It occured to me that rent control, a classic target of right-wing ire, is actually a policy that should be embraced by true conservatives, if there were any. Why? Well, the idea behind rent control is that people and communities have some structure, value, and rights that are not captured by the free market. The usual situation that rent control is designed to remediate is where a community of low-income renters forms. People live there for possibly generations, building up community ties. Then the wealthy trendies move in next door, real estate prices rise, and the low-income people are forced from their homes, their community scattered.
So rent control may be viewed as an attempt to conserve the social capital of a community from the ravages of the free market.
The larger point of course is that unregulated markets are the least conservative thing imaginable. This is not an original point of course -- Marx and Engels made it quite memorably:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It ... has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ¢ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂcash paymentÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ¢ÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂÃÂ ... Constant revolutionizing of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones ... All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.Marx and Engels are of course no conservatives, but they are pointing out that capitalism is an uparalleled anti-conservative force. Rent control is designed to preserve social relationships that are not "feudal, patriarchal, idyllic", but are quite real and constitute a significant good. It's an attempt to graft some non-market rights into an otherwise unregulated market.
Now, my interlocutors pointed out that no conservative is in favor of rent control, which a Google search reveals to be pretty much true. What does that mean? It suggests that conservatism is not in fact an ideology devoted to preserving existing modes of life from the ravages of change, but is more like what Phil Agre says, an ideology devoted to preserving the power of the powerful. Some traditions, apparently, are more worth saving than others. This is not a surprise. In fact Agre makes pretty much the same point I'm trying to make:
And although conservatism has historically claimed to conserve institutions, history makes clear that conservatism is only interested in conserving particular kinds of institutions: the institutions that reinforce conservative power. Conservatism rarely tries to conserve institutions such as Social Security and welfare that decrease the common people's dependency on the aristocracy and the social authorities that serve it. To the contrary, they represent those institutions in various twisted ways as dangerous to to the social order generally or to their beneficiaries in particular.Or to put it simply, "free-market conservative" is an oxymoron.
So I wonder if there has ever been an actual populist conservatism? Perhaps the Luddites. Unions are also conservative in this sense -- an attempt to put the brakes on the "creative destruction" of capitalism, to (in Buckley's phrase) stand athwart history yelling "stop".
So, while I find myself with some conservative impulses which are appropriate to my advancing age, I am completely un-sympathetic to the conservative movement, which only seeks to conserve privilege, and has done a shitty job of that. I might like to conserve the America of the early sixties that I grew up with, an America that was reasonably prosperous, equitable, and hopeful, but it's gone forever. What we have now is a doomed fauxconomy with a corrupt and incompetent ruling class of plutocrats. Only hail-Mary radicalism can save us now and our political leadership does not seem willing or able to be radical enough.
Note: I am not necessarily in favor of rent control, which usually seems to create as many problems as it solves. The anarchists from last week (and Marx) would laugh at it as a half-measure anyway, since it doesn't do anything about basic property relations. The Wikipedia article on rent control is pretty good.
Here's some more disgust at conservative hypocrisy from a former conservative.