Posted by: bkivey | 2 March 2011

The New Conservatives

One of the most difficult things for many people to learn as they transition from childhood to adulthood is self-restraint. This understanding has led me to develop a hypothesis about political liberalism, and that is that in order for progressives to remain politically relevant in their own eyes, they must be agitating against the contemporary establishment, even if that establishment embraces most or all of the tenants of liberalism.

And it’s classical liberalism I’m referring to. If you were to ask most people in the industrialized world, and, I would wager, a fair number outside it, you’d probably find that most folks would agree with the classical liberal values of free elections, free trade, freedom of religion, human rights, and constitutional democracies. The intellectual foundations for these ideas became well-established during the Enlightenment of mid-18th century Europe and came to fruition in the American and French Revolutions later in the century. While we now know that Kant’s assessment of the Enlightenment was at best incomplete, most of the world’s population now enjoys the benefits of societies informed by liberal principles.

After liberal democracies became established they began their lurching march toward realization of their founding principles, and in the U.S. minority and gender opportunities have only been secured relatively recently. Intellectuals, perhaps bored with the realization of their original goals of establishing equal opportunity, turned their attention to realizing equality of results. There are a number of problems with this thinking, not least of which is ignorance of the functional disparities inherent in any sufficiently large group of people, and the fact that such a desire requires a large degree of state control, the very antithesis of classical liberalism. Yet people subscribing to the equal-results philosophy happily call themselves liberal and progressive, because they are seeking to change the status-quo.

The problem is that the neo-liberals have created the status-quo extant in many liberal democracies, particularly the establishment of massive social programs, and while few would argue the desirability of some sort of social safety net, the fact is that such programs are extraordinarily expensive, and we’re out of money.

Now we’re treated to the spectacle of self-styled liberals fighting tooth-and-nail to preserve the establishment, while those whom the progressives style conservative are attempting to effect institutional changes in response to the new reality. My handy-dandy Webster’s New World Dictionary defines ‘conservative’ as “. . . tending to preserve established institutions.” As governments at all levels have wrestled with mounting budget deficits, I’ve listened to ‘liberal’ politicians trot out the same progressive shibboleths I’ve heard my entire life. It’s as if they’re completely unaware that the nation no longer has the resources to maintain the institutions they’re trying to preserve.

It’s possible that the neo-liberals are mouthing their tired talking points in an attempt to establish their position for their political base, but when your house is burning down you don’t obstruct someone trying to call the fire department. Politicians and activists from the left side of the political aisle are looking more and more out of touch with reality, and increasingly more deserving of the ‘conservative’ moniker.


  1. Hi Blair,

    In a time of massive unemployment (albeit slightly improved of late) and an increasingly enormous gap between the rich and poor, I don’t see how we can scale back, or eliminate vital funding for education, job training, health care, and welfare. There has to be a tipping point where people have no recourse but to revolt. With gas predicted to get as high as $6.00 a gallon and people unable to find work or to feed their families, I think it’s irresponsible to be fixated on balancing the federal budget. After all, where was this fixation 10 years ago?

  2. Hi Keith,

    Thanks for stopping by and taking time to comment. I’m considering addressing your concerns in a future post, but I’ll settle for the abridged response just now.

    I don’t object to social welfare programs in kind, but I take issue with the degree of bureacracy we’re now paying for, and getting relatively little in return. You can train and educate people for jobs until the cows come home, but without a sufficiently robust economy providing those jobs, there seems little point in the training. Demand creates work, training doesn’t create demand. And it’s not just a few government programs providing the services you cite, it is, as a recent GAO report points out, hundreds of programs providing often overlapping and redundant services. You have 535 people at the federal level and thousands more at state and local levels all trying to show their constituents what a good job they’re doing while spending other people’s money. Well, we’re out of money. Margaret Thatcher’s prediction for the future has arrived.

    Reality cares not a whit for one’s political philosophy, and actions or lack thereof in the past are irrelevant to the present. We are here now. Because the only way to go is forward, we need to take such actions as will increase our chances of having a country and society at all.


  3. You could have been describing the European Union to a T.

  4. Hi 7,

    Thanks for stopping by. What neo-liberals are re-learning for the umpteenth time is that economic laws are every bit as real and inflexible as physical laws. While I don’t particularly mind paying for someone’s education, I very much mind paying for the education of folks who don’t seem able to learn the lesson.


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