As the early storm clouds of Covid rolled from Wuhan in China towards the rest of the world, I spent a blissful 2019 Christmas with family in Auckland.
In between the barbecues and languid strolls to Takapuna Beach, where evidence of masks or social distancing was still some way off, I jumped into a book written by a group of international economists about the state of the world and where humanity was likely to head next.
Phew, if that sounds a bit heavy going for a summer escape under a pohutukawa tree, I waded in none-the-less just as the very first reports of a possible pandemic was being aired.
Suffice to say the book was the work of what I would call “progressive” economists and their message was that the world was seeing multiple crises that needed to be addressed urgently by citizens, governments and global communities.
As it happened, in the house where we stayed, I picked up another book by a “conservative” economist whose general thrust was largely the opposite. This view suggested that the world was generally in good fettle due mainly to advancing technology and open global exchange. Any views to the contrary ignored copious evidence of a bright future.
Fast forward just a few months from December 2019 and it did, indeed, seem that the world was facing some serious issues that needed addressing. At the same time, the conservative optimistic view now reads rather poorly given, not just a pandemic but a worsening situation with the environment, the global economy, and wars in Ukraine and elsewhere.
As a self-declared progressive I subscribe to the notion that humans inevitably progress because we can never be satisfied with the current state of affairs. Equally, I can only assume that conservatives are happy with the state of the world and are inclined to resist change.
Of course, any discussion about these things inevitably falls into generalisations, which takes little account of many variables. But the pandemic threw up stark lessons in the broad differences in government responses.
In the UK, the ruling Conservative Party dithered over taking decisive action on the basis that it would ruin the economy and the liberty of its citizens. In New Zealand, a “progressive” Labour government saw the threat for what it was – and was credited with early and decisive action that likely saved thousands of lives.
Boris Johnson’s UK government was, in many respects, typical of conservative administrations, and not dissimilar to political movements here. Their ethos was based on the idea of individual liberty out-ranking any perceived heavy-handedness by governments. In other words, democratically elected governments should play a minimal role in the lives of citizens, which means if people choose to do things, that’s good so long as the government has minimal say.
While that might seem reasonable to some, one has to remember that we have elected governments for a reason. If, like me, you are of a progressive persuasion, you’d like governments to enact positive things that can benefit most of the people, for the longest time. So that means doing things that fix problems, such as working together to save the planet, or addressing inequities and lack of opportunities in the economic well-being of citizens and in things such as education, health and jobs.
A belief in “smaller government” is merely another way of saying, “leave it to every individual to fight for themselves, so long as others can’t freely decide against my personal interests”. To me, it’s another way of saying that nothing needs fixing simply because everything is just fine “with me”.
Conservatism, not to be confused with left versus right politics, is not really about positivity. Its relentless purpose is to protect the interests of the few whom, for whatever reason, hold the upper hand. That might be because the conservative has an advantage they wish to preserve, such as luck in parents or other circumstance.
To explain away their supposed contentment with the state of the world, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, they can simply deny the problem (for example, global heating) dismiss any problems as the fault of others (poverty), while continuing their quest to protect their own interests. That’s why law-and-order or lower taxes are perennial issues for them, not because their view necessarily fixes anything, but just that it preserves their privileged position.
In the US, conservative politics, represented by Donald Trump and the Republican Party, is now most concerned about preserving the status and privilege of white people, particularly white Christians.
That’s a problem for them because white people are shrinking in number, proportionately, so they’re attacking minorities and attempting to limit the democratic rights of anyone who is not a white conservative.
Interestingly, in the UK, the initial absence of government Covid care and leadership led many citizens to take matters into their own hands with local initiatives to help. But, by the time Boris Johnson’s Conservative government finally enforced a lockdown in 2020, it is estimated that hundreds of avoidable deaths had occurred, and by the end of the crisis period, there had been up to 27,000 avoidable deaths. And even then, the conservative UK media screamed that it represented the biggest attack on people’s individual rights and civil liberties. One Conservative MP even suggested that older people should be spared restrictions on the basis that “not every death is a tragedy”.
If you wish to view the spectacle of the UK government’s conservative and pompous arrogance, it’s worth seeing docu-drama This England at TVNZ+.
You can contact Fraser here.
Fraser Carson is the founding partner of Wellington-based Flightdec.com. Flightdec’s kaupapa is to challenge the status quo of the internet to give access to more reliable and valuable citizen generated content, and to improve connectivity and collaboration.
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