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opinion

I am a conservative. This is why I deeply resent the neo-conservatives who are not conservatives at all. They are the opposite: radicals who are destroying cherished institutions and wreaking havoc on our human heritage as well as our natural heritage.

I do not consider destroyers to be conservative. So many cherished institutions have been built with great care and dedication through the decades by well-trained people with good hearts. These are being smashed and weakened in great haste by politicians and ideologues who do not even understand what they destroy. Creation is long and difficult; destruction is quick.

Institutions such as railways, medicare, electrical power production and delivery, environmental protection, social services, schools and many other government agencies are being attacked, weakened and even privatized. These aspects of society are useful and helpful and are there for the common good. Their destruction is done with the aim of cutting taxes and reducing government. Yet many thinkers, such as Lord Richard Layard, professor emeritus at the London School of Economics, argue that taxation is a good thing for creating a state of balance between work and life.

Neo-conservatives seem to care more about the individual than the common good; the cult of the individual has grown into an ideology. Now we are faced with the foolish idea that a corporation should be regarded legally as "a person." In reality, a corporation is simply a pile of money to which a number of persons have sold their moral allegiance. The slogan of most of these entities is "make too cheap and sell too high." With few exceptions, there is little obligation among such corporate "persons" to ideas of public place or public good. In In the Presence of Fear, Three Essays For a Changed World, his excellent book written after 9/11, Wendell Berry observes, "Corporations make the assumption that stable and preserving relationships among people, places and things do not matter and are of no worth." And "that there is no conflict between self-interest and public service." This seems to be the philosophy of the neo-conservatives.

True conservatives should believe in, and practise, conservation. One would expect them to act as good stewards to preserve and protect the natural world. Perhaps the most striking and alarming aspects of neo-conservatives are not only their neglect of stewardship but their vigorous attacks on protection and preservation. They seem to regard natural scientists as enemies whose work should be ignored and whose careers should be eliminated. Their desire to be rid of regulations and regulators puts them more in line with anarchists than true conservatives.

It seems to me, as a conservative, that the family and family values would be worth preserving. A couple of decades ago then U.S. vice-president Dan Quayle was decrying the decline of family values in America. I agreed with him about the decline; I thought his critique applied to Canada as well.

Mr. Quayle and the other neo-conservatives blamed overly permissive liberal ideas. There may be some truth to this. But to me, the main blame falls in the lap of profit-seekers who portion up human society into age-based market targets. Their advertising programs divide and conquer the minds of children and teenagers using greed, envy, lust and fascination with violence to sell products. Family values too often come from the television set rather than the actual and extended family. Merchants of Cool design youth to be alienated. If you preach salvation through shopping instead of salvation through service, the sense of community is weakened and even destroyed.

Yet, neo-conservatives seem to have no problem with this state of affairs. They claim one can't interfere with the freedom to make profit. This has also lead to the disruption and even destruction of meaningful work.

In his 1973 bestseller, Small is Beautiful , the German-born British economist E.F. Schumacher wrote, "Next to the family, work and the relationships established by work [are]the true foundation of society. If these foundations are unsound, how can society be sound?"

Subsidized, industrial farming has decimated family farms and rural communities. Subsidized, industrial fishing has closed down entire fishing communities and brought many fish stocks to the brink of extinction. Subsidized, industrial forestry has ruined many small logging communities. And these three industrial "Fs" have devastated wild nature at every turn.

The horrible irony is, much of this destruction of human communities and natural ecosystems has been paid for by taxpayers -- you and me. Neo-conservatives never seem to complain about our taxes being wasted in this manner, though they do whine about taxes going to help social programs and a civil society. The cost of corporate welfare amounts to many times that of social welfare. It is not a question of fiscal responsibility, it is a question of ideology.

Media analyst Marshall McLuhan spoke of how the technological revolution of recent decades has produced a maelstrom of bewildering forces that are neither completely understandable nor predictable, but bring with them stress, depression, addiction and other negative side effects. A true conservative would strive to alleviate these problems; the neo-conservatives seem to encourage the maelstrom to become bigger and even faster.

In recent elections, I've heard only one main message from all the major parties, whether they called themselves Liberal or Conservative or Alliance, or in America, Democrat or Republican. The message is, "Vote for me, I will cut your taxes and put more money in your own pocket." Then the implication is, "You can go to the mall and buy more stuff." In other words, we will achieve salvation through shopping or salvation through selfishness. We no longer hear messages such as the one John F. Kennedy gave at his inauguration: "Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country."

Of course, everyone wants lower taxes; we all have a natural sense of selfishness and greed. But taxes are the price we pay for civilization. If you do not like government and taxes, try Somalia. In fact, I am at a loss to distinguish between the philosophy of the B.C. Liberal Party and the Fraser Institute on the one hand, and the American Republican party on the other. I'm not the first to argue that neo-conservatives should call themselves neo-Republicans.

Although I am a conservative I do not claim that being a conservative is virtuous. My point is that those who are in favour of rapid change and destruction of institutions can in no way be called conservative.

Robert Bateman is an internationally renowned artist and naturalist.