The short-sightedness of big C Conservatism

As we celebrate the approval of the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid-19 vaccine, it is hard to imagine that anyone might take offense at the existence of an inexpensive, transportable solution to the pandemic. Yet this is exactly what I have encountered. A friend who is an arch-Conservative (note the capital C) responded with hostility during a discussion on differences between the Oxford and Pfizer vaccines. The issue was that my friend couldn’t accept the scientific evidence that the Oxford vaccine is superior to the Pfizer one. He fixated on the fifteen-billion-dollar subsidy Pfizer received from the US government to create their vaccine. For the Conservative, it was as if to admit the difference between the vaccines was unpatriotic since one was bought by the US taxpayer. His objections were not based on scientific evidence or ideology but upon identity and background.

During the discussion, my Conservative friend brought up the Oxford team’s continuous publication of their data as if that action somehow lessened their research’s impact or validity. The final paragraph on the Oxford research team’s webpage says:

This is just one of hundreds of vaccine development projects around the world; several successful vaccines offer the best possible results for humanity. Lessons learned from our work on this project are being shared with teams around the world to ensure the best chances of success.

The implication was “well, they’re just wacko do-gooders! They’re not going to make a profit acting like that!” The idea being that legitimate scientific research bodies behave like Scrooge McDuck with their knowledge. On a side note, this type of “Conservative” mentality has greatly damaged public perception of capitalism, a topic I’ll return to at a later point.

Members of the Oxford vaccine team are assumed to be in the running for the Nobel Prize, and for this, odds of winning are proportionate to the speed with which the broader scientific community can check findings. The Conservative could not overcome a mental block over the fifteen billion dollars. The difference is one of vision. To put it bluntly, Oxford is aware as an institution that it has existed for almost nine hundred years before the creation of Pfizer and that it will probably exist nine hundred years after Pfizer is no longer. Oxford wants the Nobel Prize; the long-term benefits – investment, grants, funding awards, etc. – far outweigh any one-time payout. As to the long-term outlook required for Nobel Prize pursuit, the willingness to pass up one benefit in favor of a multitude of others, it is alien to those whose focus is short-sighted, who are enticed by single-time subsidies or quick profits.

The conversation represented a problem which caused F.A. Hayek to write in “Why I am not a Conservative,”

In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules. Since he is essentially opportunist and lacks principles, his main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule—not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them. Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people.

In the case of the vaccine, the Conservative I spoke with had the idea that since the government sponsored Pfizer’s version, Americans ought to accept placidly the Pfizer vaccine as their lot in life. Consequently, coercive policies, for instance refusing the AstraZeneca vaccine FDA approval (something which hasn’t occurred – yet), are acceptable. Behind this facile, even lazy, view lies an incomprehension when confronted with behaviors and mindsets calibrated for large scale enterprises. Actions taken to achieve long-term building – in this instance the possibility of winning a Nobel Prize – are branded as suspicious, underhanded. At an even deeper level lies a resentment of AstraZeneca’s partner: Oxford with all of its associations.

Rather than being a malaise of big C “Conservatism,” the response, detailed in this anecdote, to a comparison between the vaccines conforms to Conservative ideas. Narrowness of mind and small scope of vision are prized. As Hayek pointed out in 1960, these traits lead to a socio-cultural and intellectual poverty which is as poisonous as the material and moral poverty of outright socialism. My own recent conclusion is that the poverty of big C “Conservatism” might be even worse than that of socialism because mental and socio-cultural poverty can create circumstances leading to a longer, more subtle slide into material poverty while accompanied by a growing resentment as conformity still leads to failure. When class and ideological dynamics invade matters such that scientific evidence is interpreted through political identities, we face a grave threat to liberty.  

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