On Conservatism


I have recently been occupied in “discussions” on the internet with people who identify with conservatism. Previously, I simply believed conservatism to be a catch-all for the kind of thinking which requires very little actual thought, but I have since learned that the term identifies an entire school of thought (although “thought” is a bit generous). If you haven’t gathered already, I am not a fan of conservatism, and the more I engage with proponents of it, the less sympathy I feel for their point of view. This entry is an attempt to organize my thoughts on the subject and hopefully come to terms with it.

My dislike for conservatism is most easily (though incorrectly) explained by listing people who identify with it. There are famous idiots such as Margaret Thatcher, John Howard, Bush 41, and Bush 43, and there are less-famous ones such as Joe Mendes (the “Red Fish” from the fish blog), and various other internet trolls with whom I interact. Anyone familiar with the work of those mentioned above should instantly sympathize with my dislike, even if they do not understand it (which is unlikely if you’re reading this blog). Of course, guilt by association is hardly fair – a group of despicable people may all share a common interest in chess for example, and perhaps even identify as chess players, but that does not necessarily make chess a bad thing. No. I despise conservatism for far deeper reasons that this.

The history of conservatism as a movement to which people identify roughly begins with Edmund Burke. Indeed, the Red Fish identifies himself as a “Burkian Conservative” because he probably believed that it somehow lended him credibility. It didn’t. The basic premise of Burke’s doctrine can be summarized thus:

“We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason; because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would be better to avail themselves of the general bank and capital of nations, and of ages.”

Burke was a clever man who wrote well (which is more that I can say for the Red Fish) but even clever men are not immune to the occasional idiotic turn of phrase. Perhaps Burke once saw Aristophanes’ “The Clouds” and became scared of reason. The critical mistake in this train of thought is that “reason” is seen as something for which different people have differing amounts of “private stock”.

Reason, as I see it, is the ability to form a sound argument. A “sound” argument is the combination of a “valid” argument combined with true premises. While it is certainly true that some people can much more easily and consistently form sound arguments than others, a sound argument’s validity does not depend on the person. To take a fairly trivial example, I could say “all men are mortal, Socrates is a man, therefore Socrates is mortal”. Now, if a complete idiot had made that same argument, that does not change the fact that the argument is sound. So, abandoning reason is actually a pretty silly thing to do.

This is actually the bit that conservatives often overlook. They seem to have an inherent disdain for reason, and I believe that this mostly comes from the way conservatives select themselves. You see, reasoning takes effort and some people are very lazy in the brain. Bertrand Russell puts his finger on it well: “Most people would sooner die than think; in fact, they often do”. The “general bank and capital of nations, and of ages” seems much more appealing, because it is easier. However, you may be saying “what’s wrong with that?”.

The idea here, is that the time-honored lessons of history, the tried-and-true methodologies, etc. are preferable or, perhaps, time-saving compared to using reason. Tradition, as in Fiddler on the Roof, is the more valuable currency in the mind of a conservative. With this mode of thought, of course, comes traits such as resistance to change.

This makes conservatives difficult to argue with effectively. Since they don’t use reason, and generally don’t like it, they are also generally unfamiliar with the makings of sound arguments. Instead, they tend to use anecdotes, examples, and emotional appeals in an effort to win an argument. Since Edmund Burke was right about one thing (“this stock [of reason] in each man is small”), this can be surprisingly effective, especially in poorly-educated populations (which could also be why conservative political parties tend to cut funding to education).

So what? They are a big group of idiots who are a bit annoying. Why don’t I just have political discussions with non-conservatives? When conservatives are given responsibility for something (like, say, a country) they tend to fuck it up. You see, lying to yourself and others, and being incompetent at forming sound arguments might seem a fairly harmless thing, but it is not. When an important decision needs to be made, involving large amounts of information and complicated arguments, an inability to use reason becomes a great liability. Moreover, when you substitute a tendency to keep the status quo and follow tradition, you can very easily make the wrong decision when encountered with something new – which is inevitable.

Originally, my many disagreements with conservatives I believed to arise because I would approach arguments with different premises. And that’s ok, because people will invariably believe in different things. (The abortion debate is a good example of this – once you’ve cut away all the vitriol, you’re basically left with a difference in opinion on when a child/foetus’ life begins, or perhaps more accurately, at what point a child/foetus’ life becomes the “equal” of the mother’s). However, as I grew up and met conservatives who would reply to my questions with more than a simple “shut up, you annoying little boy”, people who were actually prepared to engage with me in an argument, I became aware of their curiously awful arguments, often lacking validity, let alone premises, and filled with internal inconsistencies.

Conservatism is dangerous to the human race. Not just because it disheartens young folks like me who will someday influence the direction of humanity (no, really), but because conservative decision makers are ill-suited to governing in an age where information spreads so quickly and the circumstances of the world change so quickly. That people tend to become more conservative as they become older is simply a symptom of the inevitable degradation of our minds as we age, and an increased aversion to using our brains. I only ask that, at the point when a person begins to lose their mental faculties (or decide not to use them), be it at 20 (young Republicans, anyone?) or at 80, that they relinquish their authority, if they possessed any. Humanity will thank you – with all the problems that we face we need all the brains that we can use, and don’t need deadweight offering resistance for no other reason than because they are too lazy to use their brains properly.

I invite any responses…

1 Comment on On Conservatism

  1. The way you have defined conservatism here leaves very little scope for disagreement. Sadly, it smacks of “stupid illogical people” which by no means is monopolised by conservatism.

    I would contend that your first reason for disliking conservatives is the most valid. This is because ‘conservative’ refers to a collection of ideas, not a philosophy. You are looking for an underlying principle to attack when none exists. Also, the ideas are not uniform across all people who identify as conservative so it is no wonder you find them inconsitent. All you have to dislike about it are numerous specific examples and that is why disliking people who are associated with conservatism is about as close to a definition of it as you are going to get.

    Your linking conservatism to lack of reason was a radical interpretation of the text. How about instead we interpret it as ‘New ideas carry risks because the thought experiments they are built on carry implicit assumptions that may not be accurate (people’s private stock of reason are limited)’. How about we use current methodology until we are absolutley certain the new one works is what would follow and suddenly instead of a rejection of sound practice, we have good practice. Since this was your central point, I feel you need to examine and strengthen it, because the presented argument was unconvincing.

    I find it amusing that, on the one hand, you frown on conservatives for not using new methods yet at the same time deride them for not adhering to ‘accepted’ methods of ‘sound argument’. I’m not saying that you are wrong in this, just that it is something to consider, lest you come off sounding like a ‘sound argument’ is one with which you agree.

    Having said this, I think the real problem here is that conservatives have tapped into people’s desire for people who are like them to be in power, not those most suited to rule (for want of a better word).

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.