(18 October, 2008)

A friend on LiveJournal posted this, which I found to be as close as I've seen to a broad statement of what conservatism ought to be:

Most conservatives simply want the government to leave them alone and let them live their lives, so long as no one is hurting anyone. They tend toward approving of smaller government and want everyone to be free to pursue success beyond their wildest imaginations.

Wanting the government to leave you alone and let you live your life is a harmless and understandable desire, and I can see the logic in it. Nobody likes to be interfered with by meddling, uninformed bureaucrats hired at vast expense to the taxpayer (that's you) to tell you how to run your farm or bring up your kids. After all, you're perfectly capable of taking care of yourself.

This may be true, but it ignores the possibility of the existence of large numbers of people who for good and sufficient reasons can't take care of themselves. In wanting smaller government, the conservative wants to leave these people, as well as himself, without support. There are various justifications for this: the job of helping people ought to be given to private concerns who can make a profit out of it; people who need help should pull their socks up, get on their bikes, follow their bliss and jolly well make a go of it; Darwin said the strong survive and the weak go to the wall and that's the way it should be; and so on. I could address these one by one, but this is getting long, so let's just leave them there for consideration and move on.

"So long as no-one is hurting anyone." But people do get hurt, for reasons that have nothing to do with them. A highly-paid accountant is caught with his fingers in the till, a company collapses, and five hundred people aged between twenty and fifty no longer have a regular income. Who looks after them? A hurricane hits a city whose flood prevention systems have been skimped for years, and thousands of people are suddenly homeless. Who looks after them? The conservative gets to say "it's none of my business; I didn't fire them or cause their houses to fall down, why should I be forced to pay to support them?" But there comes a time when personal responsibility is not enough. There come disasters into people's lives that they cannot rise above, that they cannot turn into opportunities, that they cannot take in their stride. There come illnesses, old age, accidents, broken marriages, criminal assaults, war. There needs to be government to deal with these things, and it needs to be big because there are an awful lot of people and most of them are suffering.

Everyone should be "free to pursue success beyond their wildest imaginations." Well, that sounds wonderful, doesn't it? I can't argue with that. In fact, I'd go further. Everyone should have success beyond their wildest imaginations. Every nation should be a net exporter of goods. Everyone should have a chicken in their pot, twenty acres and a mule, and a brand new Cadillac with wire wheels. But of course it doesn't work. In a nation where everyone is free to pursue success beyond their wildest imaginations, the majority are in fact free to become intimately acquainted with failure, and this is indeed what happens. A few make it to the sunlit uplands of reasonable comfort, and the rest flounder in the mire, working their guts out just to be allowed to stay where they are, stamping desperately on the heads of those who are in fact under the muck and fighting for a breath of air, grabbing at the ankles of those who have found a slimy outcrop of rock and are scrabbling to get themselves a little higher up on it. You need a pretty wild imagination even to conceive of success in the middle of that struggle. And that is the conservative ideal.

I'm a liberal, and I think that there are enough people in the swamp to gather tree trunks and make a raft. It will involve some people getting down off the rock and into the slime, and it will involve the people who are underneath being allowed to come up and help, and ideally it will involve the people on the sunlit uplands as well, because they can see where the best trees are and they're the most likely to have tools...but if everyone stops competing and works together, and those who have advantage can be persuaded to share some of it with those who have none, it would be possible to build platforms that would float on the surface of the swamp, and have enough room for everyone. And then, when there was time and space to breathe and think and look about us, then we could start to think about getting everyone out of the swamp and finding more sunlit uplands. And that, as I see it, is the liberal ideal. And the fundamental point about it is that it involves thinking, in the most general terms, about people other than oneself.

The conservative ideal, as stated in the quote above, doesn't. The only players in that game are the individual and the government, contentedly leaving each other alone. Which is not to say that conservatives are all selfish--obviously that's nonsense--but it does seem to mean that when they think politically, they think only of people like themselves, who need nothing from government, who have enough to be going on with, who can take care of themselves. They either don't seem to see, or don't seem to care about, the swamp or the people struggling in it.

The liberal ideal tries to encompass all kinds of people, with all kinds of needs, and says that if you have more than you need then you are in a position to help those who have less. It acknowledges the swamp, and the need for as many people as possible to be out of it, before the nation can congratulate itself on everyone being "free to pursue success beyond their wildest imaginations." Because imagination is a wonderful thing, but real life is where people need help, and that's what governments are for if they're for anything at all.

And that's why I'm partisan. That's why I think all governments should be fundamentally liberal (though I think their policies should certainly be enforced and kept in check by conservatives--liberalism is just as capable of going off the rails as we've seen conservatism is) and that's why, whenever I vote, my conscience tells me to vote for the most liberal, or least conservative, option available. And that's why, whatever his faults may be, if I were entitled to vote in an American presidential election, I'd be voting for Obama.

This brought varied responses, including the one from another friend, in which he laid out the six principles of conservatism as he saw them from his own (liberal pragmatist) viewpoint, and this prompted the following articles.