Arnold Kling  

What Do Conservatives Believe?

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Tyler Cowen draws up a list. I liked his last point:

Responsibility is a more important value than either liberty or equality.

The other night, we had a dinner party where my wife and I were the only ones who did not vote for Obama (if you recall, I voted for Barr). There was much discussion of health care policy, and one of my friends said that he got the email from to boycott Whole Foods and was happily complying. But most of the conversation he spent complaining about poor people's lack of responsibility. For example, he suggested that a kidney transplant would be wasted on a poor person, because that person could not possibly follow through on the rigid instructions for post-transplant care, and thus would die. I did not say so at the time, but I was struck that his was a very conservative outlook.

Anyway, I continue to believe in a simple model of the differences between C, L, and P. The conservative thinks that wisdom resides in long-practiced cultural norms. The libertarian believes that wisdom resides in individual choices. And the progressive believes that wisdom resides with progressive elites.

But Tyler asks for a generous interpretation of conservatism. Here are a few thoughts that are not captured by Tyler's list. Again, these are what I think of as conservative beliefs, not what I believe.

1. Human culture is going down hill. Where a progressive is ashamed of our past and hopeful for the future, a conservative is proud of our past and worried about the future. Everywhere a conservative looks, he sees decay: sexual morals, education, political leadership, civic responsibility. Unless we can somehow revive our lost virtues, our past greatness will fade into a perilous future. [UPDATE: For the counter-argument that culture is on a downward trend, listen to the latest podcast featuring Tyler Cowen and Russ Roberts.]

2. Christianity is the key to civilization and, dare one say it, the most progressive force in history. Ultimately, it is to Christianity that we owe the idea of the dignity of every human being. From this source comes recognition of the evils of slavery, tyranny, poverty, war, and violence. Humans are evil, but thanks to Christianity they are less evil.

3. Markets are preferable to government to the extent that markets are more consistent with family responsibility. Too much government leads to dependency and loss of virtue. However, cultural solidarity and virtue are more important than small government. Markets are amoral, and market processes can produce change that is too rapid for a culture to absorb. Markets promote individuality, at the expense of group cohesion. It is better to have government redistribution programs and regulations that hold society together than to allow markets to foster a total breakdown in social norms.

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The author at Remaking Modern Society in a related article titled Monday Birch: The Clash Between Nature and Civilization Continues writes:
    This is the first in a continued series of weekly columns where I debate and reflect over the past week's news and general, broad topics. My commentary will be short and concise, but open and suggestive in nature. Today I look at problems arising from the [Tracked on September 7, 2009 12:50 PM]
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mgroves writes:

Sometimes I find it hard to label myself as either a conservative or a libertarian, because I waiver depending on the issue. For instance, I mostly agree with #1 and #2, and mostly disagree with #3 (in the sense that I'm much more market-friendly).

I think a combination of Judeo-Christian (Abrahamic?) ethics and free markets are what has given America such a unique place in history, and I'd be in favor of any policy that embraces that. Basically: life, liberty, property, in that order :)

c141nav writes:

Just ran across a relatively new (2007) book, '8 Ways to Run the Country' by Brian Patrick Mitchell. He slices and dices the country to more than just C, L, and P.

His thesis goes beyond the Nolan Chart associated with the Advocates of Self-Government. He uses 'democratic' and 'hierarchcial' as his elemental distinction of types. But, he uses these words without either prefix - focusing on the 'arche' and the 'kratos'.

Just started the book and can't give a thorough review yet. But, interesting new look at American society.

lagged_variable writes:

Your C,L,P model's definition of "P" seems too transparently pejorative. Why not define all that way? C thinks that wisdom resides in institutional elites, who enforce the mores of the "traditional" culture (which includes, in the US, markets, religion, and generally Anglo-Saxon practices). L believes that wisdom resides in entrepreneurial elites, who can improve societry best when individual choices are aligned with market incentives. And P believes in a progressive elite, the set of people who try to improve society by advancing some (non-market) concept of the "general welfare".

I'd stress the similarity (in addition to the obvious differences) of L and P under this scheme - both agree that new ideas can improve society, and that they must be tried through one mechanism or another. Libertarians believe the market efficiently selects these ideas. Progressives believe some political or consensus-based process will select out the good from the bad. Conservatives believe in the "old ways" and are generally skeptical of the prospect of new ideas improving society. The questions are progress v stasis and markets vs (and here I'm a little vexed, as an economist) community, or society, or simply "not markets".

Drewfus writes:

P also stands for Platonists - those who believe that society should be ruled by a small group of 'wise men' (and 'wise women') who, by their sheer intellectual brilliance and compassion, know what's best for the rest of us and govern appropriately. The patriarchal dictatorship.

Markets vs community?

Markets are simply the commercial structure and transactional activity of and within the community. They are not fully distinct things, as your dichotomy seeks to imply. This is the ever-fashionable idea of treating 'the market' as some dark, looming yet abstract thing, seperate from the people that participate in it and partly define it, and therefore incompatible with the communities values/wants/needs. This strategy is employed by those who want to control the market, and consequently society, for their own purposes. This includes both P's and C's. The L's oppose this and believe instead that the market and the people are not fully distinct conceptually, but that markets develop from the self-organizing tendencies of human action in a social context. L's also believe that markets are efficient, but no more efficient than the people who participate in them, though more efficient than non-markets social entities like governments that lack the motivating power of market competition, and its corollary - profit and loss.

Tom Hickey writes:

There are several inconsistencies with this picture.

1. It seems obvious that instead of going downhill, human progress is improving with technological advancement that has vastly improved life for 99% of the the people in developed societies. Christendom was feudal. These "lost virtues" are basically a variation of the romantic ideal of the "noble savage" and the lost "Golden Age."

2. Technology, not Christianity, has been the driving force of modern civilization. Christianity has been and continues to be the enemy of science. As technology enabled leisure for universal education, life became more rational and intelligent, allowing for the establishment of democratic societies. The Enlightenment thinking that lead to democracy was not based in Christian values as much a rational thought that revolted against imposition of ideology. The founding Fathers were not "Christians" in the sense that many use this term today, and many were Deists.

3. Free markets have often led to the "social degradation" that conservatives decry, and many conservatives think that restrictions in the form of censorship could have prevented this loosening of social norms. It can reasonably be argued that the pursuit of profit has led to the pushing of the envelope of social norms, not "social degradation" pushing business. This is the old, "the devil made me do it," excuse.

Finally, caricaturing liberalism/progressivism as believing that wisdom resides with progressive elites is setting up a straw man. That is just ideological bias that fails to grasp what liberalism is about, not a reasoned statement of genuine issues. Liberalism/Progressivism is broadly based on J. S. Mill's On Liberty and Utilitarianism.

The elite that effectively rules the US is the plutocratic oligarchy that provides the bulk of campaign finance and lobbying funds. As long a legalized bribery continues, both political parties will continue to be rented, since no one can win a general without going hat in hand to the vested interests. See, for example, Paul B. Farrell-MarketWatch: Democracy is dead.

lordzorgon writes:

To Tom Hickey on point (1): Yes, science and technology have massively advanced. But if you want to argue that human *culture* has advanced, then that's another matter entirely. Take the specific examples Arnold gave: "sexual morals, education, political leadership, civic responsibility."

Some of the supposed "declines" are often overstated; for example there were some really awful politicians back in 19th Century America also. And historically there were plenty of uneducated folks; people forget how new it is for college education to be so widespread. Sure, we have high school dropouts now, but what about all the kids living out on the farm who never even bothered going that far in school?

The one that seems clearest to me as being in decline is sexual morals. We have a society where young men are learning that they must learn "Game" and become caddish "PUAs" in order to attract young women, very few of whom are marriage-worthy in the first place. Monogamy is being replaced by hypergamy, where a small number of highly attractive men have more women than they know what to do with and the rest fight over the leftover scraps. See F. Roger Devlin and Roissy.

Marriage is declining rapidly, and out-of-wedlock birth is once again growing rapidly (

Tom Hickey writes:

@ lordzorgon

And this increase in "sexual immorality" (value judgment) has been happening under conservative as well as liberal governments. In fact, conservatives have been in power for most of this period. Therefore, conservatism leads to sexual immorality? Correlation is not causation.

So I don't get your point. Oh, you mean that unwed people are "irresponsible?" Only if they don't take care of their kids. There are plenty of others that don't take care of their kids, too. In that case, you are objecting to irresponsibility, not intercourse out of wedlock. Working people are increasingly applying for food stamps. Irresponsibility? More people are lazy and don't want to work since the economy collapsed and they lost their jobs or were cut back, receiving less pay?

Are more people living together and not getting married because they can't afford to on their wages? If so, maybe that's responsible.

Since Libertarians haven't been in power, I guess they escape this criticism, politically anyway. But it seems to me that Libertarians should be happy, since more people are exercising greater freedom without infringing on other people's rights, and more freedom is better, isn't it? Or is "sexual immorality" infringing on other people's rights?

What I am saying is that these issues are not cut and dried. All of us see the world in terms of the norms of our ideology. There are different ways of cutting the pie, and it is just not possible to show on the basis of evidence and causation which is superior because different parties judge on different norms and behavioral science isn't sufficiently evolved to handle this.

I think that the C, L and P views are interesting to compare and would like to see this done objectively in terms of key issues and fact, while also identifying ideological values and norms. While values and norms are to some degree arbitrary, it is possible to provide a rationale for them in terms of criteria like utility (maximizing happiness).

lordzorgon writes:

Tom: you seem to assume that I'm a L. I'm probably more of a C.

Now I don't think there's anything inherently outrageous about what is traditionally thought of as "sexual immorality." I don't care what people do in their bedrooms as long as it doesn't affect me.

I do care the moment it affects me. For example, when a poor single mom has a kid, I'm likely to have to shell out a bunch more tax dollars for health, education, and welfare government programs.

I do care if I end up in a screwed-up dating market where I have to spend a bunch of my energy (that could have been spent on productive endeavours that would have been more fun and would have benefited all of society, say, inventing new technologies at work) on the fundamentally non-productive task of learning "Game."

Or, more broadly, I care if people in our society start devoting more of their efforts to negative-sum or zero-sum games rather than to positive-sum games. Men learning "game" is negative-sum. Men engaging in status-seeking (which is often motivated by the desire to sleep with hotter women) can be positive-sum, zero-sum, or positive-sum depending on how they do it.

Think of it this way: if the people who had the highest social status were people who had won the Nobel Prize or the Fields Medal, and all the hot girls wanted to sleep with Nobel Prize winners, then a lot more guys would be interested in careers in science and math. And that would probably work out to be positive-sum, because we all benefit from scientific innovation.

If social status is determined primarily by wealth, there's good reason to think that that, too, will be positive-sum, because you get wealth by creating value for other people. Oh, sure, I know there are exceptions like externalities, etc., but within a well-designed legal framework we can minimize these problems and ensure that the way you get wealth is by creating value, not destroying it.

But if social status is determined by being a "bad boy" alpha male, then that's most certainly going to be a negative-sum game that our society will *not* benefit from.

I also care that marriage and family has become a risky business for a guy like me. Divorce is a high-probability outcome and has severe negative consequences for me, and I have little to no power to prevent it due to no-fault divorce. So I'll probably not get married and probably not have a family, at least not in the US. Probably not a good thing for our society.

And as far as the overall trend regarding sexual morals, it seems clear to me that it's in the wrong direction.

Doc Merlin writes:

@ lordzorgon


Dude, you have said what most tech-y males have been thinking about for the past few years. As a society we succeeded because social status among males and who got their pick of the females was determined mostly by achievement (or at least it was perceived that it was). That changed sometime in the last 40 years, and it seems males (particularly in the poorer communities) are spending more of their time in negative sum games. This is *severely* detrimental to society.

guthrie writes:


I think point #2 is about as accurate a description of what most mainstream Christains believe as one can put down. Thank you!

Mateo Raft writes:

If Christianity is the key to civilization, then what about the Persian Empire, which was non-Christian? Much evidence shows that great civilizations may be non-Christian--see also Incas, Angkor, etc.

In addition, if we assume that unnecessary or excessive killings of civilians and innocent persons is not progressive, your thesis fails. For example, if Christianity was the most progressive force in history, then why did an overwhelming number of American Christians tolerate the peculiar institution of slavery? Why did an overwhelming number of American Christians deem non-whites inferior for so many centuries? Why did American Christians use police dogs on civil rights protesters? If we also assume that Southerners are more religious than non-Southerners, then the past 75 years alone rebut your thesis--fewer places have been less progressive and more Christian in America than the South.

Furthermore, why were most participants in 20th Century wars and pogroms from majority-Christian countries? In the past hundred years, evidence shows that majority-Christian civilizations were the most violent of all. In fact, the one entity that has caused the most loss in human life over the past century has been Christian governments and their soldiers.

See, for example, Washington's America and the Native Americans; Lincoln's America and the Civil War; Hitler's Germany; Nixon's America and Vietnam/"Operation Menu"; Truman's America and Hiroshima; Bush I's America and Iraq; Bush II's America and Iraq and Afghanistan.

Some people may argue that these killings were made with good intentions, but try your progressive religious argument on the millions of African (slaves), Native American, Jewish, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Iraqi, and Afghan civilians who have been murdered by Christian-led governments.

In the end, I suppose it depends on your particular viewpoint. If you're an American Christian in the year 2009, America is a progressive place. As a result, I can understand why some American Christians would associate progressiveness with Christianity. However, as the death tolls above indicate, no religion can call itself progressive or truly peaceful--whoever is in power at any particular time kills whomever they consider to be "the other." Religious differences--such as the one you promulgate in #2--is one way of inventing differences and superiority to allow our conscience to avoid responsibility for the deaths we cause.

Being from Silicon Valley, I may be biased, but I agree with Tom Hickey: "Technology, not Christianity, has been the driving force of modern civilization." Assuming all religions may incorporate and contribute to technological advances, then associating any particular religion with progress is a subjective, historically-myopic, and divisive exercise. It saddens me that Arnold Kling is consciously engaging in divisive identity politics.

nyongesa writes:

I have always been amazed by the conception of a historically better America, because the enslavement of my entire family and I in any such period, would seriously cloud my judgment.

The acculturation of modern Americans, outside of a very narrow sub set, would not accept the lynching of anyone by a frenzied mob of regular folks. Given the inception of the country, that's a testament to social transformation, equal to or greater than it's incredible economic or political growth.

guthrie writes:

@ Mateo, Tom

If you read the post again, perhaps you'll notice that Arnold isn't arguing the "Christianity is the key to civilization" concept. He is merely pointing out that this is what most *Christian conservatives* believe. As such, this is accurate.

In other words, this isn't an endorsement, just an observation.


I would add 'technological growth' to your last line...

Burke A writes:

Ok, here we go. I think I'd put my thinking broadly in line with mgroves. But I do have some critiques.

1. I actually don't think that human culture is going down hill in the way that Robert Bork thinks. Sure some attributes you mention are in decline and a cause for concern, but others have acutally improved. So on the whole, it's really a mixed bag, with some positives and some negatives.
Tom seems to define being in power by what party wins elections. (the bit about Rs being in power during the "cultural decline") I'd actually say here that the government is more a reflection of the cultural changes than the other way around. Elected officials are a secondary concern to conservatives here, the primary battle is the culture's values.

2. Christianity. I don't think conservatives believe that civilizations didn't exist before christianity. Just that the enlightenment and our current American civilization is a product of that values system. Christians were/are not a more moral people, in fact the christian ideology is a refutation of that very idea. Christianity didn't somehow support slavery because some Christians were apologists for it. Slavery is a human institution far older than Christianity, and most of the fervent aboloitionists were zealous Christians.
Nor is it Christianity reflexively anti-science. Unless you think that there should be no restrictions on what a scientist can do, regardless of the effects on other people. Sure the Religious Right opposes things like embrionic stem cell research, but they certainly aren't opposed to all kinds of science. They just disagree with the moral judgements that certain scientists are making. And frankly, scientists are no more qualified to make those judgements than religious zealots, because Science is equiped to ask how, not why, or whether something is moral. It's outside the domain science's expertise.
Furthermore, why were most participants in 20th Century wars and pogroms from majority-Christian countries? In the past hundred years, evidence shows that majority-Christian civilizations were the most violent of all. In fact, the one entity that has caused the most loss in human life over the past century has been Christian governments and their soldiers
What about Mao's China, and the bloody wars of tribal humans? I'd say that Christians were no more or less violent than other cultures, we are just more aware of the violence of nominally Christian populations, because that culture is dominant in the western world and that is the history we study. I also think you are making an error of attribution if you assume that Christianity is the cause of the violence. Just as you attribute the blame of slavery to Christianity. Did Christians practice slavery? Sure, but they were the first people to offer opposition to the institution and eventually make it illegal. To paraphrase, Christianity is the worst belief system on earth, except for all others.

Matt Raft writes:

Burke A: if we eliminate wartime deaths, then you are correct--Mao and Stalin, both non-Christians, caused the most deaths in the 20th century.

As for slavery, however, isn't it true that the Islamic Prophet Mohammad condemned slavery on the basis of color/ethnicity well before most Christians accepted that such slavery was morally wrong? See, for example, the story of Bilal ibn Rabah.

Also, compared to Judaism and Islam, wasn't Christianity late in condemning slavery on the basis of color or ethnicity? For most of its history, Christian America had few qualms about mistreating/raping slaves or treating persons more harshly because of the color of their skin.

In addition, according to Prof. Jonathan Brockopp, "Other cultures limit a master's right to harm a slave but few exhort masters to treat their slaves kindly, and the placement of slaves in the same category as other weak members of society who deserve protection is unknown outside the Qur'an. The unique contribution of the Qur'an, then, is to be found in its emphasis on the place of slaves in society and society's responsibility toward the slave, perhaps the most progressive legislation on slavery in its time."

aesthete writes:

In point of fact, the Old Testament (which would presumably cover both Christians and Jews) strongly condemned slavery of the sort practiced by the colonial powers and the South, going so far as to mandate the death penalty for those who participated in such a system (Exodus 21:16, for anyone who's interested)*, and as others have mentioned, Christians have often been at the forefront of the human rights movement. Back to the main point, it is difficult to state objectively that Christianity was the motivating force behind the eminence of Western Europe from the Enlightenment era onwards, but it cannot be denied that many of those agents who were instrumental in changing the cultural and institutional norms (and even some of the most vociferous opponents of the church's acquisition and use of temporal power) were devoutly Christian. Personally, I'm not a fan of mixing religious and state functions, but I do understand where many of those who disagree with me are coming from.

*As an addendum, it must be noted that the religious laws in the Pentateuch (first five books of the Bible) did allow for a form of slavery reminiscent of a highly regulated type of indentured servitude, establishing some basic rights for slaves (Deuteronomy 15:12-15 covers many of them) and implying a contractual arrangement (most of the slaves in Israel were slaves as a result of low social status and/or outstanding debts). Elsewhere in the New Testament, slave-owners are told to treat their slaves rightly and fairly (Colossians 4:1), and slave traders are compared to those who murder their fathers and mothers (1 Timothy 1:8-10).

That was way more exegesis than I wanted to get into :)

guthrie writes:

@ aesthete:

The Muslim religion also recognizes the Old Testament as God's word. Muhammad didn't come up with those ideas about slavery on his own.

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