Thursday, 15 November 2012

What is conservatism, anyway?



As the US elections continue to reverberate (in my mind, at least), I offer you few apologies for turning to the fate and prospects of the Republican Party of the United States. Their recent candidate for President has now ignited the debate about why he lost - offensively blaming Presidential 'gifts' given out to young people and minorities, rather than his own shortcomings. This is not, needless to say, a great start to the party's outreach efforts. Nor does it offer an enormous sense of humility and grace. But there you are.

As President Obama continues to gallop away in the popular vote (three and a half million and nearly three per cent ahead, and still counting), Republicans should stop the fingerpointing. They should stand back from the immediate blame game, halt for a breather and take stock.

They should ask themselves this: what is conservatism anyway?

Is it conservative to intrude into people's bedrooms? Now, I don't know about you, but the true conservative would say that the state should stop at people's front doors. Disapprove of gay love? Not happy with the variegated shape of the modern family? Tough. It's got nothing to do with you anyway, pal. That's what most Americans think - and that's what small-state, small-government, anti-moralising, anti-condescending conservatives should think as well. As one Bush-era adviser put it yesterday: the next Republican candidate who talks about rape? They should have their tongues cut out before they can do their movement any more damage. In fact, while we're about it - and as British conservative Tim Montgomerie put it the other day - wouldn't it be more truly conservative, if marriage is such a key building block of the good society, to extend it to gay as well as straight Americans as soon as possible? And where does it say in the constitution that marraige is between a man and a woman? Answer: nowhere.

It is conservative to stand by while other Americans are denied healthcare? Let me sketch you a picture of a 'system' any true conservatives should deplore. It sees many tens of millions of Americans uninsured; insurers able to drop children from their parents' policies; and many more millions of Americans unable to leave their jobs or states for fear of losing healthcare cover. Now, you've probably got there before me, but this actually approximates to where the US was before 'Obamacare'. Such a system inevitably cuts into labour productivity and mobility, while assisting in a race-to-the-top costs system that sees hospital carpets and coffee machines get ever plusher (and doctors ever richer). How much better, then, would be a middle way between this and European-style state healthcare - a compulsory insurance system that tried simultaneously to lower costs while covering everybody? That, by the way, is exactly the intention of President Obama's Affordable Care Act - first proposed by the Heritage Foundation, a severely, severly conservative thinktank, and first implemented by Mitt Romney in the state of Massachusetts.

Is it conservative to stand in the way of mass immigration? Immigration is the lifeblood of efficient economies. It brings in job-hungry and hard-working young people, who are likely to have more children than the 'home' population. It fills up pension coffers. It brings in people who want to do all those jobs that rich First Worlders are too prissy to pick up. 'Tough' borders? Not so much. They are breeding grounds for people smuggling, fraud, militarisation and wasteful spending on border police forces that have very little effect on the numbers coming across anyway. The answer? Build fences, by all means (above). But you also need to provide more work permits, and a route to citizenship for undocumented migrants and their families. A true conservative knows that the state cannot, Canute-like, hold back immigration in any case: it can only manage its effects. Accept that, and you're on the path to true wisdom.

So, what are the answers to our three questions? Er, well: no, no and no. Anybody who answers 'yes' to any of these questions is not a conservative, but a mixed-up advocate of that peculiar blend of absolutist, un-conservative religiosity, libertarianism and statism that the Republican Party has become. Burke, Ranke, Disraeli, Macmillan, Collingwood: they'd all have been appalled.

Until Republicans start to answer these questions in the negative, they will continue to toil in the wilderness.

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