Five myths about conservatives

Why are conservatives today so uncritical of many of the beliefs and attitudes that have become accepted wisdom on the Right?

By Fisher Ames

The recent decision by the Gillard Government to allow the ‘basing’ of United States Marine forces on Australian bases in the Northern Territory has raised a number of interesting issues for me. No, not necessarily the obvious ones about what China might think of the move, or whether we are being obsequious towards the United States, or did our PM really fondle the President the way she seemed to on national television and what will Tim think of all that? 

No, I’ve been thinking more about why it is that conservatives are so keen to support this move. Are we really so knee-jerk pro-American in the way our Left-wing detractors say we are? Not that they’re saying much at this time, apart from a few mumbled, half-hearted complaints about Gillard and Labor letting the side down again. They’re too embarrassed to admit that with Gillard’s move pro-Americanism is now the new ‘black’ on the Left of Australian politics.

But should conservatives automatically support this new defence agreement with the United States? I would say not. And that led me to wonder about the many orthodoxies on the Right of Australian politics, and why these days conservatives are so uncritical of many of the beliefs and attitudes that have become accepted wisdom on the Right. So, I put together a little list of ‘myths’ that conservatives believe about themselves. This is by no means an exhaustive list – no doubt many readers can and will add more:

1. Conservatives are the ‘War Party’

This is one that has become accepted by both Left and Right since 9/11, the invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001 and the Iraq War in 2003, for obvious reasons. Everyone knows that it was conservative governments in Washington,London and Canberra that launched the war againstIraqin 2003 (I count Londonin because no one seems to want to accuse Tony Blair of being Left-wing anymore). But is it true? Why should going to war often and with great enthusiasm necessarily be ‘conservative’?

The truth of course is that there is nothing remotely conservative about war. War is one of the most, if not the most, destructive and destabilising forces in human history. War doesn’t just destroy individual human beings, it destroys whole families and communities. It destroys tradition and harms religion, especially the Church. Wars in the last one hundred years have transformed western civilisation in ways that conservatives continue to lament. How can war then be considered conservative in any sense of the term?

Cornelius Ryan in his epic telling of Operation Market-Garden, A Bridge too Far, recounts the utter devastation that occurred in northern Holland in September 1944 when Field Marshall Montgomery made his ill-fated attempt to shorten the war by dropping a huge Allied airborne army on the town of Arnhem to capture its strategically important bridge over the Rhine. The plan was ill-conceived from the start and saw some of the worst mass civilian deaths of the war in the west.

What also struck me about the whole episode, apart from the terrible loss of civilian life, was the loss of so much of the architectural heritage of northern Holland, including the utter destruction of churches and stately mansions, many of which had stood since the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries in that part of the country. Indeed many European cities never recovered from the devastation wrought by massed aerial bombing and the movement of huge mechanised armies during World War II. So much of the heritage of western civilisation has gone for good thanks to the destructiveness and nihilism of modern warfare.

So, are true conservatives then pacifists?

No. Conservatives, unlike many on the Left, believe that some things are worth fighting for: when the nation is directly threatened by enemies or when a vital national interest is at stake. But they are not willing to accept death and destruction purely to advance a moral cause or to serve the interest of the all-powerful modern state. Above all else, true conservatives prize stability and order and they are loath to give them up for some perceived moral good to be brought about through force of arms. It should be remembered that one of the most war mongering and anti-conservative statements ever uttered by a modern politician – ‘power grows from the barrel of a gun’ – was pronounced by a Left-wing revolutionary, Mao Tse Tung, still revered by some on the Left, not by a conservative.

2. Conservatives are Super Patriots

Not necessarily, although you wouldn’t know that from the way many modern so called ‘conservatives’ talk about the nation state. If you listen to the likes of a Newt Gingrich or John McCain, the United States is not only the greatest country in the world, but also a nation with a divine mission to change the world. McCain once referred to the United States as the “greatest force for good in human history” – as the late conservative writer, Joe Sobran, replied, “So much for God and his Church”.

Of course these kinds of statements from many so called ‘conservatives’ are not conservative in any meaningful sense of the term. They are rather the voice of jingoism and nationalism, which from the early Nineteenth Century onwards has been a radical force for change in human civilisation, not a conservative force for stability and order.

True conservatives, I would argue, being inherently anti-ideological, distinguish between patriotism and nationalism. Patriotism simply means love of country. It refers to the affection that a person feels quite naturally for his native country, for his native people, for the landscape and way of life shared by a particular people.

McCain once referred to the United States as the “greatest force for good in human history” – as the late conservative writer, Joe Sobran, replied, “So much for God and his Church”.

Nationalism by contrast is an ideology that seeks to transform the world according to some idealistic and theoretical blueprint of how the world should look. Nationalism is also focused on loyalty to the state as opposed to other more local loyalties. Nationalists believe in divinely inspired national destiny, in heavenly commissions to change the world or advance national interests at all costs. Nationalists are impatient with criticism of the Nation State, no matter if well-merited, and look with horror on those that suggest that human beings have loyalties other than those to the almighty Nation State.

By contrast, a true conservative recognises that there are many sources of allegiance. The Church, the family, local traditions and communities, autonomous institutions such as clubs and associations: all of them become objects of love and devotion.  Nietzsche never said a truer word than when he described the modern Nation State as the “coldest of all cold monsters”. By contrast, in the first instance, true conservatives understand that ordinary people find communal warmth and security from the institutions that are closest to them – churches, families, schools, local communities – rather than from the distant and remote bureaucratic Nation State. Conservatives recognise this and view human loyalties as multifaceted and overlapping, not focused exclusively on the abstract Nation as nationalists imagine.

3. Conservatives love the free market

Yes and no.

Sure, conservatives love the freedom that the market offers and recognise the free market as probably the best way in a fallen world to distribute goods and services. But only so far. Taken to an extreme the free market becomes just another mechanism for the disintegration of family and local community, of which there are so many in the modern world.

In the end, true conservatives care more about morality and culture, not economics, rightly called “the dismal science”. The free market is a means to an end, not an end in itself. I realise, of course, that many so called ‘conservatives’ would take this news quite badly and see little contradiction between free market economics and a commitment to traditional morality and culture.  But it also remains true that many so-called ‘conservatives’ are ignorant of the intellectual origins of free market economics. Many recall Adam Smith’s contribution to free market economic through his massive work of scholarship, The Wealth of Nations, but forget the radical and utopian heritage of the free market school.

Smith’s theories remained grounded in the economic realities of British life in the 1700s and his innate common sense prevented him from embracing the radical strands in free market theory. However, this shouldn’t prevent us from seeing free market economics for what it is: an essentially radical economic tradition that grew out of the Continental Enlightenment in the 1700s. Many free market theorists in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries were utopian ideologues who dreamed of a world united in peace and harmony through free trade and commerce between nations. Indeed many dreamed of a world in which war and conflict would be banished forever through the implementation of free trade economic policies.

We can see that many of the utopian strands in free market economics are invoked today by politicians of the Right and Left. Many dream of a globalised world economy, sometimes united with a theory of One World Government, or a benign global hegemony under the UN, where peace and amity between nations will reign forever. A worthy dream perhaps, but true conservatives shouldn’t buy into it, just because we prefer the free market to socialism. In the end, there is no such thing as a ‘Conservative Political Economy’. True conservatives are too sceptical of political ideologies and economic theories, and too pragmatic about how human societies are governed, to accept that any single economic theory as able to encompasses and comprehend the whole of human society.

4. Conservatives are individualists

Hardly.

True conservatives value individuality and the variety generated by representative forms of government. But we remain wary of those promoting individualism above all other goods in life. We recognise that human beings are basically social animals with a need for human companionship. And like it or not, we accept that in a fallen world, some form of government will always be necessary to maintain order and enforce the law among sinful men.

However, in recent times, particularly in the US, so called ‘conservatives’ have embraced a form of free market libertarianism, little different in its practical effects from full-blown anarchism, in a worthy attempt to escape the socialist idea and policies behind the New Deal and Great Society Programs of the 1930s and 1960s. But this is not a conservative response to the devastating effects of the socialist welfare states.

True conservatives, by contrast, should be more concerned by the anomic effects of modernity, including the free market, on human societies, whether through the utopianism of the Left-wing statism or Right-wing libertarianism. True conservatives should value the freedom that the market brings, but also temper that respect for the market with a proper appreciation of the state’s role in fostering a genuine civil society and social order.

What does that mean in practice?

Well, I’m sorry to disappoint many of today’s so called ‘conservatives’ but that probably means an economic system closer to the now much despised mixed economy of the 1940s and 1950s. It probably also means something closer to the  (in the Anglo-sphere) much despised West European social market economy – albeit without the massive over dependence on the welfare state. Of course, a true conservative would also consider a ‘good’ economic system to be one that supports the ‘little platoons’ in society, the family, local community, and not just free individuals doing whatever they like.

Perhaps we should be more cautious in our praise of America’s achievements, more sceptical about her political, economic and cultural influence around the world …

5. Conservatives are inherently pro-American 

I’m primarily thinking of Australian conservatives here.

Conservatives in this country have understandably stood by the US alliance through good times and bad. During the Cold War the US was the only nation that seemed to stand between ourselves and the Godless communist hordes to the East (to the North for us!). But does this mean that conservatives should always and at all times applaud US foreign policy and military deployments?

I would argue ‘no’.

For starters, we should ask ourselves is the US an inherently ‘conservative’ great power?

Yes and no.

The US, as already mentioned, has stood on the side of western democracy for many decades and this is all to the good. But there is another side to US foreign policy, one that hardly recommends itself to those of a truly conservative bent.

It should not be forgotten, though it often is by so called ‘conservatives’ in Australia, that the US is also a revolutionary power.

While the American Founders scrupulously adhered to a foreign policy of non-interventionism in the early years of the Republic, a tradition that was carried on by American presidents in the Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries, the US remains dedicated to an Enlightenment inspired tradition of liberationist politics. By that I mean that the US is dedicated to spreading freedom and democracy around the world, and to eradicating tyranny wherever it is found. Once again, a worthy dream, but hardly one to be embraced by true conservatives with their inherent scepticism toward utopian projects designed to make the world a perfect place.

It is also true that conservatives have long admired America’s constitutional form of government, separation of powers and commitment to representative government. But how well have these political and constitutional values stood up in the modern world?

Not very well, I would argue.

America’s separation of powers and other constitutional arrangements were usurped long ago by an imperial presidency and a Supreme Court bent on social engineering a more ‘progressive’ nation.

The strict interpretation of the US Constitution has been ignored for decades by presidents and by Congress.US presidents now regularly deploy troops overseas without consulting Congress, as required by the US Constitution. US presidents since FDR and his New Deal in the 1930s have also exceeded their constitutional mandate by instituting economic programs that the Founding Fathers would have recognised immediately as unconstitutional. The Supreme Court regularly overrules the states, particularly on moral issues such as abortion, in order to engineer a social and moral transformation of the nation. This also would have been considered inherently unconstitutional by America’s Founding Fathers.

America, alas, also leads the world in the promotion of social anomie and family collapse through the spread of its toxic, sex and violence, porno-trash culture to every corner of the globe. The great wave of porn that has swept the world over the past four decades may have had its origins in 1960s Sweden, but it’s now almost wholly owned by California. And while I realise, as my American friends keep telling me, that California is not America, to much of the rest of the world, sadly, it is. This horrific and seemingly unstoppable trend in western culture, that the globalisation and American cultural influence is helping to spread, is not one true conservatives should celebrate as part of the triumph of ‘individual freedom’.

These points are not made in order to argue that true conservatives should be anti-American or against the alliance with the US. But, perhaps we should be more cautious in our praise of America’s achievements, more sceptical about her political, economic and cultural influence around the world and on Australian society in particular. Perhaps we shouldn’t cheer every US troop deployment as heralding a new and better world. And perhaps we should spend more time looking to our own defence and our own national interest, rather than going all the way with whatever US foreign policy happens to be under which ever US administration happens to be in power at any given time. It seems to me that, if the US alliance is as strong as its greatest proponents make it out to be, we should be able to carve out our own path as a nation, while maintaining the strong links we have with the Great Republic.

Comments (2)

  1. Aquila

    Up to a point …

    There are some good points here, but I think that our libertarian friends would quibble over the idea that their philosophy is “right wing”. While some identify “left wing” (anarchist) and “right wing” (Ron Paul) libertarianism, it is commonly described as standing apart from the political spectrum. I have points of significant disagreement with libertarianism, but I believe that their insistence that it is people who have rights, and not religions or political parties or ethnic groups, is spot on.

    This links with the criticism of nationalism. What is written here is fine as far as it goes, but the appeal to nationalism that one finds on the right in Australia is often an appeal for a common identity, rather than the divisive identity politics of so much of the left. That is, we are all Australians, whatever other identities we may have, and that involves common rights and responsibilities that are not contingent upon our race, religion, bedroom habits or whatever. That this is even in dispute is profoundly depressing. I agree that some nationalist sentiment out of the US is rather weird, but I don’t identify a belief in “national destiny” amongst conservatives in Australia.

    B G Jones
    Rivett ACT

    Fisher Ames

  2. R. J. Stove

    Great Sobran quote

    A very fine piece. I’m always happy to collect new Joe Sobran quotes, so the presence here of a Sobran quote which I hadn’t encountered before especially pleased me.

    R J Stove
    Gardenvale VIC

    Fisher Ames

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