Modern conservatives don’t stay true to conservative principles


Hayden T. Crosby, Staff Columnist

The trouble with modern conservatism is not with its first principles. It espouses political prudence, and prudence is good. It calls for fiscal responsibility, which, when it is not being used as a euphemism for cutting necessary social programs, is good. It asks that we be suspicious of dogma. Political dogma is usually bad, so suspicion of it is usually good. The problem, then, is not so much with conservatism as it is with conservatives.

Though they espouse prudence, conservatives in the Trump era seem less concerned with the long-term consequences of their policies as they are with the short-term benefits they personally accrue by flattering and submitting to the president. One day they support keeping troops in the Middle East, and the next they do not. One day they call for the defunding of Planned Parenthood, and the next they do not. Nothing is a matter of principle. Everything is a matter of self-image.

Though they call for fiscal responsibility, conservatives in the Trump era, with few exceptions, seem less concerned with cutting spending as they are with cutting taxes. In fact, President Trump is on pace to add more to the debt than did President Obama. This increase will come under the watch of a party that spent eight years in anger over the spending habits of Democrats, and went so far as to shut down the government in an attempt to remove funding from Obamacare.

These contradictions deal more with the self-serving instincts of pompous policy makers than with conservative ideology itself, but one contradiction between conservative policies and conservative principles runs a bit deeper than that.

Dogmatic deference to the free market is not only the most identifiable feature of the right’s economic platform, but also la belle dame sans merci of modern conservatism. It runs directly contrary to the conservative tendency toward suspicion of dogma, and it is emblematic of the general conservative preference for local over large-scale solutions. It also has the unfortunate characteristic of being wrong.

Take, for example, the issue of the climate. For years, the mainstream conservative position on climate change was denial. Now, conservatives claim to acknowledge its existence, but they say that the free market is its solution. If climate change is really an issue, the line goes, then the market will demand and produce a solution in due time. 

The problem with this position is that it assumes consumers to be perfectly rational, and to always act in their own best long-term interests. It is difficult to see what tangible incentive consumers have for demanding a market-based solution to a problem whose consequences they may never face. Thus, if left to the market, the climate crisis will persist and grow without anything to curb it.

As such, conservatives should abandon their unquestioned submission to the free market in favor of a better heuristic. Conservatives should not always prefer local solutions to big ones; rather, they should prefer the minimum effective solution – that is, the most local solution that accomplishes the task at hand. Sometimes, as in the case of community engagement, local solutions are sufficient, but other times, as in the case of national defense, federal involvement is necessary. Clearly, this preference for the minimum effective solution is at once more flexible and more consistent with the first principles that conservatives value.