Maybe I’m a callous wretch. After all, it was the great Sir Winston Churchill who once said, “Show me a young conservative and I’ll show you someone with no heart. Show me an old liberal and I’ll show you someone with no brains.” What exactly is it that makes our rare breed — the young conservative — tick? Some might say God; others might credit their upbringing or parents’ political leanings; those unsympathetic to conservatism might attribute greed, selfishness or simply psychosis as the reason for our stodgy views.
While I make no pretensions to speak for other self-labeled conservatives, in my case, it’s none of the above. Within the modern “conservative” fold there exists a diversity of opinion, ranging from the ubiquitous Christian fundamentalist to the neo-con hawk to the aloof libertarian — often making for an awkward morning-after for these bedfellows. But for me it’s not Jesus, war or money that makes me a conservative. Nor is it my parents, both of whom are baby-boomer Clintonite liberals — hardly the puritanical dogmatists that most picture as the cause of my tragic mental sickness.
What motivates my conservative tendencies is a sense of pragmatism, a sense that all utopian fantasies should have long ago been relegated to that proverbial ash-heap of history, a sense that modern liberalism and its false hopes of curing societal ills by increasing government spending and taxes are impractical, and worse, a penalty for those enterprising Americans who should be rewarded.
Yale is filled with starry-eyed idealists brimming with plans for change — social, political and otherwise. Few dare to question the ambitions of a determined Yalie. Many of our professors, products of the confined environs of liberal academia, perpetuate this notion of effecting change via the labels of “liberalism,” “social justice” and “progressivism.” Their idealism is perhaps admirable in its goals, but questionable in its application. As William F. Buckley Jr. once said, “Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.” The job of the true conservative — at least in the classical sense of the term — is to shed the sterilizing light of reality and pragmatism onto political discourse.
There are few things more disdainful to me than politics driven by ideology. Admittedly, this puts me at odds with many of my fellow conservatives who are impelled by the parochial dogmas of the Bible and the sanguine ideologies of neo-conservatism, and certainly with some of the policies of a Republican administration that the American people — myself included — have voted into office for another four years.
We have seen the consequences of ideological politics divorced from reality in the forms of fascism, communism, and now Islamism, all of which are (or were) horrific scourges destined for failure. Traditionalist designs for a return to “family values” through federal bans on abortion and gay marriage strike me as backwards and impractical, not conservative. “Compassionate conservatism” seems to me more of a speechwriter’s label than a coherent political philosophy. Modern conservatism would make classical conservatives like Edmund Burke cringe, but its alternative of modern liberalism is even more unpalatable.
Inequality and suffering in the world can never be wholly alleviated — such is the human condition. It’s a plight that the conservative has come to terms with, but not one that condemns him to silent apathy or strict opposition to all “progress.” Having recognized that radical change and utopian panaceas — whether Marxism or fundamentalist religion — are impractical and detrimental approaches to tackling societal problems, the classical conservative looks to the lessons of tradition and seeks cautious, practical solutions.
No decent human being — not even the conservative — is opposed on principle to issues such as national health care, the eradication of poverty or world peace. If a world without sickness, poverty, war, suffering and inequality could be achieved, then the conservative opposed to these ends would be a cruel creature indeed. The problem is that the conservative recognizes the impossibility and sheer impracticability of attaining this ideal society.
With the establishment of a government health care insurance program come a bloated medical bureaucracy, the curbing of individual freedom to choose doctors, and the further ballooning of the national debt. With federally mandated social programs designed to end poverty comes the stifling of individualism and personal success, costing those who are already disproportionately burdened with taxes more. With a blanket commitment to worldwide peace comes the turning of a blind eye to the tyrannical regimes of the Hitlers and Saddam Husseins of our world — a morally bankrupt position already staked out by much of Europe.
As young conservatives, we may be in the minority here at Yale, but I suspect that as many of our bright and enterprising classmates leave these ivy-laden walls, enter the reality of cushy and powerful jobs on Wall Street and in Washington, and inherit the reins of the ruling elite, these individuals — sobered by the realizations that the status quo in America isn’t all that bad, that those who work can and will succeed, and that their annual checks to the IRS border on the absurd — will shed many of their dearly held liberal convictions and become conservatives.
Churchill’s quote undoubtedly had one thing right: The older we get, the more we become disillusioned with the idealism of liberalism. But it’s not that young conservatives lack “heart,” we’re just a little ahead of our time. We look forward to the day you join us.
Keith Urbahn is a junior in Saybrook College. His column will appear on alternate Wednesdays.