Editors’ note: Last fall, the Buckley Program sponsored an essay contest open to student Fellows and others within the Yale community. The topic question, tied to our annual conference, was “What is a 21st Century Conservative?” Judged by three Yale professors, the following essay was written by Courtney Hodrick, a rising junior in Saybrook. She won the second-place prize of $500.
Some things never change. As we find ourselves firmly ensconced within the second decade of the twenty-first century, we may be tempted to say that the world has changed irrevocably, and that our values must change to accommodate it. We would make a grave error in doing so, for even as the shiny tendrils of technological progress wrap us in their embrace, the essential undercurrents of humanity run steady and true as always. Increasingly, to be a conservative is to recognize this fact: to refuse to allow changes to the environments in which we relate to change how we relate, and to protect that which allows us to achieve an intrinsically human greatness.
One of the more traditional aspects of this quest requires conservatives to continue asserting the importance of economic freedoms. In opposition to those who would seek to label everything from universal healthcare to Internet access as fundamental human rights, and who call on our governments to strong-arm their citizens into leveling the economic playing field and providing these services to those who cannot afford them, conservatives retain their faith in man’s ability to change his own circumstances through perseverance, hard work, and talent. Moreover, we must be willing to do more than just declare, as some Republican political candidates would, that the free markets can redistribute resources better than an expansive state.
Instead, we must be unafraid to admit that we value man’s freedom to distribute the products of his own labor, even if such distribution inevitably leads to inequality. While liberals use a moral obligation to help the poor as justification for the ever-encroaching nanny state, and for those less fortunate to consider themselves entitled to material luxuries, conservatives reject the idea that we must outsource the enforcement of such morals to governments armed with the power to tax. Instead, we embrace the belief that the choice to do good is only honorable if it is in fact a choice, and the correlated belief that the admirability of one’s material success depends on how much one has accomplished without external assistance. Still, conservatives should share the left’s concern that giant businesses have eroded our relationship to the goods we use, the foods we eat, and most importantly to the people who create them, and should embrace our unlikely allies in the quest to restore local traditions of sustainable farming and artisanship. Further, we must not conflate the freedom to pursue economic ends with a rampant accumulation of material possessions and a glorification of conspicuous consumption.
This temptation to succumb to materialism stems from the loss of meaningful standards by which to judge a man’s life—a loss that has bred a set of beliefs even more insidious than the fallacy that the measure of a man is the sum of his degrees, his net worth, and his possessions. Our modern culture has come to see the scientific prolongation of human life as an end in and of itself, without asking what purpose the extra five, ten, or fifty years ought serve. In the absence of a concept of virtue, it has made an idol of healthfulness, creating a culture of people swapping one trendy “superfruit” for another without stopping to seek truth or fulfillment. Or, if they seek fulfillment, it is only the fulfillment that a man who conceives of himself as a machine designed for no greater purpose than the maximization of dopamine and serotonin can find. The modern glorification of science has reduced man to his chemical components, and the modern man has been convinced that the ideal life is no more than a problem to be solved, a set of functions and reactions to be optimized. The beauty to be found in pain, the necessity of living as if one’s choices reflect one’s values rather than merely following the instructions of the armchair neuroscientists, and the understanding that our differing psychological responses are not the symptoms of our diseases but rather our very selves: All these have been sacrificed at the altar of a misguided quest to understand and control the human through his body.
Conservatives reject this conception of the human, and call for man to seek the aesthetic and moral truth that is to be found in artistic, literary, and philosophical masterpieces. We unabashedly revel in the glory of our cultural zeniths and will not dismantle the canon merely because of the race or gender of its creators. Instead, we will decry the hypocrisy of those who divide our population into identity and interest groups with the stated goal of achieving equal opportunity and the implied goal of achieving a world full of equally atomized individuals leading equally meaningless lives. Conservatives understand that to be born human is to be born into a community and a culture—a tradition and a set of values—and we will not allow the pursuit of false equality to prevent us from holding ourselves and each other to the standards that have been set by the past. In a world in which communication is increasingly reduced to sharing the latest Buzzfeed article and in which there is no word dirtier than “judgmental,” to be a conservative is to seek or affirm a community with value judgments and standards that demands that we live up to them.