04 October 2011

Inconvenient conservatism

Bob Inglis is a former Congressman from South Carolina. A Republican, he was primaried and defeated by Tea Partiers last year because they found his record too "moderate." Part of his moderation, apparently, was his fact-based (or if you prefer, consensus-based) stand on climate change, which he reiterates in an op-ed article appearing in newspapers this week. He strikes a nostalgic note when he writes, "Normally, the country can count on conservatives to deal in facts." That may have been so once upon a time, when a conservative's business was to remind people of the lessons of the past so they wouldn't repeat specific mistakes. Now, however, Inglis finds to his dismay that so-called conservatives in his own party are "following sentiment, not science" on the climate-change question.

Noting an awful discrepancy between the 95% of scientists convinced of anthropogenic climate change and the 13% of ordinary citizens aware of that stat, Inglis comments that "you would expect conservatives to stand with 95 percent of the scientific community and to grow the 13 percent into a working majority. But courage fails us when it comes to energy and climate. Fearing our economic circumstances, we've decided to channel the fear rather than to confront it."

Inglis believes that Republicans are being "populist" rather than "conservative" on climate issues. While he never defines what's "populist" about denialism, he spells out three conservative principles that should determine Republican attitudes toward climate change. First, as we've seen, is adherence to facts. Second is a principle of accountability which Inglis would fulfill by making sure everyone pays "the full cost of petroleum ... at the pump" rather than in hidden ways, preferably through a tax that might make up for reduced income taxes. Taxing gas at the pump also satisfies Inglis's third conservative principle, which relies on market forces to change behavior. Here it must be noted that Inglis, "moderate" that he is, sees no discrepancy between a reliance on market forces and the imposition of taxes. In the particular case of gas, his implicit position is that the oil companies are manipulating the market so that we don't pay the "full cost," requiring government to step in to set the "full cost," which by further implication can be determined by policy makers when price setters fail. Inglis justifies his position by affirming the accountability principle and reminding his conservatives that there's "no such thing as a free lunch," which he accuses the oil companies of offering us.

Inglis's lonely stance reminds us that "conservatism" has no set meaning. Not all self-styled conservatives today would agree with all three of his defining principles, one suspects. For many, the slippery notion of "freedom" trumps everything, though that stance is arguably inconsistent with most of the history of conservatism. Furthermore, with all due respect to Inglis, many observers will not share his surprise at the fact-defying behavior of so many Republicans and Tea Partiers. For many hostile observers, one of the definitive historical instances of "conservatism" is Galileo's confrontation with the Vatican, an episode that defines "conservatism" for many as inherently anti-scientific if not anti-fact. Republican resistance to the climate-change consensus only confirms that image of conservatism, even while presumably principled conservatives like Inglis insist that denialism isn't conservative at all. Because "conservative" is always a relative word in political contexts, what conservatism stands for in any generation, and even who conservatives are, is just as likely to be defined in hostile terms, by the professed enemies of conservatism, as by conservatives themselves. Despite Inglis's efforts, his opponents on climate change are encouraging a definition of conservatism that threatens to discredit Inglis himself so long as he insists on the name.

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