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.