John Kenneth Galbraith famously wrote that “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 must admit to having shared this suspicion myself on more than a few occasions. I do, however, try to resist this claim, partly because for liberals it seems too self-congratulatory by half, and partly because many conservatives seem quite earnest in their rejection of it.
There are, of course, some exceptions to this, Ayn Rand being the most notable. Indeed, part of the reason that liberals love Rand – or love to pick out Rand as a focus of opprobrium – is that she divides things up in a way that they find quite congenial. In her view, the left believes in altruism and morality, while the right rejects the idea that anyone is obliged to care about the well-being of anyone else. Thus she endorses individualism, and individual rights, not as a means to promoting the greater good (through the invisible hand of the market, etc.), but because other people’s welfare doesn’t matter. Freedom allows those who are naturally superior to rise to the surface, thereby realizing certain perfectionist values – and the latter are ultimately what she endorses.
This is admittedly an extreme position (at least in the modern world), and in fact, I’ve never heard any self-professed admirer of Rand actually endorse it. Lots of Republican politicians (like Paul Ryan) will talk about how much Rand influenced them, then move on to a discussion of the great benefits that capitalism provides to humanity. But by focusing on these general welfare benefits, they are switching to a moral framework (typically, a sort of Christianized utilitarianism) that Rand most vehemently rejected. They combine this with a rather strong commitment to “personal responsibility” (which, again, is typically justified through appeal to considerations of general welfare, on the grounds that it reduces moral hazard problems), in order to generate what one might think of as the standard conservative moral stance.
Now I don’t find this moral stance particularly compelling. I think that, empirically, it rests on a serious underestimation of the difficulty involved in creating properly structured competitions, to ensure that real-world markets do actually produce general welfare benefits. And I think that the entire discourse around “personal responsibility” is a relatively inchoate and inadequate way of thinking about the insurance arrangements that are an essential element of our more general systems of social cooperation. But that having been said, I do recognize it as a moral stance. In that respect, I can see how someone could support a conservative political party, not out of self-interest or a free-rider incentive, but because he or she finds this moral view persuasive.
At the same time, there is a phenomenon that I keep encountering that casts doubt upon this “moral” reading of conservatism and lends support to Galbraith’s more cynical diagnosis. It shows up often enough that I’ve developed a special name for it – I call it “the conservative exception.” I use this term to refer to the conservative ideologue who toes the party line on every major policy issue save one. This person is a consistent conservative, except for a single issue on which he or she adopts a “progressive” stance. And what makes this one issue so special is that it happens to be the one issue that affects him or her personally.
I first made a mental note of this back in 2004, during the American presidential election that pitted John Kerry against George W. Bush. There was a debate between their running-mates, the two vice-presidential candidates John Edwards and Dick Cheney. Cheney was pushing the usual hard line on every issue, until the moderator asked him a question about gay marriage. His demeanour changed quite abruptly, and he said “I don’t want to talk about that. It’s an issue on which the President and I respectfully disagree.” Surprisingly, both the moderator and Edwards then dropped the issue, essentially giving Cheney a pass.
Now I suspect the reason that everyone was so happy to drop the question is that, while it is well known that one of Cheney’s daughters is gay, and that therefore the issue is one that affected him personally, probably nobody wanted to be the one to bring that up on national television. And yet, it seemed to me that this was the point at which the debate suddenly got interesting. Cheney basically supported Republican party positions on every single point except one – gay marriage. And that issue just happened to be the one that affected his family directly. From the standpoint of political ideology, what are the chances of that? In other words, what are the chances that the Republican party is mistaken about exactly one position, and that Dick Cheney just happened to be the one person to have diagnosed the error correctly – independent of his own personal interests? By contrast, what are the chances that the Republic party was wrong about many issues, it’s just that Cheney couldn’t see that, because those others issues were not ones in which he happened to have a personal stake?
It seems to me the second is more likely. The most plausible theory, it seems to me, is that Republican political ideology – the emphasis on individual rights and personal responsibility, the hostility to redistribution and social programs – reflects a general lack of sympathy for other people. So average Republicans are unmoved by the various equality arguments for gay marriage, simply because they’re not gay, they don’t have any (openly) gay friends, and so they don’t really care about how gay people feel, or how well their lives go. Similarly, they don’t care about terrorism suspects being detained without charge and tortured, because neither they nor anyone they know has been detained without charge or tortured, and so they don’t really care much about those people, or how their lives are going. And they don’t care about school lunch programs, because they don’t have school-aged children, or if they do, their children don’t need subsidized lunches. Cheney was, in the latter two respects, an average Republican, and so he supported the party’s stance on detention, torture and school lunches. And yet with respect to gay marriage, he was not an average Republican, because one of his own children was gay. And so on this one issue he adopted a “liberal” stance – because in this one instance he happened to care about one of the victims of Republican policy.
What this suggests, in Cheney’s case, is that his political ideas were an expression of limited sympathy for other people and their concerns – because it was, after all, concern for his daughter’s interests, not his own, that drove him into the liberal camp on this one issue. There are many other cases in which it is not limited sympathy, but just pure self-interest, that drives the conservative position. For example, Margaret Thatcher’s views on feminism were so self-serving that they were practically comical. (There is always the old office scuttlebutt about the woman whose idea of a “feminist cause” is the advancement of her own career. This is often just an expression of resentment, but in Thatcher’s case it was quite literally true.) She took pains to distance herself from “women’s lib” and feminism, claiming that the movement “has been rather strident, concentrated on things which don’t really matter and, dare I say it, being rather unfeminine.” On the other hand, she took specific exception to the prejudice “against women aspiring to the highest places.”
Turning to Canada, it is easy to find examples of the same “conservative exception.” Prior to his criminal conviction and subsequent incarceration in the United States, I don’t recall Conrad Black or any of his newspapers having expressed much concern over the well-documented breakdown of the criminal justice system in America, or the policies that have resulted in that country’s extraordinarily high rates of imprisonment. Indeed, conservatives in Canada have continued to advocate many of those same policies. And yet it took Black several months in an actual prison to discover that many of the men behind bars in America are not dangerous thugs, but rather innocent victims of a system run amok. (Whether he himself fits that description is a rather more complicated question.)
We also have Conservative MP Steven Fletcher, who broke with his party in order to support assisted suicide legislation. The only thing that seems to distinguish Fletcher is that he is a quadriplegic, confined to a wheelchair — so that unlike his fellow Conservative MPS, should he want to commit suicide he would require some assistance. Or we have conservative commentator Tasha Kheiriddin, who abruptly announced that she could not vote for the Progressive Conservative party in the last Ontario election. Why? Back when Mike Harris was premier, she didn’t see anything wrong with cuts to the education system. But now that she has a four-year old daughter with special needs, she seems to have had a sudden epiphany, realizing that “excellence in education” and “equality of opportunity” are “conservative values” — and furthermore, that in education as elsewhere, “you get what you pay for.”
One might be tempted to call this naked self-interest, but that would be to miss the point. This is actually highly rationalized self-interest. Conservative of this stripe are very exercised about government “waste,” but when you scratch the surface, it turns out that “waste” is when government spends money on other people’s needs. When government spends money on things that they need, or that their friends and family need, then it suddenly becomes an “essential service” and a “conservative value.” This is, needless to say, not a coherent political ideology. And while it is not merely a justification for selfishness (pace Galbraith), it is the expression of an extremely pinched worldview, one that can be shown, without too much difficulty, to be not just morally unacceptable but morally incoherent as well.