It’s been said that “whoever marries the spirit of this age will be a widower in the next,” and I couldn’t agree more. Of course, the implication is twofold: That one must first identify what, precisely, the spirit of one’s age is, and having done that, to fight it. Doing that is certainly not likely to win a person any popularity contests, but I suppose that’s as it must be.
Now, I do have a point here, of course, and that’s that warring against the spirit of the age is very much a conservative endeavor; we might even go so far as to say that it’s the essence of conservatism, rightly understood. So, what’s the spirit of our age, which we ought to resist for our own good? The culprit is egalitarianism, I believe.
Let me be very clear here: I didn’t say “equality.” Conservatives believe–or should believe–in equality. Those of us who are more religious would affirm spiritual equality, no doubt (we’re all equally deserving of God’s judgment and in need of His redemption); those who aren’t religious might at least acknowledge that our humanness confers an equality of dignity and responsibility upon all of us. We believe in legal and political equality (no class of citizens ought to be given arbitrary power over another, due to our propensity to abuse that power and mistreat those who aren’t so privileged), so we ought to have no problem affirming equal suffrage, equal rights, and equal protections from the often-overbearing hand of the state. None of those notions conflict with conservatism’s basic assumptions; in fact, aren’t they really just the logical extensions of those basic assumptions? So, I’m not targeting “equality,” but egalitarianism, i.e., the ideology which subordinates everything to the task of dismantling all privilege, regardless of its type, its source, or its effects.
One reason to oppose this ideology is that its basic tendency runs directly opposite one of the basic principles of a free society, the dispersal of power. Inequality is natural to humanity (i.e., differences in intelligence, skills, strength, wisdom, etc.); I doubt many would seriously dispute that point. Absent any regulating factor(s), those natural differences will inevitably lead to different (and therefore, unequal) results. The only way to avoid that is through planning ahead, deciding what the results ought to be, and then using one’s power (e.g., through the state, through penalties against one team, etc.) to get those results. The inescapable fact, however, is that to the extent one tries to override inequality, one must also curtail the liberty of those affected. Those who, like conservatives, believe a little course correction is in order from time to time will be content with (if not prefer) dispersed power; those who, like egalitarians, will be satisfied with nothing less than absolute equality, will inevitably be led to place greater and greater power in the hands of some central authority, which can impose uniformity by overriding lower authorities. In other words, egalitarianism concentrates power, be it political or economic; another way to say it is that unadulterated egalitarianism ends up in totalitarianism.
There’s another reason to oppose the egalitarian ideology, and it can be more simply stated: It destroys a sense of personal responsibility and ambition. If you know that your best efforts will bring you fruits that will only be confiscated and given to someone else, why would you strive for anything above the mediocre? If you know that anything you lack will be made up out of someone else’s gain, why will you strive for anything at all? Colloquially, we say that’s “punishing success,” and that’s exactly what it is; the other side of the coin is that it infantilizes people. Is it any wonder that, as the egalitarian philosophy has increasingly permeated our culture, we’ve seen a corresponding rise in “man-children?” I think not.
I know I’m waxing all philosophically here, but there’s a practical application. The first generation of American conservatives to formulate such arguments–I’m thinking here of people like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver–were writing during a time when the existence of Communist states like the USSR served as living reminders of the truth of their insights. With the collapse of Communism, the temptation is to say, “Oh, those fears are now a thing of the past; no one will ever push egalitarian dogma that far ever again.” I’m not so confident. I call the various Occupy fulminations against “income inequality” to witness here. That’s egalitarianism through and through.
Conservatism, then, must continue its critique of egalitarianism. This critique will bring ever-increasing vilification, as speaking the truth on so many issues already has. But insofar as the Right attempts to borrow egalitarian premises–to sell out to the spirit of the age, that is–it nullifies itself. And that’s something we can ill afford.