True Conservatism

In the spirit of reposting, a spirit that has moved me of late, I repost  here what I wrote seven years ago. A reminder that words have meanings.

It has always struck me as strange that those who call themselves “conservative” are so often violently opposed to environmentalism, especially in these times when the survival of the planet is in question. They love to throw stones at the “tree huggers,” even though the tree huggers are also conservatives, which is to say those who want to conserve what is important and beautiful. The stone-throwers are simply what my thesis adviser at Northwestern called “dollar conservatives.” These people just want to hang on to their money and watch it grow. Dante placed them in Hell with a bag of gold hanging around their necks forcing their heads down and their attention directed to the bag — waiting, presumably, for it to grow even larger.

This all goes back to the loose ways we use words, a theme I have visited before in my blogs. And one of the loosest words is certainly “conservative.” There are a great many types of conservatives among whom I number myself on occasion. Like George Eliot I enjoy it when

“reforming intellect takes a nap, while imagination does a little Toryism by the sly, reveling in regret that dear, old, brown, crumbling, picturesque inefficiency is everywhere giving place to spick-and-span new-painted, new-varnished efficiency, which will yield endless diagrams, plans, elevations, and sections, but alas! no picture.”

I am indeed eager to conserve tradition and the great works of the human spirit; I am no devotee of progress for its own sake. Such people, I am given to understand, are called “intellectual conservatives,” as distinct from “dollar conservatives.” The latter want to lower taxes by cutting social programs, such as education, social security, environment, energy, and science, and even veterans’ benefits while at the same time increasing “defense” spending which already comprises 58% of this nation’s “Discretionary Spending” and is a misnomer if there ever was one (speaking of words and their meanings). I hesitate to suggest that it is possible that dollar conservatives are more interested in conserving the contents of their own pocketbooks than they are this nation and the world around them.

That is, those who seem preoccupied about lowering the taxes don’t seem to realize that lowering taxes might just destroy what is essential — not just social programs, which they would as soon see dry up, but the fiscal well-being of a solid middle class which many would regard as the backbone of a healthy society. In fact, lowering the taxes — without, say, reducing such things as defense spending, which is currently 15 times larger than the amount we spend on education — would put is in even deeper debt to nations like China and India to whom we now owe billions of dollars. The notion that we can save the country by reducing taxes is not only short-sighted, it is incredibly stupid. Like it or not, taxes are a necessary evil and we actually benefit by paying more, not less — as we know from the years after World War II when the dollar conservatives paid their fair share and the economy was booming.

Thus, dollar conservatives are not true conservatives at all. The true conservatives are the tree huggers and those who want to save life on this planet together with those who refuse to let go of the beautiful and magnificent works of the human mind that have defined Western civilization for hundreds of years. In a word, conservatives are preservationists who are focused on things they regard as more important than their pocketbook.

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8 thoughts on “True Conservatism

  1. Hugh, thanks for reposting this. There was a time when the Sierra Club had a much larger percentage of Republicans. Conservation was a more nonpartisan issue. It frustrates this Independent and former Repiblican that climate change and environmental protection was made a partisan issue. I fault ALEC and the fossil fuel and chemical industries for funding misinformation campaigns toward this purpose.

    Now. Exxon Mobil is being sued by its shareholders and three state AGs for misrepresentation of the impact of climate change on their financials. Royal Dutch Shell has pulled out of a US industry group due to its stance on climate change. And, Monsanto has three lawsuits, I think, one of which is about them falsely representing that Round-up was less harmful to humans than it is.

    I mention these examples as conservation is not onty good for the environment, it is good for your pocketbook. Exxon and Monsanto both pulled the wool over people’s eyes and it will cost them. It has already cost us. It should be noted most of the information being used against them comes from their own files. Keith

      • Hugh, you may have seen this, but it is reported today, the leaders of the EPA ignored its scientists and backed off an out right ban of asbestos. They have also stopped short of banning a chemical in a pesticide that California just banned. So, the question to ask is how is it conservative to poison people? The side of the Angels is pretty easy to figure out on these issues.

  2. Well said, my friend. I am beyond disgusted by those ‘conservatives’ whose own greed takes precedence over care of the very earth that sustains us. Sadly, I’ve come to think of ‘conservative’ as a dirty word, for the only thing the demonic republican conservatives are interested in ‘conserving’ is their own wealth and hedonistic lifestyle.

  3. Dr. Curtler,

    Conservatism is a broad term with meanings that have changed over time and continue to change.

    There is, indeed, an overlap between intellectual conservatism and conservationism, as there is between conservatism and preservationism, as you note. These take on different aspects depending which century’s and which country’s intellectual traditions you are discussing. (These are not generally to be confused with what Newt Gingrich called “Green Conservatism”, which is more anti-government than it is pro-environment.)

    In modern history in the United States, conservationism and hunting and fishing interests have largely coincided. This was, for example, a dominant focus of the NRA until recent decades. Large tracts of relatively less-disturbed lands and waterways were, indeed, to be conserved or improved — for the promotion of hunting, fishing. and recreation. This is conservationism in the sense of the early Aldo Leopold (a conservation scientist) and Gifford Pinchot, first Chlef of the U.S. Forest Service.

    This is not preservationism in the sense of John Muir, the later Aldo Leopold, or Sigurd Olsen, for example.

    As you say, there is an overlap between conservatism and preservationism, but it is not a large overlap in modern times. The free-market, anti-government, anti-regulatory, anti-science hysterics of many modern “conservatives” leave little room for such concerns, as you well note.

    Again, an interesting post.

    Respects and regards,

    Jerry Stark

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