Over at Small Dead Animals, I found myself involved in a discussion that sprang from an attempted smear of Tommy Douglas as a Hitler-style eugenicist. The combox thread mutated, as they often do, in this case into a demand that I "define" socialism, a fairly Herculean task in my view, and one that others might be better suited to attempt. For my part, I made an equivalent demand: "define" conservatism.
Well, I needn't wait any longer: the definition has been handed to us by a recent incident on Mount Everest.
David Sharp was what modern-day conservatives call a "loser." Briefly, he died of exposure and lack of oxygen as he attempted to reach the summit. More than forty other climbers passed him by on their way to success, including a double amputee. (Anyone can make it if you provide the opportunities. No special treatment, no special rights, no handouts. See? The system works.)
Everest pioneer Sir Edmund Hillary was not impressed with the excuse-making afterwards. "People have completely lost sight of what is important," he said. "In our expedition, there was never any likelihood whatsoever if one member of the party was incapacitated that we would just leave him to die." But what does that stodgy old liberal know about Real Life?
"There is no such thing as society," Augusto Pinochet's close friend, Margaret Thatcher, once intoned in her plummiest la-di-dah accent. And certainly the Iron Lady did her best to ensure that society was abolished (except high society, of course) in Britain, leaving her own mountain of social wreckage behind to prove it. As Prime Minister, she brutally imposed her personal version of the bourgeois conservative meme. You're either a lion or a gazelle, and no matter which you are, you'd better keep running if you want to survive. The person who comes second is only the first of the losers. At last--a nation of individuals pursuing individual interests, no nanny-state, no entitlements (unless you have a title, of course), every man for himself, and dog doesn't really taste that bad once you get used to it. No pain, no gain.
We on the Left can ramble on boringly for hours about the egoism, competition, waste and social atomization that the spirit of capitalism engenders. But the whole thing is summed up perfectly in one image, an image that has achieved instant metaphorical status, and serves as the quintessential definition of conservatism in practice: forty or more climbers in a hurry to reach the heights, passing one of their own, and leaving him to die.