Right Minds – John McGuirk – Social Conservative

Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run by The Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute

The good, old-fashioned, judgemental, hang ‘em and flog ‘em, Social Conservative.

I’m that kind of conservative right winger all the other right wingers like to define themselves against. “Oh, I’m not one of those people”, they say. “I’m for freedom, and choice, and you living your very best life, but with small Government. I wouldn’t be religious now myself at all.”

As it happens, I’m not very religious myself either, but that image comes with the brand: Social Conservative. The very words conjure up images of little old ladies brandishing photographs of the blessed virgin at heathen marchers dressed in rainbow outfits, or of Nancy Reagan quaintly imploring grungy American teenagers to just say no to drugs, or of those very nice and sincere young Christian missionaries who are doing their absolute best to make virginity cool again in the west.

We’re the square ones. We’re behind the times. We have absolutely no connection to how people live their lives today, and when we read the Handmaid’s Tale, we don’t see a dystopia, we see blueprints.

That’s the image. The reality is more boring.

I want to live in a stable, secure, safe, and happy society, one where people can fulfil their potential and feel satisfied and content. We should seek a society that minimises insecurities, rather than magnifying them, one where people can feel fulfilled rather than, as is too often the case, constantly on edge. Our government should be conducive to these things and should prioritise them over ideological goals like freedom or equality. I don’t wish to live in a free society, or an equal society, if the option of a contented society is on the table.

Government should also build on what works. It should be local – very few government departments are run as effectively or efficiently as the local GAA club, which raises and spends money close to the citizen, with the involvement of the citizen, to the benefit of the citizen. It should be a moral leader – societies need standards of compassion and decency and that ought to be signalled and lived out by our chosen leaders. And, finally, Government should preserve and defend those institutions which serve society well.

The pathway to a successful life, to health, to happiness, and indeed to greater wealth, is very simple: Get married, stay married, get a job, buy a house, have children, get a pension, retire, and play golf. The reason this formulation has remained in vogue since antiquity (with the latter-day additions of pensions and golf) is very simply that it works.

It works for several obvious reasons – it gives you a stake in something more than yourself. You are no longer invested simply in your own success, but in somebody else’s. It makes you a better and more engaged citizen – you start caring about things like schools and public safety. It gives you a sense of pride, because with your property you have something to improve. It brings out the selflessness in us, because even the vainest parent will usually make sacrifices for their children.

All in all, people in stable families are better off, happier, and richer than the rest of us, and that’s because stable families work to make their members all those things. The very principle of left-wing thought – that working together we can all improve ourselves – has always been proven correct in the family, and yet the traditional family has never been high on the left’s list of beloved institutions.

If we want engaged, striving, good, law abiding citizens, if we want people to live a little bit longer than their parents, if we want people to feel secure and contented, there is no better way than to embrace and enact a political ideology that puts the family at the centre and works out from there. The family has been working towards and accomplishing those goals since before most modern political thought structures emerged. Indeed, many attacks on the family come explicitly from those who regard it as altogether too successful, and as an impediment to equality, which says quite enough about its success.

What, then, is pro-family policy? Well first, and this is important – it’s not prescriptive. Nobody should be forced or compelled into a social structure that’s not for them. Second, it’s essential to recognise that while the general rule is success, many families fail (and we’ll explore some of the trends around that in a moment) or fall apart, and that a general pro-family disposition does not imply judgement about those who fall outside that structure.

Being pro-family, however, means enacting, as a policy priority, ideas which favour and strengthen the family, rather than ideas which weaken and oppose it. Let me cite a specific example around housing policy: Currently, in many western nations, housing policy favours a single parent with a child ahead of a couple with a child on the basis that the single parent is in the more urgent need. This policy is derived, as so many bad policies are, from a noble principle – that we must help the weakest first.

However, ask those on the frontlines of housing policy what the effect of the policy is, and you’ll hear repeated stories of couples living apart or even separating in order to be eligible for housing. A housing policy that incentivised parents to stay together would have its failings, but it would certainly be preferable to one that incentivises parents to live apart. Each policy choice will result in individual cases with a negative outcome, but the policy which incentivises two parent families will objectively favour better long-term outcomes for the general population than a policy which incentivises one parent families.

Social conservatism should also have at its heart a critique of the culture, and of progressivism, for the simple reason that much that is called progress is not progress at all. On these pages, much has been written about “freedom”, as if freedom is at the heart of the conservative mission when it is not, never has been, and must never be. We are not for freedom – we are for order, and we are for stability.

Freedom itself does not lead to happiness – it never has, and it is never likely to. The inability of humanity to cope with absolute freedom has been documented more times, and in more tragic ways, than I could ever express in a thousand words or so, though rarely more poignantly than in those great conservative movies, The Shawshank Redemption and Groundhog Day.

Being a social conservative is often associated with the word ‘judgemental,’ as if we go around pronouncing on other people’s lives and passing sentences upon them. We do not.  But we do, and must, be the ones pointing out that freedom to live in a particular way does not mean that living in that way is desirable, good for you, or likely to make the average person happy.

One of the most fascinating articles of recent times (to me, at least, you may differ) was about the so-called sex recession, written by Kate Julian in The Atlantic.  Without wishing to quote it extensively (I encourage you to read it yourself) it is hard to avoid the conclusion that on balance, the sexual part of the sexual revolution has largely led to decreased happiness, decreased trust between the sexes, and ironically, worse sex. I mention this element of our culture specifically because it is the element that has the largest impact on the family, which is of course based on that great opposite of the sexual revolution, monogamy.

Sexual (or as they like to call it, reproductive) freedom is also at the heart of contemporary progressivism, with its modern emphasis on issues like abortion, LGBT rights, and transgenderism to the exclusion of almost everything else. Sure, the modern progressive is interested in critiquing poverty, loudly and proudly, but they’ll abandon that issue and flee to the barricades the very moment the sexual freedom of middle-class-Malcolm is perceived to be threatened, or even criticised. And yet…..

The freedom to use each other as disposable products to gratify our own needs, whether it be through hook-ups, pornography, sexting, or whatever you’re having yourself cannot and should not be taken away – but can we at least, as conservatives, be unafraid to be honest about it? These progressives are digging trenches to defend an utterly empty cultural phenomenon, one that in general leaves those partaking in it feeling a little bit lost and a little bit used.

There is, objectively, a more fulfilling way to live. It is, ironically, the way so many of Ireland’s leading progressive voices themselves choose to live. Few of them, you’ll find, are unmarried, without their own homes. Many of them invest in private education for their children. Most of them benefit from the ordered, stable lives that they attack social conservatives for promoting.

Being a social conservative is about recognising fundamental truths about the human condition, recognising why our social structures have evolved the way they have, and defending those social structures without wishing to make them compulsory. It’s also about, in the words of Sideshow Bob, cutting your taxes and brutalising criminals, but you can look forward to me writing about those another time.