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May 19, 2015

Area Liberal Pundit: Being A Conservative Means You Have To Defend Every Government Program

Ryan Cooper (not Rory Cooper who you should totally follow to make up for my screw up) is a liberal who thinks he’s got a rather clever way to embarrass conservatives into supporting Amtrak (via Hot Air Headlines).

But Republicans, as the ostensible party of conservatism, have an obligation to consider the extant fact of Amtrak, which is a critical institution for millions of Americans. By supposed conservative principles, it is not appropriate to sacrifice the current needs of existing people in pursuit of an ideological utopia.

Michael Oakeshott famously described the conservative temperament as follows:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss. [On Being Conservative]

From there he launches into not only why conservatives must not only leave Amtrak alone but actually increase funding for it.

This is typical liberalism. All big government gains are locked in forever and always, while any conservative gains (such as tax cuts) are always on the table to be negotiated.

Here’s the problem with Cooper’s use of Oakeshott, he’s relying on philosophical conservatism when Amtrak is mostly an issue of political conservatism. They are related but not the same.

As a philosophy, conservatism is about caution. We tend to be leery of big sweeping promises to change complex systems and even the fundamental realities of human nature. We tend to think that society has evolved in a certain way based on innumerable unknowable examples of trial and error. We think it’s the height of folly and hubris to accept that a few self-appointed experts can order things better than the collective wisdom of free people attempting to maximize their personal liberty and happiness.

What conservative philosophy does not demand is the unthinking perpetuation of big government programs because “that’s what’s always been done.” This is especially true when “always” means “since 1971”.

Cooper himself admits that there are other successful models for running a railroad including, “mostly private [ownership] in Japan.” So what advocates of reforming and even privatizing Amtrak are calling for isn’t some wild experiment in bringing forth a libertarian Utopia. It’s simply acknowledging there are other models that would in fact serve people better (unless rail enthusiasts want to argue that Amtrak is superior to Japan’s rail system).

While conservative philosophy provides a cautionary note when faced with upsetting long held positions, it is not an unthinking philosophy that compels devotion to the status quo simply because "that's the way it is and has always been". While we are well served by recognizing the dangers and potential costs of change, it does not mean we should be cowed into supporting things we know to be wrong simply because at some point liberals had enough votes, usually with the help of Republicans, to enact something. We must also be able to discern how important the thing is and act accordingly.

For example, conservatives are rightly convinced there are many costs and unknown dangers to throwing over the traditional meaning of marriage on a whim. We were also right when we warned that overthrowing the health insurance market would lead to the exact problems we are seeing in terms of costs and access. It’s funny but liberals never credit conservatives with intellectual modesty in those case. Then conservatives are motivated by hate and a desire to kill the poor.

But the real foul Cooper is committing here is conflating conservative philosophy with conservative political programs.

“Conservative” in the American political sense tends to mean a vision for government that is more modest in terms of size and scope than establishment Republicans and their close relatives, Democrats and liberals. It’s a political program more in line with the constitutional limits placed on the federal government at the founding.

In the political sense, conservatives aren’t Philosopher Kings they are actual politicians and activists. While many of their positions are grounded in a conservative philosophy, the things they wish to conserve have been diluted or discarded. In the political arena, conservatives can and must be an offensive force, not simply wedded to the status quo. To deny that conservatives can advocate for political and policy change is to deny the legitimacy of any political action not approved of by the left.

In reality, political conservatives have an agenda that we want to see enacted. That the means to achieving these goals may sometimes be in tension with our philosophical beliefs and temperament should not be an excuse for inaction or require us to support policies we oppose.

Accepting that human nature is imperfect and often involves these kinds of tradeoffs and inconsistencies is also part of conservative philosophy. If we deny this and prize theoretical consistency over all other things in the political arena, we will always lose to those who prize nothing more than the accumulation of government power.

I understand why liberals, who give no thought to the damage their never ending appetite to expand government cause, want to enlist conservatives as their unthinking protectors. There’s no reason for us to actually agree to it.

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posted by DrewM. at 10:22 AM

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