Philosophy & Ideas

Conservative Thought in the Time of Covid

With the arrival of Covid, and the reactions across the world which have involved locking down entire communities, this may be an appropriate time to have a look at what it means to be a conservative in relation to politics. There have been massive efforts, largely successful, by the non-conservative side of politics to employ the pandemic in attempting to subvert our established political order. We will only know in years to come how successful these efforts have been, but they are nevertheless a useful reminder of the political dangers which perennially exist from those who would like to run our societies from the centre.

This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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I am hardly the first to try to define and explain what it means to be a political conservative, but have also been led to this by reading Jordan Peterson’s most recent book, which I reviewed in Quadrant in May under the title, “Abandon Ideology”, which was an instruction from Peterson himself. There I wrote:

Here we must confront the North American conservative/liberal distinction he [Peterson] embeds. This is from Rule I:

Some people are temperamentally predisposed to conservatism, and others to a more liberal creative perception and action … Those who tend toward the right, politically, are staunch defenders of all that has worked in the past … Those who rise to the top can do so through manipulation and the exercise of unjust power … It is this corruption of power that is strongly objected to by those on the liberal/left side of the political spectrum, and rightly so. [emphasis added]

This is straight-out wrong, politically ignorant and offensive. This may be the kind of statements required to get such a book published during the times in which we live. But whatever the reason, you would hope Peterson might have noticed the kinds of people who had embraced his previous writings. These are sentiments that will put off all kinds of people who might otherwise be sympathetic to what he writes.

Let me add, before I go on, that the three greatest American presidents of my lifetime—John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump—had almost identical political views. Kennedy was elected as a Democrat in 1960, while by the time Reagan, in 1980, and Trump, in 2016, were elected they had left the Democrats, and ran as Republicans. Reagan famously stated that it had not been he who had left the Democratic Party, but that the Democratic Party had left him. The political values of all three were essentially the same—conservative. Just as Jordan Peterson himself is a conservative who seems to classify himself as a liberal.


Modern conservatives are classical liberals

To add an extra bit of difficulty, one of the major problems in explaining what it means to be a conservative in the modern age is that classical conservatism of the nineteenth century often ran under the banner of liberalism. That the political Left in the United States has appropriated the name “liberal” has brought endless confusion into political discourse. But let me begin by referring to the political ethos of England’s greatest Liberal Prime Minister, William Gladstone. Here is the definition of “Gladstonian liberal” from Wikipedia, which seems accurate enough:

Gladstonian liberalism consisted of limited government expenditure and low taxation whilst making sure government had balanced budgets and the classical liberal stress on self-help and freedom of choice. Gladstonian liberalism also emphasised free trade, little government intervention in the economy, and equality of opportunity through institutional reform. It is referred to as laissez-faire or classical liberalism in the UK and is often compared to Thatcherism.

It is also the essence of the economics and political philosophy of John Stuart Mill. See his Principles of Political Economy and On Liberty where these things are spelled out.

Personal freedom and personal responsibility within a society of limited government, tolerance and open enquiry guided by an all-pervading Judeo-Christian ethic are the core values of Gladstonian liberalism …

In foreign policy, Gladstone was in general against foreign entanglements … His goal was to create a European order based on co-operation rather than conflict and on mutual trust instead of rivalry and suspicion; the rule of law was to supplant the reign of force and self-interest. This Gladstonian concept of a harmonious Concert of Europe was opposed to and ultimately defeated by a Bismarckian system of manipulated alliances and antagonisms.

These were people who paid attention to the past, learned from it, and sought change where they believed improvements could be made. They were not “staunch defenders of all that has worked in the past”, moored to some previous set of circumstances with no wish to change.

The most important core element in classical liberalism, and thus within modern conservatism, is a defence of individual rights and personal freedom, in an economic system based on property rights and the free market. No “conservative” leader has ever tried to maintain the status quo; all of the great conservative/liberal leaders have sought changes that were designed to improve the lives of individuals and which, in fact, almost invariably brought both prosperity and individual freedom in their wake.

In the UK, the Great Reform Act of 1867 was introduced by the Conservatives led by Benjamin Disraeli. Sir Robert Peel was Conservative Prime Minister (1834–35, 1841–46), best known for introducing a police force into Great Britain, but also for repealing the “corn laws” in 1846, thus introducing free trade in the markets for grain.

It is just lazy theorising to argue that conservative principles are built around a desire to stand still under the assumption that the past is best and everything that could possibly make the world a better place has already been achieved. There has never been a conservative leader in any major nation that has not sought change. It is the principles that underlay such changes, along with the careful, prudent actions that are taken to achieve whatever changes are sought, that identify conservative political rule, and separate a conservative administration from its opponents.


Origins of “conservative” as a political term

Possibly the problem with trying to define conservatism is that if you base the definition on the word itself, it seems to imply that the aim is just to conserve, to preserve something that exists already. It therefore contains a negative connotation. If one is conservative, then one is presumably opposed to changes in general. There is no positive connotation associated with the word. If one is conservative, the word on its own does not indicate what someone is in favour of.

It was, for example, common to describe the most hard-line of the Russian Stalinists as “conservative” since their aim was to preserve the Soviet communist state while others were seeking to tear it down. Supporters of the mullahs in Iran are often described as “conservative” as well, as they attempt to preserve the Islamic Republic in its current form. There are no associated values embedded in these attempts to maintain the status quo, other than the preservation of political power amongst those who hold it. No one who supports the “conservative” political perspective of the West would support either of these governments, or their underlying values.

It is, in fact, the phrase, “the ‘conservative’ political perspective of the West”, that highlights much of what needs to be separated out and identified. Conservatism is a term that reflects a particular sub-set of political values that are associated with the European Enlightenment and grew in England, its colonies and then parts of Europe during the eighteenth and into the nineteenth century. It has since spread to other parts of the globe, most notably the United States, but the core understanding remains embedded in the European political tradition.

As for the origins of the term itself, according to the British Conservative David Willetts in his book Modern Conservatism (1992), “the name ‘Conservative’ was first applied to a political grouping during the [English] Reform Bill Crisis of 1830–32”. But whatever meaning this particular grouping of parliamentarians may have had in mind has long since disappeared into history, even though the name has continued forward, becoming the name of one of Britain’s major political parties: the Conservative Party was founded in 1834. (There has also been a Conservative Party in Canada since the mid-nineteenth century.)

One cannot, however, identify a conservative perspective through looking at the views and policies of political parties which travel under the name “Conservative”. The meaning of small-“c” conservatism must be distinguished from the perspective of capital-“C” Conservative labels. There are connotations that are embedded in these party names, but these connotations must be recognised as separate from the political meaning associated with the term “conservative”.

There are two broad elements associated with conservative thought, the economic and the political. They are connected through their aim to develop a political-economic structure that is based on the freedom of individuals to shape their lives to the fullest extent possible. If our prosperity is anything to go by, conservatism has proved to be the format that is best able to create wealth. And if migration patterns are anything to go by, it is the political structure best able to satisfy our human desires.


Conservatism is liberalism, but neither is a form of socialism

But first, this great confusion about the use of the term “liberal” which has been confiscated by the political Left, much as they have stolen much else. Both terms, “liberal” and “conservative”, are essentially nineteenth-century. There was no specific ideology associated with liberal or conservative beliefs, other than a wish to allow individuals to try to make their own way in the world as best they were able. The rules were crafted to encourage and assist each individual—irrespective of race, colour, creed or sex—to achieve what they can in their own way. This is the basic definition of freedom.

The major difference that has mattered since that time has been the growth of socialism, and particularly its Marxist variety, which has become the centre of non-liberal political beliefs. While socialism sprang almost immediately to life with the coming of the market economy in the nineteenth century, political parties pursuing socialist agendas never achieved success until the start of the twentieth. The transformation of the pastoral societies that had existed since the dawn of the agricultural revolution into the hard industrial realities of the Age of Steam created tensions that are still unresolved.

And this is the dilemma. No one wishes to return to the levels of poverty that existed before the Industrial Revolution. We eat better, we live better. Our lives are longer and more varied. Not only do we have more goods and services, these goods and services are better, they come in a previously unimaginable range, and there is always the prospect of newer and better just over the horizon. Few would happily return to the less prosperous lives everyone led even just fifty years ago, never mind the hard lives of the nineteenth century. And even then, the standard of living in 1870 was so much better than it had been in 1820 that the core issue became how we could maintain our living standards without enduring the uncertainties that come with the economic structures that had produced such an unexpected bounty.

This was the terrible dilemma everyone recognised, the reconstitution of England from a Green and Pleasant Land into a landscape of Dark Satanic Mills. Efforts to ameliorate these problems were embodied in the Factory Acts, a succession of which were passed in England during the nineteenth century. The first, the Factories Act 1802 (sometimes called the “Health and Morals of Apprentices Act”), regulated factory conditions, especially in regard to child workers in cotton and woollen mills. It was the culmination of a movement originating in the eighteenth century, where reformers had tried to push several acts through Parliament to improve the health of the workers and apprentices. The act included the following provisions:

♦ Factory owners must obey the law.

♦ All factory rooms must be well ventilated and lime-washed twice a year.

♦ Children must be supplied with two complete outfits of clothing.

♦ Children between the ages of nine and thirteen can work a maximum eight hours.

♦ Adolescents between fourteen and eighteen can work a maximum twelve hours.

♦ Children under nine years old are not allowed to work but they must be enrolled in the elementary schools that factory owners are required to establish.

♦ The work hours of children must begin after six a.m., end before nine p.m., and not exceed twelve hours a day.

♦ Children must be instructed in reading, writing and arithmetic for the first four years of work.

♦ Male and female children must be housed in different sleeping quarters.

♦ Children may not sleep more than two per bed.

♦ On Sundays children are to have an hour’s instruction in Christianity.

♦ Factory owners are also required to tend to any infectious diseases.

This was the commencement of a race between what was recognised as unacceptable on the one hand and what forms of improvements could be introduced on the other, without undermining the processes that created the astonishing stream of wealth that was pouring out across every industrialised society. This race has continued to this day, with every so often a socialist revolution of some kind taking place—Russian, Chinese, Cuban, Venezuelan—each one demonstrating, for all who are able to learn from experience, that an economy not founded on free market principles will create deep poverty that cannot be relieved until there is a return to a market-based economic structure.

Meanwhile, each of the economies that has been built on such market principles has allowed the growing prosperity to finance major institutional changes in society that have relieved the burdens of poverty, spread wealth to an ever greater proportion of the population, reduced the uncertainties that are embedded in a market-based economic system, improved the levels of welfare provided by governments, and removed an increasing proportion of the goods and services produced from the determination of individual entrepreneurs.


The union movement and the business cycle

Along with the Industrial Revolution arose the union movements, which grew as part of a process to provide a counterweight to the owners of the businesses employing labour. The shift from the rhythms set by agricultural work which went back generations and were based on seasonal patterns, to the harsher regimes of the industrial workplace was enormous and abrupt.

Similarly, the population shift from rustic settings into the suddenly emerging industrial slums of large urban settings represented in itself a massive change in the nature of life for large numbers of the population. Workers flocked to the cities since that was where the jobs were found, but the adjustment process would have been enormously difficult. These were settings ready-made for social agitation. Even now there are efforts to clean up our cities and to limit levels of pollution. How unpleasant it must have been for those who found themselves trapped in such environments in which no alternatives existed.

While from the perspective of employees, their lives may have seemed to have been under the control of employers, to those who ran such enterprises, economic success was never guaranteed and was always one bad downturn away from complete ruin. Businesses are always caught in a vice between their production costs and finding the revenues to pay their bills. Bankruptcies were an ever-present danger.

Along with the coming of the Industrial Revolution there simultaneously came something that had never before existed at any time in history, the first of the business cycles. There had been agricultural disasters, through crop failures for any number of reasons. Famine was common and always a danger. And while we have become used to the succession of good economic years and bad, these, too, were novel features of the industrialisation, difficult to understand even now, and for which there continue to be many explanations.

Moreover, the business cycle occurred with virtually no forms of publicly provided welfare and assistance available to workers and their families who had been deprived of their livelihoods during the downturns. There were few institutional structures available to help, aside from the limited availability of resources sufficient to provide assistance to those who had been deprived of paid work.

It is no wonder that in the midst of such a setting, socialist movements to bring the capitalist system to an end proliferated alongside legislative political efforts to mitigate the downsides of the growth in wealth and prosperity. Legislatively, there were efforts made to limit the jurisdiction of entrepreneurs over working conditions while also providing new forms of income support for those who had become unemployed or were no longer able to earn incomes, having become sick or injured or too old to find work.

The socialist approach was to attempt to find some mechanism to replace the market economy. The legislative approach was to attempt to rein in the problems that were associated with industrialisation while retaining the benefits associated with strengthening economies and growing prosperity. This divide has continued up until the present day, which is the core difference between “conservative” and non-conservative, whatever labels may have been attached to this latter group.


Conservatism as a set of economic principles

Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776 at the very dawn of the Industrial Revolution. He did not, by writing this book, cause the economic events he described, but he brought their existence to the notice of the population at large. He heralded what was to come. His use of a pin factory as the example of the division of labour indicates how early he was in bringing all this to the attention of others. Within a generation, the coming of the steam engine had transformed the nature of industry in ways that no one could ignore. In 1776, the water mill remained the main form of power generation in industry, such as it was.

The rest of this discussion of Adam Smith is adopted from my economics text Free Market Economics (2017). It was Adam Smith who identified the important features of the economic system that was about to develop across the world, with the primary aim of demonstrating the power of individuals acting in their own interests as the major driving force of economic activity. Rather than needing governments to direct economic activity from above, and make every economic decision a matter for review by government, Smith argued that economies were social institutions that could be left to run themselves.

At its centre is the argument that individuals, if left to act in their own interests, would create a world of wealth more efficiently and with more certainty than any other possible way of arranging a nation’s economic affairs. The following passage may be the most famous, most quoted passage in the whole of economic theory. It may also have been the single most influential:

[A merchant] generally, indeed, neither intends to promote the public interest, nor knows how much he is promoting it … He intends only his own security; and by directing that industry in such a manner as its produce may be of the greatest value, he intends only his own gain, and he is in this, as in many other cases, led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention. Nor is it always the worse for the society that it was not part of it. By pursuing his own interest he frequently promotes that of the society more effectually than when he really intends to promote it.

The “invisible hand” of Adam Smith was a metaphor for the market. In this passage, Smith made a number of points:

♦ business people do what they do as a way to earn an income;

♦ but in going about earning their incomes, they actually do a great deal of social good even though it was not their specific intention to do so;

♦ business people are only trying to create as much value as they can because whatever value they create they can exchange for other things and in this way earn a living;

♦ but, unbeknownst to these business people, in acting in their own best interests, by creating value they are led by that “invisible hand” to act in ways that often turn out to be good for society as a whole;

♦ indeed, had these business people actually decided to do things with the intention of benefiting society, it is uncertain whether they could have done so as effectively as they have by just building their own businesses and running their own firms.

The clear message was that no one had to run the market or the economy in general. The spontaneous actions of individuals seeking to do what is best for themselves would provide the direction and impulse for economic activity. And leaving such matters to the market would create a greater improvement in economic output and human welfare than any other possible set of arrangements. This is how Smith put this argument:

“As every individual endeavors as much he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value; every individual necessarily labors to render the annual revenue of the society as great as he can.” (Book IV Chapter II)

That is, individuals have only so many resources, capital and skills at their disposal. Since individuals are each trying to create the greatest amount of value they possibly can in order to earn their own incomes, when what each individual is doing is seen in relation to society as a whole, the entire economy must at the same time be creating as much value in total as that society is capable of.

Smith pointed out the motivations behind the production of goods and services by individual businesses. This, too, was a famous and influential passage from The Wealth of Nations:

It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest. We address ourselves, not to their humanity, but to their self-love, and never talk to them of our own necessities, but of their advantages.

In an economy where complete strangers produce for each other, there is nothing to offer someone else to produce for oneself other than what can be given in exchange. We do not go to those who sell to us and tell them how much we need their products. We only offer something of value to them (usually money) in exchange for what we want.

This is certainly the world in which we live, and it was the world in which Smith lived. Past the village and the world of tradition—outside a world where economies are directed by a central government—economic activity was a process in which both parties saw themselves as gaining through exchange. There was, of course, the entire society of morals, laws and regulations that surrounded the operation of the market whose existence was assumed. But this commonsensical statement made an immense impact because things had never before been said just like that. It made the world of commerce and industry appear for the first time as a benevolent activity which would result in greater prosperity for an increasing number of people, which is exactly how it has turned out.

Nor should it be thought that Smith had a positive view of governments. In this quote, where Smith talks about employing “their capitals” he is referring to how private individuals manage their own wealth. This is a statement that has lost none of its relevance since the day it was penned:

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals would … assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.

Smith in this passage emphasises the dangers of placing too much economic power into the hands of a government and especially into the hands of individual political leaders who believe they are capable of directing economic activity. He makes no bones about it. Such concentrations of power are a danger, not just to our economic welfare, but to our personal freedom.

Smith also wrote of the dangers of government spending, with the kind of insight that the years since have done nothing to diminish. The propensity of governments to waste was recognised by Smith in ways that every generation has had to learn over again for itself:

It is the highest impertinence and presumption, therefore, in kings and ministers, to pretend to watch over the economy of private people … They [governments] are themselves always, and without any exception, the greatest spendthrifts in the society. Let them look well after their own expense, and they may safely trust private people with theirs. If their own extravagance does not ruin the state, that of their subjects never will.

The consequence of The Wealth of Nations was to move the economy of England, and thereafter the economies of an increasing proportion of the world, in the direction of market forces. There have been endless efforts made by governments since Smith’s time to mitigate the externalities of market forces while at the same time encouraging and supporting private business. That is one of the two core principles of conservative thought. The non-conservative aim has been to replace private-sector business with some form of government management of industry through some form of centralised industrial control. That no such effort has ever succeeded in creating a high standard of living has been one of the main areas of political contention since the commencement of the Industrial Revolution. This division is certain to continue.

A conservative is someone who supports the continuation of a market economy where the ownership of the means of production overwhelmingly remains in the hands of individual entrepreneurs who are private citizens, who act independently of governments, and who compete with each other while remaining constrained by the laws of the land.


Progressive ideology as a set of instructions

The modern term for the non-conservative side of politics is “progressive”. In its dishonesty, it is the perfect word because it embodies the notion of some known destination, with the policies of “progressives” aimed towards reaching that destination, whatever it might be—equality, equity, justice, fairness or whatever. Those who line up behind the progressive banner support political policies aimed at some pre-determined outcome which almost invariably means the suppression if not the actual disappearance of private business.

To use the term “socialist” or “Marxist” gives the game away. Marxists seek the “classless society” in which business ownership has been abolished, the means of production are in the hands of the state, and where only the “working class” exists, led by some group of leaders who make all of the major production decisions. Socialists similarly aim to use the levers of the state to improve the living standards of selected groups who are designated as not receiving their fair share of the bounties of the economic system. Socialism is often portrayed as a halfway house on the road to a full Marxist state. There, too, there are people at the top who can never be challenged by those over whom they rule. The elimination of capitalism and capitalists is the aim, since the owners of business firms are seen as “oppressors” whose disappearance will lift the living standards and personal freedom of those who remain.

“Progressives” portray themselves as seeking similar outcomes, although those who are identified as oppressors at any particular time depends on the circumstances and the political opportunities that happen to be in play. The villains remain those who happen to be the wealthy, with the aim, to put it at its simplest, to redistribute incomes from those with the highest incomes towards those with the lowest. Not surprisingly, it is the leaders who end up with the spoils wherever such an approach has been tried.

The term “progressive” is never defined by progressives themselves because it is a concept best expressed by the phrase, “never let a crisis go to waste”. What remains constant is the use of government power in as centralised a manner as possible at any time in the name of alleviating problems or achieving the aims of its supporters, an outcome which never occurs, although there is always next time.

Covid has become yet another crisis that the political Left has employed as a device for achieving its ends. Amongst the masks and the vaccines, the most obvious element in dealing with the virus has been the shuttering of much of the private sector along with massive increases in the level of government expenditure. This has not occurred by chance. Here again we see the Left-Right, progressive-conservative divide in play. Everyone is frightened by a pandemic, which is why Covid has proven such a godsend to the Left.

Here the aim is to emphasise just what is at stake in going back to the roots of conservative thought.

Steven Kates most recent book is Classical Economics and the Modern Economy (Elgar 2020). He was the Chief Economist for the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry  for twenty-four years. Part II of this article will appear shortly

16 thoughts on “Conservative Thought in the Time of Covid

  • quaestio says:

    Covid is a crisis that was created by the political elites along with the multi nationals and introduced under the Climate Change banner. Like all forms of life on earth the predators always rise to the top of the food chain and are being subsidised by the plebs. Progressive is just another name for Socialism, Marxism, Communism. It sounds more palatable for the plebs who are walking around with their eyes wide shut. This is just my opinion but who cares.

  • vickisanderson says:

    Perhaps the greatest difficulty faced by conservatives today is the collapse of most of what conservatives thought as valuable in our system of educating children and young adults. Fundamentally, this is the preservation of the history of our society, and even more importantly, the inculcation of the principles of independent and critical thinking.

    It is disturbing how many young people devalue the democratic process and speculate that socialism may be preferable. The Long March through education in the West appears to have been successful.

  • Alistair says:

    I prefer your use of the term ‘market principles’ rather than ‘free market principles’ when describing the economic system that works best. ‘Free market’ might suggest laissez faire exploitation of the weak, so like the term ‘conservative’ be open to misinterpretation. Wife

  • Claude James says:

    Both markets and centralised control of production and distribution of goods go back to the earliest days of human groups. But anyway:
    A key point, often ignored, is that the earliest thinkers and practitioners of what we can call (truly) liberal, open societies -the Ancient Athenians- saw clearly that the open society was always under severe threat from parasites. These parasites could range from very low to extremely high lust for power and material goods, but parasites they were, and are.
    And these thinkers/designers, and their later counterparts in England/Scotland and the North American colonies, and even here in late C19, did not, perhaps could not, imagine the high proportion of parasites, and indeed the scale of anti-Western forces generally, that now exist within the borders of the Open/Liberal Society, and would come to dominate almost all public discussion and legislation -as they now do.
    These forces have implanted the idea within the Western peoples that resident parasitism of a world without borders is a far, far more moral/ethical way of life than is productive, contributory citizenship in the context of active loyalty to one’s nation.
    And multiculturalism in the West has morphed into anti-Europeanism, even if naive idealists cannot see the destructive implications of this move.

  • andrew2 says:

    Conservatism is dying. The problem with it is that it has no soul. Most people who were attracted to Jordan Peterson were trying to find an aim or purpose in life in a world that was not offering one. It was not his conservatism but his views on ethics and religion that attracted people. He risked his career by taking a stand and analysed the Bible in a way that appealed to the irreligious who had no meaningful contact with Christianity or any specific Church.

    Conservatism as described above is that it almost always neglects the importance of charity. Charity is that love of neighbour that Jesus talks about. It should be done with your own personal talent and energy where possible (give to God what is God’s) and with money (the proxy for your own efforts) when not possible. Jordan Peterson talks about the pareto distribution but he also neglects charity as the solution to wealth inequality that causes social unrest.

    The English industrial machine was built off land stolen from the Catholic Church through the Protestant reformation. The Catholic Church is not blameless in all this. The building of magnificent cathedrals and basilicas led not only to the Protestant reformation but also to the creation of freemasonry guilds that plague the world today, and also gave us the Jesuits who are now the champions of socialism within the Catholic Church.

    But the hidden enemy in it all is money creation and debt, which most of us cannot fathom how it works. The focus on productive activity now seems ludicrous when it is estimated that 4/5ths of the world finance is tied up in the derivatives market – essentially a gambling scheme that sits over and above the real economy. Share markets themselves have gambling built into them, with algorithms able to execute trades in fractions of a second to make profits on small movements that mere mortals are incapable of. In this aspect, I have found E Michael Jones’s book “Barren Metal” a very insightful read in regards to the history of money.

    And in the midst of all this sit Gen-X. Gen-X in particular now but soon millennials will find themselves in the position of having to fund the retirement of the baby boomers, fund their own retirement and also prepare to support the purchase of property of their children with anything that is left. The burden of 3 generations falls on a single generation.

    So who own’s all the property? Who has driven prices up to unaffordable levels? How and why? There is no point talking about conservatism or socialism unless we can work out who controls the money.

  • andrew2 says:

    A few other things go against conservatism:
    1. Corporations – the modern day vampires. They are eternal and have no soul. They do not exist for the common good and are structured to out compete mere humans of flesh and blood. Conservatives rarely have anything bad to say about the concept of a corporation.
    2. Middle-men – production is one thing but the middle man is where the profit is. Since the Phoenicians dominance of the Mediterranean Sea it is the person who can put themselves between product and consumer that makes ludicrous amounts of money. Here are a few examples:
    Product: Information, Middleman: Google
    Product: Computer Hardware, Middleman: Microsoft and Apple
    Product: Music, Middleman: Spotify
    Product: Consumer Products, Middleman: Amazon
    Product: Accommodation, Middleman: Air BnB
    The goal of the middleman is to dominate the market to such an extent that you are reliant on them, or at least become too lazy to find what you need for yourself. The internet was an opportunity to set us free from middlemen but they quickly dominated it. Conservatives rarely have anything bad to say about the Middlemen.
    The system I am in most favour of is Distributism. This system should be very suitable to the digital age, where all you need is a computer and a home office to ply your trade. I can’t see the corporations or the middlemen being happy with this though.

  • andrew2 says:

    Claude James, I think productive, contributory citizenship and loyalty to one’s nation can be a very good thing. In this I am disturbed by the idea that World War I was likely caused by the construction of the Berlin-Baghdad Railway, and not the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Control of trade routes has been the goal of every empire and it also seems to be the tinder box in our current difficulties with China over the South China Sea. Your average citizen probably does not care too much about the control of trade routes but many of them have sacrificed their lives for it.

  • pgang says:

    It seems to me that a secular conservative is someone who takes up socialism a little bit slower than a progressive does.

  • Adam J says:

    Conservative to me means Family, Country, King, God. In particular the country is one big national family and the King, in an abstract royal sense, was a father in between the father of the family and the Godly Father.

    The economic situation should revolve around these, because the family at its core is an organic yet self-contained economic and social unit, just like the country.

    Worshipping the free market and corporations is therefore not conservatism but neo-liberalism.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    A very intellectually refreshing article to read. Steve Kates is an independent thinker. We could do with a lot more of them – especially those with the courage to contest their views publicly.

    Nevertheless it’s wise to have a degree of scepticism for labels. Arguably this article places far too much emphasis on the importance of them. It’s better to place more importance approaching issues on their merits at the time – with an open mind. In doing this it’s still possible and in fact essential to approach issues with a sense of values.

    Labels have their limitations. For example how would most people label Steve Kates – a man who greatly admires ( quite rightly in my view) Presidents Kennedy, Reagan and Trump. Incidentally the presidencies of the latter two debunked the notion held by some that so called conservatives aren’t about change for the better.

    The history of conservatism is of interest to those with a mind for such things but I’m not sure quite how helpful it is in untangling issues of the day like government policy on covid.

    As a clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson approaches the issue of conservatism with a necessarily different emphasis and perspective than an economist. However his views on economics like his views on most things are remarkably well informed and practical.

    The mix of that practicality underpinned by knowledge, an impressive ability to think critically, an endearing honesty and courage has completely demolished the efforts of many in the left media to discredit him. He can be highly intellectual yet at the same time he has the ability of a retail politician to cut through and expose utter crap for what it is.

    I think Jordan Peterson’s definition of a conservative is more useful and enduring than other definitions. But that doesn’t alter my view of being sceptical of labels which have inherently great limitations from a practical perspective.

    On these issues I’d recommend everyone to look at the Oxford Union address of Jordan Peterson on YouTube :

    I have to add while I admire Jordan Peterson immensely I’m no disciple of his. I actually didn’t entirely agree with his 12 Rules for Life. In fact I thought he missed some extremely essential points about life and living.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    I may be wrong but I feel Andrew2 has touched on some important points in considering the concept or label of conservatism – in that it can often lack an all important values perspective. Andrew, correct me if what I’m about to say doesn’t reflect your views.

    Andrew2 has raised some important points which touch on some of the weaknesses in Jordan Peterson’s usually brilliant thinking.

    Andrew2’s comments also point to some of the weaknesses in idolizing a label or concept such as conservatism – as if it had all the answers.

    This article and the general comments here arguably show we are not even sure what it really means, or at the very least what it means differs quite markedly to different people. I’m not saying that the concept of conservatism has no value at all but the concept as a label is overrated. It’s more limited than we think it is.

    What I would say though is that people who tend to have so called conservative views in recent times are not taking part nearly enough in debates in the media. That’s what’s made someone like Jordan Peterson so important. And people like Steve Kates. There’s a lot of left group think in the media. It’s evident in most media discussions of the Trump presidency for example. To many the word Trump itself has actually become an unquestioned pejorative term – requiring no hard evidence or argument to support that view.

    What I took out of what Andrew2 said was the importance of values – of caring for others; of charity, of compassion. Though I’m not coming from a religious perspective like Andrew seems to be, my earlier Christian education would inevitably still be influencing my views.

    People with a lot of power in the past gave large parts of that power up for the common good. As I recall, Jordan Peterson had an explanation for that in the Oxford address ( see the link above to it) : that the phenomenon somehow occurred because it was actually practical and led to more efficient government. I don’t buy that. There was more operating than that.

    Similarly Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life don’t seem to recognise the importance of happiness, and most importantly love, nearly enough. That perspective portrays life in a lot more dour way than it necessarily needs to be portrayed. On the other hand Jordan Peterson’s book and ideas have been very helpful to a lot of people. Lifesaving to some.

  • andrew2 says:

    Balanced Observation, that is pretty much it. In the article above and the description it gives of a conservative, or classic liberal, I dislike the focus on self.

    Peter Kreeft, a philosophy professor at Boston College, is a much better guide than Jordan Peterson, not least because his joyous personality convinces you that he lives what he preaches. He talks about the trinity of faculties – thought, love and action, which correspond to the mind, heart and will, to truth, beauty and goodness, to God, the Holy Spirit and Jesus.

    To me, that is the sweet spot in which to exist and if you lean too much one way or the other it causes a lot of problems. Our goal should not to be a conservative but to be a Saint.

  • andrew2 says:

    This is an incredible coincidence but I saw on Vox Day’s feed ( a link to a website called “Contemplations on the Tree of Woe” which has a number of recent articles titled “Conservatism is Dead” and “Why we must lay a new foundation”

    The later article has quotes such as the following:

    “To defend the good, the beautiful, and the true we must be able to know what is actually good, beautiful, and true — and then we must be able to persuasively demonstrate that to others.”

    “We must do better than the Enlightenment. We cannot return to classical liberalism. There is no retreat; the bridges are burned; the way is blocked. We must advance.”

    This article appears to express my opinion on the matter much better than I can.

  • BalancedObservation says:


    I’ll check that link. Thanks very much for sharing that with us.

    I probably find more value in what Jordan Peterson has to say than you do but it’s my view you have identified a weakness in some of his thinking.

    I particularly like the way he contests what have at times become largely uncontested leftwing views. That’s often taken great courage. (Steve Kates does that too).

    However Jordan Peterson personally seems to care quite deeply for people… considering the very practical help he’s given so many.

    I’m sceptical of religion and any all-encompassing rules to lead one’s life. So in a sense it was inevitable I wouldn’t be enthusiastic for Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules. However to my mind the points I made about happiness and love point to a specific weakness in the rules. Even though as I said Jordan Peterson’s book and his views have helped so many and actually saved lives.

    Jordan Peterson has an awesome intellect and an ability to think and argue so clearly and logically. And in his own way he can be quite personable; and even at times quite humourous, even if it is perhaps unintentional.

    However it’s his courage and his honesty in arguing his views which probably impress me most about the man. I’m not a disciple of his but I have a lot of respect for him. His video interviews can be very entertaining too. He’s pretty much a one-off.

  • BalancedObservation says:

    I particularly liked this quote you posted Andrew:

    “To defend the good, the beautiful, and the true we must be able to know what is actually good, beautiful, and true — and then we must be able to persuasively demonstrate that to others.”

    There’s a lot in it.

  • andrew2 says:

    I too was a big fan of his and went to see him at a lecture in Sydney. However, I lost interest when he made his twitter remark about Brett Kavanaugh: that if his appointment is approved, he should turn it down. That went against everything he had been telling people to do in their own lives. It was so obvious how dirty the left side of politics was playing the game. You should never give them a victory under those conditions.
    Everything else he may say may be of value but I couldn’t turn back to him after that.

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