So I read books, studied policy platforms and for a multitude of reasons chose the Liberals. I liked how Menzies said that social freedoms flowed from economic ones and that MPs who dissented during votes wouldn’t be expelled.
I guess ideologies suit the times. Social democratic, radical things like Medicare and HECS were great innovations and we should thank Gough for that. I empathise with Singapore’s "managed" democracy because democracy is a dispensable means to an end and for Singapore the end is development so the means is stability.
Australia finds itself in an era of post-materialism. It’s time to let the people drive.
How to articulate that into a philosophy? I used to think of myself as a libertarian or classical liberal, sometimes progressive, always contrarian. Never a conservative. Conservatives were bashing gays and expecting their girlfriends to make dinner afterwards.
Today though, I find myself increasingly attracted to it. Something changed. Not necessarily the beliefs I hold, but the way I approach them.
There are definitions, books and thinkers, of course, but they’re of little consequence. All that matters is that there are others who call themselves conservative and who think like me. An ideology is the product of its adherents at a point in time.
Unlike other ideologies, conservatism doesn’t prescribe a set of values and ideals. It’s relativist where libertarianism is extreme. Where social democracy engineers a vision at the behest of an intelligentsia, conservatism is bottom-up, organic and entrusts the people. It’s a way to define yourself against preconditions and tensions in a society, but isn’t so presumptuous as to specify an outcome.
Conservatism isn’t averse to change — it just says that change shouldn’t be artificial and government shouldn’t be the agent.
That’s why progressive positions on euthanasia, gay marriage, abortion and women’s involvement in society are actually compatible with conservatism. Opinion polls on any of these issues will tell you there’s a critical mass of support for government to get out of the way — ignoring consensus amounts to an artificial, anti-conservative intervention. On the other hand, things like asset sales and WorkChoices are inherently anti-conservative because the masses don’t want them.
I used to get angry about things like racism and sexism and government encroachment into people’s lives. Now, instead, I seek to understand why people think the way they do. Root causes. Only when you understand them will you find true solutions to society’s ills.
Taken as a whole, the ideas I listed at the start don’t fall into any particular camp. And that’s the point — conservatism isn’t so much a belief set as a way to think about how those beliefs can be achieved, or rationalise why they can’t.
There are, of course, conservatives who don’t think like me. Let’s call them social conservatives, paleocons or neocons. The type who are moored to institutions and old-fashioned ideas and refuse to move with the tide. The type who support the Marriage Act, who like big and active defence forces and don’t particularly like women. To be frank, I find them embarrassing. But they don’t have a monopoly on the philosophy, just like I don’t.
The problem with ideologies is they can serve as false dichotomies, perpetuating stereotypes and entrenching contempt. No one’s a purist. Even though I say I believe in free enterprise, I don’t actually want to live in Somalia where there’s no government, the market reigns and as a result people go around shooting each other and starving. Just the same as I don’t expect you want to tax income at 100 percent and nationalise every milk bar.
So you and I probably have more than a few things in common. But if we talk in person and you hear I’m a conservative and box me in for it, I’ll clam up and start trolling. I won’t justify myself. You’ve failed the test and I’ve lost the debate.