It’s fashionable at the moment to write conservatism’s epitaph. Such epitaph writing is not my project here, but there is a sort of inherent tension in the recent history of conservatism which I would like to examine briefly.
For the last hundred years and more, conservatives have often found themselves arguing against those in the political and economic spheres who believe that we can achieve a great improvement in society by instituting some sort of centrally controlled state economy. Socialism, communism and fascism all attempted, in different ways, to create new and better societies through assigning people roles and resources rather than allowing their allocation to occur through a decentralized system of millions of individual decisions taking place independently every day.
Perhaps this is the great modern temptation. People looked at the incredibly intricate (sometimes seemingly orderless) organization of society resulting from custom and the summed decisions of millions of individuals and thought, “Now we have the ability to plan all this instead and do it better!” Various sorts of ideologues tried to impose various sorts of new order on society, and conservatives dragged their feet and tried to keep things as they were, allowing people to make their own decision as they saw best whenever possible.
I think that conservatives have been right in this, but the difficulty is that in the process of defending freedom, we often fall into defending the ways people use freedom. We go from defending freedom to defending choice.
The example that springs most readily to mind is when a pro-life organization we donate to brought out Laura Ingram as a speaker a couple years ago. In her talk she made the toss-off comment, “Of course the Democrats in congress are wanting to increase environmental standards, so my broadcasting team and I all put in together to take out a lease on a new Hummer.”
Now, I tend to think that CAFE Standards and other attempts to regulate the mileage cars get don’t work very well. (Indeed, arguably the whole SUV craze was kicked off because fleet mileage regulations created and incentive to get customers who didn’t like micro-cars into “light trucks”.) So in regards to cars I’m in favor of freedom and against regulating behemoths like the Hummer out of existence. And yet, I see no reason to like the big ugly thing, which provides virtues neither of cargo capacity nor seating capacity. I’m against regulating against Hummers not because I’m in favor of Hummers, but because I don’t think regulating against that sort of thing works very well. We should only regulate against things which represent a truly grievous harm to society and are easy targets for legislation.
The difficulty is, it’s mentally difficult to defend against regulating people’s behavior without slipping into actually supporting the behavior itself. And so it’s easy to find oneself celebrating Hummers to spite the environmentalists, celebrating cigarettes and fatburgers to spite the health regulators, and declaring we have no obligation to help the poor to tweek the social democrats.
And yet many of the ways in which some people choose to use their freedom (over consumption, fiscal irresponsibility, lacking any sense of responsibility for other members of the community) in turn create the demand for just the sort of massive society-shaping programs which as conservatives we oppose. If we fail to stigmatize (or even celebrate) the bad behaviors which we maintain people’s freedom to engage in, we create the environment in which people no longer see those freedoms as worth their cost.
I don’t have a policy recommendation here. I don’t suggest that we stop upholding personal freedom and distributed decision-making networks, nor is it possible to summon up a set of social stigmas from no where. But I do think that it’s important that, even while opposing top down solutions to social and political problems, we make sure that we don’t applaud choice simply because we uphold freedom. Somehow we must build a set of social judgments and stigmas such that we encourage people to use their freedom rightly. Otherwise we simply open the way for collectivist solutions which will try to use the blunt force of the law to regulate the most minute every-day decisions.