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Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Defining Conservatism Down

So I took the Pew political typology quiz and got the result "Main Street Republican."  I'm generally skeptical that these types of labels can adequately convey one's political outlook, but I also realize we need shorthand.  As shorthand goes, this result isn't bad.

On Pew's scale though, the category to the right of mine was "Staunch Conservative" which I suspect is more accurate for me.  I didn't have to look hard to figure out how Pew decided I didn't belong in this category.

Pew described Main Street Republicans as being, "generally less enamored of business than staunch conservatives."  Being enamored of business, is not the same thing as preferring free markets and it is not conservative, regardless of what Pew and most of the major media outlets in the United States believe.  Specifically, there were two questions on the quiz about business and profits where I think Pew misunderstood which answer was a conservative one.

The first asked whether or not business in general makes too much profit.  I answered yes.  Not because profits are bad or businesses are evil, but because I believe there are many companies in the United States who earn profits that they would not earn if we had a more competitive and free marketplace.  These rents are earned by employing government power to stifle competition and restrict supply.  This includes things seen as innocuous by many of us, like patents on drugs, as well as the extraordinary government bailouts of private businesses that took place over the last few years.  American capitalism in the 21st century is still a profit and loss system, but the profits and losses these days are too often determined by the ability to compete in Washington DC rather than in the market.

Mises and Hayek wouldn't have considered themselves conservatives, but their thinking about economics and markets formed one of the pillars of American conservative thought in the 20th century.  I doubt either of them would look at the current business landscape in this country and suggest we had achieved some sort of free market triumph.

The second question was whether or not I thought power was concentrated in that hands of too few large companies.  I answered that it was.  Again, I think Pew misunderstands which is the conservative answer here.  Bigness is antithetical to conservatism, which values "our little platoons" in Burke's phrase.  Thinkers like Russell Kirk were wise enough to fear big business just as much as big government.  Neither are conducive to maintaining "the permanent things."  Conservatives do believe in a hierarchical universe, it's just not one that has Ben Bernanke and JP Morgan at the top.

This sort of muddled thinking about what is and isn't conservative at times makes it difficult to have a sensible discussion about politics.  The fact that a well respected organization like Pew can't seem to grasp the problem here serves as a good reminder that when dealing with received wisdom one should always consider the source.

3 comments:

Joe Barz said...

There were many of the questions where I didn't agree with either answer. I ended up with a classification of Post Modern, although after reading the description, I disagree.

Have you tried this one: http://www.theadvocates.org/quiz

Jeremy R. Shown said...

Joe,

I took that quiz and got "libertarian" hmmmm..............

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