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Allan Powell: Searching for the soul of conservatism

August 24, 2012|By ALLAN POWELL

One of the delightful features of writing is receiving an interesting article with an unusual point of view or some vital facts. Such was the case when a very able and well-known historian, Doug Bast, sent a virtually unknown letter penned in 1867 by a member of Parliament (British), Lord Macauley, to the Honorable H. E. Randall, a citizen of New York. Seldom does one encounter such a hurtful tirade against an unfortunate social constituency. A small portion will be adequate to show the sentiments of British royalty. Needless to say, the views in commentary are not necessarily those belonging to Doug. He did not disclose his perspective to me.

“I have long ago been convinced that institutions purely democratic must sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization, or both. I have not the smallest doubt that, if we had a purely democratic government here, the effect would be the same [as in revolutionary France]. Either the poor would plunder the rich and civilization would perish, or order and prosperity and property would be saved by a strong military government, and liberty would perish.” It would be superfluous to point out that we have a representative democracy — not a pure democracy.

If Lord Macauly’s remarks were isolated and singular they might be dismissed as the words of a crank or demagogue. But, though now more blunted, they are quite widespread in conservative circles. Only 67 years earlier, the most repeated and definitive statement in defense of conservatism was crafted by Edmund Burke, the well-respected British political philosopher. He is as one with Lord Macauly: “The occupation of a hairdresser or of a working tallow chandler cannot be a matter of honour to any person — to say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such description of men ought not to suffer oppression from the state; but the state suffers oppression, if such as they, either individually, or collectively, are permitted to rule.”

Some may say, “But these are the opinions of British royalty of an early vintage. Nobody in today’s world remotely holds such out-of-date views.” Don’t be too sure of that idea. In 1902, during the great anthracite coal miner’s strike, George F. Baer, the mine owner’s spokesman, declared “The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for — not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men to whom God in his infinite wisdom has given control of the property interests of this country …” Our conservative royalty can match British royalty any day.

We need to reflect on present-day conservative attitudes about our own “more servile employments.” Republican politicians are in a race to see who can outdo each other to keep workers in a “more servile condition.” Republican governors want to dismantle collective bargaining, reducing state budgets by cutting the incomes of public employees while giving tax breaks to the wealthy. Republicans in Congress would reduce or kill unemployment insurance, minimum-wage laws and safety regulations in hazardous industries. They show little or no empathy for the plight of the “more servile employment.”

Their latest nefarious campaign is to keep the “more servile employment” from voting, by placing all kinds of impediments in the way of exercising their ability to vote. At least a dozen Republican governors are actively promoting laws requiring strong voter identification. They, of course, try to disguise their real motive by claiming a need for more “voter security,” even though there is little evidence of voter fraud.

The only real check on this onslaught against the middle and lower ranks of our society is for them to rise up in huge numbers and vote the money changers and their lackeys out of office. They are forever blind to the simple reality that it is the “more servile employment” who want to earn enough to buy their products, drive their firetrucks to save their homes, walk the streets at night to safeguard their property and do a score of jobs they would never stoop to do. All of this makes it clear that the soul of conservatism is made of pretty thin material.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

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