In grad school it often struck me that most of my intellectual partnerships were with self-professed conservative grad students, despite my own left-wing politics. Similarly, some of the most interesting blogs I’ve found have been conservative or right-wing.
It took me a while to figure out the reason for this, but I came to see it quite clearly: for most left-wingers, the good is fundamentally political. The place to focus our efforts, in changing the way that things and people are, is on the inequalities, oppressions and pollutions of the state and the corporations and wealth it regulates. Conservatives, at least social conservatives, often do not think this way. Our big problems are with ourselves. It matters that people become better, more virtuous; even when they do obsess about politics, it is as an attempt to make people better in some sense. An interesting example is Rod Dreher, one of the conservative bloggers I linked to in the earlier post: while his blog was originally called “Crunchy Con” (as in “conservative”), it later just took on his name, and now is called Macroculture – the emphasis has been steadily less on politics and more on culture, and the blog has gotten steadily more interesting (though less popular) as it went. This is an attitude I tend to be largely in agreement with. My deepest debt to Buddhism is that it saved me from politics, made me focus on problems with myself and not with the world.
The question I’ve then come to ask myself is: why haven’t I become conservative myself? I don’t mean a movement Republican, for that question is easily answered: George W. Bush, and his ideological successor Sarah Palin, represent an abhorrent combination of procedural, symbolic and substantive wrongs, many of which would count as wrong from any ideological standpoint. ̇When his writings were primarily political, Dreher was a fierce critic of Bush on conservative grounds – the enormous expansion of government and the deficit, the wars of choice, the incompetence in the face of Hurricane Katrina.
But why not become a more skeptical right-winger like Dreher? This is where the question gets more philosophically interesting. I’ve sometimes found it perplexing that in the contemporary right wing, social and cultural conservatism is often joined with economic libertarianism, extreme liberalism in the classical sense (and the inverse is true on the left). The justification for this connection is often articulated by right-wing bloggers like Dreher and William Vallicella: government social intervention on behalf of the disadvantaged, the centrepiece of a left-wing political problem, makes people worse. It discourages people from working hard and being thrifty, makes them lazy, less virtuous. Under a left-wing social-democratic government, the good people who work hard and save to get rich are punished, while the lazy are rewarded. Right-wingers typically maintain some modified version of the Protestant ethic chronicled by Max Weber, according to which wealth is, if not a sign of God’s favour, at least a deserved reward for a virtuous life spent working hard and saving.
And where I depart most from such a viewpoint is not in the idea that the government should avoid the promotion of virtue, nor in the belief that social programs may discourage work or thrift. Rather, it is in the idea that hard work and thrift are themselves virtues. It is this conceit – typically American but hardly unique to the US – that I disdain.
Hard work and thrift are often associated with real virtues, such as temperance and patient endurance. To put in long hours earning money, one must have the ability to put aside the desires of the moment and endure present hardship for future benefit; this ability is an excellent character trait. But it is not a virtue in itself; indeed, especially in the US, it often becomes a characteristic vice. As I argued last week, this is the real problem with “convenience”: spending money to save time is a futile and unworthy pursuit if all we do with that time is make more money.
Marx was wise to emphasize alienation – our work lives are lives lived for someone else, they take us away from the things that are most important, in the name of money. Most of us need to work, but if that becomes our priority in life, we have bad priorities. The iconic Silicon Valley entrepreneur who works 90-hour weeks in order to make millions – this seems like a right-winger’s model of a good human being. In my view, however, such a person is seriously deficient. I’m hardly the first to make this point – Bertrand Russell put it far more eloquently – but it is all too absent from contemporary political conversation, especially those of self-professed conservatives. The thrift and saving that makes many millionaires, too, can easily degenerate into miserliness, and a capitalist economy often rewards the latter even more than the former. The self-made rich, even if they have come by their money entirely honestly, are not necessarily any better than the rest of us, and may well be worse.
Beyond all this, of course, there is the basic point that hard work and thrift are often not related to economic success; one can easily compare Paris Hilton to Mexican immigrant families who struggle tirelessly and still can’t make ends meet, or any number of similar examples. This is of course an important point in deciding where on the political spectrum one will fall; but it interests me less here than the wider point about virtue. Even if wealth were awarded entirely in accordance with effort and labour, it seems to me that it would still be worth offering some government support to the needy, and doing so would not necessarily affect the people’s character for the worse.