14 February 2014

The Conservative Dilemma

I have been reading Jay Cost off and on for something like a decade. He started out as something of a conservative antipode to Nate Silver, baseball sabermetrician turned political rune-reader. Cost has been very astute when it comes to interpreting the message contained in polls, although late in election cycles one might need to remember his bias. He has been writing at The Weekly Standard for quite a few years now, and recently published an article about immigration reform in the United States that contained the following paragraph:

Conservatives are pro-business because they believe that, in general, business is good for everybody. If business presents a plan that hurts a significant swath of the country for its own advantage—such as the Senate bill—conservatives should oppose it. Indeed, they should do so loudly and forthrightly, for their biggest electoral liability is the widespread conviction that the GOP stands with big business instead of with the average person.
This got me to thinking about that conviction, and flavours of 'conservatism' throughout the Anglosphere.

Looking at conservative politics over about four hundred years of Anglospheric history, one can see that for the longest time conservatism was identified with preserving the institutional framework of a state, and particular the social capital of individuals who ran those institutions. Then, starting in the nineteenth century, and with the rise of the battle between management and labour under industrial capitalism, conservatism gradually acquires a pro-business wing. This is most clearly seen in the Republican party in the United States, and takes a lot longer to occur in the more specifically 'Anglo' parts of the sphere.

Cost, in this article, is seriously challenging the broadly accepted interpretation of what the GOP, as a conservative party, is historically. He is harking back to the Federalist tradition in the United States, and to what I would consider the core Tory values in Britain and the Commonwealth. In this paternalistic formation, business is an ally, but not to be trusted, because it is destructive of social capital among the elite. (As Marx and Engels put it, 'all that is solid melts into air'.) There are times when the elite remembers how its authority is rooted in the feudal principle that it has a contract with its subjects to protect their life and property from foreign enemies. Both Tories and Federalists see The State itself as an organic entity, where Jeffersonians and libertarians see it more as a parasitic cabal. During much of my lifetime, the latter interpretation has been favoured by conservatives, which thus cemented the partnership between Tories and GOP and big business. But big business, as Schumpeter recognised and Friedman largely shrugged his shoulders over, seeks a kind of privatised socialist corporatism.

Cost is basically arguing that a conservative party fundamentally exits to protect the institutions of the state, and the alliance of these with the state's subjects/citizens. (The Feudal Compact, I call it.) In this, I think he is right, and it is why I have always been unwilling to characterise the Republicans as a conservative party. Conservatives always face a dilemma when the interests of business clash with those of the state's institutions. At least since the 1840s, the business wing has always won out. If this changes, it will be a sign that we are flirting with a new historical epoch.

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