When people find out that I’m ideologically conservative, more often than not I’ll see a flicker of surprise cross over their face. People usually expect me to self-describe as a liberal Nat. I’m often met with comments like “really? You don’t seem like you’d be conservative!”
You might think I would be offended at such a reaction, but I understand it. Given what people think conservatism is, it’s fair to say I don’t fit the stereotype of what a conservative is meant to be like.
Many people online demonstrate a similar misunderstanding about what it is to be conservative. On Twitter in particular, I am frequently asked (in a somewhat accusatory way) about what place conservatism has in both New Zealand and modern society in general.
Broadly speaking, conservatism is, quite naturally, the desire to conserve, reflected in a resistance to – or suspicion of – wholesale change. This position manifests itself through support for tradition, a belief in human imperfection and the attempt to uphold societal structures.
Beyond this point, however, conservatism branches off into a range of inclinations and tendencies. Each branch shares a belief in tradition, but in many ways, this is where the similarities end.
Liberal conservatism incorporates the view of minimal government intervention in the economy with the belief that individuals cannot be depended on to act responsibly in other aspects of life. Thus, law and order and other social institutions are necessary through the existence of a strong state.
Fiscal conservatism believes in prudent government spending and debt. It advocates for the reduction of government spending and national debt, and the avoidance of deficit spending, while ensuring balanced budgets.
Social conservatism is somewhat more difficult to define. Generally speaking, however, it supports the traditional definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, opposes abortion, and views the nuclear family model as the ideal basic unit of society. It also promotes traditional family values, the role of the church, and the censorship of things like pornography.
Libertarian conservatism advocates for the least possible government regulation of social life, and the greatest possible economic liberty. In contrast to traditional libertarianism, however, it aims to achieve conservative ends with an emphasis on authority and duty.
There are also a number of other, more fringe, branches of conservativism, although these don’t warrant discussion here.
I am an example of what I affectionately label a ‘shopping list conservative’.
In the interests of full transparency, I am Catholic. I spent 13 years in Catholic education and grew up with a large Catholic extended family, and while this undoubtedly shaped my lenses on how I see the world, I wasn’t raised with religion as an important pillar of my life. For all intents and purposes, I’ve been a cultural Catholic for most of my life, so it’s fair to say that my political beliefs (which were formed in my late teens and early twenties) are largely independent of my now strong religious beliefs that I’ve rediscovered in more recent years.
On that note, I am not particularly socially conservative – with the exception of being pro-life. It would be easy to point the finger at my religious beliefs for being pro-life, but it’s actually a view that I hold primarily for the same reason that I do not eat any animal products; I believe in the intrinsic value of life. I’m also a strong believer in family values.
I personally don’t think, however, that it is anyone’s business – least of all the state’s – to dictate who someone can and cannot marry.
I most strongly identify with the liberal branch of conservatism (in particularly, with the concept of individual responsibility), which goes hand in hand with fiscal conservatism. I support deregulation and tax cuts, and I do not believe that government should expand beyond its means through debt unless in times of crisis – like Covid-19 where debt is preferable over tax increases.
I can, at times, cross into the territory of libertarian conservatism when it comes to issues like free speech.
In other words: it is possible to hold an ideology of the right without agreeing with every aspect of any one particular school of thought.
This is a real point of difference with the left, it seems, where one is often vilified or abused for expressing criticism of – or even a differing opinion to – a belief you are expected to hold. You only have to look to at how J.K. Rowling – a staunch, liberal feminist – has been treated to see there is no room for non-conformity on the left.
Conservatism is, in my own experience, more flexible and less dogmatic.
Where I’d like to see conservatism reinvent itself is in how conservatives address the social security net. Like most conservatives, I believe that community should function as the primary support for the less fortunate or those in need. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case – including in New Zealand. Given that conservatives want to protect the fabric of society, we should take the lead in taking creative and compassionate positions about how we can look after the most vulnerable among us; this is where we can be most relevant in society today.
Can conservatism respond to this challenge? I think so. Because despite what liberals say, it is an ideology that will always have relevant and useful things to say about human society.
Monique Poirier has a Masters degree in Political Studies, and is a small business owner and former Parliamentary staffer. She is the Campaigns Manager for the Auckland Ratepayers’ Alliance.