The Righteous Mind Part 3: Conservative But Not Republican

Reading The Righteous Mind brought forth a thought that’s been playing around in my head for a while; in many ways I am very conservative. I am risk-averse, I believe in incremental changes, I want to conserve nature and I have a somewhat romanticized view of small towns and the importance of family connections. When I took Haidt’s test on moral foundations I scored much higher than the average liberal on concerns about loyalty, authority and sanctity (on sanctity I even scored higher than the average conservative). On the chart below my scores appear in green, avg. liberal in blue and avg. conservative in red:

With foundation scores like this, one would expect me to be either independent or perhaps independent with a slight liberal lean (harm and fairness are still my two highest scores). But in actual practice I almost never agree with Republican policy. I even find this troubling because I would prefer to consider myself a centrist who recognizes good ideas regardless of the party that proposes them. To understand how I could be at least moderately conservative and still not at all Republican, I turned to Haidt’s analysis of conservatism.

Haidt says he was stunned when he stumbled across the book Conservatism by Jerry Muller:

Muller began by distinguishing conservatism from orthodoxy. Orthodoxy is the view that there “exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society.” Christians who look to the Bible as a guide for legislation, like Muslims who want to live under sharia, are examples of orthodoxy. They want their society to match an externally ordained moral order, so they advocate change, sometimes radical change. This can put them at odds with true conservatives, who see radical change as dangerous.

Muller makes a few key claims about conservatives (summarized here by Haidt):

Conservatives believe that people are inherently imperfect and are prone to act badly when all constraints and accountability are removed. Our reasoning is flawed and prone to overconfidence, so it’s dangerous to construct theories based on pure reason, unconstrained by historical experience. Institutions emerge gradually as social facts, which we then respect and even sacralize, but if we strip these institutions of authority and treat them as arbitrary contrivances that exist only for our benefit, we render them less effective. We then expose ourselves to increased anomie an social disorder.

If those are the core conservative beliefs, then I am in fact a genuine conservative. But I believe the Republican Party, while not completely abandoning conservatism, has become increasingly a party of orthodoxy. The Republican Party has adopted something along the lines of a libertarian vision of the moral order. (It is also combined with some conservative Christian Orthodoxy, but based on current policy proposals I believe the libertarian vision is the driving force behind the party). They are advocating radical change based on a reasoned theory that ignores historical evidence and removes constraints and accountability from both individuals and corporations. The three current planks of Republicanism are tax cuts, deregulation, and spending cuts. These are not actually conservative principles, particularly when pushed to the extremes that the current Republican party is taking them. I believe a genuinely conservative response to the recent financial crisis would involve incremental tax increases (loyalty, helping the country recover from a shared crisis), gradual spending cuts (loyalty again, shared sacrifice for the country) and slightly increased regulation (based on a distrust of unaccountable individuals and groups). But perhaps I’m wrong, after all, I just recently found out that I’m conservative. What do you think?


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