American historian Robert Conquest is getting up there in years. The Hoover Institution fellow is just three years shy of the big 1-O-O. Despite having received the Presidential Medal of Freedom (and various other awards from different countries), few people have heard of Conquest. It’s a shame, since his Three Laws of Politics are about the most accurate set of observances since Albert Jay Nock’s rules on the political process.
Conquest’s first law gets at the heart of anti-liberal thought: “Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.” What does that mean exactly? The answer is tricky. But Conquest’s first law is key to explaining why reining in government is such a difficult task.
For starters, conservatism has many definitions. There are Americans who describe themselves as conservative who want to bomb the Middle East into barren dirt. Niggardly types call themselves “conservative” with money. Then there are politically-savvy individuals who think conservative means cutting government by any means necessary.
These descriptions aren’t totally wrong. They each have a grain of truth to them. Conservative writer and friend of Mises Canada Kathy Shaidle disagrees with Conquest. She says his laws are wrong. On the first law she writes, “almost every conservative I know transmogrifies into a flaming liberal when he mounts his favorite hobbyhorse.” Shaidle uses gay conservatives asking for same-sex marriage and businessmen demanding tax exemptions to make her case.
While it’s true hypocrisy abounds in politics, Shaidle does something interesting in attempting to discredit Mr. Conquest. She makes the mistake of conflating conservatism with stereotypical conservative policies. This is a mistake. Conservatism as a philosophy is much broader in scope than simply cutting taxes. And it’s this disposition – what Russell Kirk called “the conservative mind” – that explains why rolling back the state is no walk in the park.
Even the most diehard leftists has at least one conservative bone in their body. Progressives may support policies that redistribute wealth, empower government bureaucrats, and take away freedom of choice, but they all protect what is dearest to them. Whether it be family or personal property, it’s rare to find a self-identified liberal who doesn’t attempt to preserve things that are close at hand. They advocate for theft via taxation, but their opinion changes if their personal belongings are threatened.
Now flip this logic upside down and apply to anyone who is nominally conservative. Andrew Sullivan famously made the conservative case for gay marriage while heading up the New Republic. Did his opinion confirm Mrs. Shaidle’s assertion that everyone is willing to be liberal about their deeply held convictions? I don’t think so. If anything, Sullivan’s argument actually affirmed his own conservatism – that is, he attempted to maintain his own identity as a homosexual. The general acceptance of gay marriage by Western culture was a victory Sullivan won over time. Today, negative opinions about the gay lifestyle are verboten in polite company. Sullivan didn’t make a Faustian bargain to achieve his selfish desire though; his identity and self-conception – two of humanity’s most precious values – were accepted by others. He conserved what was most important to him.
Take this reasoning one step further and apply it to public policy. Given government’s intrusive involvement in private life, almost every industry must act as its own special interest group. Tech, agriculture, security, food service, manufacturing, entertainment – you name the industry and no doubt it has a lobbyist sweet-talking politicians at every level of government. And why shouldn’t they? Government regulation pits certain individuals against others in both the consumer marketplace and for political favoritism. As Friedrich Hayek wrote, the rise of government intervention means “the coercive power of the state will alone decide who is to have what, the only power worth having will be a share in the exercise of this directing power.”
If you’re a businessman who produces widgets, you want the government to provide a beneficial business environment to you. Otherwise, it will go to the next guy, who is a competitor seeking your market share. That’s why you may lobby the state to provide you special tax breaks or even subsidies. Essentially, you want to conserve your business and ability to earn a living.
This principle is prevalent in American industry. Take a look at farmers: many embody the symbol of rugged individualism and forging a way of life from the ground. Yet many of them beg the federal government for subsidies every year. The same applies to the ride-sharing service Uber. Once a scrappy start-up that fought city councils across the country just for the privilege of operating, Uber has moved on to lobbying the government to inhibit its competitors. Such is the way things go when the state’s heavy hand reaches into the market. But it should not come as a surprise that businesses want a free market for themselves and a regulated one for their rivals. To companies with a significant voice in state capitols, it’s a “free market for me; not for thee.”
At the core of this hypocrisy is the incentive to conserve what is close and familiar. Farmers want to keep their business. Uber wants to grow and become more profitable. These desires, while perfectly understandable, are why curbing government regulation is so hard. For every rule that hinders free commerce, there is someone who benefits from the prohibition.
Here is a personal example. In my hometown, there is a park enjoyed by the community. Dubbed Hoffer Park after its gifting from resident Christian A. Hoffer, the park has been part of the town for nearly a century. Every year around Christmas time, lights are strewn through the trees and facilities on the grounds. Decorations such as blow-up snowmen and an illustrated storyboard of the “The Night Before Christmas” are placed along the circular roadway that runs through the park. A man playing Santa Claus is available on weeknights for children to visit.
The whole Christmas display is payed for by local taxes. It’s not a public necessity; just a nice treat for the community. Taxpayers should not be forced to fund it. But do you think I get up in arms about the spectacle? Of course not! I have great memories of my mother driving me through the display in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I can remember visiting Santa once when I was young, and receiving a coloring book. If I were dictator of the town, the Hoffer Park Christmas showcase would be the last thing I would defund. I want to conserve it for my enjoyment, and for future residents.
Does Conquest’s first law politics mean that limiting government is largely a fool’s errand? The answer is yes and no. Slavery was a part of human existences for nearly the species’ entire history. Many proponents of human bondage defended the practices by citing tradition. That intransigence didn’t stop reason and basic decency from eventually winning out. So in some cases, moral reasoning can be used to reverse longstanding traditions. It remains an uphill battle still, if only for our conservative nature.