To read conservative pundits is to enter a topsey-turvey world where black is white, war is peace, a Bizarro World of perverse incentives and moral panics and exaggerated scares. It isn’t so much that progressives and liberals don’t indulge in such stupidities themselves, but conservatives seem to do so far more often. Conservatives tend to look backwards to some ideal imaginary Golden Age, while progressives tend to look forward to a hypothetical Golden Future. Conservatives therefore tend to see change in terms of threat, while progressives see change in terms of improvement. Naturally all this is a fairly broad brush, and both conservatives and progressives are equally capable of seeing any specific change as a threat or a benefit. But when you start from a base-line of “Everything is just fine the way it is now”, it’s natural to see every change as dangerous and harmful.

What’s especially fascinating is that two hundred years ago, all the standards of conservative wingnuts were already in place. John Holbo of Crooked Timber has been reading 18th century German jurist and counter-Enlightenment intellectual Justus Möser and has found some doozies:

On reforms by the Hapsburg emperor to abolish requirements that guild members be “conceived by honorable parents in a pure bed”:

A law which makes illegitimate children equal to legitimate ones is a policy error so momentous that I don’t see how the humanitarianism of our age can forgive it.

Yes, that’s right. Allowing children of unmarried parents to become clock-makers or tailors would be Worst. Mistake. Evar!, a calamity second to nothing short of the time Adam said “It’s just a piece of fruit, what harm is there?”. Möser, it seems, as a “compassionate conservative” two centuries before George the Lesser, was worried about the number of poor drowned babies of unmarried mothers, and fears that reducing the disgrace of being born out of wedlock will lead to more and not fewer drowned illegitimate babies. The compassionate thing to do is to increase the shame and punishment of illegitimate children and their mothers. As Holbo dryly adds: “no mere drowning in a sack for you, doxy!”.

On the suggestion that promotions should be made on merit:

I, for one, should – paid or not – never remain within a State in which it is a rule to award all honors solely on the basis of merit. […]

Therefore, dear friend, give up your romantic thoughts of the happiness of a State where everything goes according to merit. When men rule and where men serve, birth and age, or seniority of service, are still the safest and least offensive rules for promotion.

There is a serious argument against making promotion solely on merit, but in my opinion it’s a fairly weak one: the less merit-worthy will feel bad, and everyone will know just how little merit you have by your lack of promotion. Kind of harsh, really, but surely preferable to a society where idiot sons of the powerful gain power and respect merely for the accident of their birth, and incompetents are rewarded for being incompetent for a long time.

Holbo comments:

The thing that’s fascinating about it is that, a decade before Burke inaugurated modern conservatism as a political philosophy, all the stock rhetorical moves of the wingnut op-ed are already up and running. The anti-PC grumbling plus moral panic wires crossed with perverse incentive structures wires. There’s liberal-bashing, minus any hint of liberalism.