All Commentary
Monday, May 18, 2015

Shame on You! How Self-Righteous Voters Create Silent Majorities

Shy Tories, closet conservatives, and latent libertarians

“Believe it or not,” the gym teacher told me, “I voted for Reagan.”

“You did what!” said my young teenage self.

He looked sheepish. “Yeah, that really tells you how awful the economy is.”

I couldn’t make sense of his answer. Mr. Z, my gym teacher throughout middle school, seemed to be saying that, while he preferred to vote for Democrats, the Republicans were right about economic policy.

That wasn’t the message I was getting at all in my Keynesian home, where I learned that Reagan was simply wrong on all counts: repulsive in his social conservatism and dangerous in his promotion of “voodoo economics” (as his former rival, George Bush Sr., called supply-side theory before joining forces with witch doctor Ronald for the 1980 presidential ticket).

But clearly Mr. Z considered the social policy of the political left to be a luxury that had to be paid for with bad economic policy — something maybe the country could afford in earlier years, but not after the economic disaster of the 1970s.

If the time and place had been different, Mr. Z might have been called a “shy Tory” — the label used to describe the voters behind the recent election upset in Britain. But where Mr. Z confessed his apostasy, the shy Tory is unwilling to discuss his or her political persuasion, at least with pollsters.

Freeman author Iain Murray was not alone in seeing a likely win for the Labour Party:

In all probability, the next government will be a Labour-Liberal Democrat coalition, held together under “confidence and supply” rules, that goes along with SNP policies where necessary. The likely result, at best, is a more European-style social democratic government, with an added dash of class warfare and Keynesianism.

But as Murray explains in a follow-up post, “The Conservatives were returned with an overall majority, Labour was wiped out by the SNP in Scotland, and the Liberal Democrats (the Conservatives’ coalition partner) collapsed across the country.”

How did that happen? “The currently accepted explanation amongst pollsters is the phenomenon of ‘shy Tories’ — people who were always going to vote Conservative but would not admit it openly.”

While the Conservatives are no doubt grateful to the shy Tories, they will eventually have to confront their shyness as a serious problem for policymakers — and for political discourse in the UK more generally.

“If, as many believe, this election was won by shy or reluctant Tories,” advises one conservative political pollster, “the party’s response for the longer term should be to ask what makes them so shy or reluctant in the first place.”

But the answer is obvious, according to Lewis Barbor, a student at University College London and self-described “proud Tory”: “for many, particularly students like myself, it is still seen as taboo to support the Conservative Party.” The pervasive signs of acceptable and unacceptable opinions on campus “make it feel as if the Left has a monopoly on university life.” I’m sure American students can identify.

Feeling that you hold minority views, however, is not enough to explain the need to misrepresent those views. Increasingly, on either side of the Atlantic, those who demur from the received wisdom of the progressive worldview are made to feel that more than a difference of opinion is at stake. Barbor quotes voter John Leisk on being a shy Tory: “Supporters of Labour and other left wing parties are convinced they have the moral high ground and that any disagreement is inhumane, as a result any confession of Tory support is shouted down and abused.”

British novelist Lionel Shriver writes in the Guardian that “‘shy’ isn’t quite the right word.… ‘Shamefaced’ comes closer.”

Across the western world, leftists tend to be political extroverts, who often literally wear the T-shirt. Anything but ashamed, they’re apt to broadcast their opinions to anyone who will listen.… For the left-leaning, political identity is liable to be closely intertwined with personal identity.… Should you get on well with leftists at a party, they will blithely assume that you share the same views [whereas] conservatives are more circumspect. They are aware that everyone disagrees with them, and so are socially cautious, if not wary or, outside their territory, paranoid.

Shriver’s diagnosis rings true, but his prescribed solution is problematic.

Democracy functions when all voters back what’s good for them.… So landlords may vote against a party that would bring in rent controls, while tenants may support that party: the voices of all affected are heard.… The casting of both ballots is selfish. But the healthy pursuit of self-interest is what makes the democratic world go round.

Does Shriver believe that rent control is bad for landlords but good for tenants? May we conjecture that he considers minimum-wage legislation bad for capitalists but good for workers — and anti-gouging laws bad for merchants but good for consumers?

At the heart of the democracy that Shriver espouses is an apparent acceptance of the concept of class conflict in the marketplace: economic freedom works to the advantage of the powerful at the cost of hurting the weak. Conservatism, in this view, is an acceptance of the class-conflict model and the shameless (or, apparently, sometimes ashamed) promotion of self-interest over the general welfare.

That certainly describes my adolescent perception of anyone who voted for Reagan: selfishness trumping compassion. It would explain both the shyness of Tories and the self-righteousness of the left. Selfishness doesn’t sell.

And maybe that was Mr. Z’s take on the political landscape 35 years ago. Maybe he’d rather vote selflessly, but a terrible economy, whatever the cause, left him unable to indulge his better nature.

If that’s right — if conservatism is merely the shadow image of Marxism, with class conflict assumed but value judgments reversed — then the real solution to the shy Tory effect is to reacquaint the British to their own classical-liberal tradition, in which the conflict is properly understood to be not between rich and poor, or between generosity and self-interest, but between power and freedom.

As FEE’s founder Leonard Read explained, this understanding makes us neither left nor right:

Libertarians … are not to the right or left of authoritarians. They, as the human spirit they would free, ascend — are above — this degradation. Their position, if directional analogies are to be used, is up — in the sense that vapor from a muckheap rises to a wholesome atmosphere.

In England’s older liberal (or libertarian) understanding of the world, a free society contains within itself all that is necessary for mutual benefit and the promotion of general well-being; when coercive power is used for anything more than the defense of rights, it serves to privilege some at the expense of others. That’s where the conflict comes into play: in politics, not in the world of voluntary exchange.

If the Tories hope to be the party of economic freedom — or better yet, of individual liberty more generally — they will have to start by questioning any brand of conservatism that embraces unenlightened self-interest.

As Murray advises, they must instead

stand up and promote the liberal virtues as good and moral … promote a genuine philosophy of freedom while meeting the challenges of crony capitalism and cradle-to-grave welfarism head on.… That philosophical engagement is crucial.

Back in 1980, I wasn’t ready for that philosophical engagement. I just jerked my knee at my poor gym teacher, promoting the culture of shame for anyone who dared dissent from the Democrats. I wonder how the conversation would have gone if I had known how to question his assumptions — and my own.

Would it turn out that he was a latent libertarian? Did voting Republican feel like a vote for smaller government? Would he have preferred a small-government option more in line with his social liberalism, or was the size of the state never really the issue for him: Did he just feel the pinch in his wallet too much to vote for more taxes?

I’ll never know the answers because reflexive self-righteousness kept the conversation from taking place, as has apparently been happening throughout the United Kingdom during the past election season.

Yes, let’s promote the liberal virtues as good and moral. Let’s promote a genuine philosophy of freedom. But first we have to overcome the now well-entrenched assumption that a harmony of interests is impossible — and that only one political persuasion promotes the welfare of the least well-off in society.