Monday, August 17, 2009

The problem with conservatives

Austrian-school economist Friedrich Hayek wrote a great essay in 1960 titled, Why I Am Not a Conservative. In it, Hayek laments on the creeping on the English language, such as how what economists classically called liberalism now means conservatism. He also performs one of the greatest slam-dunks on conservatives.

"At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty, those who cherish freedom are likely to expend their energies in opposition. In this they find themselves much of the time on the same side as those who habitually resist change."

What I gathered from Hayek's point is, conservative and liberalism are simply directions on a political compass, devoid of values and landmarks. When a view is called “conservative” it simply means the old, traditional way of doing things, and “liberal” means a new, exciting concept.

Push me back in time far enough, opinions and positions intact, and I would by no means be considered a conservative. The world view I hold, which is called “classic liberalism” was a radical view during the ages of feudalism, monarchy and theocracy. Collectivism, on the other hand, would have been in friendly company. The main difference is the emphasis on the leader and his subjects.

As someone who finds himself in agreement with a lot of the old ways of doing things, such as individual rights and a weakened federal government, I find myself rubbing shoulders with people whose' world view I do not share, but who's conclusions I often mimic.

I'm against socialism not because the idea of cooperating with other people and singing songs around a campfire with hippies disgusts me – it's because it's a flawed system that erodes individual rights and promotes corruption. But, sometimes when I'm with political allies, I notice a deep-seeded level of ignorance, and I feel like they stumbled into opposing socialism for all the wrong reasons.

There are some great exceptions, however. The rekindled love of the United States Constitution in some right-wing circles is promoting good scholarship and intellectualism. What I hope comes next is a push towards logic and reason, perhaps even a new wave of objectivism.

Don't forget science

Maybe if the right wing rediscovers reason – much like it rediscovered Thomas Paine – it will try to snatch science from the weak grip of the left.

The problem is, neither side will ever be able to claim science because science will always be simultaneously conservative and liberal.

Science is conservative because it treats new ideas skeptically, and believes in holding onto what it already knows until new evidence overturn it.

Science is liberal because once new evidence outweighs the existing data, the old information is unceremoniously dumped. There are no saints or exalted legends immune to review and intellectual assaults.

Of course, this is an idealist view of science. Science is also conducted by people, and people tend to mess things up. Some scientists do hold onto rusty old ideas and rejects new ones offhand. Others get so excited about new ideas that they outrun the evidence. This isn't a flaw of science, its a flaw of human scientists.

It's the same as rationality. No one, including myself, lives their life entirely with rational decision making. We have biases and blind spots that we can never completely overcome. Still, we can always push ourselves to do better. We'll never be completely rational, just as we'll never be able to push an object at the speed of light. But we can always come just a little closer.

And when it comes to some conservatives, people can be right for all the wrong reason.

So if I'm so against the conservative world view – of letting tradition rule our actions - why would I write this essay on a blog with the word “conservative” boldly in the title?

It's not because I changed my school of thought or the way I identify myself. In fact, I read Hayek's essay before I ever named this blog. The real reason?

Young, Hip and Classically Liberal just didn't sound sexy enough.

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