“A person who’s not a socialist when he’s twenty doesn’t have a heart; a person who’s not a conservative when he’s forty doesn’t have a brain.” This old saying was bandied about on a recent “Ideas” episode on CBC focused on whether or not—and if so, why—we become more conservative with age. Presented was some documented evidence that showed we actually do become less liberal in our worldview as we get older and interviews with a few people who have demonstrably moved from a left-wing to a right-wing outlook supported the contention.
In general, the documentary’s informants left me with the impression that as young persons they were full of good will toward their fellows and were enthusiastic about supporting those less fortunate, but turned right when they realized that a socialist economy “just doesn’t work.” Author P.J. O’Rourke said he made his big right turn when he got his first job and his first pay check and realized that almost half of his total wage had been deducted for taxes, a consequence of a “communist” system. A general consensus among some interviewees was that liberalism is both ineffective in achieving its goals and that it curbs personal initiative, entrepreneurship and—worst of all—infringes individual freedoms.
Defining liberalism and conservatism in our time is a bit of a fool’s errand. Those of us who have an interest in and some involvement in politics in Canada likely consider ourselves to be either one or the other, but that does little more than divide us politically into camps, give us a sense of belonging. Truth is, our economy, our culture are not properly labeled using the liberal/conservative polarities; Western democracies are all mixed economies with both liberal and conservative elements.
I would have liked to ask those interviewees who saw themselves now as convinced conservatives which liberal—even socialist—parts of the Canadian economy they would like to eliminate: Univeral healthcare? Public highways? Public education? Crown corporations? Old Age Pension? The Canada Pension Plan? Public hospitals and nursing homes? All this could be thrown onto the back of individual entrepreneurship: toll highways; pay as you go healthcare; family, at-home care for the aged and infirm; corporate ownership of airports; for-profit schools, jails and universities; etc.
O’Rourke referred to a quote from philosopher Michael Oakshott that he considers to be a perfect definition of conservatism: “To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.” O’Rourke goes on to say that the movement from a liberal to a conservative outlook is inevitable, that liberalism is an attribute of youth and that we eventually “have to grow up.”
Other interviewees saw O’Rourke’s comments as silly . . . naïve, as did I, beyond belief for someone as renowned as he has come to be. I've known many a gray-haired person with an abiding social conscience. A failure to maintain youthful idealism doesn't equate to "brainlessness."
A young woman interviewee described herself as a liberal/socialist and defined her worldview as “an unconditional commitment to social justice.” I believe she said she was the founder of "Black Lives Matter - Toronto."
I’d recommend taking an hour to listen to the podcast by clicking HERE. I found the ending particularly helpful; in other words, give it the whole hour!