The Modern Conservative

I’m trying to catch up on my reading over the holidays and that includes catching up on the long list of Google Reader entries on Humanism I subscribed to in a fit of enthusiasm. There are a number of great articles and ideas in there, but I thought this one couldn’t wait. A long-serving California Representative named Pete Stark, in talking about his humanism and his politics, mentioned John Kenneth Galbraith’s quote:

“The modern conservative is engaged in one of man’s oldest exercises in moral philosophy; that is, the search for a superior moral justification for selfishness.”

I hadn’t seen this quote before and it struck me as a profound statement of what I’ve observed to be true in my experience. I have yet to meet a conservative who adheres to his principles because he believes that the whole world would be better off following them.

Almost every conservative I’ve met holds a variant of the lifeboat mentality as part of their worldview. Wealth, defined as both the basic needs of human existence and the pleasures that make life pleasant, does appear limited. In the conservative estimation, there is only so much wealth available in the world, and one can only improve the lives of others by transferring wealth to them and thereby decreasing one’s own. This is trivially true to some extent, especially in the short term, as there is only a finite amount of resources in the world at any time and giving some of yours away obviously means less for you and those you care about. In this view, the lifeboat can only hold so many people and only has so much food and water, and bringing others on board risks overwhelming the boat and losing everyone. While this worldview has some truth at first glance, it does not stand up to serious analysis. It forgets that wealth is largely produced through the ingenuity and effort of humans, who take the resources nature makes available and multiply their utility in providing both basic human needs and those pleasures and symbols far removed from basic needs. I think there must be a thread, perhaps subconscious, underlying this viewpoint and the behavior that follows from it, with the goal of keeping things as they are, maintaining the vast underclass as the muscle in the engine of wealth creation without reaping the benefits thereof while the privileged few enjoy the benefits of this arrangement by holding the intellectual “property” and using the proceeds generated by the underclass to fund research to advance their personal wealth through gains in knowledge. Indeed, maintaining control of intellectual property through collaboration with others in power seems to be a primary way of maintaining the current underclass/overclass dichotomy.

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