I think it’s fairly common for people to wonder “Are my conservative friends insane?”, so I’ve set out to provide a short primer on factors that influence modern conservative thought. The following points will obviously be generalizations, both of conservative and liberal thought.
Outcome, not Intention
To a conservative, the intention of a law or government program is generally meaningless. At first, that might seem odd, but think about this way: Who in their right mind intends badly with legislation? Given that almost nobody intends badly when legislating, a conservative is instead focused on the outcome: Does the law or program do what we want it to do? If it doesn’t, the legislation can be the most well-meaning program in the world, and conservatives still won’t support it.
Federal Government is not the Only Tool
Even if a federal government program is effective to one degree or another, a conservative is next going to ask: Is the federal government the most effective tool for accomplishing this goal? Could this goal be better accomplished on a local or state government level? What about with private programs? In general, the burden of proof is on the a federal government program to prove it could not be accomplished effectively on a more local or private level.
No Solutions, Only Trade-Offs
If I could frame a youtube video and put in on my wall, I would frame this youtube video.
Thomas Sowell summarizes a philosophical cornerstone of conservative thought: There are no solutions, only trade-offs. I think Sowell fairly contrasts the different paradigms underpinning modern conservative and liberal thought. For the liberal, if we could only get our institutions right, all would be well. For the conservative, no amount of institutions can ever make man right because man is inherently flawed. We can only hope to mitigate man’s negative impulses, and any attempt to mitigate one negative impulse has the possibility of encouraging another. So we have to ask of any law or program: Are the positives of this legislation going to outweigh any negatives it might introduce? Or, as Sowell puts it, “At what cost?”
How These Principles Turn Out in Practice
With these general principles in hand, one can hopefully start to understand conservative thought. A great example to test this understanding is minimum wage laws. Walker and Nathaniel have written quite a few articles on how minimum wage laws intend well but in reality only hurt the people they are meant to help. Another great example is equal pay laws. We can all agree that women deserve to be paid as much as men, but any legislation addressing the issue is going to cross every one of these principles: Does the proposed equal pay law actually work? Is federal government intervention the only or most effective means of addressing this issue? Will these equal pay laws be worth any trade-off incurred?
These examples also represent topics where conservatives are often impugned for their intentions and conversation breaks down: Do you hate poor people? Do you hate women? Of course not. We’re deeply concerned about the welfare of others. But we want to know that what we’re supporting actually works, is done at the most effective level, and is worth the cost. If legislation cannot jump over those three hurdles, we’re not going to support a program simply for the sake of its good intention.
As a final thought, one can understand conservative thought and still disagree with it. I have no problems with that. My only goal is that people first understand before they disagree. Otherwise, conversations are unproductive at best and nasty at worst. And in keeping with this thought, if you think I’ve misrepresented either conservative or liberal thought anywhere, let me know! I’ll probably still debate the comment, but as my momma came to understand, just cus I’m debating doesn’t mean I’m not listening.
11 thoughts on “A Primer for Understanding Conservatives”
By this description I am mostly a conservative. Perhaps that’s actually true, but I doubt my friends would agree.
However, I’d level two criticisms top-of-mind. First, an outcome/not federal/trade-offs description is all negative and too often leads to a do nothing conclusion. From there it easily and naturally follows that the conservative doesn’t care. If you really do care then the description really ought to include some positive elements. (I’m not sure individual bootstraps counts as a positive, but give it a try if you like.)
Second, from whence comes the burden of proof on the federal government? I see something like an organic organizing logic around cities, but everything larger and smaller looks artificial or arbitrary, at least to the degree that there’s no obvious priority or burden of proof. Furthermore, the history of federal vs state debates in the U.S. includes too many cases where federal has meant do something and state has meant do nothing. Unless you want to proclaim conservatism as the do nothing platform (and some really do) I think you have to include in the analysis not just “can it be done better?” but “will it be done better?”
I was tempted to include a sub-section on conservative views of do-something vs. do-nothing, but I figured the three bullets I gave were good enough for beginning. Anyways, from a conservative point of view, do-nothing is perfectly fine. If every proposed solution has a more negative trade-off, then doing nothing is the solution. This is where the different philosophical underpinnings of modern conservatism and liberalism clash: For the liberal, there must be a solution. We just haven’t found it yet. For the conservative, there very well may be no solution that works and is worth the trade-off, at least in the realm of legislation.
Consequently, this is why many conservatives are big on private and/or local solutions: They can often address problems that cannot be effectively addressed by federal legislation. This is probably what constitutes a large part of the positive aspect of conservatism.
(As a side note, this reason is why for years I’ve found the performance metric for Congress of ‘laws passed’ very odd. Number of laws passed provides no actual measure of whether Congress is doing a good job. We want Congress to pass good laws, not just any laws.)
Unfortunately, conservatism seems to lend itself to a certain amount of negativity. These principles generally commit you to a limited form of government and at times resigning yourself to the fact that an evil or inefficiency exists and there’s nothing we can do about it (again, at least legislatively). But to reiterate, we’d rather do nothing and let the evil continue to exist than propose an even worse solution just so we can say we tried.
I’d say the burden proof comes is empirically founded: Generally speaking, solutions closest to the area of interest have been best able to address problems because the people making the solutions are closest to the problems and consequently understand them the best. You should only go up a level (such as local –> state –> federal) if the previous level has proven incapable of addressing the problem. A classic example is national defense: National defense is and has been the purview of the federal government since very early in the United States because addressing national defense on a local or state level is a total disaster and often counter-productive.
The same concept is found in Catholic social teaching, where I first ran into the idea:
I’ve often seen some version of subsidiarity appealed to, but have never encountered quantitative evidence for it. Do you know of any, or some generally-available reason to believe it other than quantitative evidence?
I think the “don’t care” accusation comes partly from the fact that most of us remember few cases of witnessing conservatives making the argument that a problem is real and can be addressed with net-positive outcomes, but not by government, and then actually going out and addressing it that other way. Usually, it seems like the argument that a problem is real but best addressed by means other than government is where that reasoning stops. Does it seem to you that these alternatives are poorly publicized, or perhaps so familiar that we forget about them?
I love the idea of the piece, and think you’ve captured a lot that’s insightful and correct. Nitpicking can give a negative impression, so I thought it worth pointing that out.
I think at this point, any discussion of the philosophical assumptions of conservatism has to come with the caveat that the elected “representatives” of conservatism appear not to be acting on these assumptions.
I can’t think of a national elected official who talks in terms of trade-offs, outcomes, or the various branches of civil life. Perhaps I am wrong, but that is what I see. This could be due to many reasons. Maybe government is so big and so into everyone’s life that making finer arguments based on the assumptions is moot. Or maybe the ideology itself has morphed into a much more primitive form that doesn’t bother to draw these finer distinctions in the first place.
“Subsidiarity” is a new word (although not a new concept) to me. That makes this a good day.
It does seem a philosophical principle, not empirical (per Wikipedia: “The principle is based upon the autonomy and dignity of the human individual”). Frankly, the evidence I can think of is more exceptions and failures than proofs or demonstrations.
In any event, I would suggest that applying subsidiarity properly is to move downscale as long as (only so long as) the smaller unit does at least as well as the larger. That makes sense to me; I’d be happy to call it my own, and happy to call it a ‘conservative’ principle. Importantly, it flips the burden of proof, placing it on the smaller unit.
I can see this as justification for resisting a liberal agenda. However, it doesn’t at all describe how conservatives work when they have all the power.
And it definitely doesn’t explain Trump.
Apologies for the delays!
Aside from quantitative evidence, I’d say it also makes at least some sense in principle because: 1) It maximizes local autonomy and decision-making and 2) There’s no use taking up legislative time and energy on a federal level if the problem can be solved on a local or state level. I’d say also that this principle falls under the general umbrella of suspicion towards centralized power.
I think the latter for the most part. For example, when it comes to caring for the poor, churches/mosques/synagogues/non-religious non-profits/etc. are one place where conservatives (and liberals!) put a great amount of time and money, but they’re so ubiquitous that we don’t even think about them. I know off the top of my head that the Catholic Church is #1 non-governmental provider of healthcare around the world.
I don’t have a go-to example off the top of my head, but we also tend not to notice when a private company or organization solves a longstanding issue, or at least we don’t think ‘conservatism in action!’
Thanks! I like positive feedback :D
A regular lament of both Nathaniel and myself. Conservatism is definitely in a major funk, see: Donald Trump. I think the two-party system gets a little more flak than it deserves, but it certainly does force one to share the same general banner with many different types of people and beliefs.
I think these principles are buried so deeply in conservative thought that they’re implicit, so if you’re listening to an elected official, you probably won’t hear these terms, but you can read between the lines to see them at play. Also, as mentioned above, some conservatives just aren’t particularly conservative, at least by these definitions.
The issue I think we would encounter in practice is that, once you hit the federal level and pass laws there, it’s very difficult to move down to a state or local level. Basically, the federal level solution has to be a total, long-standing catastrophe before the necessary momentum can be achieved to dismantle the federal legislation and move to a state or local level. However, the opposite generally isn’t true: We move from local to state to federal legislation on a regular basis. I’d argue it’s also much easier to incorporate local or state infrastructure into a federal program than it would be to dismantle a federal program and resume it on a state or local level.
2) seems like an appeal to efficiency. If I’m reading that right, it seems as though solving the same problem many times in different localities flies in the face of everything I’ve ever been taught or observed about efficiency. Does that not seem so to you?
1) seems like an independent justification, so even if 2) fails, 1) need not suffer. I wonder whether that point could be recast in terms of the alternative, such that conservatism favors subsidiarity because it favors autonomy over coordination. This, in turn, could be understood as a way of prioritizing among the problems we face; that is, conservatism could be understood as the consideration that threats to our autonomy are more pressing than threats best met through coordinated action. Does that seem reasonably accurate to you?
As for solutions initially proposed to be addressed by government which conservatives actually solve another way, jobs seem like a really natural place to start. Instead of something like the WPA, virtually everyone now thinks it’s preferable to foster a positive business environment and let private companies do most of the hiring, so that seems like a case in which the positive consequences of the conservative view have simply steamrolled all opposition out of existence. But it does seem like something which doesn’t happen as often as I’d expect, given the rhetoric I often hear from conservatives about problems being addressed by non-governmental means. If that were really their model, one would think pointing that out would be very appealing.
I can definitely see (and have seen) how states can run into the ‘solving the same problem 50 times and 50 different ways.’ However, I think we also see positive effects whereby the 50 different states (or innumerable cities/communities) all act as test laboratories for different solutions, after which (theoretically) other states/communities can see which solution(s) turned out best and adopt those solutions or at least turn to them for guidance. More de-centralized approaches to problems also preserve the ability of states or localities to adjust their solutions to the particulars of their area, rather than hoping a federal one-size-fits-all solution is wide enough to address the many different conditions across the USA.
I think that’s accurate. Using myself as a single data point that I think matches the concerns of others, I would say I think much more about threats to liberty and autonomy than coordination. But I also value coordination given the right needs and circumstances. Like mentioned before, national defense must be one, unified endeavor, and I highly value the amount of power the US federal government can wield during emergencies (wars, economic crises, etc.). Even without crises, I value the economic unity the US federal government provides. I do not like the European Union model with its over-powerful states, disjointed economic actions, and slow reactions to crises. The EU reminds me of the Articles of Confederation with all its drawbacks, although perhaps the EU will serve as a necessary transition to a more federal-like system for Europe in the long run.
I’ve gotten a little off into the weeds, but I figured some concrete examples might help flesh out my point of view :)
That’s quite possible. Being young and all, my memory of what conservatism has been like is very short, reaching back to the late Clinton/early Bush era at best. I first voted in 2008 at 18, so that should give you some perspective on my age :P
This is interesting to me, because the idea that a local commitment to a solution is preferable to a federal pilot program seems unintuitive. One would think that piloting a program at the federal level would allow us to choose localities in which to attempt it which would give more representative data, and would allow us the benefits of centralizing data analysis. I would imagine the principle problem with this approach is the character of our national legislature, which is not superb at admitting the possibility that their application of the principles on which they individually campaigned might benefit from the collection of more data, nor at making long-term plans which involve a testing phase before another round of decision-making about deployment. Does that seem right to you, or do you see a reason that lower-level decision-making is inherently better at trying out various possible solutions?
Oh, of course! Even the staunchest liberal believes personal autonomy threats can be severe, and even anarchists generally seem to expect some sort of self-organizing property of ungoverned crowds which will solve some coordination problems. Being generally somewhat more sensitive to some problems doesn’t mean that particular circumstances can’t raise the salience of others. That’s one of the reasons I like thinking about it this way–it seems we’re so used to stating what we’re for that we tend to hear such statements as alienating. Oddly enough, thinking about the dangers which motivate our political opponents brings us together, because virtually nobody’s attached to the negative consequences of their own preferred policies.
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