The three big conservative philosophical frameworks

Conservatives are pretty shifty in arguments. One moment they appear to be concerned about the poor and how taxes will ultimately hurt them and kill their jobs. The other moment they seem to think the poor don’t deserve anything anyways. Most folks — no matter their political leanings — do not consciously think about the philosophical frameworks that the justifications for their opinions tend to fall in. Although rigid frameworks are probably a bit reductive, they can be useful tools to understand what exactly people are saying. The following three conservative philosophical frameworks can account for almost all of the conservative rhetoric and arguments out there these days. I offer them here to hopefully help those who want to understand and better analyze conservative justifications.

Utilitarian arguments used to be much more prominent among conservative political thinkers. Economists especially relied upon the idea of subjective utility and growth to argue that unrestrained free markets were the way to go. The way this argument works is probably familiar to most. Because low-tax, low-regulation markets generate economic growth while allowing individuals to choose for themselves what to purchase, utility is supposed to be ultimately maximized by conservative economic policies. Milton Friedman, probably the most famous libertarian of the 20th century, was the most prominent advocate of this way of thinking. When asked whether redistribution should be pursued, Friedman’s response was almost never about who deserved what income or the violence of taxation; instead, it was about how taxing the rich would ultimately hurt the poor, undermining the whole purpose of the project.

The closest resemblance to this kind of reasoning these days has to be the right-wing rhetoric surrounding “job creators.” Doing anything mildly redistributive through the government is claimed to reduce overall employment, thus hurting the poor. There is a lot to be said in response to this kind of viewpoint, and obviously I am not very moved by it. But for the purpose of this post, just note how the argument works. The problem with moves towards redistribution is not so much that it takes from the productive and gives to the parasites or that the process of redistributive taxation is intolerably forceful or aggressive. Instead, the problem is that it will reduce utility because of the negative economic impacts that follow.

While this framework is still around of course, conservatives — especially younger conservatives — have shifted away from it and towards other other philosophical approaches. It has its obvious flaws. The most glaring flaw is that comparatively speaking, strong social democratic countries appear to have generated the best overall utility of any political system implemented thus far. They serve as an empirical check on the idea that redistributive taxes and well-run universal state services are a drag on overall welfare. There are also of course more theoretical objections to the idea that redistribution is always somehow utility-destroying. After all, taking a dollar from a rich person and giving it to a poor person should almost always increase overall utility if done efficiently.

Procedural Justice
Conservatives who are a bit scared of making the utility argument — as they should be because it is probably the weakest one they have — often fall back on a procedural justice framework to justify their viewpoint. Procedural justice theories rely on the idea that a just economy and political system is one that follows just processes. So long as just processes are followed, whatever outcome that results is necessarily just. The conservative/libertarian thinkers most prominent in this camp are Robert Nozick, Murray Rothbard, and the super-bizarre internet sensation Stefan Molyneux.

The conservative procedural justice account can get pretty complicated at times, but most have probably run into the basic elements of it from time to time. The account emphasizes free exchange, free association, and voluntary agreements. Advocates of it drone on about self-ownership and non-aggression, two qualities that they think libertarian economic processes possess. When someone complains about their terribly low wages and work conditions, these are the guys who retort back “but you voluntarily agreed to work there didn’t you?” Taxation is called theft, aggression, and slavery because it is not consented to.

I think this account is probably the strangest one, mainly because as far as I can tell the 19th century anarchist philosophers successfully beat back all the libertarian procedural justice arguments that are now popping back up again. But without getting too involved in that whole discussion, I just hope here to emphasize the way the framework works. The procedural justice position is not concerned with utility and it is not concerned even with giving people what they deserve necessarily. It is only concerned with following just processes even if those processes result in widespread misery.

Desert Theory
Desert theory has to be the most American of the conservative political theories. It is at the root of the ideology of the American Dream. According to desert theory, we want to design the economy and political apparatus in a way that gives people what they deserve. What do they deserve? Well, conservative constructions of desert theory are generally based upon productivity: you should be paid equivalent to the amount of value you add to the economy.

The most famous proponent of desert theory among American conservatives is of course Ayn Rand. In her philosophy, the super-rich basically make everything in the world and they deserve everything they get and probably even more. Paul Ryan, the much-praised House Republican from Wisconsin, is reported to be a huge fan of Rand’s work, possibly explaining his atrocious budget plan which was clearly Rand-inspired.

The problems with this approach are numerous and the word “privilege” probably goes the furthest in counteracting this idea. One’s race, class, gender, family, and all sorts of other non-meritocratic things have enormous impacts on how well one does in life. Once this is conceded, the whole desert theory approach becomes very vacuous very fast. Nonetheless, the framework persists in one form or another. When people talk about welfare mothers living off the dole, they typically have in mind some sort of desert theory of justice. When they talk about how rich people work hard and how poor people are lazy, they typically have in mind a desert theory of justice. On the desert view, our aim should be giving people what they deserve from their hard work, not maximizing utility or necessarily following just processes.

As far as I can tell, these three frameworks encompass about 99% of what comes out of the mouths of conservatives in one form or another. Either they are concerned about utility, just processes, or just desert. Often of course, they jump from one to the other right in the middle of a discussion if they find themselves pinned down. But, now that you know these frameworks, you can at least identify when those jumps are happening and begin to better understand what exactly the conservatives are trying to get across when they argue.