Why I am not a Conservative

(with apologies to Lord Russell)

Note: This page is part of the archives of the Phrontistery, but is no longer being updated.


In general, it seems rather silly to go about arguing about the names we give to each other. It would be much more profitable to recognise within ourselves the attributes which correspond to those of certain ideologies, and to ignore the criticisms and jibes of these nominalists, whose only purpose in life seems to be to tell everyone else who they are, and with whom they are allied. Still, there comes a point at which one must defend oneself, or else be accused unfairly of holding other people's views. As the above title suggests, the subject of this discussion is conservatism, and is in particular a response to some of my acquaintances who have levelled such charges against me.

I do not believe that I can be classified as a conservative under any definition of the term - at least, not justly, or only in a very limited sense. Don't get me wrong - many of my friends and mentors have been, are currently and will continue to be conservatives. I have never found it particularly profitable to isolate myself from any intelligent person on the basis of his or her views. Furthermore, I am not a member of that rather and amorphous group known as "the left", which, in my mind, encompasses a wide range of folks from hard-line orthodox (a.k.a. "conservative") Marxists through labour activists, feminists, critical theorists, and anarchists. That is to say, I don't think they would accept me even if I were to invite myself among their ranks. But I will still insist that I am not a conservative.

In my case, I believe that people have a hard time reconciling my rather abrasive (at times, bordering on boorish) nature - especially in academic settings - with the fact that I do not hold extreme views on most subjects. There seems to be an unspoken assumption that anyone who voices an opinion vigorously must be at the far end of some political spectrum. As most of my academic life has been spent in close proximity to the far left, and arguing with them, I am naturally accused of ideological stands which I do not hold. Particularly, I am labelled a "conservative", which is not as offensive as "chauvinist" and "racist" - both of which I have also been subjected to. But these latter claims are, I think, somewhat easier to dismiss. I freely concede that I am more conservative than many of my peers, particularly within my chosen discipline (anthropology). I am not so much offended by charges of conservatism than I am disappointed that I have been so unable, despite much arguing and discussing, to reveal my personal views to others.

A further consequence of my long-term association with members of the student left is that, both in an effort to play the devil's advocate and to inject an oft-ignored point of view into discussion, I have been known to espouse views which I do not truly hold. As someone who has close ties with small-town Ontario, I know that there are places where it is relatively common to see a diatribe on the evils of homosexuality in the editorial section of the newspaper, and where unions are seen as a serious social evil (oh wait … that's the Globe and Mail). These opinions are not held only by people with fewer teeth than fingers who listen to country music and have a shotgun in the back of the pickup. Some members of "the left", I think, would like to believe that, for it reinforces the validity of their own views. Rather, many conservatives are extremely intelligent and well-read people of both sexes and all sorts of ethnic, economic and religious backgrounds. We cannot afford to ignore their opinions, even if we disagree with them. In fact, I believe that anyone wanting to bring about real social change must listen, discuss and negotiate with conservatives in order to plan a course of action based on how the world is, not how some people believe it to be.

So far, I have spent a great deal of time whining about other people. Since I have complained about name-hurling earlier, it seems prudent to get on with the task at hand. To explain why I am not a conservative, I will spend a great deal of time discussing what conservatism is, and the nature of political ideologies in general. If there is to be any quarrel with my argument, it must come at this point - for, as I have noted above, only I know what I truly believe. Only after completing this first labour can I present the case in my defense.

What is a Conservative?

Let us take a basic dictionary definition of the term conservative: "a person opposed to or averse to change; a traditionalist; a person belonging to or supporting the political party which favours the preservation of existing institutions and seeks to promote free enterprise". Seeing that this is a bit narrow, we might seek to add a codicil to this definition adding that conservatives tend to oppose abortion, favour capital punishment, favour a reduction in the size of government, oppose welfare, oppose special rights for women and minority groups, and so on. Other, less widely noted aspects of conservatism, might include for some the promotion of national or ethnic sentiment, religious fundamentalism, distaste for environmental movements, opposition to "political correctness", or even a tendency towards business suits and a taste for classical music!

Obviously, now we have a much wider cluster of beliefs and opinions which would characterise the archetypal conservative. However, we should not fall into the trap of assuming that the archetypal conservative is also the typical one; it remains to be seen to what extent and in what numbers these attitudes are held by "conservatives". It falls upon us also to construct a spectrum of conservatism (and its counterpart, "liberalism"). So, for the time being, we will construct an archetypal "liberal" as being one who supports change, social progress, unions, welfare, minority groups, and so on. Furthermore, lest anyone start jumping up and down furiously with the accusation that I have spent two and one-half pages building a marvellous straw man, let us permit a wide degree of latitude in our definition. Thus, in the end, if anyone still wishes to call me a conservative, they may do so only with the proviso that such a term is recognised as a broad one.

So far, I have broadly discussed several of the underlying issues and questions regarding what it means to be a conservative. Is "traditionalism" a meaningful and relevant way to talk about conservatism as opposed to other ideologies? To what extent is conservatism a unified cluster of beliefs which can be dealt with as a unitary social phenomenon? To what extent are the goals, opinions and actions of conservatives and liberals actually opposed? Are there, in fact, different breeds of the conservative family to be identified? Finally, how do we reconcile our linear conception of political ideology with all these odd people who seem to pop up who don't fit into our mould? Obviously, I am anticipating the argument that I am just one of such odd people (actually, this is not a contested issue among most who know me). This paper is not solely about me, however. We must face the fact that we are nearing the 21st century, still living under 18th century misconceptions about the nature of ideological politics.

Tradition and Progress

Let us take the most basic definition of conservatism possible - traditionalism. This is, in fact, the original Latin meaning of the verb "conservo" - to keep, to maintain. Incidentally, the term "liberal" is by no means opposite to "conservative" in meaning; a more appropriate antonym might be "mutatism", emphasizing the importance of change over tradition. However, I suspect that such a term would be unfair to the mutants. So, we have created a linear spectrum of ideological positions based solely on the criterion of attitudes towards change, and ignoring for the time being the labelling of specific practices as "conservative" or "liberal".

We immediately run into some problems with this conception of things. For instance, it implies that a social practice which is "liberal", once implemented, becomes legitimised (and, presumably, lasts through a suitable incubation period) thereby becomes the new status quo, and is thus accepted by "conservatives". However, this does not seem to provide an adequate view of the real nature of political ideology. Certainly, there is some change in what is seen as "liberal" over time. For instance, the "liberal" view of the 1960s that justice should be blind is now, some claim, a tool of "conservatism" which seeks to keep minorities in their place by ignoring their disadvantaged social circumstances. But this is a matter of the labelling of specific ideas and concepts, not a matter of individual value shifts. I do not believe that there are many people who change their opinions from year to year only on the basis of preventing or causing change. One would not expect, for instance, that should gay rights become widely accepted for, say, fifty years, that conservatives would accept gay rights on that basis alone.

It is this paradox that leads to some very odd situations. For instance, Republican and other highly conservative political candidates often promise radical change from "old- style traditional liberal government". I remember well a situation when an acquaintance of mine spent a good half-hour explaining to me, using this principle, how the Canadian Reform party couldn't possibly be conservative "because look at all the reforms they want to bring about!" And, of course, this paradox runs both ways, and true liberals would have to insist on change even if all their personal goals had been achieved - indeed, even if the world were to be perfected! When this farcical scenario is taken to its extreme, right is left and war is peace and love is hate … It is because of this semantic void that everyone from Donald Trump to Donald Duck has been denounced as a tool of the establishment, and that "liberal" can be used so effectively as a epithet by politicians.

More dangerously, the same sorts of dexterous linguistic turns are applied to the pursuit of knowledge, particularly that politically correct pastime known as dead-white- male bashing (DWM-bashing, for short). It started out innocently enough, with some people pointing out that, say, Bacon, and Hegel, and Hobbes, and some others, were saying some things that just didn't jive with 20th century morality. Then it was Kant, and Rousseau, and Voltaire, and of course all the classics. Now don't get me wrong - a little perspective is a good thing. But I have it from several good sources that Marx and Engels are definitely out, and have been for at least a decade, and that Sartre and Mill are questionable. In fact, the only DWM authors who are still PC are Nietzsche (sometimes), Russell and the postmodernists. I wonder who among these will be the first to fall from grace.

Seeing as almost any social opinion or institution has been present sometime in the past, we can further assume that there is a nearly unlimited number of possible future values, systems, and groups which, whether extant in the past or not, could come to pass. These fairly safe statements, however, lead inexorably to a much more radical conclusion. Since all (or most) social outcomes have existed in some form in the past, and might exist at least theoretically in the future, "conservative" and "liberal" are rendered conveniently devoid of true meaning. Instead, one need only step up to the good old semantic gas pumps and fill the necessary terms with the meaning appropriate in any particular instance.

Now, of course, there is a relatively simple way around this problem. One is to note, as a matter of the factual record, that most "conservatives" are not swayed back and forth according to the whims of social change. Instead, they construct a relatively coherent archetypal society based on a specific time in the past. But, unlike the pure traditionalists, such conservatives would choose a specific time and social circumstance (such as Victorian England or the 1950s US Midwest), but would not necessarily accept earlier traditions (English feudalism, Classical Rome) or later ones (hippie counterculture). Recognizing that, in fact, the situation they imagine to have existed may not have been a real one, the basis of their philosophy in a putative past society provides the necessary element of tradition for our definition. Liberals, too, produce such coherent schemata, only in this case ones based on a vision of society hitherto unrealised. Furthermore, we should not be fooled into believing that liberals have somehow got hold of a crystal ball into the future. They, too, are bound culturally and historically by their past experiences and the values of their society. Thus, in a way, we are all conservatives, because we act on the basis of knowledge, tradition and morality which has historical roots. As conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott has noted, one of the problems with overly rationalistic and individualistic "liberals" is that they behave, or try to think, as if every day were their first.

At this point one might argue that while I am right in one sense - that traditionalism cannot be the sole criterion by which we judge ideology - we still have a cluster of views (albeit a messy one) which can be called "conservative" and another which we call "liberal", and that the former generally tend to couch their beliefs in nostalgic terms, while the latter are more progressive in their outlook. The claim might be made that I am nit-picking over a dictionary definition while deep and serious ideological differences are being overlooked. After all, everyone knows what a conservative is, and what a liberal is. I agree that it is relevant why conservatives and liberals hold certain viewpoints, and that views of the past and of progress are at least part of the answer. Still, other than in very relative historical terms, I can see no reason why economic equality and redistribution is a "leftist" concept, when in fact it has one of the greatest traditions of any human idea. In absolute terms, we must accept the fact that ideology is flexible in meaning and interpretation, and that tradition does not play so great a role as we would like to believe when we use words such as "reactionary" or "establishment".

Thus, we have a pragmatic course of action for modifying our definitions. The part of our definition of "conservative" and "liberal" which emphasises relationships of time (past, present, and future) cannot be taken at face value. Conservatism is not "merely" traditionalism and nostalgia, or else we would all have to return to a hunting, foraging and fishing lifestyle in small kin-based groups. Liberalism is not "merely" pie-in- the-sky insistence on social change, or else no one could ever be satisfied with the state of the world, or of any institution at all. Rather, we must consider these terms as representative of social phenomena rooted in the historical past and the sociopolitical structure of the present. We may even, upon further reflection, decide to omit entirely the reference to views toward social change in general, and base our definitions strictly on certain attitudinal criteria.

In the end, though, who cares? I am quite certain that there are a large number of people, both conservative and liberal, who could get rid of the connection between ideology and temporal change, without changing their views on who is conservative, and who is liberal. And, to justify my position that I am not a conservative, it will not do simply to say that I am not a believer in tradition as an absolute guiding principle. I will further have to show that I do not hold to that cluster of principles known as conservatism - or, to take the argument further, that such a cluster does not, in fact, exist.

Taxonomy of Conservatism

Having just engaged in a lengthy tirade on the perils of classification, I now intend to embark on that journey myself. Lest I be considered hypocritical, by no means am I claiming greater logical coherence or factual superiority for my model than any other, including the linear-spectrum model of ideology under which we currently linger. Nor am I claiming that the sub-species of conservative which I propose are the only ones which have ever existed, or will exist, or even that currently exist. Rather, my modest intention is to explore some of the ways in which the cluster of traits which we call "conservative" may be put together in a way which accords better with the facts than our current view.

The approach which I take is a taxonomic one. The goal of this study: to analyse the species homo conservatus. What are its sub-species? What is their habitat? How much interbreeding goes on between them? More importantly, what are the dynamics which have led to the current demographic situation of conservatus, and what might we expect in the future?

Homo conservatus pragmaticus is a fairly common breed, found throughout the land, but primarily among the middle classes. Pragmatics hold that there are many bad things which go on in the world, but that, in essence, we are powerless to stop them. Furthermore, when changes do occur, they are usually not the result of direct intentional human action but rather of forces beyond any one person's control. In spirit, they are liberals - if only things could be different, such change would be fine - but this can never be the case. Just as the French and Russian Revolutions ended tragically, so too will any such attempt. Some more adventurous members of this sub-species are meliorists, claiming that the world is getting better, despite the failure of human individuals to make it better. Thus, by not rocking the boat, pragmaticus is ensuring continued human advancement, or so the story goes.

At first glance, Homo conservatus fiduciarius appears to be merely a variant of pragmaticus which just happens to feed on a diet of fiscal restraint in a mixed environment of bulls, bears, and sharks. However, where pragmaticus is largely "herbivorous" and defensive in approach, fiduciarius, as represented archetypally by multimillionaire business tycoons, takes a more offensive approach. Certainly, the attitude towards radical change is similar, as such changes are universally bad for the bottom line. Identified specimens include Conrad Black and the Reagan/Thatcher/Mulroney triad, as well as most of Wall Street.

Homo conservatus traditionis is another main sub-species. By and large, when ideological taxonomists take aim at the conservative species, it is the lumbering traditionis which receives the brunt of the assault. Still, it is extremely rare for this beast to be sighted in proximity to any of the other conservative sub-species. This is not to say that traditionis is endangered. It thrives in backwater regions, not only among the cultural élite but throughout the social spectrum. Its main weapon is nostalgia, its primary natural defense the skepticism and fear it can instill in its offspring. Traditionis is often found dipping in the wellspring of wisdom of the ages, wherever that might be. More radical varieties have been known to be severely isolationist and nationalist in nature. Traditionis attracts a number of single-issue conservatives into its gene pool; these include anti- abortion activists, anti-immigration groups such as English First, and victims' rights organizations. Authoritarianism, while not a necessary genetic trait of this sub-species, appears to be much more frequent than would be expected from a random distribution. Some members of this species include Preston Manning, Newt Gingrich, and Jean-Marie Le Pen (leader of the French National Front).

Of all the sub-species, Homo conservatus theologicus is the most perplexing. For most of this century, it was thought to be a dying breed, a remnant which could not possibly withstand competitive pressure from the vibrant pragmaticus and fiduciarius. However, particularly in the wide band of the southern US which is its primary breeding ground, theologicus has made a remarkable recovery (if in fact it had ever declined). While ostensibly the most conservative of all conservatives, theological conservatives are not necessarily immune to the cry for social justice. Now, of course, theologicus is specifically a Christian breed; it remains to be seen whether other religious conservatives have similarly contradictory ideals. Pat Buchanan's insistence that he is for "the working man" (note gendered usage) is not mere politicking but, I think, reflects a serious commitment to improving the conditions of ordinary people (at least in theory). He, along with Ralph Reed, Jimmy Swaggart, and a number of easily identified religious figures, are its most prominent members.

One form of conservative which is ill-recognized by current governments is homo conservatus laboris, the union conservative. Ruling social democratic parties are often perplexed by their inability to keep the votes of the working class on their side. In fact, this is in large part because many of the working class are staunch social conservatives (opposing abortion, welfare, etc.) whose one tie to social democrats is the notion that they will not be screwed as thoroughly as under pro-business regimes. When, in fact, this turns out not to be the case, reaction is swift and decisive - as Bob Rae knows all too well. Preston Manning is entirely correct when he asserts, somewhat paradoxically, that the Reform Party can hope to aim for the votes of some citizens who were previously New Democrats, largely on account of this fact. Laboris is notable for the absence of prominent individuals among its ranks; certainly, this is more a factor of their relative lack of power and media coverage than the strength of their views.

Let us now examine these sub-species in relation to one another. Pragmaticus and fiduciarius share similar fiscal and social policy approaches, but are often radically divergent from theologicus and traditionis in attitudes regarding moral values and community. On the other hand, laboris has an attitude towards redistribution characteristic of no other sub-species, excepting perhaps a few odd theologicus individuals. Even amongst theologicus and traditionis, a number of differences arise from the difference in their axioms of faith which determine the specific trajectory their traditionalism will take. It might seem that all the sub-species share a common anti- intellectualism. However, this fails on two counts. Firstly, the primary breeding grounds for fiduciarius and pragmaticus are among the universities, in the fields of economics and political science respectively. Secondly, such anti-intellectualism is characteristic not only of homo conservatus but of many other ideological species.

As should be clear, my taxonomic exercise does not appear to have distilled any single factor or cluster of factors which are common to all forms of conservatism. It may be the case (although I am not certain of this) that conservatism is a polythetic class as outlined by Wittgenstein. This approach, incidentally but not coincidentally, is now used by many biological taxonomists. If so, each variety of conservatism must share at least one (and likely more) feature with one or more other varieties. Given this situation, we no longer have to insist on the same rigidity in our description. This is, I think, an optimistic analysis. At worst, we may be faced with the scenario that the grouping "conservative" is semantically void, and that we require a complete reorganization of our thought regarding political ideologies. But this is a factual matter as yet to be determined and beyond the scope of this paper. What can be said, barring any major factual errors in my analysis, is that our depiction of conservatism as a holistic entity on one end of a left-right spectrum is inconsistent with the diversity of opinion found among its members.

Consorting With the Enemy

A funny thing happened to me near the end of my second undergraduate year. An acquaintance of mine on the far left was expounding to me her plan towards success as an entrepreneur. I was a little taken aback and said as much, since small business doesn't seem to fit in well with what I see as the ideology of the far left. To this she replied, "Well, you wouldn't want to be working for the enemy, now would you?" Of course, until that point I hadn't realised that I had an enemy. From what I could tell, this elusive but certainly corrupt and evil group consisted of every corporation and political institution in the Western world. How silly of me to have forgotten.

Implicit in this antagonistic view of ideology are a number of positions which tend to polarise and linearise political differences. It is all too easy to create sanctimonious illusions regarding the moral turpitude of "the other side", and to use these images as tools to dismiss their arguments. We all have a basic desire to feel good about ourselves, and to feel that others share our points of view. It is thus very easy to dismiss serious ideological differences among those with whom one shares superficial similarities. The corollary of this fact is that it is very easy to divide the world into polar "us-them" groups, from which we can criticise without having to face the reality of strongly held but well-reasoned views which are opposed to our own. Such dichotomies can only be harmful to political understanding.

As I have pointed out to many people on many different occasions (unfortunately, with little success), our politicians are still human (yes, even Reagan and Thatcher), and are subject to the human foibles which characterise all members of our species. As such, and seeing the great deal of power with which we have entrusted them, we can expect that a certain number of mistakes will be made on the basis of their ideological perceptions. This does not mean they are always out to get you. It also does not mean, as some are wont to believe, that every decision they make will be against your interest. In fact, the majority of political decisions have so little bearing on peoples' lives that we would be hard-pressed to evaluate their ideological content. I would put money on the fact that few non-specialists would be able to list more than a handful of mistakes made by the Mulroney administration over eight years. This is not to say that I support Mulroney, nor does it imply that we know of all the mistakes that were made. What it does signify is that the majority of ideological value statements made by the majority of non-specialists across the political spectrum cannot be concretely supported with evidence. Instead, they are made with reference to a label "Well, she's conservative, and I'm conservative, so …" or, worse, to someone else's label "My grandfather voted Liberal, and my father voted Liberal, so …". This is the most troubling aspect, I think, about our current view of ideology.

It is undeniable that our species is one obsessed with categorizing things, ideas and people. Classifying things into distinct groups helps us to organize the world and to make sense of our senses. But when our classifications take on a life of their own, something has gone terribly wrong. While meant to condense and codify meaningful variability between ideologies, such labels now seem to obscure the very same differences. When we start to talk about our enemies, we are in effect denying our willingness to tolerate differences of opinion. I, for one, think it would be a very good idea to throw all the radicals in one big padded room and let them fight it out for a week or so. It would lead to greater understanding in the long run, I hope.

In effect, just this sort of thing is happening in Ontario right now. The United Way, despite having a socially redistributive function, is nominally politically independent and neutral. As such, it has been asked by the Harris government to try to find ways to integrate workfare into its services. Now, this has prompted resignations and general outcry from the left, who see the United Way as having lost its sense of direction. I, however, see this in an entirely different, and by no means negative light. Now, I happen to think that workfare is a ridiculous idea, primarily because it is not pragmatic in a capitalist society where the value of labour fluctuates with the market, and because jobs can neither be created out of thin air nor can they replace long-term education and retraining programs, not to mention the mean-spiritedness with which workfare has been infused. Still, if it is going to be implemented, we should let one of two things happen. The first is that we let Harris and his cronies put the system in with full force and let it fail on its own defects. This is, however, a dangerous proposition, given that I might be wrong (it might be workable and yet still morally wrong). Even if it were not really functional, such institutions have an invidious way of becoming essential to a social system over time.

The other option is to get your hands dirty, to mess with workfare so that it reflects the input of all points of view. This is clearly what the United Way has chosen to do. If it distances itself from everything that Mike Harris does in the next four years, it will have effectively removed itself from the government - its most important source of influence and power. I consider it socially irresponsible to sit around complaining about a program that has the support of nearly three-quarters of the populace in some form. This is not going to be a pragmatic approach to bringing about the alteration or elimination of workfare, simply for the reason that Harris has on his side a strong mandate from his electorate to do this. But, with socially responsible organizations on the case, we may yet end up with a feasible approach to workfare which does not violate the basic principles of social justice.

It is not my intention to launch a full-scale attack on workfare herein, nor to solve the (numerous) problems of the Harris administration. My point is that without real dialogue between radically different points of view, no productive work will result. A visual analogy might be to imagine a pair of gears, one spinning clockwise (to the right, if you will) and the other spinning counterclockwise, to the left. Each on its own is, if you will pardon the play on words, merely spinning its wheels. However, when brought into proximity, into a common sphere of interaction, the result is productive work. My approach is fundamentally dialectical in the Hegelian sense, in that it attempts to bring synthesis out of internally consistent yet conflicting views within a society. As such, it is likely going to be unsatisfactory to those who are so hidebound as to be unable to conceive of a world without enemies. It will also, for some, prove my conservatism on the basis that I have not wholeheartedly condemned neo-conservative regimes. For those who are not satisfied with a "realist/pragmatist" view of ideology, and who would claim that I have constructed my argument just so in order to lead inexorably to my conclusions, I can offer no refutation but merely the challenge to do better.

Action and Counteraction

At this point, I am certain that some readers are gloating over the fact that because I take a pragmatic view of human affairs, I must belong to that vile sub-species of conservative, pragmaticus. After all, am I not arguing that our power to effect social change is essentially limited? I intend to clear this fallacious argument up in this section, and suggest ways in which we might productively escape the linear spectrum model of ideology in order to more accurately represent the diversity of opinions in the modern West.

The ridiculous argument has been propounded that the fundamental defining feature of conservatives is the "Law of Unintended Consequences": that every action has unintended consequences, and that things never work out the way they were meant to. However, whether one is talking about systemic discrimination in hiring practices, the causes of stock market crashes or putting one's curtains too close to the heater, it seems inevitable that actions have unintended consequences. It seems trivial and uninformative to offer this social "law" as a theoretical principle for the social sciences. I suggest, rather, that conservatism (and here I am referring primarily to the traditional view) rests on a "Syllogism of Unintended Consequences":

a) All actions have unintended consequences;
b) Unintended consequences are bad;
c) All actions are bad.

Now, this is an oversimplification. Perhaps b) could be better expressed as, "The harm which derives from unintended consequences outweighs the good which derives from intentional action". This is, I think, the point at which I may interject successfully. Taking a pragmatic or realistic view of human affairs requires that we not make such broad assumptions about the moral balance of every action / consequence pairing. In fact, it requires that we not accept either a) or b) on faith alone. In fact, it is the failure of pragmatic conservatives to test the validity of their premises, and instead resting on dogmatic assertions of fact, that lead to the reactionary nature of their conclusions. It may be the case that some actions have no unintended consequences, or it may be that the moral benefit of certain actions exceeds the moral harm of its "UCs", or both of these statements may be true.

I cannot think of a single thinker who generally disagrees with a), in reference to human actions. The nature of human social relations and political systems is so complex, and the ability of humans to apprehend accurately the nature of a particular society, institution or situation so limited, that UCs will always happen. However, in approaching b), an odd coalition of the radical left and the radical right results; the former claims that in no case will the damage of UCs outweigh the benefits, while the latter claims that such unbalancing will occur in every case. Both of these policies share the common attribute of being based on laws given from on high, rather than constructed from observing reality. It is highly unlikely that such universality of one view over the other will prevail in every factual circumstance. Of course, these are idealized views which do not correspond to the way that people think. But whenever a person, right or left, makes an assertion without analysis, these sorts of dangerous consequences are the inevitable result.

Once again, the objection might be raised that as gatherers of factual evidence, humans are so notoriously bad that previously held perceptions will overwhelm any objectivity that might exist. This is the primary argument of postmodernism and critical theory. We would then see a situation where people with previous conservative views would be inclined to see harm where none exists, and members of the left would overlook fatal flaws in programs of change. I cannot in good conscience claim that this is not the case. I am fully aware that my argument is open to the further objection that we cannot define what conservatism is (according to the syllogism above) without defining harm, and that we cannot define harm without having a great many preconceptions of what constitutes harm. There is a certain circularity to these sorts of arguments from which I see no egress. Still, this fact does not absolve us of the duty to try to do better, to strive for greater objectivity, and to reach a consensus on the nature of social goods and social evils.

Now we have reached the crux of the argument. I have asserted that the only way we can determine whether the premises of the Syllogism of Unintended Consequences are true is through seeking realism and objectivism in our theoretical approaches and factual analyses. I have further stated that I believe the bulk of the evidence suggests that a) is a generally if not entirely true statement. This is further supported by the fact that a wide variety of political positions (Marxist, feminist, neo-con, libertarian, etc.) hold it to be true. We must then presume either that all of these positions are equally biased towards discovering this truth, or that there is something in reality that leads to the holding of this position. I choose to believe the latter.

Where I differ from pragmaticus is my non-acceptance of b). In fact, I do not think that pragmatic conservatives have analysed the state of human affairs to reach this conclusion, but rather accept it on faith. Moreover, quite often the behaviour of conservatives does not reflect their acceptance of this premise. For instance, native residential schools in Canada, which were intended to assimilate native peoples into Euro- Canadian culture (a dubious intention, to be sure) had the unintended consequences of sexual abuse and mental and physical cruelty of the students, which further led to alcohol and drug abuse by the victims. It does not appear to be the case that conservatives rejected this plan at all, and certainly not on the basis that it would have unintended consequences. The same is true of workfare, where the UCs of such programs in economic and human terms are conveniently ignored.

Another issue is whether it may be possible by further action to negate or minimize the effects of UCs on a particular program of social change. Whether this is possible depends on the answer to the question, "Are the unintended consequences of action (whether good or bad) quantitatively greater than the actions which create them?" The answer to this question depends on rigorous analysis of the consequences of action for social structures and individuals within social systems. It is important to distinguish two axes of analysis at this point. The first is one of moral value, the second one of systemic quantity. It is entirely possible to have a wicked policy which has little ability to disrupt a social system, just as it is possible to have a morally neutral policy which has earth- shattering consequences for institutions and structures. The question of whether the harm of UCs outweighs the good of actions is an entirely different question to whether the power of UCs outweighs that of the actions causing them.

If UCs are greater in degree than the actions producing them, then any counter- action will, according to a), have a still larger counter-consequence, and so on. The feedback loop in this instance is a positive one in which every action has a greater counter-reaction, effectively eliminating any possibility of achieving any stable goal. By "stable" I do not mean reactionary or conservative. Presumably those who are committed to equality of wealth do not intend for this to disappear once it is accomplished, but rather are seeking a stable goal of equitable redistribution.

The other possibility is that UCs of actions are less powerful than the actions themselves. If this is the case, then any consequence can be counteracted, with the knowledge that the resultant counter-consequence will be of lesser degree. This situation is one of negative feedback, because the variation created within the system is reduced. However, it should be noted that at no time can a truly perfect and stable situation result, because there can be no "final" action which does not produce a consequence. I believe this to be a strong argument against a naïve Platonic conception of the perfectability of the world. In effect, we should be seeking relatively stable yet imperfect solutions. To demand more of a science of human affairs is unrealistic and potentially harmful.

I am in no position to undertake a detailed analysis of any institution in terms of the balance of action and consequence needed to change it. My point is that anti- intellectual blather will not solve these problems. Despite the commitment of the radical left to social change, any such individuals with anti-realist and obscurantist motives are in fact perpetuating a fundamental lack of change in social systems. Similarly, the far right will be hopelessly trapped in its nostalgic vision as long as it fails to analyse social systems. While it would be foolish to claim that the realist/obscurantist distinction replaces the conservative/liberal one, it muddies the waters sufficiently to require a new way of looking at human affairs.

So, in the end, if there is any reader who is not satisfied that I am not a conservative, let them answer me this: What kind of conservative am I? After all, when all is said and done, I cannot prove that I am not a conservative, simply because that determination rests on the prior assessment of what conservatism is. So, if one defines conservatism as an ideology which seeks to minimize the deleterious effects of capitalism, which seeks to ensure that everyone has a decent standard of living, and which values education and health care extremely highly, then count me in. In effect, I am shifting the onus onto others to show me how I fit into their vision of conservatism. I am aware that this will not convince everyone, but if only a few take a second look and re-evaluate their ideological categories, then I will be satisfied.

What We Must Do

We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world - its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of ideology is a conception derived from the Enlightenment neo-liberal despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men and women. When you hear people on the hustings debasing others and saying that they are filthy leftists, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a utopian vision of what will never be. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time towards a view of ideology that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create.

Copyright 1997 Steve Chrisomalis. This work may be downloaded for personal reference but may not be redistributed or altered without permission. Return to the Phrontistery
This page was last updated on May 3, 1998.