What Does It Mean To Be A Conservative?

This is a slightly-edited transcript of a brief speech I gave to the Conservative Party of Canada, in Oshawa Ontario, January 31, 2016.

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People often ask me: “What it has felt like to be a conservative thinker and writer, for the past thirty years?”

I reply: “I feel like a man who has been standing on a rock, in a leftward drifting sea.

In the misty distance, there is a ship drifting to the left. And the voices on the deck are saying:

‘Look! Look! – there’s a man out there … drifting to the right!’ ”

That image should resonate with everyone in this room, because you all know very well that any individual or group styling themselves “conservative” today is facing the same problem when it comes to voting: what should I do about moral and political drift? Do I change my principles, or change my party?

It was the fine conservative thinker Russell Kirk, who wrote: “The conservative…will not surrender to the contagion of mass-opinion or the temptations of…power… [I]f he hopes to conserve anything at all, he must make his stand unflinchingly.”

Which means each of you – and your party as a whole – must decide whether you want to be on the rock, or on the ship.

This morning, I want to talk a little about how the true conservative differs; fundamentally; heart and soul; from all the other political species on offer – especially from the modern liberal, who must be distinguished from the classical liberal, as follows.

The classical liberal was an anti-statist, who had a heartfelt desire to get all citizens to the same starting line. That is mostly why so many of them came to Canada and America. But the modern liberal has given up on that, and is now mostly concerned to get everyone to the same finish line. And he is willing to use massive tax-funded state power to do it.

My recently published book, The Great Divide: Why Conservatives and Liberals Will Never, Ever Agree, is a full treatment of this topic, of which I can only offer a brief sample this morning. If you are really and truly interested in where you stand – as compared to a modern liberal – on any of the 14 topics covered, such as: Freedom; Democracy; Morality; Reason; Equality; Religion – and on the three main moral questions of our time – abortion, homosexuality, and euthanasia – you will find 14 Tables in the book allowing you to evaluate your personal level of conservatism, or modern liberalism. In a sense, the book is my attempt to explain what most of us don’t see.

Imagine a man walking along a road on a nice quiet day. Suddenly, he feels a tremor. Then he sees a huge ugly gash open in the road, right before his eyes, and he watches, terrified, as the rubble starts falling from the buildings. Immediately, he thinks: “it’s an earthquake!”

But, of course, what he sees is not the earthquake. It’s the consequences of the earthquake. The real earthquake is invisible, in the grinding, tectonic forces way beneath the ground. Seismologists can “see” them with their instruments. But we can’t. My point is that the ideological, moral, and political forces that drive policies on the surface of our life, are hard to see. My book is one citizen’s attempt to give you an instrument that makes them visible.

So today I want to speak a little about just a few of those forces, because in the end, they are the underlying forces that steer the policies and the parties at the surface: which is to say – that drive them together, or drive them apart. In the case of conservatism – of conserving what is good in society – they separate the conservatives who want to stay on the conservative rock, from those who would rather jump onto the drifting ship.

Let me speak a little now about freedom, human nature, the role of the state, the true nature of civil society, and finally, about those three watershed moral issues.

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Historically, the most enduring topic dividing conservatives and liberals, is the question of individual freedom (or, what Americans often call liberty). There are hundreds of essays and discussion topics on my website. And one of them is called “Six Kinds of Freedom” – which I have edited and reproduced in the book. It surprises me to see that of the many thousands of downloads from this site every year – whether from the Phillipines, France, Australia, China, or … Canada – about half are of this one single essay. It seems that people everywhere are interested in the meaning of freedom.

I argue that for the modern liberal, freedom is perceived as some kind of innate quality that is inherent in all human beings as a right, and the operative word that currently signals the emotional invocation of this right, is: “choice.” In our time, this has become a near-talismanic word, assumed to have the power to displace all social and moral custom, manners, traditions, and even to change or trash time-honoured laws the people have held dear for centuries. Indeed, the word “moral”, and the word “choice”, are now conflated in the public mind, and we are close to believing that whatever someone freely chooses (such as what gender they want to be), makes their choice morally acceptable. Through this hyper-individualist process of exerting one’s Will, morality is no longer conceived as a public good, but a private one.

But the conservative, who loves freedom too, sees it not as an inherent right, but as a qualified, legally-limited, and hard-won historical and political achievement of the ages, that must of course be defended for the good it may do – but also guarded against for the damage it may do to the social and moral fabric of the people. The great Edmund Burke said something very important about freedom that supplies the entire conservative warning.

He said: “Liberty, when men act in groups, is power.” He meant that a simple peek into history will immediately show that people tend to hold the flag of liberty high, even when – especially when – perpetrating their atrocities. So for the conservative, freedom is always a qualified good; it is an instrument, like a shovel. You can dig a useful hole with it; or beat a man to death with it. So beware when liberals (and libertarians) begin their rant about individual freedom to justify whatever change, or perversion, elimination of the good they may be seeking. The conservative – the fellow standing on the rock – if he is really a conservative, will insist that the freedom of the people as a whole: the sum of all their human relations, institutions, enduring customs, traditions, and manners, must have priority over individual freedom. Or else … where is the common good? Where is our democracy of the whole people? The pie produces the slices, the slices do not produce the pie.

Which is only to say that all true conservative thinkers, past and present, while very supportive of a core of qualified and restrained individual freedoms, are just as concerned about “social freedom.” By this term, they do not at all mean any figment of government, or the state – entities rooted in a monopoly on power.

Rather, what they are referring to is the authority of all the freely-created and inherited traditions, customs, and moral rights and obligations of society itself – (often called “civil society”) to restrain, to direct, to coax, to shame – yes, I said it out loud: to shame! – but also to reward, and to encourage all free individuals by its myriad approvals, conscious and unconscious, to behave as free, but also as civil, and responsible human beings. In this brief paragraph I have pointed to one of the core reasons that conservatives are always wary of liberals carrying the banner of reason to make human society conform to their vision of the good. Namely, the plain fact that so much of all human action throughout the ages is not driven by reason, but rather, by emotions, passions, instincts, and unconscious forces of which we are quite often unaware.

But let’s go back to the central role of civil society. While for the modern liberal, civil society is just the aggregate outcome of a reasoned contract freely-entered (or exited), and either sustained, or revoked, by freely-choosing individuals (the slices of the social pie); this is not so for the conservative. For this person, society is no contract made by self-important individuals claiming rights, who happen to be here today. It is, rather, an historical and organic achievement, a whole compact of all prior ages, that we inherit as a gift from millions of thoughtful predecessors, many of whom died creating it. Most importantly – and this surely reinforces the term “priority” – it is only such a free and thriving civil society that can possibly produce free, thriving, and responsible individuals, and (quite contrary to the liberal view) not the other way around. The pie comes first.

To employ another image, “civil society”, for the conservative, is like a horse pulling the cart of civilization along, stopping frequently to load it up with the free and responsible individuals it creates as it moves through history. The sickness of modern liberalism, is that it separates the cart from the horse – thinking only of the individuals in the cart, not of what makes the whole thing go forward – then shoots the horse!

If you really think about it, the conservative notion of an organic society – not an aggregate, but a composite that is far more than the sum of its parts, the whole pie rather than just a bunch of isolated slices – is just what we used to call “democracy.” But what happened to it? Well, the letter W, and the Letter M, are the same. You can just flip the first letter upside-down and say that although democracy used to be about We; it is now about Me. This up-ending of democracy – I call it “hyperdemocracy” – is the notion that democratic legitimacy, or sovereignty, is inherent in individuals, rather than in the whole people. It is an idea that happens to be sharply echoed in the three most important moral issues of our time, which I will get to in a moment.

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But first, let me touch briefly on another fundamental ideological divide between the liberal and the conservative over the concept of human nature. As it happens, the modern liberal tends to be unhappy with life as it is, a malcontent, and therefore a social and moral renovator who urgently wants to change human society to please himself. But you can’t radically change human society if human nature is essentially unchangeable. So to enable radical change, this person is forced to take the view that human nature is malleable. Otherwise radical change would be impossible. And once he believes this (despite all the lessons of history, and of human evil, to the contrary), he soon believes the best way to change human nature is to perfect human society by perfecting all government, no matter the cost.

But the conservative disagrees profoundly. Human nature is more or less fixed, and flawed, and all human beings are obscurely inaccessible to any full and complete understanding by the blunt instrument of mere reason. So they cannot be perfected by any policy on earth, and therefore no government, or state, can ever be perfected. It follows that we should not be using the coercive bully powers of the state to force change according to some fanciful and impossible notion of a perfect society never before seen in all of human history.

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Now, let us address briefly the three most important and incendiary social issues of our time – homosexuality, abortion, and euthanasia – all of which hinge on the underlying and opposing liberal vs. conservative notions I have mentioned. These are so incendiary that there is not much hope of rational discussion, because of what the Germans, who should know, call denkverboten, or “the forbidding of thought,” which is now, shamefully, like an intellectual sickness that has infected all the democracies. I can only touch on this now, but you will find the full liberal vs. conservative story on these three moral watershed issues, in my book.

To begin with the first: over the last thirty years, as some pundit has said, homosexuality has drifted from the love that dare not speak its name, to the love that won’t shut up! And many, but not all conservatives, have been cowed by this trend. For the true conservative, however, from Aristotle to our day, “the family” is that eternal triangle of a married mother and father living together with their dependent children. So you can stay on the conservative rock by accepting homosexuality as a private love, and acknowledge all the standard citizen rights for such people. But no special privileges. For the state simply has no business – none whatsoever – involving itself in love or marriage, or privileging these private passions in any way, except for one thing: the potential of ordinary marriage to produce and nurture future citizens. Any human arrangement that doesn’t have this potential, may carry on as it wishes, but it should not be privileged for doing so. So If you have become part of the large wave of public opinion that has been aggressively normalizing homosexuality for children, altering schoolbooks, and editing TV shows to brainwash them to the effect that homosexuality is normal, or if you agree that fatherless or motherless homes should be legitimized by the state as a matter of policy and applauded, then you have already left the rock and jumped onto the ship.

Abortion is another watershed issue. For the liberal, it is again a matter of individual freedom and choice for all those slices, and to hell with the pie. The unborn child is considered a woman’s private property, a material thing that is not considered a human being until it is born alive, so she may do with it as she freely wishes. But for the conservative, the unborn child is alive from conception; and the logic says that if it is alive, it must be a human life; it cannot be a pelican, or a giraffe. And if that is so, then we all have a duty to conserve it. In other words, as a matter of social freedom, the right and freedom of society as an organic entity to protect and conserve the lives of its own unborn citizens, must take priority over the choices of individuals concerned only for themselves. That is another conservative rock you can stand on, or jump off.

Euthanasia is the most recent, and most pressing moral issue now before conservatives. And here, let it be said, no one is advocating suffering, or the artificial prolongation of an agonizing life. However, most people simply have not done the work to understand that while assisted suicide – helping someone to kill themselves – may seem like an act of great sympathy (that is – may seem so, once you have gotten out of the way the money-hungry relatives, the macabre doctors with a Christ complex, the crooked lawyers, and the cash-strapped welfare state hoping to save health dollars) – it is a very different thing from euthanasia. For no matter how you try, you cannot escape the truth that euthanasia does not mean letting someone die, or helping them kill themselves; it means making them die; which is to say, killing them – whether by suffocating them, injecting them, or stuffing deadly pills down their throat that they cannot administer to themselves. And the moment such actions are legalized, we transform ourselves and the entire medical profession, from a civilization rooted in an ethic of life, to one rooted in an ethic of death. In a welfare state such as our own, where all expenses come from the same pot, if you don’t want to someone to kill you when you are old, make sure you check into a private care facility. At least, they have a vested interest in keeping you alive. But even then … be sure to ask the nurse to drink some of the orange juice first!

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I imagine that throughout your deliberations today there will be many occasions when the rock and the ship will loom before you, and I wish you full and hearty discussion, on all heads.

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A Speech given to the Conservative Party of Canada, Saturday, January 31, 2016,

by William D. Gairdner

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