to conservatives. Mind you he doesn’t actually say this but he seems to be implying it. And the same applies to family and procreation. I would strongly suggest that procreation is the purpose of life and not necessarily a value in itself.

You are quite right to notice that I did not say that civility and good manners are held to be of value only by those of us who are conservative. clearly these are virtues acknowledged by both sides of the political spectrum. I would note however that there are a few minions of the left who think that manners are an invention of the upper classes to keep those that they see as their social inferiors in their place.  When it comes to procreation I likewise never intended my suggestion of its importance to be considered to be an exclusive conservative virtue.

Iain then asks: Is conservatism the opposite of progressiveness?

With this question Iain addresses the conservatives reluctance for change. I am he says, a very strong advocate for the “if it ain’t broke then don’t fix it” school of thought and to my mind progressives are the ultimate example of “built in obsolescence”.

I have never understood this reluctance for change. My view is that conservatives dislike and resist change in the foolish assumption that they can make permanent that which makes them feel secure. Yet change is in fact part of the very fabric of our existence. I think I have probably seen more change in my lifetime time that any other period in history.

Like you I have seen lots of change in my lifetime, some good and some well lets just say of questionable virtue and the older that I have got the shorter the time between changing something and changing it again has become. Its this tendency for progressives to back an ever smaller change cycle that has me concerned enough to say: Stop! and really think about what you are proposing. Will it really be better or do you just hope it will be an improvement? It seems to be an article of faith with progressives that change = improvement but I am an agnostic on that equation and I need more than the hopes of utopian dreamers to endorse such things.

Often worthwhile change comes with short-term controversy but the pain is worth it for long-term prosperity.

And by the same token the “short term controversy” proves to be the portent of long-term failure which is well exemplified by the MRRT  designed by Wayne Swan.

And change sometimes disregards opinion and becomes a phenomenon of its own making with Its own inevitability. Change is in fact one of the only constants in life. Conservatives often become so trapped in the longevity of sameness that they never see better ways of doing things.

As I pointed out in my original piece I am not against all change, just the notion that you have to keep trying to re-invent the wheel all of the time.

Science has made in my lifetime the most staggering achievements and they are embraced, recognised and benefited by all sections of society and none of it could have come about without constant change. Resisting change can be folly and one of the best examples is the denial of climate science. Take this quote from the Courier Mail 25 Oct:

“Queensland consumers should be worried about rising electricity prices. But they should be more concerned about a government that clings to a century old energy system, is relying on short-term band-aid solutions such as price freezes, and is refusing to adopt or embrace to the new technologies and business models that will deliver the cost-effective solutions of the future”.

Why is that conservatives live in some sort of time warp and resist change until it gets to uncomfortable to stay the same? Or it is forced on them?

In the first instance I don’t get how that quote helps  John’s argument. As it happens Climate change is actually a good example of the sort of futile change for the sake of change that I find so objectionable in “progressive” thought. The science is far form settled and there is a whole industry devoted to addressing this “problem” which cots an awful lot of treasure but gives us very little in return. Just imagine how much that could be done to address real problems in the world if we were not wasting so much effort in measuring bovine flatulence or trying to deduce the paleo-climate from ever more obscure proxies?

Iain also suggests that it is a good thing that our health system has survived but fails to acknowledge that it is always the social progressives that bring about major reform.

Ok I can give credit where its due however since the social value of our Medicare  system is accepted by all it comes down to questions of how we prioritise the spending and to be honest I think that both sides of politics have a hard time with that.

The “if it ain’t broke” comment is often applied to Australian republicanism. The fact is that until we have an Australian as our head of state, the system is broke.

You can assert that if you please but it does not alter the fact that our current system is  functional  stable and respected by the people who really don’t give a toss about the vestigial connections to the British crown. frankly that makes it “not broken” in my book

What I also found disconcerting in Iain’s article was the absence of economics. Surely capitalism is central to conservatism. Conservatives believe In the free market system, competitive capitalism, and that private enterprise creates the greatest opportunity and the highest standard of living for all. They believe that free markets produce more economic growth, more jobs and higher standards of living than those systems burdened by excessive government regulation.

Well for me economics is not a first order issue, while I support and endorse the concept of free enterprise but I am not a big fan of worshipping Mammon or the notion of  an ever growing economy. You see I am a social conservative who believes that the economy exists to serve the people, rather than the people being.

Conversely, Social Democrats believe in the same free market system but one which government regulates. That government must protect its citizens from the greed of big business. Unlike the private sector, the government is motivated by public interest. Government regulation in all areas of the economy is needed to level the playing field and bring about social equity.It well may be that capitalism over time has won the economic argument and is used by most ideologies. However, unbridled unregulated capitalism as favoured by Conservatives has, as recently been evidenced with the global financial crisis, proven to be corrupt. Without regulation it is a failed system.

Well I suppose that must mean that I am a Conservative Social Democrat because I believe that having clear regulations for the way that our economy runs has more merit than having open slather the trick is of course to find the right balance between enough regulation to keep things “fair” and not stifling free enterprise.  So I am more interested in the idea that regulations should evolve rather than be reinvented all of the time.

Capitalism does not allow for an equitable flow of economic resources. With this system a small privileged few are rich beyond conscience and almost all others are doomed to be poor at some level. Margaret Thatcher’s theory that “There is no such thing as society. There are only individuals making their way. That the poor shall be looked after by the drip down effect of the rich” (Paraphrased) has been proven to be wrong. The rich of the world are becoming more so. In fact beyond imagination.

Well I don’t agree with any of that to be honest, I thought Thatcher was a very strong politician (who won my respect for her retaking the Falklands ) but quite wrong headed in many of her social ideas. and frankly I think that we need to get beyond the Marxist critique of capitalism which certainly is well past its use by  date in this country.

Iain asks: Can one be a secular conservative or atheist conservative? And in doing so makes the following statement: ” . . . at the core of most of the great faiths is a template for a “just society”. It can be argued that some churches do good works for society. However, on the other hand it must be said that historically the great religions have been, and still are the greatest forces for “injustice” the world has ever see. One only has to look at the comparative behaviours of militant Islam, the invasion of Republican politics in the US by literalist evangelicals and the practised evil of the Catholic Church. The simple answer to his question is obvious: Yes. Personally I have come to the conclusion that one of the truly bad effects religion (any religion) has on people is that it teaches that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding.

I tend to agree with much of that and as a lifelong atheist I have had endless sport arguing about questions of faith . Where we differ though is that I think that not all people of faith are by their very nature bad, many do the right thing in societal terms even if their reasoning is the stuff of nonsense.

Ian also makes this statement: “Mainly though we conservatives think that making the most of how things are now trumps the empty promises of a “better future” that never seem to arrive”. Surely this is the statement of a patronising Luddite? In recent years I have had bowel cancer and suffered a heart attack. Is he suggesting I should have made the most of how things were instead of the hope of a better future? Which I now have. I can further assure him that from the poverty of my upbringing a better future did arrive. I find that to be one of the most dank and demonstratively negative statements I have ever heard.

I too have my health issues and to be frank I am delighted that you have managed to largely overcome yours  but I was not actually referring to medical technology or how anyone should face the ravages of disease. We all do the best we can on that one. I am talking about other changes in technology or attempts to manipulate the shape of our society. Things like the NBN were in my mind on that point to be honest. As much as I love having my broadband and dream of even faster download speeds I can’t help wondering if it really will be the improvement in our online experience that its proponents claim .

I welcome Iain Hall’s contributions to this blog and I understand he is not speaking for all conservatives. But there is little we would agree on if this is his own understanding of Conservative ideology. Well except for good manners and civility.

I very much appreciate the warmth that you have  shown my contributions to the AMIN  even though we disagree with just about everything after all isn’t the point of good manners and civility to enable “a frank exchange of ideas” without it descending into verbal fisty-cuffs?

Cheers Indeed, Comrade


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