Patrick Deneen hits on one of the laziest aspects of what passes for conservative thinking in the US today: the assumption that opportunities to increase consumption are synonymous with conservatism and conservative goals. George Will has written a column celebrating how fracking is a turd in the punch bowl of progressives, who supposedly cannot stand American abundance. Deneen:
Will can barely contain his glee at news of poor sales forecasts for the all-electric car, the Volt, while jumping up and down inside at the news that sales of SUVs are up.
What Will does not really disclose is why these facts should spell a victory for “conservatism.” Yes, he does indeed claim that the waning prospect of tight energy supplies will deprive the “progressives” of their nefarious schemes to discourage American consumption. That may or may not be the case (i.e., I find it more questionable that “progressives” actually seek to discourage energy consumption, as much as I find it questionable that “conservatives” seek to discourage sexual consumption); but, granting him his claim for the moment, in what way does an energy-rich future bode well for conservative values?
If we were to chronologically chart the decline of “family values,” communal norms, educational attainment, religious standards, civility, along with the rise of a culture of consumption, rootlessness, anomie, relativism, a 24-hour culture of distraction, titillation, highly-sexualized and violent imagery, sexualized childhood and adolescent adulthood – and juxtapose such a chart tracking the rising consumption of fossil fuels in America (and the West) from the late 19th-century in a largely unbroken ascending line to today, we might have cause at least to wonder whether fossil fuels have contributed to something more worrisome even than global warming (such a thesis would infuriate the Left and Right alike, I wager). Moreover, if we were to place the latter chart alongside another chart tracing the growth of central government, we should not be surprised to discover a similar ascending rise in fossil fuel consumption and numbers of bureaucrats living in and around Washington D.C.
Correlation, of course, is not the same thing as causation, and I’m sure Deneen knows that. The point he’s making here is that it has apparently never occurred to Will to consider whether or not the centering of American economic life around oil consumption might have brought with it problems that ought to concern conservatives and the things they value, or ought to value. As we have recently discussed on this blog, the discovery of vast fields of natural gas in western Pennsylvania shale deposits might be both a blessing and a curse — a blessing, because it enables a region that has been economically depressed for a long time to enjoy prosperity, which includes being able to provide jobs so young generations don’t have to move away; and a curse insofar as the extraction of these gas deposits could poison water and the land. Will can only see wealth coming out of the ground, and the alleged ire of progressives; ergo, the fracking boom is unambiguously terrific.
Since when did conservatism come to associate itself with increasing abundance for its own sake, with no attention paid to the costs of our immoderation? Does Will see it as a victory for conservatism when a morbidly obese family piles food onto its plate at the cheap buffet? Was it a conservative triumph when Americans who didn’t have much savings got mortgages for big houses they couldn’t afford? That’s the logic of Will’s thinking in this column.
A couple of weeks ago, a conservative writer wrote critically of Newt Gingrich, saying that “He disdains the central conservative virtue, prudence… .” That conservative writer was George F. Will, whose respect for prudence is apparently inconstant and circumstantial.