Towards the Good Society: A Conservative View

In an interesting reply to an earlier post, “Mario” presented an insightful overview of the conservative landscape and summarized what he takes to be the foundational commitments of conservatives. I then asked him a question: How could they be applied to considering deliberately the events of the day in a way that might convince people who are not conservative? Alvino-Mario Fantini presents his response in this post. -Jeff

I think that a meaningful principle of the conservative tradition is that local customs and experiences most often do a far better job at responding to people’s needs than do centralized national systems. I think this is of special importance, even though it does divide the “conservative community.” While, the neo-conservatives seem to believe that there is a formula or pattern or idea that can be applied everywhere regardless of cultural or anthropological or historical context, the paleo-conservatives tend to be more respectful of the local or native traditions of people around the world. (Of course, certain things — female genital mutilation and honor killings, for example — raise other ancillary questions about the need for modernization and whether or not we outsiders should attempt to change such things, but that is another discussion.)

In short, I think that by knowing more about how and why the state has so often and so frequently failed in other contexts, and how political leaders have so often become enamored of power and state influence (leading to horrible atrocities in many countries), we will understand that government is too often — though not always — the main problem or obstacle in the development of people and the flourishing of human societies. Furthermore, I think we’ll see that ideological or utopian visions are almost always the source of policies and state actions that end up being inhumane, unjust and violent in the name of a great progressive leap forward.

Jeff asked, more specifically, how could conservative commitments be applied to the events of the day? I think the main idea is to work towards greater local involvement, smallness of scale and an emphasis on the accumulated wisdom of local communities. If such conservative approaches could be applied to public policy problems, then I think people everywhere, regardless of political affiliation or prior ideological commitments, would realize that conservatism can empower them — turn them into real stakeholders, provide them with the power to do good and transform them into true participants in their own development, and actual masters of their own destiny — in a way that no government agency ever could. In the U.S., this means that policies would not emanate from Washington or our state capitals but would instead be “localized,” with the “agents of change” found closer to home.

I recall warmly the example of the late Jack Kemp who, as Secretary of HUD, undertook a study of urban development programs and housing policies for the poor. What he found (and never tired of revealing) was a nightmarish system of red tape (which he mapped out), of unintended disincentives and distorted prerogatives that actually served to keep creative poor people shut out of the entrepreneurial class, and which, in effect, kept urban African-American families poor and unable to either rebuild or move out of the burnt-out ghettos of our cities. Kemp railed against this Leviathan, which, in the name of helping the poor, ended up violating people’s freedom and destroying individual initiative. It is no surprise that Kemp was beloved among the community of single mothers, working dads and urban black families that the government system maintained as virtual “wards of the state.” They knew, as he did, that the very system of programs that had been set up to help them had degenerated into a morass.

I think it is by sharing stories of the American people — rich and poor, black and white, single or married — and by telling how they live their lives, manage their home economies, generate their livelihoods, preserve their customs, habits and traditions, and go about their day-to-day activities that we can best convince others of the merits of a conservative vision. If more people were to realize just how many lives have been made worse, not better, through state action, ill-conceived government programs and constant policy tinkering, then more people may come around to realize that the conservatism that they have been taught to fear is really the only approach that seems to put decision-making abilities back in the hands of the ruled, not the rulers.

  • Michael Corey

    Very interesting. I understand the theoretical interest in the terms: left/liberal, right/conservative and center (independent/pragmatic?). I find their practical application frequently muddled. Maybe that’s my problem. Personally, I prefer to deal with actions and interactions without applying an ideological label to them. I’ve always been interested in the sociology of small things. I’ve never viewed them in ideological terms.

    I understand the merits of studying and “sharing stories of the American people — rich and poor, black and white, single or married — and by telling how they live their lives, manage their home economies, generate their livelihoods, preserve their customs, habits and traditions, and go about their day-to-day activities.” I suspect that this would probably help understand individuals and groups identified as liberals, conservatives and centrists. I’m not at all sure that the studies would convince anyone of the merits of the others’ belief systems and ways of life. It might enhance understanding.

    I suspect that liberals, conservatives and centrists could all find problems with what they conceive to be ill-conceived government programs and regulations; however, I also suspect that all three perspectives might find governmental programs and regulations that they might favor. There probably wouldn’t be agreement, about which programs and regulations might be considered good and which were considered ill conceived.

    It isn’t clear to me how you would return decision-making to the “ruled” rather than “rulers.” I suppose one mechanism might be to reduce the rule making authority of bureaucrats and return it to elected officials, but I’m not at all sure that this is what you have in mind. Would “representatives of the electorate” be a better term than “ruled?” Who do you have in mind as “rulers?” Are these unelected officials, elected officials doing things exceeding their constitutional authority, or others?

  • Scott

    I believe the example of Jack Kemp’s urban agenda is more complex that the author reveals, but nonetheless is an excellent point of entry to discuss the role of government and social problems. Kemp still worked within the framework of urban policy to promote home ownership, but also offered the usual tax cuts and de-regulation to promote investment in blighted neighborhoods. This policy initiative, emanating from the central government no less, was seen by the Republican establishment as an affront to their do-nothingism, and his legislative proposals were nixed as yet another “ill-conceived” government program. So this example seems to demonstrate not so much that the state should play no role in alleviating social problems, but a question of the nature of that role, and whether that role will be to go to the source of a problem and empower people by working with communities, whether it will simply try to cover up the problem via impersonal bureaucracy. Given that a democratically elected government still has a relationship with citizens whether it does nothing or not, and given the capacity of government to alleviate problems (just as much as it can make them worse); thus, looking the other was can still be considered a role, and often speaks louder than action does, as was the case when Kemp’s initiatives were shot down, not by liberals, but by conservatives.