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Conservative social policy

We all know conservatives who are simultaneously very generous with their own time and money in charity work and very suspicious of any government social spending. The reasoning behind this stance seems to be as follows. They start with the position that charitable giving is a moral act. They also recognize the principle that no coerced act can be moral — an act can only be moral if it is done freely.

So far, so good. Then they reason that if the state is forcing people to contribute to charity, via taxation, then their donation is not a moral act. In fact, people are being deprived of the opportunity to behave morally, because they have less money to donate freely. What’s worse, in the hypothetical scenario where the government managed to completely eradicate poverty, an entire class of moral acts would become redundant. Therefore, it’s better to leave dealing with poverty to individual generosity rather than developing a system that deprives people of the chance to act morally.

I leave the assessment of this moral outlook as an exercise for the reader.


September 14, 2009 - Posted by | politics


  1. The problem with a lot of conservative and libertarian arguments in defense of privilege is that, on paper, they seem entirely cogent and logical, appealing to our ideological, „innate” common sense (for example, putting aside all of its fetishistic aspects, that we should return to a gold-standard since gold has a more stable value relative to fiat currency), but then as soon as one begins to scrutinize their reasoning a bit closer, one encounters a giant lacuna at their core, not unlike the donut hole found at the center of Bush’s Medicare Plan D (to continue the example, that gold, it turns out, is itself traded in—yes—dollars).

    The above argument about morality suffers from the same kind of mendacious, or perhaps—viewed somewhat more positively—myopic, reasoning, wherein the entire system of violence and depravity engendered by hoarding, wealth-earning, and profit maximization is overlooked, not to mention the way in which the state itself is used on behalf of the privileged to ensure that they themselves remain at the top of the economic ladder (thus ensuring that they have a monopoly on morality, if it is to be measured in the amount of money capable of being donated to the so-called „less fortunate“). But then I guess I’m sort of preaching to the choir here.

    Comment by Bryan Klausmeyer | September 14, 2009

  2. “Therefore, it’s better to leave dealing with poverty to individual generosity rather than developing a system that deprives people of the chance to act morally.”

    mmhmm…yeah…that must be it

    Comment by Chad | September 14, 2009

  3. […] Um, he’s a symbol, not a God Adam Kotsko, meet Mark Lilla September 15, 2009 Adam Kotsko has a nice rendering of a widespread logic employed in conservative thinking. It just so happened […]

    Pingback by Adam Kotsko, meet Mark Lilla « PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR | September 15, 2009

  4. Chad, I suppose you want me to say that not developing a systematic way to alleviate poverty actually helps the poor more, right?

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | September 15, 2009

  5. That’s only half the issue. While giving resources of whatever kind is viewed by conservatives as a moral act, having those resources in the first place seems to often be considered the natural result of virtue. Likewise, the lack of resources is the result of a lack of virtue.

    Thus, taxing those with resources in order to give to those without is: (1) a coercive act which deprives those with resources from committing the virtuous act of charity, (2) an act which unjustly deprives the virtuous of their natural rewards for their virtue, and (3) an act which gives the rewards of virtue to the non-virtuous.

    Then, of course there is the fear that, if one reaps the rewards of virtue (through social spending by the government) without having to be virtuous, there will be no enticement to be virtuous (namely, the rewards of virtue). Government social spending becomes not just a way of depriving some people of an opportunity for a moral act, but a war upon virtue itself.

    Of course, all of that depends on the bizarre (to me) view that a free market is free not simply in a sense of liberty (one can do anything in it) but in some sort of moral sense: it is free to be just.

    Comment by Chris Marlin-Warfield | September 15, 2009

  6. In my experience, most conservatives of this type are really just attracted to social conservatism (anti-gay, anti-women, anti-immigrant, etc.) and have by now fully bought the package of economic conservatism that’s been bundled along with it for the last several decades. So if being a good conservative Christian means opposing marriage equality, it also means favoring tax cuts for the richest one percent of the country, slashing Medicaid, privatizing Social Security, and so on. (Over the past several years I’ve even seen more and more major religious right types preach economic policy in the way they’ve grown accustomed to preaching foreign policy.)

    So while I’ve definitely heard this “you can’t make people be charitable” argument made any number of times by conservative evangelicals, I’m more inclined to take it as an after-the-fact rationalization for fucking over poor people than a sincerely held but disgusting philosophical position. I still tend to think that the closest thing to these people’s hearts is hurting gays, women, minorities, and anyone else who isn’t like them, and hurting poor people has just gotten roped into it as a consequence of their political affiliation.

    Comment by stras | September 15, 2009

  7. Stras, I think you’re right. One of the major institutions that bundles together economically conservative ideas for social conservatives and libertarians is the Mackinaw Center for Public Policy, located at the ’tip of the mit’ ( What it is, essentially, is a kind of conservative think-tank that most resembles a McDonalds-of-Ideas, in that all of the attendees receive a pre-packaged set of scripted ideological talking points and one-liner free-market policy initiatives in their brochures, which nearly universally dominate all conservative rhetoric and actual policy initiatives.

    Comment by Bryan Klausmeyer | September 15, 2009

  8. This is pretty dumb.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  9. Give us the smart version.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | September 15, 2009

  10. I hate responding to these things because I get pigeonholed too easily. I lacked discipline this morning. I guess I would just say that I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an intelligent person make this argument (and I do think there are intelligent conservatives). I think the more compelling version can’t really be syllogized in according to the manner you suggest, but chiefly because it’s not really an argument–more of a historical description, that for me, at least, does not necessarily suggest future policies, but still needs to be grappled with. It’s not that state charity removes possibilities of moral action in an absolute sense; it’s that it bureaucratizes and de-moralizes charity itself. Combined with a suspicion of massive power structures (not necessarily a conservative suspicion, but a warranted one, in my opinion, and a good feature of the best conservatism), it stands to reason, that the statist version of charity might simply be unsustainable, due to the moral features of the human subject and what tends to happen when large amounts of money are funneled through small places (a necessary feature of statist charity). The aporetic dimension of this is that it has already happened, and there isn’t an obvious going-back. We have by and large destroyed any public sense of responsibility for our neighbor, and I think that the general model of “I pay my taxes, it’s the government’s job” is a pretty compelling historical feature of that trajectory. Maybe in simpler terms, when there is a spacial and experiential disconnect between one’s charitable giving and the object of said charity, you destroy the positive social capital accumulation (poor phrase, I’m sure) that ultimately drives spontaneous upwellings of positive change. The anthropology of gift giving is quite helpful in describing this phenomenon. For me, in all of these discussions, my primary concern isn’t really the traditional left/right split, but simply one of scale. I don’t think there is a solution for a monolithic state of 500 million people, and that doesn’t have to be “right-wing.” If anything, I’m a socialist… I just don’t think it can work in a monolithic, trans-cultural sense. Sorry I really rambled there.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  11. Hill,

    I think any “suspicion of massive power structures” has to be tempered with the knowledge that private charity, well, just doesn’t work that well in eradicating poverty. It can, on occasion, keep people from starving to death, but that’s about it, and doesn’t even always do that–it’s almost always sporadic and incomplete in its effects. You seem to be arguing that a government-led drive to eradicate poverty takes away people’s opportunity to feel good about themselves for supporting a private charity, an issue which should be (correct me if I’m wrong here) given equal consideration to the fact that a generous welfare state can, you know, actually reduce poverty.

    As for Adam’s point, I just don’t think most conservatives really even think about poverty as a moral problem to be solved–there’s just way too much discussion of the moral failings of poor people for that to be the case. Sure, free individuals should be allowed to give to charity if that makes them happy, but more importantly efforts to eradicate poverty must not inconvenience wealthy people in any way. It just seems totally incidental to their larger concerns.

    Comment by Michael Schaefer | September 15, 2009

  12. I just don’t think most conservatives really even think about poverty as a moral problem to be solved–there’s just way too much discussion of the moral failings of poor people for that to be the case.

    Right. I think there’s this sort of notion that giving money to the poor is sort of like giving bread crumbs to pigeons – here’s these miserable little creatures, and they’re always going to be sort of there, and you don’t understand them and aren’t ever going to understand them but it’s a good thing to throw them a little help when you can spare it, every once in a while, despite what awful grubby little things they are. To actually regard poverty as a social problem that can and should be eliminated through redistribution of wealth is fairly alien to most of these people, and attempts to do so are interpreted primarily as assaults against the wealthy, rather than attempts to bring relief to the poor.

    (For the record, this is not how I actually view pigeons; I’ve a very high opinion of pigeons, actually.)

    Comment by stras | September 15, 2009

  13. “…attempts to do so are interpreted primarily as assaults against the wealthy, rather than attempts to bring relief to the poor.”

    And isn’t that totally wrong and unfair? Of course it is. But that’s exactly like labeling pro-lifers as anti-woman, or anti-government healthcare as anti-poor…

    So maybe both sides can knock it off.

    Comment by Chad | September 15, 2009

  14. Exactly like?

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | September 15, 2009

  15. Don’t feed it, Adam.

    Comment by stras | September 15, 2009

  16. I could care less. I’m nauseous.

    Comment by Chad | September 15, 2009

  17. Goody. Fuck off, then.

    Comment by stras | September 15, 2009

  18. As for Adam’s point, I just don’t think most conservatives really even think about poverty as a moral problem to be solved–there’s just way too much discussion of the moral failings of poor people for that to be the case.

    If you really think this, then what exactly is the point? Shouldn’t you just kill conservatives or something? The biggest problem with people like Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck isn’t the right-leaning people they influence, but the effect they have on the idea of “conservatives” that would lead to preposterous statements like “conservatives don’t think poverty is a moral problem” which tend to operate by finding people who don’t think poverty is a moral problem and then characterizing them as constitutive of conservatism in principle. There’s a kind of disingenuous empiricism at work, akin to something like “don’t you see the horrors produced by statist welfare enterprises!?!?!? what about National Socialism?!?!?!?” which of course would be roundly (and rightly) denounced.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  19. If you really think this, then what exactly is the point? Shouldn’t you just kill conservatives or something?

    This is very coherent.

    Comment by stras | September 15, 2009

  20. I presume the moral imperative of alleviating poverty (ultimately because it saves lives) is what motivates the vehemence one often finds in this discussion. It stands to reason that eliminating (via death or isolation) people in power who think this moral imperative doesn’t exist is at least something one ought to consider.

    My point is that this is simply the friend/enemy distinction reproduced.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  21. “Chad, I suppose you want me to say that not developing a systematic way to alleviate poverty actually helps the poor more, right?”

    I would love a systematic way to alleviate poverty. It’s beyond silly to think that conservatives don’t want to help the poor. And conservatives who consider themselves Christians have a good blueprint on what they ought to do. The morons who bash the poor and call them lazy, etc don’t speak for enough people to worry about it.

    Comment by Chad | September 15, 2009

  22. What motivates “the vehemence one often finds in this discussion” is that trolls keep showing up and arguing in bad faith. For instance, I assume you’re not so stupid that you assume that because some block of voters exists which cannot be persuaded to agree with one’s political views (in this case, “conservatives”), that it is either necessary or justified to murder them. Instead, you’re just throwing that out there to be a dick.

    Comment by stras | September 15, 2009

  23. It’s the early sixties, and some people are talking about how to end segregation, and someone says, “You know, the thing about racists is that they just don’t really even think about racism as a moral problem to be solved,” and then someone gets up, all flustered, and says “Well, shit, I guess you might as well kill all the racists, then!”

    Comment by stras | September 15, 2009

  24. I keep wondering why the Democrats aren’t more aggressively courting the NRA.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | September 15, 2009

  25. I’m more than a little puzzled that someone who apparently considers him/herself a socialist could get worked up into such an almighty lather defending the honor of conservatives.

    And i don’t need to cherry-pick crazy people to make my argument–demagoguing the poor is a bog-standard conservative talking point. Sure, there are people who will argue that social welfare programs are an ineffective means of helping the less-fortunate, but it’s far, far more common to hear that such programs take from the hard-working and give to the less-deserving, the lazy, and of course, the Other. It’s the rallying cry of the entire modern conservative movement in the US, for crying out loud.

    Chad’s rantings at least make sense in that he’s defending a deeply-held worldview; I have no idea what’s Hill’s motivation is–perhaps the hope that one day people will lift their glasses in toast: “To Hill–one seriously -reasonable- dude.”

    Comment by Michael Schaefer | September 15, 2009

  26. “If you really think this, then what exactly is the point? Shouldn’t you just kill conservatives or something?”

    I have had a consistent pro-gulag platform from the beginning.

    Comment by Anthony Paul Smith | September 15, 2009

  27. So you think that conservatism is related to the failure to see poverty as a moral problem in the same way that racism is related to the failure to see racism as a moral problem? Now that is coherent.

    For Michael, this entire conversation hinges on “conservative” having some sort of determinate meaning, when that is far from clear, at least in it’s usage here. My worry is that it just becomes a cipher for demarcating those among us without the moral competence to realize that x is a moral problem. I’m pretty sure how it is operating for you. Do you really think there is a necessary connection between conservatism and the failure to see poverty as a moral problem? If the answer is yes, I’m not sure you understand the meaning of the word necessary. If the answer is no, then it is just another conceptual guilt by association, precisely the same sort that is used to demonize the left by associating it with Stalin (et al.). I would much rather talk about ideas than idiots-talking-about-ideas (i.e. “the ‘conservative’ blogosphere”).

    I’m not sure that I’m in an almighty lather yet, but some conceptual fact-checking it warranted if like-minded people are to have productive conversations.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  28. Anthony, that is why I respect you so much. I am dead serious.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  29. I get no credit for my pro-gulag position?

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | September 15, 2009

  30. I respect you for the same reasons, Adam.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  31. You realize this makes your “first against the wall” status that much more tragic for us.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | September 15, 2009

  32. Tragic… and beautiful.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  33. God I’m choking up right now. Can we make this in to a movie?

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  34. Hill,

    Instead of this endless nitpicking, why don’t you just offer a counterexample? If my statement is so shockingly offensive, and my understanding of conservatism so shallow, then you should be able to make short work of my argument. You could point out Goldwater’s famous quotation, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice, but boy, does poverty suck.”

    Except he never said anything of the sort. But you get my drift. Otherwise you’re just talking to yourself, as far as I’m concerned.

    Comment by Michael Schaefer | September 15, 2009

  35. So you think that conservatism is related to the failure to see poverty as a moral problem in the same way that racism is related to the failure to see racism as a moral problem?

    The heart of modern conservatism is the need to perpetuate poverty, in the same way that the heart of 60s-era racism was the need to perpetuate apartheid. Hell, these could not be any more related, given that the conservatives and libertarians of the 60s also fought for apartheid and against civil rights, using arguments both esoteric and crude, just as today’s fuck-the-poor coalition continues to do.

    Comment by stras | September 15, 2009

  36. The problem is that neither stras nor Michael are making arguments.

    The heart of modern conservatism is the need to perpetuate poverty.

    This is not an argument. Neither is the assertion that conservatism is characterized by the failure to acknowledge poverty as a moral claim. There are basic logical requirements for argumentation that are not being met. How would I refute them? Certainly the counter-example of a conservative that thinks poverty is a moral problem could be easily found, but I don’t think that’s the point. The point is that a connection between conservative political philosophy and the failure to acknowledge poverty as a moral problem must be demonstrated. Simply identifying a person (or even a huge group of people) that self-identifies as a conservative and also fails to see poverty as a moral problem doesn’t mean anything because the primary quality of these people, in this case, is their failure to see poverty as a moral problem, and they have no obvious relationship to the constellation of concepts that has been historically understood as conservatism.

    My gripe is with the false empiricism that ascribes a necessary relationship to conceptually unrelated phenomena. Given a non-question-begging definition of conservatism (a la stras), there is no obvious relationship between it and one’s moral view of poverty. If there is something more subtle at work make an argument for it. Don’t offer me your opinion.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  37. Dude, what argument have you been making since you showed up? You didn’t even make an argument for “go kill all the conservatives”.

    Comment by stras | September 15, 2009

  38. In a sense, we’re having an argument about whether we’re having an argument. Luckily, all (apparent) additional levels of reflexivity collapse back into one, so we are definitionally not able to have a meta-meta-argument about whether we’re actually having a meta-argument (i.e., it would still only be a meta-argument).

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | September 15, 2009

  39. Great point, Adam. At least we’re having an argument… I think.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  40. “Exactly like” is perfectly idiomatic and useful, as “exactly like” is more like than just “like.” Obviously, “identical” can replace “exactly like” in some contexts.”

    -Richard Lederer (Howard’s dad for you poker fans out there)

    Comment by Chad | September 15, 2009

  41. I wasn’t commenting on your word choice. I was commenting on the substance of your claim.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | September 15, 2009

  42. If you want an argument, here it is:

    Conservative economic policy is very good at making people who are already very rich even richer. It’s very good at taking the enormous gap between the rich and the poor and stretching it even wider. It’s good at redistributing wealth upwards, at increasing poverty, at making more people more poor and more miserable. It is not good at all at reducing poverty, or even addressing it in any meaningful way.

    Now: one could argue that this policy is being formulated by lots and lots of very well-meaning, though wrongheaded people, who really and truly in their heart of hearts believe in trickle-down supply-side economics, and who really and truly believe that the best and most efficient way to get money into the hands of the very poor is to give lots and lots of money to the super-wealthy – that they are not malicious, in other words, but fantastically stupid. But one would have to argue that they are so fantastically stupid that they have never noticed that their policies have failed for the last thirty years. And not just failed in the sense of “didn’t eliminate poverty altogether,” but failed in the sense of “expanded income inequality to historic, never-before-seen levels.”

    Now, if you really believe that the conservative movement, in its heart of hearts, is deeply concerned with the plight of poor people, then I guess you’re committed to the belief that it’s economic policies are primarily designed by very well-spoken, well-educated lobotomy patients. But a more simple explanation seems to be that they really don’t care about poor people, and that their motives for cutting taxes and the safety net have more to do with rewarding the rich, a desire to soak the poor, and good old fashioned racism:

    You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites.

    Comment by stras | September 15, 2009

  43. I really appreciate the elaboration. I think the disconnect between us is that “conservatism” to you is more or less summed up by Reaganism. What I would want to suggest is that, contrary to the hypothetical you proposed, these people actually are in some measure evil, and do not, in fact, care about the poor, except maybe in loose nominal terms. I just don’t think that the salient features of this political phenomenon were conservative in any meaningful sense, taking a long view of the history of conservative thought, and what conservatism needs to mean in order to have meaningful conversations employing the terms “liberal” and “conservative.” In many ways, this was the brilliance of this political phenomenon: preserving the rhetoric and nomenclature of a political philosophy while eviscerating it’s content at every turn towards morally dubious ends. I think it obscures very important features of the political landscape to equivocate about this. The dominant American Right Wing has not been conservative in any meaningful sense since before Abraham Lincoln who is in many ways the original modern Republican.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  44. I think part of what ties contemporary Reaganite conservatism to older conservatisms is the belief in natural hierarchy. For older conservatisms, this tended to involve some kind of belief in noblesse oblige, in which the natural hierarchy imposed some duty of care on those at the top, which made the worst extremes of poverty a moral issue, inasmuch as it implied that the elite weren’t performing their duty. On the other hand, this natural hierarchy also made some moderate level of poverty not merely inevitable, but morally right. Contemporary conservatism, on the other hand, naturalizes hierarchy in the form of the market, and if disparities of wealth are simply the outcome of the natural workings of the market, poverty really can’t be a moral issue.

    (I’m confused that people have objected to Adam’s post as mischaracterizing conservatism, given that conservatives repeatedly and explicitly make exactly this argument)

    Comment by voyou | September 15, 2009

  45. Really important point:

    Just because a “conservative” makes an argument, that argument is not therefore conservative. This is generally true, but it is actually quite likely, in this day and age, for “conservatives” to make arguments that make no sense at all or that are actually anti-conservative.

    If I’m objecting to anything, it is this sort of argumentative move. Discussions of this sort, if they are to be meaningful, have to operate on ideas and their histories, at least at some point, or the descriptors really do become ciphers with which one identifies pre-reflectively. This is more or less the state of our political discourse, currently.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  46. So you’re complaining that we’re talking about what “conservative” is normally taken to mean, rather than whatever mysterious thing you take it to mean.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | September 15, 2009

  47. Normally taken to mean by uninformed idiots, sure! Knock yourself out. I’m going to be disappointed, though. If you think what I’m saying is mysterious, then you actually are guilty of criticizing the worst examples of a position because its easy.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  48. Or maybe because it’s a position with actual influence.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | September 15, 2009

  49. all this time, just to explain to Hill that we’re not, in fact, referring to Bismarckian conservatism. Awesome.

    Comment by Michael Schaefer | September 15, 2009

  50. Sorry I want to amend my previous comment: I don’t mean to imply that anyone here is an uninformed idiot, just that the “commonly held meaning” is generally determined by people with no sense for the historical, ongoing conversations of political philosophy nor any sense of intellectual rigor. The commonly held meaning of conservatism might be something completely different in 50 years (I can almost guarantee it will be).

    I think we can acknowledge that the position has influence without conflating it with distinct traditions of political philosophy with which it has a complex and often tenuous relationship. And in that sense, I’m right with you… it is indeed insidious and worthy of critique… but it’s ability to generate linguistic confusion and determine vocabularies is actually a mechanism of its insidiousness.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  51. Michael: You are in fact deploying the term “conservative” as a cipher. I’d wager that if you actually attempted to define it rigorously, this would become apparent. I really think it is important to recognize that the modern American right-wing’s claim on the term conservative is actually an advantage. Continuing to refer to it in that way is part of its strength. I actually think this is a productive conversation, but if you are going to get your panties in a wad at any sort of non-polarizing critique, I can just respond with “totally, bro… conservatives suck!” Which would seem to be the other option.

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  52. Hill, do you think there are a significant amount of Americans today who espouse the kind of historical conservatism that you seem to be trying to get at? I’m not exactly sure what you’re referring to (Burke?), but that may be mainly due to my ignorance in contemporary political philosophy.

    It just seems to me that those who self-identify as conservative today almost exclusively do so with regard to the kind of arguments and rationalizations that everyone else is railing against here. While you may have a theoretical point, I wonder if any aspect of the conservative politics in America today is reconcilable with this authentic conservatism.

    Comment by dave | September 15, 2009

  53. i’m going to say that’s -not- what i’m doing. But I do think that carrying around a definition of conservatism that excludes 95% of the people in the US who call themselves conservative (and has excluded them for over a century by your own estimation) isn’t all that useful. But I’m not particularly wedded to the term–i freely admit I’m referring to the modern American right-wing and we can call them whatever you like–Sons of Goldwater, perhaps? -Of course- it differs in important ways from historic movements that have collectively been referred to as conservative, but as voyou pointed out there are real similarities too–you’re getting hung up on a single term in a way that is profoundly unproductive, while assuming a collective ignorance on the part of every other commenter that seems totally unwarranted.

    Comment by Michael Schaefer | September 15, 2009

  54. and all day i’ve been -this close- to accusing you of having your panties in a wad, so, you know, touche.

    Comment by Michael Schaefer | September 15, 2009

  55. Surely refusing to countenance the use of the term “conservative” to refer to people who call themselves “conservative” is an example of having “no sense for the historical, ongoing conversations of political philosophy.” There is no “rigorous definition” of conservatism, because any such definition would abstract the term from the ongoing historical conversations of which it is a part.

    The relationship between contemporary and past conservatisms is an interesting question. But to simply reject any attempt to apply the term to contemporary “conservatives,” and insist that the only legitimate use of the term is to mean what it meant at some undetermined point in the past is to reduce it to an abstraction with no content. To identify a particular set of ideas amongst those who now call themselves “conservatives,” on the other hand (that is, to do what you have been criticizing people in this thread for doing) is the first step in understanding what “conservatism” might mean.

    Comment by voyou | September 15, 2009

  56. Am I wrong to compare the “pro-life/anti-woman” thing with the “assault the wealthy/relieve the poor” thing?

    And another point, the problem with all this “conservatives are against the poor” talk is that in reality:
    (just one of a host of similar articles)

    Comment by Chad | September 15, 2009

  57. Liberals are in favor of having a system in place to alleviate povery, not relying on individual charitable donations. I’m sure you’d find that Americans donate more to charity than Europeans, too — but poverty rates are higher here.

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | September 15, 2009

  58. Why isn’t it all that useful? Why does a political position need x number of people to ascribe for it in order for it to exist? These seems to be rather simple points. It’s not as if, since there are no longer very many Nazis, we can start calling something else Nazism. That’s just an abstract point, though, that descriptors of political positions shouldn’t be discarded or wholesale altered one the adherents fall below a certain critical mass. I suppose my concern, in general for this, is just an interest in trying to make the thinking of alternative politics easier, as I think the current political debate is constructed, intentionally in some sense, towards precluding the thinking of alternatives. A major structural feature of this precluding is the insistence of thinking every problem in terms of “liberal” and “conservative” with ideological framework (however fluid that in itself might be). I just get the sense that “we ought to call something conservative, and so we are” and I don’t understand why. Certainly there is a relationship between what is being called “contemporary conservatism” and earlier conservatism, but in general, ideas don’t stop existing. As I’ve said, I think perhaps the central defining feature of contemporary conservatism is a kind of nihilistic parasitism on earlier, intellectually coherent ideologies, towards the consolidation of power in the hands of a few and oppression generally, but it becomes really hard to diagnose and discuss this when it’s all called conservatism. I read this blog because it tends to attract philosophically astute, intellectually honest young leftist thinkers (could be a bad assumption, but these are the things I like about Adam) and it is actually in the interest of these sorts of sympathies that a more intellectually nuanced discussion is sought. It’s not like I don’t know what you guys are talking about.

    If I have a motivation to chime in to disrupt echo chamber phenomena (I could be accused of pure contrarianism) it’s just because I think it’s pointless and that if energy is going to be spent in blog comments, it might benefit from constructive dissent. I realize this is stupidly idealistic, but it actually ends up happening sometimes.

    I think feeling as though one’s blogospheric interlocutor has his or her panties in a wad is a pretty general phenomenon and likely an artifact of the medium. I didn’t mean to get in to an arms race with the veiled suggestions of being overly enthused. I’ve honestly enjoyed the exchange, even if it was ill-advised.

    For voyou, there is the prescriptive/descriptive quagmire, and I’m aware of that. I just want to be able to account for the situation in which the historical development of a term itself has a political dimension and is influenced by political actors, which is something that I think is actually happening in this case. That’s why, even if we can’t pin down something called “conservatism” that is independent of it’s instantiation in history, we likewise can’t define conservatism as “whatever conservatives think.”

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  59. Per Adam’s point, the sorts of complicating questions I’d like to ask are: on what level? It’s not as if conservatives are opposed to any organized or even governmental programs for the alleviation of poverty. Could such a thing be handled at the municipal level? It seems like a conservative position could be a pro-welfare one, but operate according to a principle of subsidiarity. I think this level of analysis is more productive of actual political headway than the bifurcation of pro-welfare/anti-welfare. This is an example of the polarization of a discourse (welfare: yes/no) so as to conceal other options (namely smaller units of political organization).

    Comment by Hill | September 15, 2009

  60. To complicate Hill’s complication, I’d like to further ask: what do we even mean by „government,” or „poverty” for that matter? What I intend to suggest, or rather, what my goal is in driving this point further, is to espouse the possible claim, perhaps, that what we are currently referring to as government—in some case a bicameral legislature that controls a semi-autonomous collective of states, otherwise known as a federation, under the leadership of a presidential or executive authority, or perhaps a parliamentarian system in which delegates or ministers form majority and minority factions—is a bit, nay, *far* too limited in scope to engender any kind of truth-seeking inquiry that, I take it, we are quite earnestly engaged in presently. Without a serious consideration of the concept of government as it has been concretely implemented throughout many epochs of human civilization, we will surely remain hopelessly deadlocked in a bit of blogospheric rhetorical herky-jerky—such is the nature of mere abstractions! Certainly we ought to take into account primitive forms of tribal organization brought forth from the fierce but stolid minds of the Iroquois, or the great timocracy of Solonian yesteryear, and what of, dare I say, the libertarian municipalism of Murray Bookchin, one of my most beloved of theorists.

    And to poverty: are we not barbarically reducing this rich—pardon the pun, gentlemen!—concept to its mere relation to currency, be it fiat or material? Can one not be impoverished of the soul, impoverished of wit, or impoverished of happiness? Indeed, I myself may not be a great procurer of many fine, sumptuous commodities, save my precious collected works of M. Bookchin’s thoughts, yet I consider myself to be quite rich in my heart of hearts. All of which is to say that, if we don’t spend the necessary time reconsidering many of these fundamental issues, we will remain guilty of succumbing to ideological rigidities and sheer political nihilism at its worst.

    Comment by Bryan Klausmeyer | September 16, 2009

  61. I am in sympathy with what Hill has been trying to accomplish in this thread. I think that many self-described “conservatives” are in fact deeply confused about what they believe, in part because of the ascendancy of the movement conservatives. And since capitalism and individualism are national religions for liberals as well as for so-called conservatives, it seems fair to note the difficulty people have in unpacking the implications of what they might profess to believe if asked.

    Comment by Richard | September 16, 2009

  62. Following on from Klausmeyer’s salutary complication of the notion of ‘government’ I should like to try to complicate things just a little more. Before we can ask ‘what do we mean by government’ in this context it is surely necessary to pose a more basic question: “what do we mean by ‘meaning'”?

    Comment by engels | September 16, 2009

  63. I agree that many “conservatives” are deeply confused, but this doesn’t change the fact that they will still cast their votes according to whatever their party tells them, and convince themselves that whatever cover story is being touted is actually what they believe (“Obamacare is socialism!”), regardless of any logical sense it may make. If people are already confused enough to not understand the beliefs they claim to hold, how could they possibly distinguish how they want to act/vote from what they are told they must?


    Honestly, I read this before noticing who posted it, so I read with a sympathetic view and am not necessarily trying to argue the results of the polls mentioned in this article. But reading it brought up two points that bothered me.
    One is that even as a person who earns a decent living and owns (hah) a home, I don’t make enough money somehow to itemize my taxes. This means that it makes no different tax-wise how much I donate to charity, which is a decent amount, because it wouldn’t show up. I imagine this is probably how the data was gathered, although I could be wrong. It just makes me wonder how the data would be skewed comparing wealthier people vs. less wealthy, people who file taxes or who itemize at all, etc.
    The other question I had is that it isn’t hard at all for me to believe that a large chunk of “conservatives” tithe to their churches, which would be considered a “charitable donation” for tax purposes. But I don’t feel any qualms at all saying that a very insignificant portion of any money given to churches in the United States actually goes to helping poor or needy people.
    There is a big difference to me between tithing to a church and actually donating money to a charity with a cause and annual reports about what percentage of their money goes to their actual cause versus overhead, salaries, etc.

    Comment by Rebekah | September 16, 2009

  64. “Following on from Klausmeyer’s salutary complication of the notion of ‘government’ I should like to try to complicate things just a little more. Before we can ask ‘what do we mean by government’ in this context it is surely necessary to pose a more basic question: “what do we mean by ‘meaning’”?“

    This might be a step backwards, but we may also wish to pose the crucial normative question of who constitutes, proximally and for the most part, the very „we“ which „we“ have thus far been referring to.

    Comment by Bryan Klausmeyer | September 16, 2009

  65. I don’t know… but if someone could teach me how to do the funky upside down quotation marks, I could possibly make some headway on these essential inquiries.

    Comment by Hill | September 16, 2009

  66. I’ve been wondering about those quotation marks as well. What is the deal, Bryan?

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | September 16, 2009

  67. After using a German keyboard layout for 3-4 months, I’ve found it very difficult to switch back, in particular because the German keyboard alternates the placement of the z and y keys for each other, which at first I found incredibly annoying, but has now become somewhat second nature (other oddities: in order to write an @ sign, you must hit option-L.). And Snow Leopard auto-generates so-called „smart quotes“ now. And there you have it.

    Comment by Bryan Klausmeyer | September 16, 2009

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