On Being “Conservative”


Barro, despite my arguing otherwise, insists that he isn’t a conservative:

I’ve never quite understood Sullivan’s attachment to the term “conservative.” It seems to me that conservatism is whatever ideology is shared by most of the people who call themselves conservatives — roughly, that taxes should be low and non-progressive; that the safety net should be strictly limited and particularly should not include a universal health care guarantee; that more financial risk should be shifted away from the government and toward individuals; that the government should promote some concept of “traditional morality.”

I don’t believe those things and neither does Sullivan, so I’m not a conservative and neither is he. What members of the Whig party favored in England in the 1700s doesn’t enter into the question. I’ve had a lot of similar conversations over the years with libertarians who are upset that the left somehow got control of the term “liberal.” They need to let it go, too.

Here’s why I cling to that word as still meaningful:

I’m a utilitarian, so my first principle is “make people better off.” You could have some alternative set of first principles, perhaps based around protecting a concept of natural rights or a set of religious beliefs. But the justifications we most often hear for conservative economic policies are utilitarian ones — that they foster economic growth, create jobs, and make people wealthier.

Those are empirical claims, and Republicans ought to change their policy prescriptions if they turn out to be false. And my finding is that they have.

But I’m not a neo-liberal utilitarian like Josh (and I use ‘liberal’ there in the classical sense). I totally take his point about the quixotic nature of using that word in America today for anything other than what conservatives call themselves – and his matter-of-factness about that is refreshing. But the tradition I have long studied and thought about is not a conservatism finding solutions to problems. It is about finding solutions to problems you suspect may not be solutions at all, and may be moot once you’ve done your best; it’s about the elusive nature of prudential judgment; the creation of character through culture; the love of what is and what is one’s own; and a non-rational grasp of the times any statesman lives through. It is about a view of the whole that keeps politics in its place. It is, in the end, a way of being contingently in the world.

I could go on – or you can read my best attempt at explaining; (the longer, original version is here). Or you can try this classic [PDF] from the master.

(Photo: A fisherman practices fly fishing in the river Loue near Chenecey-Buillon, eastern France on July 16, 2012.  By Sebastien Bozon/AFP/Getty Images.)