Yesterday’s post, “Conservative Inheritance,” explored the deep grounding of conservatism in hard-won experience. Rather than existing as an ideology–a framework built upon abstract principles derived in a rationalistic vacuum—per se, conservatism is the product of concrete, empirical observation.
As I’m teaching my summer course, The History of Conservative Thought, I’m delving deeper into this understanding of conservatism. Last week I wrote about the Russell Kirk’s six characteristics of conservatism, which my students and I discussed (and which they’re writing about for today). While preparing that lesson, I was struck by the assertion that conservatism is not an ideology.
For so long, I’d been conditioned to think of it that way—and to think of our cultural and political battles as fundamentally ideological. I still think there is a great deal of truth to that, as the modern Right battles against a progressivism imbued with a Cultural Marxist teleology (apologies, philosophy majors, if I’m misusing that word). But conservatives must be aware that, by playing by the Left’s rules, we’re implicitly accepting the Left’s frame.
Regardless, all of these ideas and debates were circulating in my mind as I considered this week’s #TBT feature. I landed, finally, on a piece entitled “Reality Breeds Conservatism” from last June. The piece is not so much about ideological battles, but about a study (linked below) that argued that fewer risks made people more “liberal”—more willing to take risks—while greater risks made people more “conservative”—less willing to take risks.
Great insights there, Washington Post. Yeesh.
Anyway, here is June 2018’s “Reality Breeds Conservatism“:
There’s a piece in the Washington Post about how progressives (“liberals,” as the article puts it) and conservatives think differently. Like many such pieces, it essentially reduces conservatives to being more fearful, and touts that, in the absence of fear, conservatives become liberal.
I don’t entirely disagree with the basic findings of the Yale researchers; beloved Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson makes similar claims. Peterson argues that progressives are risk-takers, the ones who explore over the mountain or innovate new businesses, while conservatives are the managers (and conservators) of the new institutions that arise from innovation.
Obviously, this basic analysis is a generalization, a reduction that makes it a little easier to understand the world around us. As such, there are broad exceptions: we all know conservatives who fight hard in the culture wars, who build new businesses, and who support new ideas or techniques—many at great personal, financial, and political risk.
Meanwhile, progressives politically are still clinging to the same failed ideas that have motivated their policy proscriptions for decades—increasing the minimum wage, expanding the welfare state, pushing identity politics.
That said, the article linked above—which chillingly says “we conducted an experiment to turn conservatives into liberals” in the title—points to the fear factor as the key to determining conservative vs. progressive viewpoints. In doing so, it points to said experiment, which is deeply flawed at its core.
To wit: researchers conducted an online poll (a bit iffy) of 300 U.S. residents, only 30% of whom were Republicans. Two-thirds of the survey-takers were women, and 75% were white, with an average age of 35. This collection isn’t exactly heavy on conservatives to begin with, and it’s unclear who was offered the opportunity to take the survey, which itself has a verysmall sample size. I’m picturing a group of undergraduate psychology chicks posting a link to a SurveyMonkey survey on Facebook, which is about the amount of rigor I would expect from the “academic” social sciences these days.
Besides the small sample size and lack of diversity, the core flaw is the methodology. Those surveyed were asked to imagine a scenario in which they were given one of two superpowers: half were granted the power to fly, the other half granted the power “to be completely safe, invulnerable to any harm.” The participants then completed the aforementioned survey.
What they found was not all that surprising, although the researchers feign as such: it turns out that, in the absence of physical harm, conservatives become much more progressive, which—in the context of this study—basically means that they’re more open to people or situations that are different from them, and therefore inherently riskier.
Well, duh—in the absence of objective reality—to be free of any risk of physical harm, broadly-defined—I would partake in all sorts of risky activities that I would be reluctant to attempt when the threat is real. That’s because I wouldn’t bear the costs of any of those risky actions (and as someone who broke a wrist falling from a ladder last fall, I can say that those costs are very high).
The late Kenneth Minogue wrote an essay in 2001 entitled “The New Epicureans,” in which he pointed out that, historically, only the very wealthy—the aristocratic elites of society—could afford to partake in risky behaviors, things like casual sex, drug abuse, and the like—while the rest of us plebes had to adopt a more Stoical approach to life—avoiding undue risk, living life cleanly and simply, dutifully serving our families and communities.
With broadly-spread wealth and widely-available contraceptives, however, modern chumps can mitigate the risks of a “live fast, die young” lifestyle in the same way ancient elites could—to an extent. What used to be the self-indulgent indolence of a very small group (the hated 1%!) has now become the self-destruction of a majority of modern Westerners. And, of course, it doesn’t work out well, as most folks don’t have the means to pay for their immoral-but-convenient choices.
While we might be able to avoid more of the consequences of our actions—and, therefore, participate more eagerly in the temptations of a hedonic existence—there are still consequences, often dire ones. I’ll write about some of these in my upcoming eBook, Values Have Consequences: Why the West Needs Social Conservatism, but take one lethal example: abortion.
What could more self-destructive, for more selfish ends, than to snuff out a human life? Looking at this in the most dispassionately, economic way possible, it boils down to a calculation: do I buckle down and adopt the Stoic lifestyle necessary to provide for this new life, thereby sacrificing my own personal enjoyment, or do I get rid of this “clump of cells” and avoid the huge costs and time-commitments of childrearing? The major legal hurdles being removed via the disastrous Roe v. Wade ruling—and in the absence of a deep-rooted moral framework—many women, sadly, have opted for the latter option (which many, sadly, come to regret).
So, yes, if you strip away external costs and the threat of pain, people of any political or temperamental persuasion will indulge in more risk-tasking, for good and for ill, and might be more welcoming of strangers or alternative lifestyles.
But a healthy dose of Stoic skepticism about life is not detrimental. We should not live our lives in fear, but we should govern sensibly—for example, by enforcing our national borders. In short, conservatism is rooted profoundly in reality—it responds to real threats, prepares for real dangers, and seeks to build a life that, rather than relying on vague abstractions, grows organically from the nature of things as they are.
One final note: the study found that, when witnessing acts of physical violence or hearing about one group or another causing trouble, liberals will become more conservative, even if temporarily. This was true of the original “neocons” in the 1960s and 1970s, who were “mugged by reality.”
I believe it also holds true for those soft-liberals and centrists who saw the electoral chicanery, cultural division, racialized politics, and violent tactics of the Left in the 2016 election; having been “mugged” once again, they voted for a safety and reform.
Thank God Trump is a risk-taker.