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The Problem with 'Conservatism'

'Conservatism' means very little these days, argues Jamie McGowan. It might be time for a better word.


In the anglosphere,‘conservatism’ can have numerous meanings. Or worse yet, too many groups like to claim ownership of the word. Classical Liberals use it to describe a model of government in which power is limited and rarely exercised; the separation of powers make the legislative process difficult, lest the tyranny of government impede upon ‘individual rights’. Fiscal conservatives use the word as a guise for the austerity of Mrs Thatcher, cutting out welfare, industry, and economic solidarity to paste in free trade, free markets and free people - jobless miners aside. One nation conservatives like to use the word to describe a conservation of the ‘status quo’, as if one ought to be conservative merely for the sake of it. Social conservatives use it because, for the most part, they want to preserve a certain moral standpoint or outlook, often rooted in Christian moral philosophy.


As a result, ‘conservatism’ is all things to all men. The word can even be an oxymoron. For example, the fiscal conservative believes that economic matters are best left to individuals and that the government ought to step back from interference with markets, taxes, and regulations. But for the social conservative who adores the common good, libertarianism is a heresy; if you believe that there’s a common social good, you must also believe in a common economic good. Interference is then a duty.


Of all such cases, it is only 'social conservatism' that seems to be organic. Although the social conservative generally relies on a Christian meta-narrative, he longs for the morally cohesive society that Christendom once fostered.


The attitude of the Church and the classicists towards government has always been one of benevolence. A ruler ought to be benevolent, always advancing the economic and social good of his people. If he were to neglect the common good, he would be nothing more than a tyrant. True freedom therefore is not concerned with what one can or cannot do, but with happiness. And happiness is better found with some relative freedom from temporal worry.


Such an organic commonweal theory of state is the only conception of politics that was available to man until the revolutionaries arrived to enlighten our backwards commonweal society. After this enlightenment, only two extremes were available to the common man: the first to arrive vested economic power in the private sphere; and the second in the state.


But what of the common man? With either solution, man is left a serf, while his master changes from private corporation to public corporation. In either case, the marketplace leaves the village and migrates to the city, and the city is lorded over by the powerful. The state either offers very little help to the common man, or it controls his life entirely.


For many, ‘social conservatism’ is the common-sense solution to this problem: a government should legislate to protect the common good. To protect that common good, a government should protect certain moral standards and encourage virtue. A government can do this through the law - not because the law is a forceful power, but because it is a teacher which instills good habits in citizens. And throughout this project, law and government must encourage distributive justice in society, always having a preferential option for the poor. And, perhaps crucially, so that government may better know and protect the common good of each community, it ought to be more local than it is remote. This is essentially the outlook of a social conservative - and to many, it actually seems perfectly reasonable.


But there is very little that the ‘social conservative’ can actually conserve anymore. Most of this common-sense society is gone. Instead, we are left at the feet of the Wal-Mart-owned megachurches of capitalism, while the high street grocer shuts shop. We are left blaming the state for mismanagement of education when local schools and parents could, given the appropriate support, provide a far better education. Law is about force, not encouraging virtue; distributive justice is reduced to an administrative benefits system; local government is nothing more than a glorified local utility company. The common-sense society has been lost to modernity.


The common-sense society hinges, above all, on one thing: tradition. But this is not only because it harkens to an older, better-tried, society but because it roots us in a pride of home. It asks us to be local, communitarian, environmental, static, happy. It is rooted in a long-standing moral tradition, but it produces a wide variety of local traditions, which respond to the common good of each community.


Those who believe in this more traditional vision of society should stop hiding behind the vagueness of ‘conservatism’. It does no justice to our mission of restoring the common social, moral, and economic goods of our nation. If we must have a label in this endeavour, we are simply 'traditionalists'.


Jamie McGowan

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