What true conservatives should care about most

If you’re a real conservative – and I’m using the term not as Ted Cruz would, but in its literal sense, like conserving what’s valuable in the modern world – then you should be obsessed with three threats that weigh on the most vital parts of our civilizational heritage, all of which are highlighted: war, pandemic and environmental catastrophe.

These three events frequently caused or contributed to the collapse or decline of great civilizations of the past. After being severely weakened by pandemics and environmental problems, the Roman Empire was taken over by barbarian tribes. The Aztecs were conquered by the Spaniards, who had superior weapons and also brought diseases. The decline of the Maya was likely rooted in water issues and deforestation.

I think true conservatism is above all the desire to learn from history. So let’s take these lessons to heart.

Chances are that nuclear weapons will not be used in the war in Ukraine. Yet there is a possibility of major escalation or deployment of other weapons of mass destruction. This chance is hard to estimate, but it’s not crazy to put it at or above 1%. A desperate Vladimir Putin may well resort to an escalation strategy, if only as a misguided attempt at de-escalation.

Here’s the dilemma: if you repeatedly play this “1% chance of mass destruction” for decades, sooner or later a real escalation will occur. The cumulative probabilities of a major nuclear exchange are not actually low, even if the probability is low in a single war.

True conservatism should therefore make limiting the likelihood of nuclear exchange its top priority. Such insistence would not solve the problem, of course. Nevertheless, any observer of American political debate over the past 20 years or more will admit that the issue is far from a top priority.

This form of conservatism does not necessarily insist on higher levels of defense spending, as conservatives demanded in the 1980s. But it does suggest that alliances, military readiness and flexibility are major political issues.

If more defense spending is needed, that should be the federal government’s number one priority. While President Joe Biden has done a reasonable job of executing U.S. Ukraine policy thus far, he has not made these issues top priorities, nor have the Republican or Democratic parties. When was the last time a major politician gave a speech about the length of the military procurement cycle, versus the pace of technological change?

The relevance of pandemics is all too obvious. Yet Congress is dragging its feet on a $10 billion pandemic relief bill, and snags remain.

Even after more than a million additional deaths during this pandemic, Americans are still not taking pandemic risk seriously. Is America so much better prepared for next time?

Finally, true conservatism would prioritize the most important environmental issues. To use a specific example: it shouldn’t take seven years to get permits for an offshore wind farm. Just accept the reality that wind farms will involve their own modest environmental issues and keep building them.

Unfortunately, even as environmental regulations proliferate in the United States, there is a reluctance to impose a carbon tax or facilitate the construction of nuclear power plants.

The main task of a revitalized conservatism should be to restore America’s moral seriousness on these issues. For the moment, no political party does.


Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the Marginal Revolution blog.

Edward K. Thompson