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30 May 2012

What it means to be a conservative

We live in a time of financial crisis.

Understandably, the focus is on how to get out of it, but we also need to ask how we got into it. A pretty good answer is too much debt. In fact, unsustainable borrowing provides a universal explanation for just about every aspect of our economic troubles – from the credit crunch to the Eurozone debacle.

But why did we borrow so much in the first place? The standard answer to that one is that we didn’t have enough money of our own, which provokes a further set of questions as to why this should be. Certainly, there’s a very interesting economic debate to be had here, but in a way it’s avoiding the real issue.

You see, the real explanation as to why we borrowed so much money, is not that we didn’t have enough of our own – it’s that instead of adjusting our consumption to our means we decided to make future generations pick up the bill.

There's an excellent exploration of this issue in a recent lecture given by David Willetts:

  • “The classical political tradition assumes a static world without economic growth. But if there is growth you can argue that the next generation is going to be better off than us and so our obligation to help them is weakened. We can load more obligations onto future generations confident they can take the burden. I do not agree with this approach. Disraeli was right when he criticised an opponent because “He seems to think posterity is a pack-horse, always ready to be loaded.” Politics falls into disrepute when citizens think Governments are just shifting problems out into the future and never tackling them today.”

The pack-horse politics that Disraeli condemned has wormed its way into almost every aspect of policy making, not just economic policy. Furthermore it’s not just the preserve of the spendthrift left. Some on the right can be heard excusing social and environmental irresponsibility on the grounds that future generations will be in a much better position to deal with the problem than we are.

Willetts exposes the essential depravity of such thinking:

  • We can hope that future generations will be richer than us but this does not excuse us from our obligation to them. We enjoy the fruits of investment by earlier generations who were poorer than us and we have a similar obligation to generations coming after us. The Victorians did not build their sewers and public buildings out of cheap plaster because we would be richer than them and could afford to do our own rebuilding. Instead they built for future generations despite hoping that future would be richer than them. As the African proverb has it, “The world was not left to us by our parents. It was lent to us by our children.”

This is what it means to be responsible. This is what it means to be a conservative.


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