What's wrong with conservatism today?

August 29, 2012

Paul Jaskunas is to be commended for his critique of the shallow materialism of conservative individualism ("A false self-reliance," Aug. 24). Individual freedom narrowly conceived as egoistic self-interest, insatiable profiteering and idolatrous devotion to the so-called free market leads inexorably to a spiritual desert. It prevents any true flowering of the human personality, which is the essence of individual freedom.

The deification of the market is especially dangerous in this era of giant corporations, which are global in scope and deeply authoritarian in character. But I think Jaskunas' critique should go even further, and that insights he draws from Ralph Waldo Emerson should be complemented by insights drawn from the late Martin Luther King Jr.

In "The Measure of a Man," King argued that while individual self-concern (the "length of life") is legitimate, it leads to an impoverished life and a vicious society when not interwoven with concern for others — what King called "the breadth of life."

But conservative individualism is blind to the value of the common good, which is vital to the concept of social justice, as well as to the role of the community in enabling individuality to flower.

Individuality is as much social construction as it is a personal disposition, and it cannot flourish without a community of freedom. "'I' cannot reach fulfillment without 'thou,'" King wrote, and "the self cannot be a self without other selves."

The viciousness of the kind of conservatism Mr. Jaskunas criticizes can be seen in the neglect of the poor and contempt for the vulnerable that it encourages and in its disdain for the very notion of social justice.

Robert Birt

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