The historical origins and modern psychology of Anglo-Saxon conservatism
By John J. Ray (M.A.; Ph.D. -- version of late 2013)
"Law, language, literature-these are considerable factors. Common conceptions of what is right and decent, a marked regard for fair play, especially to the weak and poor, a stern sentiment of impartial justice, and above all a love of personal freedom . these are the common conceptions on both sides of the ocean among the English-speaking peoples.
-- Winston Churchill's view of what characterizes people of British descent both at home and abroad
This monograph relies on one authority and one authority only: The authority of history. But I think it may be useful if I pull together at the beginning what I think history teaches us:
Left-leaning psychologists and other Leftist "thinkers" sometimes "study" conservatism -- usually with the obvious motive of proving a theory which discredits conservatives in some way. But the shallowness of their actual knowledge of conservatives is shown when they feel the need to consult dictionaries just to find out what conservatism is (e.g. Altemeyer and Wyeth). That is a remarkably desperate recourse. Dictionaries record usage but they cannot tell you whether the usage is right or wrong, shallow or profound. They even record mistaken usages.
The problem underlying the recourse to dictionaries is that the Leftist wouldn't know conservatism if he fell over it. His only concept of conservatism is the caricature of it that circulates in his own little Leftist bubble. But he does realize dimly that he doesn't know what it is. So with a schoolboy level of sophistication, he turns to his dictionary to find out what it is!
By contrast, in my studies of Leftism, I feel no need to rely on dictionaries. From many years of reading Leftist writings, I can tell you what Leftism regularly is. The essential element of Leftism is the desire to change society. That DRIVES Leftism. And society is people. So What the Leftist does or tries to do is to stop people doing what they want to do and make them do things that they don't want to do. They are not alone in that but that underlies all that they do and say. What changes they want and why they want them is also a big part of the story and I consider that in detail elsewhere. So conservatives tend to allow the natural world to continue on its way while Leftists forge an inherently unstable world that can be held together only by coercion. Leftism is quintessentially authoritarian.
The redirection of a large slice of people's spending power via compulsory taxation is only one part of the coercion. There are also many direct commands and prohibitions. The very expensive "mandates" of Obamacare were under much discussion in late 2013. Only a Leftist would think that old ladies should be forced to pay for obstetric care.
It may be noted that some people with strongly-held religious views tend to be like Leftists in trying to forge an unnatural world. That helps to explain why Leftists are infinitely tolerant of Muslim Jihadis and why the major churches tend to support the Left, some of them being very Leftist. In the 2004 Australian Federal elections, the leaders of ALL the churches came out in favour of the (Leftist) Australian Labor Party. The only exception was a small Exclusive Brethren group in Tasmania who supported the conservative coalition -- and their "intervention" sparked huge outrage in the media and elsewhere. (The conservatives won that election in a landslide).
And in England it is sometimes now held that "C of E" stands for "Church of the Environment", because of the Church of England's strong committment to Greenie causes. Cantuar Welby's scolding of business might also be noted. And a previous Cantuar (Carey, a generally decent man) called his little grandson "pollution" on Greenie grounds. Pity the children! And, in stark contrast with the Bible, a senior Anglican cleric has called "homophobia" a sin. The C of E and most of its First World offshoots no longer have strong feelings about salvation but they have strong feelings about Green/Leftist causes.
Because they focus so much on personal feelings and the promise of salvation rather than on "the world", American evangelicals are something of an exception but, even there, 10 million evangelicals voted for Al Gore in the year 2000 American Federal elections.
But back to conservatism: While conservatives tend to let the natural world run its course, that is not a defining characteristic. Nor is opposition to change a defining characteristic. What drives conservatism is something quite different.
What Leftists find in their dictionaries is that conservatives are opposed to change. That is indeed the prevailing Leftist conception of conservatives but it ignores one of the most salient facts about politics worldwide -- that conservative governments are just as energetic in legislating as Leftists are. Both sides busily make new laws all the time. And the point of a new law is to change something. The changes that Left and Right desire are different but both sides push for change. On the Leftist's understanding of conservatism, a conservative government that wins an election should do no more than yawn, shut up the legislature and go home until the next election! What conservatives mostly do, however, is reverse Leftist initiatives and STRENGTHEN existing social arrangements rather than tear them down. Both Left and right want change but WHAT changes they want are very different and very differently motivated.
What has happened is that Leftists are so self-righteous that they can rarely accept that conservatives oppose Leftist policies on the merits of those policies. So they have successfully put about the defensive myth that conservatives are opposed to ALL change, regardless of its merits. But those busy conservative legislators put the lie to that towering absurdity. Conservatives have NO attitude to change per se. It is Leftists who do. They long for it.
So in a thoroughly anti-intellectual style, the Leftist ignores some of the most basic facts about politics. That sure is a weird little intellectual bubble that he lives in. EVERY conservative that I know has got a whole list of things that he would like to see changed -- usually reversals of Leftist changes. But Leftist intellectuals clearly just doesn't know any conservatives.
So what really is conservatism? I have taught both sociology and psychology at major Australian universities but when it comes to politics my psychologist's hat is firmly on. One can understand conservatism at various levels but to get consistency, you have to drop back to the psychological level. And at that level it is as plain as a pikestaff. Conservatives are cautious. And that is all you need to know to understand the whole of conservatism.
In science, however, explanations just generate new questions and, as a psychologist, I am interested in dropping down to an even lower level of explanation and asking why conservatives are cautious. And I think that is pretty obvious too. It is in part because they can be.
As all the surveys show, conservatives are the happy and contented people. And with that disposition, conservatives just don't feel the burning urgency for change that Leftists do. Leftists cast caution to the winds because they want change so badly. ANYTHING seems better to them than the existing arrangements. Conservatives don't have that compulsion. Leftists are the perpetually dissatified whiners whereas conservatives can afford to take their time and get things right from the outset.
And why does that difference in happiness exist? As the happiness research often reminds us, your degree of happiness is inborn and, as such, is pretty fixed. Leftists are just born miserable.
So we have now dropped down into a genetic level of explanation. And we can at that level even derive and test a hypothetico-deductive prediction. If conservatives are happy and happiness is genetic, then conservatism should be genetic too. And it is. As behaviour geneticists such as Nick Martin have shown, conservatism has a strong genetic component -- which suggests that some people are just born cautious. It is, of course, no surprise that caution and happiness go together. See also here
So I think I have now gone as low as I can go in explaining conservatism. There are of course even lower levels of explanation possible (tracing the brain areas involved, studying the DNA) but our understanding of those levels of function is so far so crude that anyone purporting to offer explanations at that level is merely speculating.
So having gone down the levels of explanation, I now need to go up the levels of explanation too. What does being cautious lead to? It rather obviously leads to distrust: Distrust of the wisdom and goodwill of one's fellow man, both as individuals and in collectivities. In Christian terms, man is seen as "fallen" and ineluctibly imperfect.
But trust and distrust are matters of degree and conservatives are perfectly willing to give trust when it has been earned. So where ideas are concerned, conservatives usually trust only those ideas that have already been shown to work as intended or which extend existing successful ideas. Leftists, by contrast, trust and put into action ideas that "sound" right to them -- without bothering to test first whether their ideas really do generate the consequences that they envisage. They usually don't of course. Leftists are theorists extraordinaire. They have no use for Mr Gradgrind's "facts". That theory is useful only insofar as it is a good guide to facts seems to be beyond their ken.
The enthusiasm for "whole language" methods in teaching kids to read is an example of untested Leftist policy being implemented. It was widely adopted in the schools but worked so badly that most schools have now reverted to phonics -- the old "tried and tested" method.
And conservative caution leads to conservatives valuing stability generally -- because sweeping changes could well not work out well -- and usually don't. Leftists usually seem to think they know it all but conservatives know that they don't. So conservatives may want various changes but also want to proceed cautiously with change. They want "safe" change, change off a stable base -- a base that embodies what has worked in the past.
And the traditional conservative advocacy of individual liberty also stems from caution. It is highly likely that a tyrant won't have your particular interests at heart so you want to be free to pursue your own interests yourself. And in the economic sphere that is capitalism.