Thursday, March 22, 2012

What is Conservatism, Anyway?

George Will waxes eloquent in his latest column about the "creative destruction" of capitalism, from the rise of Sears and Roebuck to the disappearance of Tower Records:
America now is divided between those who find this social churning unnerving and those who find it exhilarating. What Virginia Postrel postulated in 1998 in The Future and Its Enemies: The Growing Conflict Over Creativity, Enterprise and Progress — the best book for rescuing the country from a ruinous itch for tidiness — is even more true now. Today’s primary political and cultural conflict is, Postrel says, between people, mislabeled “progressives,” who crave social stasis, and those, paradoxically called conservatives, who welcome the perpetual churning of society by dynamism.

Stasists see Borders succumb to e-books (and Amazon) and lament the passing of familiar things. Dynamists say: Relax, reading is thriving. In 2001, the iPod appeared, and soon stores such as Tower Records disappeared. Who misses them?

Theodore Roosevelt, America’s first progressive president, thought it was government’s duty to “look ahead and plan out the right kind of civilization.” TR looked ahead and saw a “timber famine” caused by railroads’ ravenous appetites for crossties that rotted. He did not foresee creosote, which preserves crossties. Imagine all the things government planners cannot anticipate when, in their defining hubris, they try to impose their static dream of the “right kind” of future. 
I submit, first, that nobody embraces creative destruction in practice with the enthusiasm Will musters for it in theory. Would Will support flattening Georgetown to put up apartment towers for immigrants? Turning Yellowstone into a giant geothermal energy plant? Selling the Capitol building to the highest bidder? Converting Yale and Harvard into for-profit community colleges? He would not. He, like everyone else, thinks that some things about our world are worth preserving.

Second, while what Will describes here is one more or less consistent theory of what "conservative" means, it has little to do with why people today vote Republican. Does Will think the 89% of white Mississippians who voted against Barack Obama did so because of his opposition to creative destruction? Conservatism as a political force still has everything to do with stasis. John Boehner's attack on Obama was precisely that he is "destroying the world I grew up in." Actually, as George Will knows, it was capitalism that destroyed the world Boehner grew up in, despite the best efforts of the unions and their political allies. Ronald Reagan's genius was to weld nostalgia for a simpler America together with free market capitalism and military muscle into a package he called "conservatism," but it was a political magic trick -- in practice, the free market is radically reshaping America every day, and Republican voters hate it.

Neither party has a consistent attitude toward change. Republicans have been getting the votes of older Americans by promising to keep out Mexicans and protect Medicare from Obama's "death panels", while Democrats strive to protect the lifelong, middle class factory job. Nobody is against all change, or for it; we all want both change and preservation, and differ only in which legacies and which changes we think are most important.

"Creative destruction" is not conservatism. If conservatism means anything, it means preserving the valuable things we inherited from the past. Like Will, I do not think retail chains or steel mills are among the things worth preserving. But I think that our middle class society is worth preserving, and that unrestricted capitalism will lead inevitably toward a world of billionaires and paupers.

1 comment:

Clara Walmsley said...

Well said ! BTW, love the riot of color in your Georgetown flowers. Just discovered your blog as I was doing a little research on Joseph Cornell.