The topic below is complex and wide-ranging. Discussing it will require defining some terms, but also making some generalizations. I’ll do my best to honor the nuances of this topic, but it’s not going to be possible for me to cover every subtlety. So please bear with me, assume good intentions, and if I fail to make something sufficiently clear, we can discuss it in the comments.
This blog (much to my delight) has readers from around the world. That’s a problem for this post, because I will be using the social/political term “conservative,” which means different things in different countries. Because I am posting about attitudes in the United States, I will be using “conservative” in an American sense.
In most places (so I’m told), “conservative” roughly means aristocratic. Conservatives are assumed to be in favor of existing power structures, and that could include a class system or a monarchy.
American conservatism is a bit different because America, from its founding, was anti-royalist and in fact deeply suspicious of all governmental power. America was also populist relative to the rest of the world. Not that we didn’t have wealthy landowners, but one of our basic values was that anyone ought to be able to buy land and live virtually without interference from any kind of overlord. We also didn’t think there ought to be a national religion, and strove to set up barriers to keep governments from interfering with churches.
In other words, in the United States, the term “conservative” basically means those same values that in the 18th and 19th centuries were called “liberal.” This is why some American conservatives call themselves “classical liberals.”
Political conservatism, as I will be using the term, is the belief that national government is very limited in the range of its legitimate authority. It’s basically limited to law and order, national defense, and a few big public works projects such as national highways. Everything else, including religion, health care, commerce, and education, is outside its purview.
Social conservatism means a belief in what used to be called (before the term was mocked out of existence) “family values.” Social conservatives value clean living (no drugs or alcoholism) and traditional sexual morality (an emphasis on intact families and a disapproval of the sexual revolution of the 1960s). They also tend to value community structures such as churches, synagogues, and local clubs and organizations.
Social conservatives may or may not believe that laws are the way to promote all these good things they value. Increasingly, they are realizing that “politics is downstream of culture,” and that the way to promote all these good things is simply to live them.
I happen to be both politically and socially conservative, so I’ll be using the term to mean both. But you will occasionally meet people who are one but not the other. Libertarians, in particular, are often politically conservative but socially liberal. They believe government should be very limited, and this includes not outlawing alcohol, drugs, or any dangerous sexual behavior that does not rise to the level of assault.
OK, I hope that is clear enough to go forward.
Defining Bookish and Outdoorsy
I am bookish. Like many fellow book lovers, I started life socially awkward and found a refuge in fiction. I also have an academic bent. While fiction is my favorite, I enjoy reading just about anything (theology, psychology, philosophy, history, memoir … even popular-level science books, though I am somewhat retarded when it comes to science, especially the more esoteric theoretical stuff). I got this bookishness from my dad, who is a true egghead and reads four languages. Our house growing up was an extremely print-rich environment.
There are millions out there like me.
I am also a little bit outdoorsy. Not athletic, so I’m not a hard-core skier, rafter, or even hiker and camper. But I enjoy being out of doors. I like taking walks (another gift from my dad). In principle, if not perfectly in practice, I approve of living simply: gardening, keeping chickens, being frugal. Not keeping up with the Joneses. Some of this is forced on me by a low budget. OK, I admit it. I am kind of a tightwad. I got this from my Dutch mom, and it too is a gift.
Also millions of people like this out there.
Now, This Is Where It Gets Strange
According to the preponderance of American books, TV, and movies … people like me do not exist. You never, never see the possibility entertained that a person could be bookish, outdoorsy, and also conservative.
You will sometimes see rural conservatives portrayed who like to hunt and fish, but these people are not represented as educated or even, in some cases, literate.
When conservatives are portrayed who are not rednecks, they are typically shown as wealthy businesspeople or heirs and heiresses of the kind who might star in a soap opera. The men wear suits, the women get plastic surgery and wear a ton of makeup. They are less likely to go to the library and more likely to go to the mall or the spa. You would certainly never see them put on old clogs, a kerchief on their head, and go out to weed the garden.
But yet, in real life, I know quite a few conservatives who do just that. They are educated. They aren’t overly concerned with looking like Barbie or with getting a new outfit of clothes every season. They garden. They pinch pennies. They might not even own a TV (rarer these days). I was raised among people like this. Quite a few of them were farmers; others were academics.
Public libraries in the U.S. still haven’t gotten this memo. Based on the activities they offer, the things they post on their bulletin boards, and the types of books they feature prominently, it’s pretty clear that their assumption is, if you’re bookish enough and frugal enough to be coming to the library, you must be a leftist. By which I mean, you are probably in favor of a big, extremely involved “nanny state” style national government. You may be Marxist. You probably approve of the sexual revolution and all its fruits, including the LGBTQ revolution. You might be in to the New Age, but you certainly hate “organized religion” (because what educated person wouldn’t?).
Wendell Berry is a good example of this attitude. He’s a writer and a farmer. A few years ago somebody gave me a book of essays by him (because, hey, he’s a writer and a farmer!). He writes beautifully about farming, about the earth, about the relationship of people to the earth and the spiritual aspects of farming. And then he goes on to assume that his readers are leftists and would vote for leftist candidates.
One Partial Explanation
I’m sure there are plenty of reasons for this widespread assumption that people who are educated and fond of a simple lifestyle are leftist. As I said above, this post touches on several spheres, all of which are complex and can’t be discussed exhaustively. I’m just going to focus on one possible explanation: the conflation of capitalism with consumerism.
Capitalism, as I understand it, has two components. The first is private property. On a socialist or Marxist philosophy, nobody ought to own anything. Everything belongs to everybody, which in practice means everything belongs to the government and if you try to “hoard” something of your own they will take it. Capitalists, on the other hand, are big on private property. So, if you buy some land, it’s your land. If you buy or build a house, it’s your house. You can’t be forced to share or give your house or land to someone else, because it is yours. People tend to take better care of things when they own them. They tend to work harder at a job when they know that its fruits will not be capriciously taken from them.
The second component of capitalism is the free market. This just means that if I want to sell you (let’s take a really woodsy example) a cord of wood off my land, no third party is going to step in and say “You are charging too much” or “You have to give me a percentage of the sale” or “You don’t have a license to sell that.” If I agree to sell it and you agree to buy it, the wood and the money can change hands, and everybody’s happy.
Now, it should be clear from my explanation that neither of these principles has any quarrel with the simple life. Quite the opposite. Farming works better when private property rights exist. So do gardening, making art, selling your work, or building up a personal library.
However, in many people’s minds when they hear capitalism they immediately think of consumerism. They don’t think of private property and unregulated sales for the small farmer, shopkeeper, or artist. They think of huge corporations. They think of advertising, overspending, jockeying for social status by virtue of our possessions. They think of consumerism.
Hence, if they write a book that combats consumerism, such as a book about how to live a simple life, they assume that they must necessarily combat capitalism as well.
I would argue that these people have thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Consumerism is certainly one possible result of capitalism. But it’s really kind of a separate problem. Capitalism might make a consumerist culture possible (any other system prevents the kind of wealth that allows widespread consumerism), but if a culture is very consumerist, it’s really because of other cultural values that they hold. It’s not because somebody told them they could have private property. Private property and a free market, as I have shown, are just as a friendly to a simple, quiet lifestyle as they are to consumerism. And if we stamp out private property in an attempt to get rid of consumerism, we will end up getting rid of quite a few other things as well.
We Are Invisible to Each Other
It’s weird to me when people assume that the wealthy, consumerist lifestyle is characteristically conservative. I was raised by conservatives who lived a simple, bookish lifestyle. All the new clothes and cars, the plastic surgery, the materialist beliefs that I saw were coming from the people I saw in the movies and on TV, who were consumerist and leftist. I figured those two things went together. But apparently … not always. Apparently there were a bunch of leftists out there who were living simple, bookish lifestyles, but because they were not on TV I could not see them, just as they could not see me.
And they still don’t.