What are the ten most conservative countries in the world? Most liberal Americans probably assume that the United States is probably tops on that list, but recent events in Israel and Singapore had me wondering. As you may have heard, last week Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party won a resounding victory in Israeli elections, prompting several American commentators to point out that Israel is a “center-right” country. This week brought the death of the first Prime Minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, whose internally popular, market-friendly policies are typically credited with moving Singapore from third-to-first-world status in a single generation.
Anyway, what are the ten most conservative countries in the world? Sadly, this information isn’t as easy to google as you might think. I was heartened when I typed “most conservative” into google that “countries” was one of the visible fill-ins (your results may vary) – I thought, oh good, this will be easy! I was wrong. Feel free to click all of the first ten links of “most conservative countries” – you won’t feel much smarter than you do right now. You only think this link will help: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liberalism_by_country In fact, the term “liberal” is used by many countries (especially Francophone ones) to mean “pro-free-market.” And wikipedia doesn’t offer a comparable page on conservativism.
Two issues: 1) what exactly does “conservative” mean? 2) can we judge by population and not by government per se? In other words, can we go by voting patterns and what people tell pollsters and not by whatever autocrat happens to be in power?
The definition of “conservative” does indeed vary from country to country. We might sit here loftily and claim that anyone who advocates against “conserving” the environment isn’t a real “conservative,” but on some level that ignores the boots on the ground. Just as “hopefully” means “it is hoped that” (and not “in a hopeful way”) whether grammarians like it or not, “conservative,” at least in the United States, bears a lot of Venn Diagram overlap with “right-wing” and even “Republican” and pretty much means: anti-tax, pro-individual rights, and anti-government EXCEPT when it comes to military and police forces. Our conservatives are suckers for police forces. So when we Americans say “conservative” we mean that every problem should be solved by businesses and the free market EXCEPT when it comes to problems that the military, police, or MAYBE some negligible part of a tiny federal government can solve (e.g. traffic lights). Because our inquiry comes from the United States, our answers will have to be formatted for Americans – what ten countries are the most conservative by our reckoning?
Despite the claims of some American left-wingers, I don’t believe that most American right-wingers favor fascism or top-down bullying in favor of the free market. It’s true that President Ronald Reagan tended to like to do business with such countries – like South Africa, El Salvador, Indonesia, and many others – but I don’t feel that today’s more populist conservatives would, if pressed, call such countries “conservative” if, say, two-thirds of their population voted for national health care or more taxes. That would just be silly. The pro- and anti-government sentiments of the actual population have to be factor #1, don’t they?
The big problem is that in many cases we can’t trust either kind of polls – the ones conducted by pollsters, and the ones that supposedly represent “fair” elections. We can’t quite trust this supposed yardstick of “economic freedom” which is really just a guide for 1%-accessed investors. We hope to trust the United Nations to certify elections as fair.
So after doing almost a day’s worth of research (WOW!), my entirely subjective temptation is to rank the world’s ten most conservative countries this way:
10. Austria. Had to choose one, and just one, continental European country…you will often hear contrarian commenters explaining that so-and-so country in Europe is a LOT more conservative than you think – this gets applied to Switzerland, France, Italy, Poland, Sweden (!), Hungary…you get the idea. Actually, all of these places have very, very healthy welfare states and large pluralities of left-wing members of their parliaments who hardly fear losing elections. And that’s also true of Austria, but Austria does have the winning distinction of the truly right-wing Freedom Party having genuine power in a coalition government.
9. Somalia. Come on, you knew this was coming. The American left loves to tell the American right where to stick it – in Mogadishu, the capital of FailedState-istan. No effective government anywhere, but no police or military either, this gets high marks but not top marks.
8. South Korea. You might make a case for the Philippines or Indonesia, who seem historically hostile to left-wing reformers, but it’s hard to know just how disenfranchised women are in such places – on the rural islands, do their husbands keep them from voting? The Republic of Korea, on the other hand, is fully integrated, and a passionately anti-Communist state almost by definition, with considerable deference to its military and police. It would be higher on this list if not for so many welfare-state guarantees.
7. United Kingdom. Despite Danny Boyle’s Olympic paean to the National Institute of Health, many Britons still like to define themselves against their continental neighbors, and since Margaret Thatcher, such defining has equated to a certain disdain for welfare-state policies (paired with international neo-conservatism). Even Tony Blair was a bit of a “Third Way” politician who forced Britain’s Labour Party to surrender some of its historical pro-union messages. Current Prime Minister David Cameron would probably be a Democrat in the U.S., but he’s still a lot more pro-market than most of the world’s elected leaders.
6. Colombia. Mostly, one notices this in contrast to its Latin American neighbors. While Venezuelans and other nearby populations are voting more socialist, Colombians seem more interested in expanding security than welfare. This is kind of a rough guide and voting patterns aren’t conclusive or entirely reliable, but it seems like decades of battles against the FARC have made Colombians – guess what? – skeptical of their government and more predisposed to market-based solutions.
5. Turkey. Unlike a lot of the Muslim world, elections here are certified as fair by all outside parties. And majorities of Turks in the post-Saddam Hussein world have lost any taste they may have once had for expanding the welfare state – instead, they just voted in Prime Minister Recep Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party, and they’ve set out an agenda that any American conservative should love. Everything is pro-market solutions, the only slight asterisk is that they’re a little bit religious…which in this case means pro-Islamic.
4. Singapore. Yes, the state guarantees a lot. But Lee Kuan Yew’s People’s Action Party just keeps winning elections, and there’s a reason analysts call it a center-right party. They criticize Communism every chance they get, and always vote against what Lee called “welfare and subsidies.” They extol “pragmatism” and “meritocracy,” and this pretty much vibes with the United States.
3. Australia. Yes, guns are regulated, and they take for granted a certain degree of guaranteed health care that American right-wingers find anathema, but other than that? They leaped onto the Iraq and Afghanistan war coalitions like Red Sox fans walking near an Irish bar. Their current and fairly elected Prime Minister, Tony Abbott (from the Liberal Party; see, this is why Americans get confused), spent his first day in office repealing a Carbon Tax and starting Operation Sovereign Borders (an anti-immigration statue). A.U.S.! A.U.S.!
2. Israel. Do I have to explain this one? They just cast their votes for more right-wing-itude. They’re ignoring the eventual demographic time-bomb that is the growing Arab population. If that isn’t “conservative” in terms of harkening back to a simpler time (a.k.a. seeing change and putting your fingers in your ears and going na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na), I don’t know what is.
1. The United States of America. We’re number one! Consider this Venn Diagram: “Policies that have proven themselves in non-U.S. countries” and “policies that U.S. conservatives favor.” Not a lot of overlap, right? I used to believe that was myopia, but perhaps it actually comes from a justifiable snobbery, or what they’re now unapologetically calling “American exceptionalism.” Let’s face it: we’re still writing the book on how to be our own kind of conservative. Nobody knows how to hate government, while hypocritically loving its strong-armed officers, better than we do. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!