Sunday, November 23, 2014

Conservative Too Liberally Applied

 If there's any oxymoron in the English language used with greater profligacy than the label "conservative" one would be hard pressed to find it.  From the wads of cash lining the pockets of religiously conservative Amish farmers buying land in Lancaster County Pennsylvania to the glass walled cloisters of capitalist opulence in fiscally conservative midtown Manhattan to the diatribe-laced vitriol spewed across politically conservative AM radio, the only thing that is certain about "conservatism" is that it's not.  And if you want to see a case study in why Wikipedia is not a reliable source of thorough and objective coverage on a topic, take a gander at the entry for "conservative" and you'll soon find out that the modern use of this 14th century French adaptation of the Latin conservare is anything but oriented towards conservation, observance, or adherence to explicated values. 

There's no small irony in the fact that most authors attribute the modern use of the term "conservative" to the writings and philosophy of an 18th century Irish Catholic heretic (a Catholic forced to deny the doctrine of transubstantiation so he could get his political and academic credentials, educated by Quakers, and, ready for this, a member of Parliament who argued against the inhumane treatment of homosexuals).  Edmund Burke actually opposed democracy in our present form stating that the general populace lacked the intelligence and command of subtleties required to govern.  He was concerned that demagogues could sway the frail minds of an ignorant population and this, he argued, could lead to tyranny over minorities who were out of favor with the powerful interests reinforced by the influential few.  If Burke read the Wikipedia article about the principles ascribed to him, I suspect he'd be enraged.  In fact, those who laud the values of "conservatism" fail to heed Burke's prophetic warning that:

"…yet if men gave themselves up to imitation entirely, and each followed the other, and so on in an eternal circle, it is easy to see that there never could be any improvement amongst them." (from A Philosophical Inquiry Into the Origin of Our Ideas of The Sublime and Beautiful, 1756)

So why is it that modern "conservative" thought celebrates so completely the antithesis of its acclaimed progenitor?  Why have we adopted political theorist Russell Kirk's canons of: 1) belief in a transcendent order based on divine revelation and natural law; 2) belief that societies require distinctions of classes; 3) belief that freedom is inextricably linked to property and enclosure rights; 4) belief in custom and convention; and, 5) belief that innovation must conform with existing traditions and customs?  Why have we fallen for Kirk's thoughtless assumption that culture must "arise from religion" and without religion, "culture must decline"?  Whether we subscribe to any fragments of Kirk's perspective or not, there's no question that his writing and thinking was predicated on racism, classism, bigotry, and arrogance.  It is this socially unquestioned euphemistic veneer that I believe makes his form of conservatism so popular today. 

I encountered the adjective form of "conservative" this week when I was in dialogue with a world-famous athlete who told me that his investment managers marketed his overweight fixed income portfolio as "conservative".  This investment manager lie - one that is foisted on financially literate and illiterate alike - amazes me.  With 8 years of returns that have failed to generate returns sufficient to cover bloated management fees, the audacity of calling cash and fixed income "conservative" is ludicrous.  From the tax-deferred pensioner to the depository saver, the justification for this version of "conservative" investing is the thinly veiled seduction to allow predatory institutions to leverage the public's capital without their full knowledge.  Whether it's a bank that takes deposits and, courtesy of fractional reserve banking, levers the money 6-10 times (or more) or the bond originator who manufacturers credit for the statutory consumption of fiduciary managers giving little to no thought to the savers whose money they're placing at risk, there's nothing "conservative" about placing faith and belief in a system that explicitly pays a paucity for its subsequent leverage exploitation. 

I also heard the management of a company describe their resistance to innovation as a byproduct of their "conservatism".  This company once had a market capitalization measured in the billions and now trades at a fraction thereof.  They were more than happy to have investment bankers bring M&A transactions to them - transactions that saddled their lucrative cash-flows with non-organic debt.  Why?  Because the stories told by MBAs with glossy presentations and cunning spreadsheets were consensus albeit entirely in error.  Seduced by the short-term benefit of quarterly "growth" through acquisition, this firm eviscerated its value destroying millions in shareholder value while enriching the bankers and advisors who were able to act with impunity.  When presented with a method to regain new product opportunity and significant cost-savings in current operations, they didn't know how to process that kind of input as it was "unconventional".  Their impulse to preserve the diminishing status quo: Conservatism. 

Now here's the puzzle.  I'm an orthodox kinda guy.  If someone wants to know what my values are, look at what they've been over the past 20 years and, lo and behold, they're pretty much the same.  I am a firm adherent to principles of equivalent access, the importance of a collaborative and interdependent private sector, and the primacy of transparency and accountability.  These are not conservative nor are they liberal values.  What I find offensive is the use of the term "conservative" when it really is a masquerade for political bigotry, preservation of willful social ignorance and, predatory asymmetry in financial appropriation and outright theft.  Until we're ready to be transparent about our genuine motivations, we're not fit to use this term to hide our real intentions.


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Thank you for your comment. I look forward to considering this in the expanding dialogue. Dave