The Corner

Is Conservatism Good For Everybody?

I’m just thinking out loud here.

Matt Yglesias explains “I’m a liberal because I mostly think the stuff liberals want to do will improve most peoples’ lives.” I’m not looking for an argument with Yglesias (I do that too much, I know). But it did remind me of an important and overlooked difference between leftism — broadly defined — and various forms of rightism, chiefly most strands of conservatism and libertarianism. While it is obviously the case that liberalism mostly trumpets policies on the majoritarian, egalitarian and utilitarian grounds that what’s best for the “masses” is best, that’s not entirely or necessarily true of conservatism and libertarianism. Yes, most of us will argue that conservative/libertarian economics is best for everybody in the long-run — and I think the vast majority of conservatives believe this — there’s a competing consideration. A strong belief in property rights and individualism may, sometimes, at the margins be bad for the masses, particularly in  the short run. And while arguments about how, in the long run, the  rule of law benefits everyone are correct, they are distinct from a conservative emphasis on justice.

I’m reminded of Justice Roberts’ confirmation hearings when he was asked (I think by Kennedy) whether the “little guy” would get a fair shake in his courtroom when up against a big corporation. Roberts essentially answered “yes, if the law is on his side.” But if the law is on the side of the corporation, the corporation will win regardless (it was part of the whole “judges are umpires” thing). Obviously, the vast majority of liberal lawyers will say much the same thing. But as a matter of instinct and bias, the left would be inclined to bend a little or a lot further to give the little guy the benefit of the doubt because the little guy is deemed more worthy and deserving than heartless corporations.

Similarly, conservative animosity to the doctrines associated with the “safety net” allow for bad things to happen to people who don’t take care of themselves in ways liberals find abhorrent. That’s certainly the gist of how many conservative drug legalizers see things. Whenever I write about how I oppose the legalization of narcotics on the grounds that it would increase the number of lives destroyed by drugs, I hear from conservatives saying, in effect, “So what? People are responsible for their actions.”

Again, I’m just thinking out loud.  But, I think it’s an interesting facet of conservatism which rarely gets its due in debates. If someone could prove to you that socialism was better for the masses would you be in favor of socialism?  I think some “pragmatic” conservatives would say yes. Others would say, “no” on the (admittedly caricatured) grounds that stealing from the successful to help the unsuccessful is still stealing. Many of us would rather live in a society where the sky’s the limit for the most enterprising, even if that meant the floor’s the limit for those unable to hack it

 I think for most of us, this tension is fairly abstract, since all but the most wild-eyed libertarians are willing to tolerate some minimal level of social welfare. But I think the argumentation of conservatism might be enhanced if we got a little better at defending capitalism on the grounds that it is moral and just and not merely more productive. 

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