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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Would that we had conservatives

Three columns ago I said, parenthetically, that there are no conservatives in the United States. For two reasons, in this column I’m going to develop that assertion. One is that it’s helpful to expose the true content of what now tries to legitimize itself as conservatism. The other is that those of us on the left would profit by a dialogue with real conservatives. Their absence has impoverished our public discourse.

As named political outlooks, liberalism and conservativism arose in Europe in the wake of the French Revolution and with the rise of industrial capitalism. Liberals regarded humans as individuals, and the protection of our rights as the primary goal of the state. They looked askance at the constraints of institutions and traditions, and valorized private property and unfettered economic activity. Conservatives, on the other hand, regarded humans as relational, acquiring our identities through the multiple associations in which we grow up and the traditions infusing them. Between the individual and such groups — family, church, social and civic associations, etc. — there existed complex mutual obligations and entitlements, not all of them codified.

Underlying these differences was a more fundamental disagreement — often unacknowledged — about the innate moral character of human beings. Liberals thought humans are born good and attributed any waywardness to the baleful influence of society. Rousseau was perhaps the first widely-read proponent of this belief, but there’s no more powerful expression of it than William Blake’s “Songs of Innocence and Experience.” The cult of the child and children’s literature arose in the early

19th century.

For conservatives, human nature was a mixed bag morally, and institutions must educate children in acceptable conduct. Discipline could be unwarrantedly harsh in the family, in schools, in apprenticeships and in the penal system, but that shouldn’t obscure the intellectually tenable position that morality is an acquired knowledge and, in many instances, incomplete. Thus, in the economic sphere, it was conservatives, keenly aware of human greed, who believed in regulation.

In that last regard, the liberals and conservatives of our place and time have exchanged heritages. Liberals want some regulation of markets and workplaces, conservatives stigmatize it as counter-productive restraint of human enterprise. For the antecedents of other components of today’s conservatism, notably its militarism, racism and support for suppression of peoples and beliefs it doesn’t like, we’d have to look elsewhere than the history I’ve cited.

It’s regrettable that the Republican Party has adopted and fostered the witches’ brew that now styles itself conservative rather than the ideas of thinkers like Russell Kirk, who tried to revive classical conservatism. We might then have had an ongoing and fruitful dialogue about freedom and justice, rights and public order, individual and collective responsibility, autonomy and civic obligation.

The most obvious victims of our ideological poverty are the working-class whites who’ve been marginalized by a poorly regulated and rapacious economic system. Researchers have found that they usually blame themselves for their social defeat. So they won’t look for help from either the state or society, and instead seek solace in alcohol, drugs and suicide. By contrast, poor blacks, whose economic pain is, on average, greater, recognize the structural causes of their plight and have a tradition of helping each other during hard times.

One policy proposal that might occasion the dialogue I wish for is mandatory universal public service. In March, Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., introduced H.R. 6415, which calls for it. It will be interesting to see who takes what positions on the bill, and why.

Herb Rothschild’s column appears in the Ashland Tidings every Saturday.