Risk, Relativism, and Resources
Three things conservatives must know about progressivism in order to defeat it


Kevin D. Williamson

Conservatives understand the intellectual roots of conservatism better than progressives do, for obvious reasons, but we also understand the intellectual roots of progressivism better than progressives do. That is the case in no small part because progressives prefer to think of themselves as non-ideological pragmatists and empiricists, and they are immune to the irony that their just-the-facts pose is only an echo of vintage “scientific socialism” and related 20th-century ideologies with which our contemporary progressives claim to have no kinship. (I know a guy who wrote a book about that.) Progressives do not study Marx, Bismarck, Croly, or their other intellectual founding fathers, because they do not believe them to be their founding fathers — and also because many of them are kind of embarrassing.

But even though we study the Left’s thinkers, spend years in the universities they administer, and swim in the popular culture they dominate, conservatives still occasionally fail to appreciate critical aspects of the progressive tendency — especially the most attractive ones. Perhaps we should make a New Year’s resolution to better understand them, if not for reasons of charity and intellectual probity (we should always engage our opponents on their most meritorious arguments), then at least because doing so will help us to advance in the theater of ideas.

The political preferences that produced two terms for President Obama have been with us for a long time and will be with us long after the gentleman from Honolulu has completed the 82nd volume of his memoirs, and we would do well to better understand its attraction. The desire of one part of the population to live at the expense of another certainly is part of that, but conservatives are kidding ourselves if we think that the Democratic constituency consists entirely of freeloaders.

With that in mind, there are three ideas that should help guide conservatives’ thinking and policy prescriptions.

First: Progressives and those who sympathize with them are economically risk-averse compared with conservatives. As Charles C. W. Cooke recently pointed out, the terms “conservative” and “liberal” are sometimes confusing in the American context, and that is certainly true in the case of financial risk, about which conservatives are not conservative at all. As an academic study published in the American Journal of Business put it: “As the economic political orientation of the subjects in our study becomes increasingly conservative (meaning they lean more towards an economically libertarian position as opposed to an economically socialistic position), they assume significantly higher levels of risk in their investment decisions.” Other studies find similar results.

There are many ways to measure financial risk tolerance, but consider this: One of the riskiest things you can do with your money is start a business, and entrepreneurs and small-business owners skew heavily Republican. The 2011 survey from the National Small Business Association found that 54 percent of the organization’s members identified as Republicans, while only 16 percent identified as Democrats; it is significant that more small-business owners identified themselves as independents in the survey than as Democrats.

The Democratic party is in fact a coalition of financially risk-averse groups: Women, blacks, and Hispanics all exhibit a high degree of financial risk-aversion when compared with whites and men. Even when controlling for income, white households are more likely to invest in stocks and other relatively risky assets compared with non-white households, and men are more likely to invest in stocks than are similarly situated women, though those differences are somewhat diminished when accounting for net worth and education. Black and Hispanic households, even when adjusted for income, are more likely to invest in low-risk, low-yield assets such as government bonds:

African-American households are particularly conservative in their investment style, preferring real-estate assets and insurance products to stock and bond investments. Even within these relatively more popular investment categories, however, the mean values for all categories of real-property investments across the African-American sample lie well below their corresponding values in white households. This trend persists across all income and education levels.