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Conservatism: From Theory to Practice by Sven R. Larson

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Conservatism: From Theory to Practice

One of the most enduring questions of human civilization concerns the role that government should, or should not, play in the lives of private citizens.

Over the centuries, we have come up with a plethora of answers, many of which have been put to work—with varying success. Our ideas cover a vast ideological spectrum: there are minarchists who advocate an ultra-minimal state where citizens can declare themselves sovereign (and be left to fend for themselves); there are libertarians, and anarcho-capitalists.

The conservative part of the ideological spectrum is rich in political thought, and has in the past had many applications. More recently, as in the last century, conservatives saw some of their most salient offerings in political practice, be hijacked by socialists. The British welfare state is a case in point: the form which it was given based on the Beveridge Report from 1942, bore many solid character traits of social conservatism. The benefits programs Lord Beveridge proposed were comprehensive by contemporary standards, but aimed squarely at adding dignity to poverty.

What Lord Beveridge did not want was a welfare state that provided comprehensive benefits to working families for the purposes of economic redistribution. That form of welfare state, however, grew like an unwanted spawn out of Lord Beveridge’s construct. The result was a modern British welfare state which, like almost every other in Europe, has implemented its own version of the original, Nordic socialist welfare state.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum—in other words, the very opposite to the minarchist outlier—socialism demands the largest presence of government in people’s lives that any ideology has invented. Wherever this ideology has been implemented—and where government is still democratic—the practice of socialism has led to the construction of a vast, economically redistributive welfare state. 

Most European welfare states were built in the middle of the last century. Over time, they became universally accepted; today, the welfare state is taken for granted to such a degree that it is rarely referred to as socialist anymore. It is, simply, the welfare state.

This is a problem. 

The vast structure of entitlement programs, and the high taxes that pay for them, have put a ball chain around the ankle of the European economy. Slowly but gradually, this has pulled Europe into a state of economic stagnation from which it is unable to recover. The only path forward begins with a new ideological conversation about the welfare state—in other words, a conversation about the role that government should play in the lives of private citizens. 

This is not a conversation to fear, or to shy away from. On the contrary, there is a lot to be gained from creatively re-imagining the state-individual relationship. There are also ideologically based alternative approaches to this relationship that many countries in Europe would benefit from examining. 

The first order of business in such a conversation, is to separate two parts of our “lives:” economic life and (loosely defined) spiritual life. The former covers everything related to our economic relations, from workforce participation, entrepreneurship, and investments, to the purchase of all that our physical needs and comfort require.

It is here that the welfare state has made its big footprint: it provides income to replace or supplement work-based income; it provides goods and services so we don’t have to buy them. 

For the longest time, the welfare state did not make as many inroads into our spiritual life as it has on the economic side. This is natural: the welfare state was not designed to fill our needs in terms of cultural experiences, or any other of our spiritual, emotional, or intellectual needs. 

More recently, however, the limitations of government interference to our economic life have been broken. Increasingly, government imposes upon us moral values that many people want no part of. This invasion of our spiritual lives includes demands to accept moral deviancy in all its forms, including the permission of sexually explicit propaganda in schools and to children. 

The invasion of our spiritual life has been so deep, in fact, that it has provoked a counter-reaction. Like few other issues in public policy, the invasion by government into our moral thought, and our children’s moral growth, has provoked highly welcome counter-reactions

So far, the debates over gay marriage, the “transgender” lifestyle and related topics have stayed within the muddy waters of identity politics. It has remained within the realm of our spiritual lives; no broader discussion is yet visible about government and our private lives. It is time for that to change: it is time for us to connect the government incursions into our spiritual lives, with its incursions into our economic lives.

There is an understandable reluctance among conservatives to connect these two parts of our lives. We have a natural tendency to regard the two as separate, often by emphasizing that the spiritual life is more important than the economic life. This point is deeply rooted in Christian faith.

Our problem is that socialists do not see the two parts of our lives as separate. Their ideology, which is secular by definition, stands on a foundation of Marxist political economy. As a direct result of this foundation, socialism takes the opposite approach to the relationship between the two parts of our lives than conservatives do: our spiritual life, the socialist says, is merely an appendix to our economic life. 

As a result, socialists regard it as natural to expand government into our spiritual lives, just as much as they do it in our economic lives. They use the expansion they have already built in the latter as a springboard for expansion into the former. 

But it gets worse. Socialists consider it a duty—even a virtue—of government to invade, plan, and reconfigure our economic lives. Since our spiritual lives are mere extensions of our economic lives, the same virtue also extends into life’s emotional, intellectual, and moral dimension. 

The best way to see how natural it is for socialists to invade our economic lives, and how that invasion is a preamble to the invasion of our spiritual lives, is to turn to the founders of modern Swedish socialism: economist Gunnar Myrdal and his wife, sociologist Alva Myrdal. In 1934, they published a book that has never been translated into English. Its Swedish title, Kris i Befolkningsfrågan, is best translated as The Demographic Crisis, which gives away the pretext for the book’s elaborate, and often outright totalitarian, proposals for government supremacy over the individual. 

Pointing to a decline in birth rates, the Myrdals argue that government needs to put in place a series of policies that will secure a strong, healthy workforce. The primary reason, they say, is that the Swedish government needs to build a comprehensive welfare state that caters to virtually every need a person could have. This welfare state, in turn, is needed in order to reduce—and eventually eliminate—economic differences between individual citizens. 

While the eradication of economic differences is their ideological end goal, the Myrdals advocate the workforce-improvement measures—in rather stark terms, as we shall see in a moment—as policy means toward that end. In other words, what we are about to hear is how two highly accomplished Swedish socialists in the 1930s discussed individual citizens as instruments for the implementation of socialism. 

According to the Myrdals, the key to a strong, productive, and healthy workforce in the service of the welfare state is something called “prophylactic social policy” which includes, among other things, forced sterilization of certain individuals. Here is how they open the seventh chapter in their book, the title of which is “Social Policy and the Quality of the Population:”

The direct purpose of the prophylactic social policy is to produce a better human stock. 

In other words, government has not only the right, but the duty to actively change the quality of its own population.

They continue:

So long as the population is growing at high rates the quality aspect is easily reduced to insignificance. At that point it presents itself immediately to view the human stock as merely fuel for industrial production, the use of which does not have to be guided by frugality, as it is supplied in such abundance: “cannon fodder.” 

However, they explain, when fertility rates decline it is incumbent upon government to take prophylactic measures to secure the highest possible quality of the “population stock” (a term that is peppered throughout their book). They open their profuse advocacy for abortions by noting that some

very poor layers of society, especially in rural areas, have not yet been reached by birth control [information]. They are either entirely ignorant of contraception … or they are too lazy and downtrodden by life to care to acquire said knowledge. 

The poor people out in the countryside, the Myrdals explain, are of such low demographic quality that it would be “inhumane” to let them contribute to the growth of the Swedish population by having many children. The same argument, they explain, 

applies to certain segments of the population which dwell between retarded and normal, as well physically, mentally and socially handicapped individuals, whose high fertility rates social workers and eugenicists complain about.

One of the tools they propose, in order to ideally bring the birth rates among undesired demographic groups to zero, is to make abortion—illegal at this time—not only lawful but an integrated part of the Swedish health care system. At one point (p. 51) they propose limitations of abortion rights for married, healthy women “with few children and of a certain income level;” the application of eugenic criteria in legalized abortions is, they say, “hardly a problem.”

They spend ten pages in chapter 7 of the book arguing for forced sterilization of individuals who, according to government-set standards, are not of a quality good enough to contribute to the future population stock. There are also many proposals throughout the book for more traditional welfare-state programs: public housing, government-provided health care, child-care socialization, etc.

The overarching purpose of all these measures, which again were presented in 1934, was to redesign the Swedish population for economic purposes. Individuals were deemed desirable or undesirable, approved for reproduction or chosen for “fetal expulsion” (a literal translation of their term for abortion), and forced sterility. Behind this demotion of the individual to a tool for government policies, lies the ideological premise that the individual is nothing more than a cog on a wheel in the economic and social machinery. 

Since the socialist views the spiritual life of man as an extension of—not separate from—the physical or economic life, he views it as natural to try to plan and control the spiritual sphere. To the socialist, this is no stranger than to control every other aspect of our lives; since our ability to participate in the workforce can be made the subject of government planning, so can our moral values.

If conservatives want to develop a successful strategy for advancing their values; if they wish to transform their ideals into actual policy, they must first recognize that they cannot rely on socialist policies in the economic life of the citizenry and not expect those policies to spill over into their spiritual lives. So long as conservatives maintain a socialist welfare state, they will always be just one socialist election win away from another effort by government to plan, and conform, our moral values.

Conservatives have options. They have examples to learn from. Do they have the will to pursue them?

Sven R. Larson is a political economist and author. He received a Ph.D. in Economics from Roskilde University, Denmark. Originally from Sweden, he lives in America where for the past 16 years he has worked in politics and public policy. He has written several books, including Democracy or Socialism: The Fateful Question for America in 2024.