I’m fairly uncomfortable with the idea of describing myself as a conservative. My big problem with the label is that I keep asking myself – exactly who are these conservatives and what do they stand for? The more I look at conservatism the less conservative it looks.
I want to make it clear that I’m talking here of mainstream conservatism of the type that dominates our so-called conservative political parties. I’m not talking about the various dissident conservative groups such as paleo-conservatives or traditionalist conservatives.
What exactly are the beliefs of mainstream conservatives? They usually claim to be in favour of limited government, capitalism, free trade and personal responsibility and they usually tend to be opposed to the welfare state. These are not necessarily bad things but are they actually conservative?
There are good arguments in favour of limited government. In fact when you look at the increasingly bloated and intrusive nature of modern government there are very good arguments indeed for limited government. On the whole I’d like to see the role of government quite severely limited. I’d be quite happy to see most government departments and virtually all statutory authorities and quasi-government organisations shut down. I’d be happy to see the Public Service cut in half. So on that issue I agree with mainstream conservatives.
I have no great problem with capitalism. It can be highly efficient at producing prosperity and in many ways it has improved our lives, in a material sense at least. On the other hand I don’t see anything particularly conservative about capitalism. It has been one of the main engines driving social change and destroying traditional social structures. I’m not anti-capitalism but I do regard it with caution and scepticism. If left to its own devices it seems to lead inevitably to the destruction or at least the distortion of the very free markets it claims to promote. I’m OK with capitalism but I think it has to be controlled to a certain extent. On that issue I can regard myself as being to some degree at odds with mainstream conservatives.
I don’t see free trade as being in any way conservative. Quite the reverse. Free trade within nations is generally beneficial. Free trade between nations is another matter. It seems to me that that leads to results that are totally at odds with any kind of genuine conservatism – it has lead to the destruction of our manufacturing industry and the devastation of communities and it leads to instability.
Personal responsibility is a fine idea and generally speaking I’m in favour of it, but I think there are limits to it. Complete personal responsibility is in its way a somewhat utopian ideal – it assumes that we all have total control over our own lives and that appears to me to be an unrealistic assumption.
The welfare state is a tricky one. There’s no question that the welfare state has been used, disastrously, as a tool for social engineering. It has contributed to the destruction of the family. On the other hand there are many institutions that can be used for evil purposes without being evil in themselves. The police can be used as a tool of oppression. That does not mean we should eliminate police forces. That would be throwing the baby out with the bath water. Personally I think that the Industrial Revolution made the welfare state inevitable and unavoidable. When people lived in small close-knit mostly rural traditional communities it was quite possible for families and private charities to take care of those who could not take care of themselves. The Industrial Revolution destroyed the continuity of traditional life, it destroyed extended family structures, it lead to massive urbanisation and it uprooted established communities. In these changed circumstances I just don’t see any way a welfare state can be avoided.
I think the welfare state should be radically reformed. For one thing I think all welfare payments to single mothers should be abolished, except to widows and deserted wives (and that should not include de facto wives). On the other hand I’d like to see welfare payments to actual deserted wives with children increased so that they can raise their kids decently without having to work. I believe we need a much better and much more family-oriented welfare state, one without the social engineering agenda, but I do think a welfare state is on the whole essential.
I recent years mainstream conservatives suddenly decided that open borders was a core conservative belief. This seems to me to be about as anti-conservative a policy that could possibly be imagined.
So overall I find myself with not a great deal in common with the conservative mainstream. Certainly not enough to be comfortable applying the label conservative to myself. My big problem is that conservatism doesn’t seem very conservative in any way that makes sense to me. If conservatives aren’t interested in conserving the family, or established communities or even our sense of national identity then what exactly do they want to conserve?
I do consider myself to be very much a social conservative but that’s another issue probably best dealt with in a separate post.