Chesterton once said, rather famously, that: "The business of progressives is to go on making mistakes, and the business of conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected". Of course, Chesterton was right. Chesterton was always right. But I think that there is something to be said on the other side as well: that the business of progressives is to make mistakes, and that the business of conservatives is to overcorrect those mistakes.
I was speaking to my father a little while earlier today. He told me that Eamon Gilmore, in responding to a comment made by the Pope about the abortion controversy here, said that women need equality more than understanding and mercy.
As it happened, my father got it slightly wrong. The Tanaiste (in the typically passive aggressive tone taken by Irish Labour politicians when responding to the Catholic Church) said that women need legal clarity rather more than understanding and mercy. But the minor mistake got us into an interesting discussion about the concept of equality.
And I think the concept of equality is a good example of this conservative overreaction that I mentioned. The modern liberal's abuse of the concept of equality infuriates the conservative so much that he either decides to dump the whole idea of equality, or he insists that "equality of opportunity" rather than "equality of outcome", is the only sort of equality for which we should strive.
I don't agree with this. I think equality is more than equity. And I believe that equality is a virtue that Christians should cherish.
Whenever the virtue of equality is mentioned, somebody or other is sure to say: "But we're not equal. And we can't be made equal. All egalitarianism is based on a lie."
But that only applies to the kind of egalitarianism that seeks to do away with all privilege and all disparities of wealth and power.
That is not my idea of equality. I believe that equality is a spirit more than anything that can be quantified; a societal awareness that one man (or woman) is as valuable, as important, and as deserving of happiness as another. This awareness manifests itself in our entertainment, clothing, manners, recreation, education, working lives, and a hundred other fields. It influences the vocabulary we use, the jokes we make (and don't make), our attitude towards displays of wealth, our interactions with strangers, the food we eat, and so on. In a society imbued with some spirit of equality, a conscious effort is made to treat differences of wealth and status and education as being of less importance than our common humanity.
I think this sort of equality is a rather conservative value. It is to be seen in patriotism (where national belonging goes deeper than class consciousness or socio-economic background), in organized religion, in festivals, in a conservative dislike of fancy cuisine and excessive attention to dress, in middlebrow art and literature and music, and in the general view of social conservatives that it is a virtue to be down-to-earth and unpretentious. Therefore I believe that it is an overreaction for conservatives to turn against the very concept of equality.
I see the same overreaction when it comes to liberty. The struggle against communism led Western conservatives to take liberty (especially economic liberty) as their defining value. Of course, this was a time when the family, faith and national character were still social values that could be taken for granted. But decades of libertarianism-- of more and more stress upon the freedom of the individual-- have undermined all these things. More and more we live in a society where liberty itself has destroyed liberty; where the freedom and shelter afforded by strong families, robust national identity, and a shared value system (rooted more or less in religion) has pretty much disappeared.
The real problem with conservatives is not that they are stuffy, stuck-in-the-mud, or sluggish. On the contrary, the real problem with conservatives is that they are so jumpy, hot-blooded and quarrelsome. Conservatives need to be more conservative and less anti-liberal.
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