The Very Idea of Evidence-Based Conservatism

July 23, 2013

Debate on the Internet takes the form of a many-tailed temporal worm: many different segments of argument persisting across time and yet standing in relation to a particularly obstreperous character as their starting point. This post is in response to a post by Mark Wallace, which in turn was in response to an article by Owen Jones, which itself was a response to Sunny Hundal.

Sunny made the dreadfully uninteresting argument that people he disagreed with were evil, for a definition of evil so broad as to include any health minister forced to ration healthcare by virtue of not possessing infinite resources. Despite being mind-bogglingly stupid (or, indeed, perhaps because of this) it attracted quite some debate, with Owen Jones responding that Tories weren’t evil but rather rationalisers of policies which defend their own privilege. This is absolutely true: it is entirely possible to ostensibly believe in policies which enable entrepreneurs to produce products which improve the lives of millions while at the same time supporting policies which reduce the amount of tax one personally has to pay. Very often they can be the same policies; simply having good intentions doesn’t grant one altogether altruistic motives.

Mark wrote a response to this which includes the following statement:

“Or maybe Conservatives think what we think because, having interrogated
the logic and the evidence, we honestly believe conservatism holds the
best solutions for the problems the nation faces?”

Mark suffers from an all too rare flaw in contemporary politicians: the need to ensure that what he’s doing is right. As a result, he clearly believes that Conservatism, as an ideology, is based upon a rational assessment of the evidence. This is fascinating, because it’s difficult to square this notion with, well, the evidence. To take a few examples:

  • Osborne’s economic policy appears to be less based upon evidence and more upon throwing darts on a board composed of random fiscal manoeuvres. He’s combined a particularly arbitrary approach to cutting public spending (20% cuts across all departments except politically protected ones without any particular exemption for capital spending) with a few random quasi-Keynesian initiatives. The Help to Buy scheme in particular stands against everything we learned from the credit crunch and even all the arguments made by right-wingers in the States: Government underwriting of mortgages for first-time buyers is a bad thing.
  • Iain Duncan Smith, while starting from the well-intentioned position of wanting to lower the marginal rate of taxation on people transferring from benefits into work, has decided to start ignoring the evidence in favour of his own belief that he is right.
  • The Conservatives’ official position on Europe is to negotiate the repatriation of some powers which they think are better held at the national level. However, the recent report on this subject has caused at least one Tory adviser to complain about the weight it puts on evidence, as the facts appear to run contrary to their position.

I may be being unfair, as Mark appears to want to have this debate at a much more macro level:

“Conservatives believe in doing what works – not holding tight to nice means, and to hell with the ends. We recognise and embrace human fallibility, and seek to sculpt policies that turn it to society’s best advantage. We would rather acknowledge the profit motive and channel its energies towards alleviating ills, than seek to restrain it at the cost of greater human suffering.”

Conservatives, having looked at the evidence, want to use capitalism and the greed of mankind to achieve good. This is entirely reasonable – as a liberal I want the same thing. But crucially, as a liberal, we’ve wanted this for much longer. Opposition to the repeal of the Corn Laws and other restrictions on trade in the 19th century came primarily from the Tory benches, and their eventual repeal caused the formation of the Liberal Party. Either conservatism has changed since then to require evidence before making policy, or it continues to be an ideology founded most of all upon retaining particular structures of power.The latter is a more Burkean Conservatism, and it is undeniable that such an approach is still common within the party. Such an ideology is less concerned with what works than what works for oneself.

However, this does not mean that Mark is wrong: as I mentioned above, it is entirely possible for at least some Conservatives (although not, apparently, the ones in the Cabinet) to support a policy on the basis of evidence while that policy simultaneously supports existing power structures. But it does present a problem to his more sweeping claim that Conservatism has some kind of lock on rational evidence-based approaches to policymaking in comparison with other ideologies: this is as obviously nonsensical as the claim that right-wingers are evil. The intellectual tradition and current practice of the Party points to Conservatives being no less and no more likely to rely on evidence than any other political grouping, and rightly so, otherwise all Conservatives would agree on absolutely everything. Only socialists all think the same.

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