Why I’m Down On Conservatism

Conservatism in a nutshell:

“Reality is awful. Let’s do our best to build ourselves a way out of it. And once we find good tools, let’s agree we’re going to beat the living daylights out of anyone who tries to take them away.”

Consider, say, Jonas Salk and the polio vaccine. I never came down with polio. Nobody in my generation did. But my first-grade teacher, Mrs. Boettcher, did, and she spent the rest of her life in a heavy leg brace for it. I can’t even begin to imagine how much awful polio was.

Once upon a time, polio was reality. But then some things happened to deliver us from reality: namely, free inquiry gave us the scientific method, economic growth made it possible for Jonas Salk to go to medical school instead of forcing him to toil in the fields, and literally thousands of brilliant minds came together, some of them self-organizing and some of them organized by the government, and … wow: polio is no longer part of reality.

Free inquiry and free markets killed polio. Jonas Salk’s research team was the weapon.

That’s conservatism: discovering what things have historically worked really, really well to transform our reality, and then protecting the hell out of these things against any Johnny-Come-Lately who has a bright idea to fix things that will just require us to throw away this one thing that’s historically been a really good idea but right now doesn’t seem to be working well.

Across the board, life for the poor today is vastly better than it was a century ago. Some people like to say “a century ago, nobody had a iPhone!”, but seriously, that’s missing the point. A century ago you could have died of polio. Or smallpox. Or tuberculosis (although that’s beginning to come back). A century ago the poor didn’t even have books, but now we’ve got Project Gutenberg and Wikipedia delivering a tremendous amount of the great literature and the knowledge of the world for anyone who walks into a public library.

(Man, public libraries! These are a great honking good idea! Let’s conserve the daylights out of them!)

What has historically worked really well for America?

Free inquiry. Free speech. Free association. Free religion. Free markets. The Rule of Law. Equality under the law. Radically populist checks on government power. Oh, and public libraries!

These are great honking good ideas. These have track records of success literally centuries long. They are the best tools we have at creating a better tomorrow. Anyone who argues, “well, it’s outmoded and outdated and hasn’t worked well for twenty years, so let’s get rid of it” deserves to be tarred, feathered, and run out of town two steps ahead of a pitchfork-wielding mob.

Why do I hate liberals? Because everywhere I look nowadays I see liberals trying to throw out these time-tested reliable tools.

Why do I hate conservatives even more? Because everywhere I look nowadays I see them abrogating their most sacred charge: conserving the important things.

I can forgive liberals for their excesses. Really. It’s the nature of all progress that to get a single good idea you have to plow through a hundred terrible ones, and most of the terrible ones look good up until they create a total disaster. If liberals want to put forward terrible ideas, I’ll grit my teeth and smile bravely. Yes, please, tell me more about your idea to eliminate income inequality by shifting to a mud-based economy. Fascinating. I’ll give it a fair hearing, because you never know, it might actually work.

But while we’re giving liberals permission to blow our society up in the name of progress, conservatives need to be standing watch around the precious things and saying, “No. You don’t get to mess with this. Go away. Remember, these tools are the absolute best ones we have. Not only would we happily give our lives to protect them… we would happily give your lives if you threaten them.”

As much as liberals infuriate me, they’re doing what they’re supposed to be doing: generating a ton of really bad ideas and chasing after them furiously. Sooner or later one or two of them will pan out. It’ll be good for all of us when they do.

But conservatives…

Man, show up. Stand your damned post. Protect the things that need protecting. Free inquiry. Free speech. Free association. Free religion. Free markets. The Rule of Law. Equality under the law. Radically populist checks on government power. Public libraries.

But right now the conservatives aren’t conserving anything.

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