Skip to comments.What Is a “Conservative”?
Posted on 05/11/2005 6:39:25 PM PDT by neverdemEdited on 05/11/2005 8:46:27 PM PDT by Sidebar Moderator. [history]
May 11, 2005, 2:49 p.m.
What Is a "Conservative"?
Were comfortable with contradiction.
Everyone seems to be coming up with their own variants of conservatism these days. Two friends of mine have come out with two of the more famous examples: South Park conservatism and crunchy conservatism. Theres also big-government conservatism which, until recently, would have seemed like more of an epithet than adjective. And, of course, theres the ideology allegedly held by those perfidious bagel-snarfing rasputins, the neocons. And there are the theocons which has the benefit of rhyming with neocons but presumably implies less bagel-snarfing and more polite eating of noodle salad on paper plates. I recently got into a debate about economic conservatives with Jonathan Chait, though he suffered from the delusion that all conservatives fell into this category. Id call them eco-cons but that might imply environmental conservatives, another constituency feeling its oats these days. Andrew Sullivan recently unleashed upon the earth an essay about conservatives of faith and conservatives of doubt. He normally calls faith-cons theocons (especially if they oppose gay marriage) but, to date, he hasnt called the other camp the skepti-cons, perhaps because that sounds too much like a new camp of villains among the Transformers.
And of course there are the more traditional factions in the Great Hall of the Right (I imagine a crowd of generals and aides-de-camp in different uniforms crowded around a giant map of liberalism barking at each other over strategy): libertarians, Burkeans, Hayekians, and so on. Some camps are so small they must wait outside in the foyer, beseeching the brass to let them into the strategy sessions, like partisans who wish to be treated like full-blown allies. Other camps are of such dubious vintage that they have to be kicked out from time to time because its not clear where their true loyalties lie. The merits of the case notwithstanding, this is what happened to the happy warriors battling under the flag of Randianism.
From the beginning, American conservatives have been trying to answer this question definitively to almost no ones satisfaction (which is why Buckley said he was offering mere notes toward a definition). Part of the problem is that the more obvious the answer the less satisfactory it is for the purposes of discussing contemporary politics (which is why Buckley put the word empirical in his title). To say a conservative is someone who wishes to conserve is technically correct but practically useless. Liberals these days are in many respects more conservative than conservatives. American conservatives want to change all sorts of things, while liberals are keen on keeping the status quo (at least until they get into power). The most doctrinaire Communists in the Soviet Politburo were routinely called conservatives by Kremlinologists.
As Ive written many times here, part of the problem is that a conservative in America is a liberal in the classical sense because the institutions conservatives seek to preserve are liberal institutions. This is why Hayek explicitly exempted American conservatism from his essay Why I am Not a Conservative. The conservatives he disliked were mostly continental thinkers who liked the marriage of Church and State, hereditary aristocracies, overly clever cheese, and the rest. The conservatives he liked were Burke, the American founders, Locke et al.
This is a point critics of so-called theocons like to make, even if they dont always fully realize theyre making it. They think the rise of politically conservative religious activists is anti-conservative because it smells anti-liberal. Two conservatives of British descent whove been making that case lately are Andrew Sullivan and our own John Derbyshire. I think the fact that theyre British is an important factor. British conservatives, God love em, are typically opponents of all enthusiasms, particularly of the religious and political variety. Personally, Im very sympathetic to this outlook (Some may recall my Inactivist Manifesto). And it seems to me patently obvious that religion and conservatism arent necessarily partners. Put it this way, Jesus was no conservative and there endeth the lesson.
It also needs to be said that you dont really have to be a free-marketer or capitalist to be a conservative. There are vast swaths of life that one may wish to conserve that are constantly being uprooted, paved over, or dismantled by the market. As a practical matter, there are serious problems with trying to protect things from market forces. Protecting horse-and-buggy society from the automobile may be a conservative instinct, but in order to translate your instinct into practice you may have to do some pretty un-conservative (and tyrannical) things. But, in principle, if conservatism implies a resistance to change than it seems to me opposing the profound changes free enterprise imposes on society is a conservative impulse.
So all of this is preamble to a humble, not entirely original, suggestion about what defines a conservative. I dont pretend to think that it is definitive, but the more I think about it, I think any definitive definition would have to take the notion into account:
Comfort with contradiction
I mean this in the broadest metaphysical sense and the narrowest practical way. Think of any leftish ideology and at its core you will find a faith that circles can be closed, conflicts resolved. Marxism held that in a truly socialist society, contradictions would be destroyed. Freudianism led the Left to the idea that the conflicts between the inner and outer self were the cause of unnecessary repressions. Dewey believed that society could be made whole if we jettisoned dogma and embraced a natural, organic understanding of the society where everyone worked together. This was an Americanized version of a Germany idea, where concepts of the Volkgeist spirit of the people had been elevated to the point where society was seen to have its own separate spirit. All of this comes in big bunches from Hegel who, after all, had his conflicting thesis and antithesis merging into a glorious thesis. (Its worth noting that Whittaker Chambers said he could not qualify as a conservative he called himself a man of the right because he could never jettison his faith in the dialectical nature of history.)
But move away from philosophy and down to earth. Liberals and leftists are constantly denouncing false choices of one kind or another. In our debate, Jonathan Chait kept hinting, hoping, and haranguing that one day we could have a socialized healthcare system without any tradeoffs of any kind. Environmentalists loathe the introduction of free-market principles into the policy-making debate because, as Steven Landsburg puts it, economics is the science of competing preferences. Pursuing some good things might cost us other good things. But environmentalists reject the very idea. They believe that all good things can go together and that anything suggesting otherwise is a false choice.
Listen to Democratic politicians when they wax righteous about social policy. Invariably it goes something like this: I simply reject the notion that in a good society X should have to come at the expense of Y. X can be security and Y can be civil liberties. Or X can be food safety and Y can be the cost to the pocketbook of poor people. Whatever X and Y are, the underlying premise is that in a healthy society we do not have tradeoffs between good things. In healthy societies all good things join hands and walk up the hillside singing Id like to buy the world a coke.
Think about why the Left is obsessed with hypocrisy and authenticity. The former is the great evil, the latter the closest we can get to saintliness. Hypocrisy implies a contradiction between the inner and outer selves. Thats a Freudian no-no in and of itself. But even worse, hypocrisy suggests that others are wrong for behaving the way they do. Hypocrites act one way and behave another. Whenever a conservative is exposed as a hypocrite the behavior Limbaughs drug use, Bennetts gambling, whatever never offends the Left as much as the fact that they were telling other people how to live. This, I think, is in part because of the general hostility the Left has to the idea that we should live in any way that doesnt feel natural. We must all listen to our inner children.
Now look at the arguments of conservatives. They are almost invariably arguments about trade-offs, costs, the downside of a measure. As Ive written before, the first obligation of the conservative is to explain why nine out of ten new ideas are probably bad ones. When feminists pound the table with the heels of their sensible shoes that it is unfair that there are any conflicts between motherhood and career, the inevitable response from conservatives boils down to Youre right, but life isnt fair. Some conservatives may be more eager than others to lessen the unfairness somewhat. But conservatives understand the simple logic that motherhood is more than a fulltime job and that makes holding a second fulltime job very difficult. Feminist liberals understand this logic too, they just dont want to accept it because they believe that in a just society there would be no such trade-offs.
1. a deep suspicion of the power of the state.
2. a preference for liberty over equality.
4. a belief in established institutions and hierarchies.
5. skepticism about the idea of progress.
Youll note that points 2, 4, 5, and 6 run obviously counter to the idea that things can ever be perfectly harmonious. Preferring liberty over equality means preferring inequalities in some circumstances. Acceptance of established institutions and hierarchies is obviously anathema to those seeking an organic balance where everyone fulfills their destiny equally and happily. Ditto acceptance of elitism, which is simply the belief that at the end of the day there are some people who are going to be better at a given thing than other people and education, welfare, and other interventions by the state wont change that. In other words, point 1. As for point 5, this runs against the grain of Hegel-based worldviews that assume that merely ripping pages off a calendar gets us closer to the eschatological kewpie doll at the End of Days.
All that leaves is point 3, patriotism. Now, patriotism and nationalism are very different things and there are many people on the right and left who think nationalism is definitionally conservative or right-wing. This is nonsense on very tall stilts, but Im writing a book about that. Patriotism, however is merely the devotion to a set of ideals, rooted in history, and attached to a specific place. And once again we are spun back to Hayek. To a certain extent patriotism is conservatism, in the same way that being a Christian involves some level of conservatism. It is a devotion to a set of principles set forth in the past and carried forward to today and, hopefully, tomorrow. (I wish it werent necessary to point out that this is a non-partisan point: Patriotic liberals are holding dear some aspects of our past as well.) What we call patriotism is often merely the content we use to fill-up the amoral conservatism discussed above. Axiomatically, if you are unwilling to conserve any of the institutions, customs, traditions, or principles inherent to this country you simply arent patriotic (and, as a side note, the more you think the U.N. is the savior of the world, the less patriotic you are see my General Rule on Patriotism).
The belief that all good things move together and there need be no conflicts between them is, ultimately, a religious one. And by definition a totalitarian one. Mussolini coined that word not to describe a tyrannical society, but a humane society where everyone is taken care of and contributes equally. Mussolini didnt want to leave any children behind either.
The attempt to bring such utopianism to the here and now is the sin of trying to immanentize the eschaton. I have a piece on how liberalism operates like an immanentist religion in the print NR (subscribe!) and Im running long here. So Ill leave much of that for another day. But not all religions are alike. Which gets me to the rub of my disagreement with Derbyshire (and another Brit, Andrew Stuttaford) and others who are touting the supposed incompatibility of conservative Christianity and political conservatism. Christianity, as I understand it, holds that the perfect world is the next one, not this one. We can do what we can where we can here, but were never going to change the fact that were fallen, imperfect creatures. Theres also the whole render-unto-Caesar bit. And, of course, the Judeo-Christian tradition assumes we are born in sin, not born perfect before bourgeoisie culture corrupts us into drones for the capitalist state.
In other words, while Christianity may be a complete philosophy of life, it is only at best a partial philosophy of government. When it attempts to be otherwise, it has leapt the rails into an enormous vat of category error. This is one reason why I did not like it when President Bush said his favorite political philosopher was Jesus Christ. I dont mind at all a president who has a personal relationship with Jesus. Its just that I dont think Jesus is going to have useful advice about how to fix Social Security.
Any ideology or outlook that tries to explain what government should do at all times and in all circumstances is un-conservative. Any ideology that sees itself as the answer to any question is un-conservative. Any ideology that promises that if it were fully realized there would be no more problems, no more trade-offs, no more elites, and no more inequality of one kind or another is un-conservative. Thats why some libertarians seem like glassy-eyed religious zealots and others do not. The libertarians who understand that libertarianism is a partial philosophy of life understand that politics and economics alike cannot give us the sort of meaning the more totalitarian thinkers seek. Im not calling the opponents on the right or left Stalinists or Nazis when I say they are totalitarians. A good many hippies whod never hurt a fly are more completely totalitarian in their thinking than most members of the Soviet politburo ever were. They merely say theyre holistic as they wipe away the bong resin from their chins. Ayn Rand was a totalitarian in this sense as well, which is why she was famously read-out of the conservative movement.
Contrary to all the bloviating jackassery about how conservatives are more dogmatic than liberals we hear these days, the simple fact is that conservatives dont have a settled dogma. How could they when each faction has a different partial philosophy of life? The beauty of the conservative movement as Buckley noted in that original essay is that we all get along with each other pretty well. The chief reason for this is that we all understand and accept the permanence of contradiction and conflict in life. Christians and Jews understand it because thats how God set things up. Libertarians understand it because the market is, by definition, a mechanism for amicably reconciling competing preferences. Agnostic, rain-sodden British pessimists understand it because theyve learned thats always the way to bet. Conservatism isnt inherently pessimistic, it is merely pessimistic about the possibility of changing the permanent things and downright melancholy about those who try.
Alas, I fear that is changing. But thats a subject for another column.
* You can find this essay in several books, including Did You Ever See a Dream Walking and Frank Meyers What is Conservatism?
"Goldberg funny. Me kill him last"
How 'boutcha there Mr. Carry_Okie??? Ya got a copy? Git back!!! (grin)
Learns from the past. Thinks for him/herself.
One thing a conservative isn't is a blind follower.
Explain the fundemental differences between Rehnquist and Scalia.
George Bush is a radical Marxist in the arena of fiscal policy. The offical OMB Budget tables prove that point.
George Bush is a moderate on international affairs. It is a shame he will not get out of the UN, that he abandons Taiwan while pushing for a Palestinaian state, and he, of course, refuses to guard our borders.
Actually, let's take that back--George Bush is NOT a moderate but leans heavily left on international affairs/national security.
Don't anybody here attempt to slot George Bush in the "conservative" category.
This point is key. Buckley style "status quo" conservatism is defeatist not and useful when we have the majority. We must now pursue a proactive agenda, even if that just means rolling back the welfare state. Buckley's definition of a conservative as "standing athwart history, yelling stop" buys into the leftist idea that socialism is "progress" and conservatives just want to stop "progress." Now that conservatives are in charge, we need to see some progress in the war against the socialism of the left. That means dismantling their welfare state.
Jesus was no conservative
Of course he was.
"Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished."
I dont think Jesus is going to have useful advice about how to fix Social Security.
Conservative don't want to fix Social Security. We want to destroy it.
Personally, I like to think of the SierraWaspman as a "Considerate Conservative!" One who considers all this Liberal, government growth a total waste of American time and monetary resources!!! So, all things considered I want it to stop so's we can all be left alone a little more and get some relief!!!
Most of all, with the exception of the Cold War, I wish to conserve the greatest of American traditions from the days of my youth and turn back most of the crappola that's been imposed on us by liberal Demonicrats since Kennedy was assassinated!!! Or maybe to before Ike anointed the Governor of CA, Earl Warren to the US Supreme Court!!!
Like My computer, I wish fervently for the ability to push the command to restore the essence of goodness that pervaded this great nation from the time of "Happy Days," American Graffetti" and "Mayberry RFD!"
Now I want some smartalec to come on here and try to tell me what's wrong with that!!!
You write in a different style than I do, but you often express things that I only feel.
Conservatives lead, liberals follow.
Liberals tend to follow their flesh. Conservatives tend to follow God.
More people instead define their affiliation based upon what they are NOT. For Republicans, Democrats are seen as larcenist, armtwisting, nosy, weak, libertine, and iconoclastic. For Democrats, Republicans are seen as greedy, militaristic, thoughtless, brutish, sanctimonious, and traditionalist.
If, e.g., insatiable larceny bothers you more than mindless traditionalism then you are more likely to identify with Republicans.
It's less what you ARE than what you are NOT.
A great rant. Certainly better than anything that now comes from National Review, which has suffered an invasion of body snatchers.
... 2. a preference for liberty over equality.
That IS Russell Kirk's.
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