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Saturday, March 12, 2016

The Politics of Change

Conservatism does not mean resistance to change. It is a struggle for a different way of perceiving reality.

C onservatives dislike change. Liberals like change. I hear this all the time, but it is not true. If conservatives accept this definition they are making a mistake.

The idea that conservatism is resistance to change was actually debunked over a decade ago by a left-winger named John T. Jost, who wrote a paper claiming that Fidel Castro, Josef Stalin, and Mao Zedong—in fact, all mass-murdering totalitarian left-wing dictators—were actually conservatives because they didn't want change.

He was trying to slam conservatives by linking them to famous bad guys throughout history, thereby elevating the moral status of his own side. But what he actually succeeded in doing was to make a classic, though probably unintentional, reductio ad absurdum of the idea that political conservatism is resistance to change.

It's a way of denying that ideology can be based on principle. Ideology is merely a function, so these sociologists think, of class and power, and therefore not to be taken seriously, at least among their opponents. And there are many conservatives, not having thought through the implications, who are perfectly happy to accept this definition.

If it were true, liberals would, at some point, change into conservatives, if only for a second, perhaps by mistake. At that point, because conservatives hate change, they would refuse to change back. Sooner or later everybody would be a conservative. That would be a wonderful thing, but it hasn't happened.

Maybe you don't like change. Maybe you believe, like the pre-Socratics, that nothing ever changes. It's 8:30, which is almost 9:00, which is almost 10:00, which is almost noon, so it is always lunchtime. Or maybe, following Zeno, you're an anti-lunchian who believes there are an infinite number of moments between now and lunchtime. It will never be lunchtime and we will all starve. But even a dispute between the pro-lunchians and the anti-lunchians, as bitter as it may be, would not be about change. It would be about how we perceive reality.

If you accepted the premise that political conservatism is resistance to change, you'd also have to accept, if you were a conservative, that your ideology is not based on principle, but on convenience. You'd also have to accept that your ideology is shared with Stalin, Hitler, Castro, Mao, and Genghis Khan. These guys all resisted change once they got into power. (You might argue they caused change: for instance, they changed a lot of live people into dead people. But the point is that they didn't try to change the system.)

If you were a liberal you'd have to accept that your leftism (or progressivism, liberalism, or whatever) is based not on ideas, but on a simple urge to change things. You'd have to accept that your ideology, and indeed your personal convictions, have no independent value other than as an expression of your class and status.

If you're a wannabe totalitarian dictator and you're not running a communist dictatorship, you want change. If you are running one, then you don't. If wanting change were the same as conservatism it would mean that your beliefs are solely a function of whether you're in power or not. Yet we know that collectivists rarely change into individualists or vice versa.

Even so, the belief that people invent their beliefs to prop up their social class is widespread among sociologists. The term they use is system-justifying ideology. That idea is what conservatives call cultural Marxism; it is derived from Marx's idea that people's political views depend solely on their social class.

We use conservatism two different ways in our language and often equivocate them. If conservatives accept that, they're unwittingly buying into the cultural Marxism of their opponents and they'll be pegged as unreasoning, mindless reactionaries who are fearful of the loss of their privilege. Which, just by coincidence, is just how the left is trying to peg them.

What really distinguishes liberals from conservatives is that conservatives believe in abstract principles like the existence of right and wrong. They may get these concepts from religion or from experience and philosophy; there are atheist conservatives and religious liberals, but what they have in common is their beliefs, not any desire to return to the olden days.

If conservatives get their beliefs from tradition, they naturally would advocate returning to whatever earlier time those traditions were most prevalent. In times when principles are respected conservatism might coincide with disliking change, but in times when they're not conservatism is revolutionary.

Leftists don't have anything like this. They are moral relativists, which is to say they believe their adversary just has a different perspective that's just as valid as our own. For example, if our adversary wants to build an H-bomb and wipe us out, a moral relativist would say it might be inconvenient for us, but it's their viewpoint and we have to respect that.

Conservatives, of course, disagree, but it's not a threat to their identity as it is for liberals. Conservatives derive their identity from the principles they believe in. That—the question of whether abstract principles have value—is what the culture wars are all about. The battle is not about change, but about who we are and how we should perceive the world.

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