Thursday, 02 August 2012

The Conservatism You Don’t Know

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I don’t care about whether we’re a monarchy or a republic because that won’t fix unemployment, mental illness or indigenous disadvantage. I believe in public transport because it’s efficient and social to move people in groups. I support gay marriage because it’s not my place not to support it and gays don’t need to prove they’re as good as you. But it’s not life and death and we waste political capital talking about it so much.

I like the NBN because the internet is the last great bastion of productivity and the type of build-it-and-they-will come project that the private sector doesn’t have the appetite for. I believe in funding private schools and private health insurance not because they deserve it, but because giving someone 1/3 x on the private system is better than giving them 1 x on the public system.

I believe in a smaller defence force because we can spend the money on more tangible threats. I don’t believe in foreign policy interventionism, because if you pontificate about organic change and small government at home then it’s not your right to impose it abroad.

I believe in religions and clubs being able to discriminate against their members and employees, because what type of masochist are you for hanging around if they do and what kind of government interferes with private associations. Don’t try to change bigots — they’re a lost cause.

I believe in a flat income tax, not because progressive taxation inhibits people’s ambitions or collects revenue particularly effectively — it does neither of those things — but because it’s unhealthy to be preoccupied with other people’s money.

I support the ABC because the $1 billion they get every year is the best single investment in democracy the government can make. News is a utility and they do some stuff a shitload better than the commercial operators. I believe in news outlets and political parties reflecting their constituencies rather than changing them. It’s not their job and I’d rather know how people think.

I believe in Gina’s right to buy Fairfax because what kind of megalomaniac presumes to say who a reasonable person is and if you don’t like it, go and start your own newspaper. I don’t want an objective media because there’s no such thing. I want a plurality of bias to choose from.

I don’t believe small business, big business or banks should be bailed out by taxpayers, because that’s not capitalism. I believe in letting corporations thrive, not because they’re altruistic — they’re not — but because it’s in their interest to please consumers and really they are just groups of people. They also pay tax.

I think governments should abandon the war on drugs because it’s criminalised a bunch of people who aren’t necessarily criminals and the resources would be better used elsewhere. I believe in legalised euthanasia because it’s not your bloody right to tell me how and when I die. I’m conflicted about abortion because at some point a child’s rights equal those of everyone else and I don’t think we’ve figured out where that point is yet.

I want my government to insure people against the unforeseeable and unacceptable. That means public healthcare. I want a lot more money for the disabled. I flirt with the idea of a socialised legal system, because it’s unconscionable that someone with money could be treated preferentially before the law.

What ideology encompasses all of this?

I started out my political thinking as a civil libertarian. I thought it was bullshit that the police could use sniffer dogs to find people going into raves with drugs or that drivers with faulty speedometers could be done for going over the limit. That sort of thing. At the time I was politically unaligned and there weren’t many external stimuli. I went to a small-L-liberal school and my friends were all lefties. Dad owns a business but thinks we should pay more tax. Both mum and dad are swinging voters.

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.


Last modified on Wednesday, 08 August 2012
Sam Encel

Sam Encel is a risk management consultant, carbon dioxide producer and self-loathing Liberal. He moralises in 140 characters or less at @samencel