The Sunday before the American election, the Observer in London published an assessment of President Bush’s legacy by several well-known American writers. One of them, Tobias Wolff, wrote: “When I see someone being rude to a waiter, or blocking the road in a Ford Expedition, or yakking loudly on a cell phone in a crowded elevator, I naturally assume they voted for George W. Bush.”
Now, President Bush’s credentials as a conservative might well be questioned; but I take it nevertheless that he was elected preponderantly by conservative voters. Is there, in fact, a connection between being a conservative and having the selfish thoughtlessness (of the kind with which we are all familiar) that Wolff describes?
My guess is that there is no such connection, but rather the reverse. Modern conservatives tend to see the locus of appropriate moral concern more in personal behavior than in social structure (I am not here concerned with whether they are right or wrong). They believe in personal responsibility rather than causation by abstract social forces. They do not believe in entitlement, their own or anyone else’s, or in an indefinite extension of rights. They do not believe in perfection, and they think that even improvement usually comes at a cost.
Modern liberals, by contrast, tend to focus their moral concern more distantly from themselves, on the more abstract political and economic sphere. For example, the personal sexual code does not concern or worry them much unless it is restrictive. They believe that bad behavior finds its origin in social forces rather than in man’s soul. They believe in everyone’s entitlements, which are never met quite sufficiently and need to be extended endlessly. For them, the perfect society will result in perfect people.
Which outlook is more conducive to good manners? It seems to me, a priori, the conservative rather than the liberal: for what can the daily personal conduct of a single man add to or subtract from the sum of human goodness or evil, happiness or misery?
Wolff himself supplies evidence in favor of my thesis. Acknowledging the meanness of what he is about to say, he writes, “When a tornado tears off a few roofs in Texas, I think, serves you right!” This reminded me of something I once heard from a man who organized international intellectual conferences in Amsterdam: the only people who ever complained to him about their lodgings were those who were most publicly concerned with social justice.
“That’s some of what the last seven years have done to this writer,” Wolff adds. So it’s not really his fault that he sees fit to express this ignoble thought to an audience of hundreds of thousands. It’s the last seven years that did it. If they had been fat instead of lean, he would have been sweetness and light, and would have taken the Texans to his heart.