Where Do Conservative Ideas Come From?

Today’s conservatism developed from the social setting of England around the time of the American Revolution. It was an era of nobles and landed gentry, a permanent upper class whose titles and property were inherited, while the remaining population were assumed to be lesser beings. Perhaps it should be noted that we rabble in the colonies thought less of this arrangement than did the English upper class.

Edmund Burke (d. 1797) was the seminal writer on conservatism, and took this society for his ideal. Apparently, nobody asked the serfs whether they thought it was ideal. Then again, they were kept largely in ignorance, and most couldn’t write or read anyway. It was the upper class English who wrote books, which may be why the books on race they wrote, which categorized the various European social groups, but not the rest of the world, somehow always placed the upper class English at the top of the hierarchy.

Russell Kirk (d. 1994) was probably the leading spokesperson for the conservative cause in the 20th century. He listed six “canons” of conservatism. Or ten, depending on who you ask. When you look at these, you can see why conservatives believe as they do. It appears to be a matter of faith, not only that these canons are immutable laws, but belief that it was God who determined what these laws were to be.

The landed gentry simply seized their property by force.
“Natural distinction” had nothing to do with it.

It is the combination of the first, third, and fourth of these “laws” that give me the most difficulty, and this combination grows directly out of the English class system. As stated by Russello in 2004, the first “law” says conservatives have “A belief in a transcendent order, which Kirk described variously as based in tradition, divine revelation, or natural law”. The third is “A conviction that society requires orders and classes that emphasize ‘natural’ distinctions”. The fourth: “A belief that freedom and property are closely linked.”

It would appear, then, that the “natural” order of things in Olde England came from God. However, I have it on good authority that most of the royals, nobles, and landed gentry simply seized their property by force a thousand years ago or so. God had no part in the arrangement, and the “freedom” of which Kirk speaks was available only to the rich, who extracted their wealth from the labor of everyone else. Is that what is meant by “natural transcendent order”?

The flip side of their argument is that the poor
deserve their fate because they are lesser beings.

The peasant classes, having no property of their own and purposely kept uneducated, had no freedom, by Kirk’s fourth law. Descendants of our very own “property”—slaves from Africa—have had a few things to say about that arrangement too. But this is the 21st century, and conservatives who salute these “basic laws” of society can do naught but believe that the rich (in lieu of an official class system) own their great wealth because of natural distinction. The flip side of the argument is that the poor deserve their fate because they are lesser beings. This may come as a shock to you if your life is not driven by the desire for ever more possessions and money, or if your family has scrambled for generations to become financially stable.

What it boils down to is a belief that the inequalities we see today are natural and proper. In today’s America it becomes a belief that God says the rich are the natural leaders and deserve all they have because they have it, whereas the rest are simply too lazy and untalented to deserve more, because they don’t have it. The circularity of this argument eludes conservatives.

The circularity of this argument eludes conservatives.

This set of beliefs crashes head-on into the ideals expressed in our fundamental laws, the Constitution and Bill of Rights. Such laws do not prescribe obviously impossible absolute equality, but this conservative belief does violate the essential American idea of equality of opportunity. America is a classless society in that we have no titles of nobility to be inherited, and therefore anyone should have the opportunity to advance as far as his abilities permit. American conservatives believe that there are such classes, that they are based on how rich you are, and if you are not rich it is because you deserve how little you have.

“All culture arises out of religion”, said Kirk, and Christianity and Western Civilization are “unimaginable apart from one another”. If you are among the large part of the population that is atheist or a believer in a faith other than Christianity, Kirk’s (and Burke’s and practically every other earlier European writer’s) belief that the social order is revealed in divine Christian revelation and natural law means you have been marginalized and discounted. Atheists see clearly that religion itself is the cause of much of the suffering of the world, and there can be no divine revelation because there is nothing divine. Regardless, belief in the superiority of a group of rich Christians based on how rich they are is hardly the ideal basis for maintaining a democratic society. But what you and I think and believe must have no bearing on anything that matters because it does not mesh with “natural laws” that firmly establish social status and wealth at birth.

These conservative beliefs crash head on
into the fundamental ideals of our nation.

So this is where the beliefs of conservatives come from. It is no wonder that they have no interest in preserving the rights and wellbeing of us ordinary citizens, evidence of which pervades the public discourse every day. We see it in every attempt to remove any vestige of the only power ordinary citizens have, power through unity, unions, and laws of equality. We see it in demonization of the ordinary working family, and those who are suffering because they can’t find a job. It is easy to see why conservatives don’t care that a full day of honest work at ordinary occupations may require a second job to make ends meet. But it is the best reason for battling them tooth and nail to force them to honor the basic American ideals and laws, not to mention the morals that they have abandoned on the altar of the 18th century conservative ideal.

[Edited from a post on 2011/03/05]

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