Conservative selfishness

A couple weeks ago, I happened to hear Pat Buchanan on Fresh Air (scroll down). I don’t recall all of the details, and I don’t have the time to listen to the whole interview again, but I was struck with a thought while listening to him: the conservative viewpoint is all about selfishness.

The things that Buchanan emphasized were moral/family values, fiscal conservatism, low taxes, less government, and isolationism, or at least no nation-building in the neo-conservative form. Let’s take these in reverse order and see where my thesis of selfishness comes in:

  • Isolationism: Buchanan was highly in favor of national sovereignty and that we had no right to try to run other countries. In fact, he was against multilateral treaties such as the Kyoto protocol or the International Criminal Court, because he felt that those were unacceptable limitations on our sovereignty. In other words, nobody should be able to tell us what to do. Ever. Our right to act in our own interest is paramount. I’d call that a self-centered position.
  • Less government: Buchanan opposed the expansion of government. This is an extension of sovereignty to the individual level. The government should do the minimum possible, and for the most part, should stay out of the way of the individual. Each person should have the freedom to do what they please. Sovereignty reigns supreme.
  • Low taxes: It’s my money. Nobody else should have the right to tell me how to spend it. Selfish? I think so, especially when the same people demand subsidies from the government to support their way of life. I’m reminded of a terrific Bloom County cartoon where Opus is studying to be a farmer. He’s given a test. “Say the following two things in one breath without cracking up: Keep those flat-footed goombahs in Washington out of my hair… Hurry up with my federal bail-out check!” Opus cracks up, and fails the test.
  • Fiscal conservatism: Okay, this one I can’t really find fault with. Running a deficit is pretty stupid, especially with the national debt already enormous.
  • “Moral values”: Even though I grew up in a town with some pretty conservative values, I still don’t get this one. Why should Buchanan care what other people do in the privacy of their own homes? Especially given his stance in favor of government keeping its nose out of people’s business? I think it comes down to selfishness – things like homosexuality or atheism make him uncomfortable, so everybody else should stop doing them so that he doesn’t have to think about them. That’s probably uncharitable on my part, but given that my limited understanding of scripture makes it seem ludicrous to pick only homosexuality as a sin, I don’t know what else to think.

I think each of these core values of conservatism that Buchanan identifies essentially boil down to selfishness. Leave me alone, and don’t do anything that might upset me. This relates to Moral Politics, where Lakoff extends the Strict Father model of American conservatism to include the idea that “Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own” to allow for this idea of being left alone. Anyway. I don’t know if I’m being insightful, or just spiteful, but I figured I’d share my observation.

I also thought it was interesting that when Terry Gross asked him whether he thought that the term “culture war”, which he apparently introduced at the 1992 Republican convention, was justified, and whether it made disagreements more violent than necessary by framing things as an all-or-nothing war. He felt that using the war frame was totally justified, saying that 40 million babies have been murdered since Roe vs. Wade, and that the “culture war” was a matter of life or death for the oppressed Christian religion. Yes, he actually felt that Christianity was under attack in America, which I find laughable. I think he feels that placing any limits on his religion is tantamount to wanting to destroy it, even when those limits are only to make it possible for others to have their own beliefs. Again, it’s the selfish viewpoint that his way is the only right way, so any limitations on it are unacceptable.

As for the idea that Christianity is oppressed, I’d love to see the polling numbers if an atheist ran for office. They’d be essentially zero. Jews and Muslims are more acceptable, because at least they have some religion to keep them moral. We will see a black lesbian woman in the White House before we see an atheist. Not that I’m bitter or anything.

I’d also like him to consider how he’d feel if the situation were actually reversed, and his kids were forced to recite verses from the Satanic Bible in school. He’d find it unacceptable. But he thinks it’s only right that students should have the Ten Commandments with them in class. Argh. Anyway.

I’m not sure what my point is here. Part of it is that I did think it was an interesting hypothesis that the theme of self-interest as an overriding priority is one of the things that ties together the conservative issues. Part of it is to help answer the question I posed at the end of this post: Why am I a Democrat (or at least a liberal)? And I think part of the answer to that is that I don’t want to be selfish. I like trying to understand other viewpoints. I like realizing that I might be wrong. There isn’t a one true way. And I think that believing in a one true way is fundamentally dangerous in this ever-more-interconnected world – we need to live in a reality-based community.

P.S. Yes, I know it’s possible that you could find a way to spin all of my beliefs to make them appear selfish. But I’d like to think that helping others who are down on their luck, or who don’t start out with the same opportunities as oneself, is less selfish than denying them help because they haven’t “earned” it. Or that recognizing that others’ beliefs might be as valid as one’s own is not as selfish as asserting one’s views as being the only way to view the world. But, hey, I’m just a biased selfish bastard that wants to be right 🙂