Conservatism is Contagious

What is it that the conservatives wish to conserve, if not the health and stability of society at large? 

By Evan Stern

Photo by C. Drying

In Walmarts all over the United States, it has become a familiar sight to see a cashier berated for refusing to serve a maskless consumer. 

On television, ‘conservative’ Senators and Congressman have fastened themselves to the preservation of the rights of the individual above all else — be it private business owners or the American government. Moreover, much has been said of late in print and film about the substantial threat that mandatory protective measures pose to the sacrosanct notion of individual rights. Much like our modern legal system borrows heavily from medieval English Common Law, in the middle ages there existed also the concept of a ‘right.’ This word mirrors the modern English conception of ‘property’ and was extended to an individual not because they were born but rather because they had performed a service to their Sovereign. They were in turn granted a ‘right’ to graze cattle on certain lands, to operate within a specific market, or to traffic upon a certain road. 

As our francophone cousins are won’t to remember — during the French Revolution a heated argument boiled over between Libertine revolutionaries and the conservative reactionaries who fought against them in the name of tradition, royalism, and conservation of the extant social order. At the heart of the argument: whether there existed such a thing as ‘real’ human rights; those being an objectively extant guarantee of certain liberties that are extended through birth to all human beings. Conservatives argued that despite the fact that subjects of the Realm were extended specific freedoms by the Crown, these rights were contingent upon ‘duties’ — obligations imposed upon the individual by the larger society. Failure to perform these duties would result in a deficit of individual freedom and, in many instances, legal ramifications. 

A few hundred years later, this argument has remained largely central to the core values at the heart of Western conservatism. Even citizens of a republic are expected in the conservative mind to perform in alignment with a social contract that has been said to include such things as wartime draft, compulsory education, and taxation. But a cabal of libertarians and neoconservatives, supposedly borrowing ideas from ideologues like Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, begun in the 1960s to flip the traditional paradigm on its head in lieu of what might have been considered in the American Colonies a more libertine and left wing approach to the human condition. Total and unfettered freedom, unbesmirched by government control, and without boundaries. Despite the libertarian proclivity to cling to figures like Mises and Hayek, the wellspring from which these ideas have sprung is not as clear as they would wish to think. 

On its face, the principle of unfettered freedom borne out as inalienable rights is an appealing proposition. It claims to liberate the individual from the collective so as to make room for each of us to cut out our own claim from the American landscape — from which we might extract a glorious bounty of personal wealth. But in darker days like these, the notion of unlimited rights has made itself an increasingly unwelcome guest in the marketplace of ideas as neoconservative pundits and libertarian elected officials make designs on compulsory mask mandates, public health related shutdowns, and state imposed limits on public gatherings.

Whereas a traditional Western conserative might argue for the rights of the private sector to impose mandates at will as the necessary extension of their private property rights, the new conservatives are far more interested in demanding that every knee bow to their conception of unfettered individualism — private property or not. Businesses that expect their patrons to don 

protective equipment on their grounds have been placed in the crosshairs of these populist dons who claim that these private sector actors have performed an overreach akin to treason. 

This paradoxical soup of political ideas poses a substantial question: what is it that the conservatives wish to conserve, if not the health and stability of society at large? If we are to expel anything that interferes with the inborn rights of the individual, it seems likely that in due time, there won’t be anything left of society that inspires the individual to accept any obligation to conserve it.

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