A friend of mine recently confessed that as a conservative, it was “hard to be against big government when you’re living in a big government country where said big government actually works really well.” Indeed, it is hard to fight against something that functions smoothly and provides you with the things you need. Imagine refusing to get into a car with a full tank of gas and a well running engine that would take you where you needed to go just because you had to pay someone else to drive it. Not only would you have to forget using Über, you would have to forget using cabs, buses, trains, planes, etc.
Now, a typical conservative response to this might be that those things should be “privatized,” that is given into the control of non-governmental individuals or groups so that through competition, the market will naturally come up with the most efficient way of providing these services. Perhaps this is true, but as I mentioned in a previous post, our distinction between “public” and “private” is a bit strange (Andrew Strain at First Things goes further into how “private” corporations are in fact not so “private.”)
Alasdair McIntyre, in a recent talk given at Notre Dame, made the distinction between “individual goods” “public goods” and “common goods.” The first is a good that belongs to an individual; a good that only he can use or participate in (e.g. a delicious meal). A “public” good is a good that is shared by individuals but is still experienced by each as an individual good (e.g. a bus ride into work). A common good is one which belongs to a group in common, not just in terms of individual experience. This last category is perhaps a little hard to pin down not least because it is often confused with public goods (as McIntyre explains, public goods are often needed for common goods, which is where the confusion arises). However, simply put, the common good of any given group is its end or purpose, which is an ordered (and thus happy) common life. Although each individual in a group benefits from this ordered life, the ordering itself is something that transcends the individuals and is concerned also with relationship within the group.
Now, the ordering of a given country (its purpose) is through some form of government since the common good is concerned with relationship of individuals to the whole and not just individual goods. If the purpose of a country was just to ensure that all individual needs were met, perhaps no government would be needed. An anarchic social-contract theory of society might suffice. This is not the traditional Catholic view of society, however, and if Catholics are to claim any conservatism, it should be first and foremost a conservatism of Catholic teaching, not any given political movement.
My friend mentioned above, however, is referring to being politically an American conservative, which means being against the intervention of the government into the lives of the citizens. Now, it may be true that a national government should not be directly concerned with making sure every person has a toothbrush (an individual good) but it is certainly in the interest of the common good to maintain certain public goods (which as described above, are in fact shared individual goods). Thus, if we are to live a well-ordered life in a community, we should support public goods by sharing our resources so that everyone is able to share in the common life of the community.
Does this have to happen through government? According to the libertarian Prince of Liechtenstein, Hans-Adam II, no:
The state has to become a service company which competes peacefully, and not a monopoly which gives the customer only the alternative either to accept a bad service at the highest price, or to emigrate.
However, in Liechtenstein, the government is a de facto monopoly because it is able to provide these services well and thus there is no demand for other parties to provide public service. According to Andreas Kohl Martinez at Jacobite Magazine, Liechtenstein is a libertarian paradise: Perfect freedom to opt out of state-run public service through local democracies. It is, however, the case that what “works” is big government, albeit of a tiny nation. Even in a supposedly libertarian scheme, big government isn’t bad per se.
Now, there are issues with how this is framed (because it is dependent on social-contract theory and not a conception of the common good) but it does show that public goods are judged by “what works” and not by the procedure used to attain them. Of course there are procedures that contradict the common good, and modern governments are often terrible at judging true public goods as well. Just because a government is able to provide some service efficiently does not mean that that service is a good thing. In fact, my friend’s nation is well known for corruption and perhaps big government in that country is a bad thing. But it is not bad simply because it provides public services (libertarians commonly decry government services on principle) and through some miracle, the corruption doesn’t seem to have ruined public services. In other words, big government can work.
There is a further argument (from Aristotle and Aquinas) to be made that public goods belong properly to public authority and not to private enterprise. In this view, it is not about “what works” but how to ensure that government does in fact work. But let it suffice for now to say that big government is not just a “liberal” value, but can and should be embraced by conservatives.
E. Milco has an insightful thought at The Paraphasic about the reality of conservative despair.
I made the point in my first post that we are all conservatives of something or another. We are all trying to preserve something. I asked what we are all trying to preserve. Now I’d like to ask why.
Are we trying to preserve a set of principles or social realities because they are comfortable and we feel unsafe without them? Are we trying to merely shore up our little bastion of intellectual security so that we can feel superior to those outside of the fold?
In architecture, there have been many forms of preservation of buildings and monuments. At certain times in history, existing buildings and monuments were often torn down to give way to newer and better buildings. This was especially true if there was a regime change or a city was conquered; each leader had his own vision for the city. It was a revolutionary way of doing architecture in that it was constantly changing and indeed developing.
Early Christianity made a habit of preserving existing buildings for their use. It may be that it was cheaper to do this as opposed to tearing down and building again, but in many cases it was based on the thought that existing structures can be reformed to support new forms, a sort of architectural “grace builds on nature.”
Throughout the Christian period, as wealth grew, more and more new buildings were built and eventually humanity reached a point at which they wished to “reach back” to old forms and resurrect them for a new age of humanity. This may seem like a strange reactionary progressivism, but as I said, we are all trying to conserve something. These progressive architects used antiquity as a cornerstone for their progressive movement and this was another form of preservation within a progressive agenda.
Eventually, however, progressivism led to radical progressivism that rejected even any sense of “preservation of forms” that had been present, an unmoored progressivism. Ironically, this era also saw the greatest “preservation movement” where old buildings that had been preserved because of the quality of construction or because they had been repurposed were now “protected” buildings.
While this is certainly a kind of “conservatism,” I believe it is related to Milco’s idea of conservative despair. These buildings are being preserved out of the fear of losing them. We were never afraid to lose the well-built everyday buildings in previous eras because we could always build more, and maybe even better. Now we despair of doing so, and I believe rightly so. We have lost much of the art of building that was once passed down from generation to generation, always developing, always secure. I believe this is also true of our social and political life.
Conservatives have become fearful of losing any sort of structural norms and identities which once tied together society because of a so-called “progressive” agenda. This leads them to enshrine certain ideals and structures as “inviolable” and in doing so, lead to their petrification. This is what happens when buildings, and ideas, are merely preserved and not used. They become more a burden than anything, and despite our best efforts begin to decay. We can not bury our cultural possessions like the foolish servant in the gospel and expect to make any return on them.
The early Christians had it right, and in fact, as Milco says, Christianity has never been a religion or a way of life that is static. In order to keep the buildings of the rotted Roman Empire, they did not just make them into museums that needed a yearly maintenance budget. They used them in new ways so they would not fall into disrepair. But, they did not just attach the new to the old as many modern museums do in adding wings to existing older structures. They did not act against the integrity of the building. And most of all, they did not keep all structures. Some were too old, some were associated with too much evil. Some things need to be replaced.
But now we get to the meat of it all again. What does need to be replaced, and what needs to be used in new ways if we are to conserve a good social ethic and a proper political arrangement not as a dead letter to be admired, but as a living developing, indeed progressing thing? The Christian does not fear the past but nor does he fear the future because his grounding in the life and teaching of Christ is so sure that it can be “ever-new.” What the Christian, and I’d dare say everyone else, must fear is stasis. Milco, in his post, mentions “Acedia’s plea” to be left alone. This is the danger of despairing conservatism, that it wants to be left alone in order to preserve something. That is a sure way to kill whatever is being preserved.
Abandoned buildings collapse, libertarian and individualist conservatism is self-defeating because it is self-absorbed. Radical conservatism is rooted conservatism which is firmly planted in a place of nourishment, but because of this and the light and refreshment it receives from venturing outside, it grows and does not stay underground. This growth allows it to be even more open to the light and thus will continue to grow. Yes, we are in danger of being uprooted if we let our growth run wild, but is not the greater danger staying in the dark out of fear until we grow weary of life?
This is not the life of a Christian and it is certainly not the foundation for any sort of social order. We need lively growth from new ideas and old ideas reconsidered, never forgetting what needs to be preserved and what needs to be disposed of and why.