[Author’s note: Part 2 will appear next week.]
I never set out to be a conservative.
My father called himself a conservative. For him, it seemed little more than what he thought was good (profitable) for Big Business. Since even as a teenager I didn’t think that what was profitable for Big Business was necessarily good for everybody, or for the country, eventually I rejected conservatism. It stayed rejected in my mind for quite a number of years, from my undergraduate days through graduate school and on into my aborted teaching career, where I spent time and expended great effort trying to be a Libertarian. That is a story for another day.
I came back to conservatism — and I think of the old saw about how if you’re not a liberal at age 20 you don’t have a heart and that if you’re still a liberal at age 40 you don’t have a brain.
What about at age 60? You’re supposed to have seen a lot by then, and I have, working in both academic and nonacademic jobs, being self-employed at different times including recently, living in a foreign country for the past eight years, being single and then married to a foreign national….
This on top of studying and writing philosophy formally, reading voraciously, having been a current events junkie my whole life. Growing up under my parents’ roof, I listened and sometimes participated in conversations about the issues of the time. Watergate filled the news when I was in high school. I self-identified as a Watergate teenager for a long time. I think many people in my generation did. Watergate affected our ability to trust politicians. Which you probably shouldn’t do, as they all have agendas.
Among the things I’ve noticed is that conservatives may have had agendas, too, but not sets of carefully laid out principles (I’m not thinking of exclusively political programs like Gingrich’s “Contract With America” of 1994).
Russell Kirk (1918 – 1994), the conservative philosopher and author, probably came the close to setting out a few conservative principles in his book The Conservative Mind (1954), which I did not encounter for years.
Kirk’s nonfiction writings (interestingly, he also wrote ghost stories) were tough slogging, and even then I couldn’t imagine most people who considered themselves conservatives reading them.
But if you can’t set out your principles, how do you know what you’re doing is right? Surely it has to be more than instinct, or feelings. The left goes off feelings.
I already had a problem with those who self-identified as conservatives not having any idea what they thought they were conserving.
This in a country which seemed to be less and less to conserve every decade. The country was moving leftward in fits and starts, and conservatives seemed helpless to stop it. This latest leap leftward, starting with the “George Floyd riots,” is the worst yet!
So if we are conservatives, what are we trying to conserve? Is there anything left in Western civilization to conserve? What should we have tried to conserve?
Come to think of it, are there any conservatives? Trump is not a conservative. Nor are the Republicans in Congress, some of whom opposed Trump before they backed him.
Are there any conservatives in media? Guys like Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations are not conservatives but neoconservatives (neocons) . Tucker Carlson probably qualifies. The authors and editors of The American Conservative, founded by Patrick J. Buchanan when National Review went neoconservative surely qualify. A number of websites with limited reach compared to those of the mainstream media. Very few of their authors (myself included) have any significant national visibility.
The few conservatives I know of who have doctorates and spent time in academia are all over 75, and are probably best thought of as conservatives only in a very broad sense as their major interests lie elsewhere (Thomas Sowell, Angelo Codevilla are two names that come to mind, and it isn’t clear either would call himself a conservative without a lot of qualification).
If we can identify a few basic conservative principles, maybe we will have not so much something to conserve as something to guide us in the rebuilding to come even if we have to do it (as seems likely at this point) on the margins and possibly even keeping our heads down. Are these mine alone? I sincerely hope not. I hope they are the product of voluminous reading over the years, trying to distill into a few easily understood proposals the thoughts of all the authors listed above and many more besides. Those who disagree with these proposals are free to qualify them or present their own. The point is to have a badly needed conversation.
Basic Conservative Principles (or Proposals For Such).
I propose, in that case: those who self-identify as conservative should assent to all or most of the following:
(1) Beyond or standing above the world we live in, with all its events and trials, is an enduring moral order that binds us all. This is a central conservative premise, conditioning and shaping all the rest.
(2) We live in a fallen world, because human nature is imperfect and fallen, however we understand this. Hence all fundamentally Utopian projects must fail, as they refuse to acknowledge our fallen state.
(3) Traditions, basic beliefs and practices in culture, e.g., belief in a Providential God — are not validated by abstract reasonings but by having passed the test of time as part of the societal “glue” that binds a people together. Communities are defined by their traditions, shared beliefs, practices, that define the expectations that guide acceptable conduct.
(4) Some institutions — the family, private property, limitations on government, the rule of law, are nonnegotiable conditions for the long-term stability and well-being of societies especially in the West where they have become explicit principles.
(5) Private passions need to be restrained through proper parenting, education, and acculturation. Otherwise societies are faced with the unpleasant and dangerous choice between authoritarianism and anarchy.
(6) The economic side of controlling passions is to distinguish needs from wants. A conservative believes there is more to a society than its economy — or, indeed, any other single group of institutions or activities.
(7) Freedom of speech and opinion is superior to an orthodoxy or dogma imposed by an official or unofficial priesthood, academic “experts,” political class, or any other elite entity employing censorious or propagandistic mechanisms. If an idea is bad, it will fail in practice and not pass the test of time.
(8) Calls for change are therefore to be heard but treated with a certain amount of suspicion, and the more radical the change, the greater the suspicion. There always is, and should be, an “essential tension” between calls for permanence and calls for change. The burden of argument is on the change agent, not on the skeptic.
(9) Political economy is “downstream” from culture, however we characterize either one. Culture, being a product of the usually tacit beliefs of its practitioners, is further “downstream” from its worldview.
This last brings us full circle, because (1) requires a certain kind of worldview, one which respects the idea of the Transcendent. We need not all agree on all details of what is Transcendent to respect the idea. Not all worldviews do. Materialism does not, and this its central drawbacks.
Let us explain each of these in a bit more detail.
(1) Beyond, or above, the world we inhabit with all its events and trials, is an enduring moral order that binds us all. An enduring moral order, well, endures. It transcends history, culture, population, place, although it can make room for the particularities of these. There are moral principles (e.g., “Thou shalt not murder,” “Thou shalt not steal,” “Respect others,” and “Do not harm others intentionally”) we did not invent that ought to guide our conduct as we move through life, and which in one form or another, are honored everywhere. What is good should be pursued, and bad or evil shunned, is true for conservatives, as it was for St. Thomas Aquinas. Christians find the source of enduring moral order in the Eternal God of the Old and New Testaments.
This contrasts with the humanist idea, however expressed (and there are many ways of expressing it) that morality is of human origin, whether in our capacity for reason, our experience of pleasure and avoidance of pain, a supposed innate sense of justice or capacity to conceive of it from behind “a veil of ignorance,” a “principle of nonaggression,” or something else. In the last analysis, none of these work as basic principles. Nietzsche criticized all such notions, sometimes in advance of their formulation, as — I am paraphrasing, obviously — efforts to have a fundamentally Christian moral system without Christianity’s God or the supernatural. All must fail, because all are, at base, intellectually dishonest in this sense. They are part of a fundamentally Christian heritage.
A materialist “ethic,” as Nietzsche also understood, would honor not Christian altruism or concern for others but survival by whatever means necessary, strength, prowess, health, and perhaps the binding authority of the state or other ultimate secular authority. Hence Nietzsche’s call for a “revaluation of all values.”
(2) We live in a fallen world.Human nature is not only imperfect but not capable of “perfection”; it isn’t even clear what this would mean. According to Christianity, our sinful nature (Rom. 3:23) explains the world’s fallenness and our inability to have produced social orders that do not shaft somebody, whatever our discoveries, inventions and innovations, policies, conveniences, etc. There is a permanent egocentricity intrinsic to human nature that resists everything we try to throw at it. This explains the need for a “constrained vision” in Sowell’s sense.
This contrasts again with the humanist idea that we can improve ourselves indefinitely, maybe even “perfect ourselves” and our societies by social-engineering techniques. Such ideas derive from the “unconstrained vision,” in which human nature is a product of its environment only, and changes as its environment changes. We can, of course, learn and teach each other to bathe, and make a variety of other technical improvements and provide for ourselves. But moral improvements by our own efforts past a certain point seems beyond us. Public policy rarely if ever results in moral improvements. People respond to incentives, including perverse ones. Consider the welfare state. When government pays people not to work, they have no incentive to work. Dependence then gets passed to the next generation.
(3) Traditions, basic beliefs and practices in culture, e.g., belief in a Providential God — are not validated by abstract intellectual reasonings but by their having passed the test of time. Although there is not space to explore the topic fully here, one of the worst mistakes of modern philosophy, beginning with Descartes, was the idea that it was possible and desirable to raze everything, every belief, every tradition, every practice, every institution, to the ground and start over, based on deductions of abstract Reason. Traditions, basic beliefs, practices as they function in society, are “organic” rather than abstract. They do not behave according to the rules of abstract Reason but are complex overlapping systems of expectations and habits leading to actions; systems of trust and rules both written and unwritten for resolving disputes; institutions starting with the family and extending outward for acculturing the young, and thus for maintaining continuity from generation to generation.
We cannot expect these customs, conventions, etc., to operate perfectly (2 again). Contrary to the multi-culties and the apostles of “woke,” some social orders are indeed superior to others, because they can be directly observed to result in the long-term stability of peoples whose infrastructure enables peace and an ability to feed and otherwise provide for themselves. This as opposed to breeding violence, dysfunction, and mass starvation. This does not somehow “privilege” Western civilization; others, non-Western, have done the same. Endurance, again, and an ability to solve a wide range of problems on their own terms (or not allow them to arise in the first place) is what legitimates largely unwritten systems of customs, conventions, habits, traditions, etc. That which is imposed by out-of-the-blue policy decisions, implying that what came before was illegitimate, and rationalized by some academic or within some think tank, may be deeply damaging even when well-intentioned.
(4) Some institutions — the family, private property circumscribed by morality, limitations on government, the rule of law grounded in the moral order suggested in (1), a connection from people’s lives to the transcendent, are nonnegotiable conditions for long-term stability and well-being.
Nonnegotiable means they cannot be left to chance — to the valuations of consumers in the marketplace, for example, any more than they ought to be subject to repeal by an arbitrary political edict.
(4a) The family is a newborn’s first contact with other humans: parents and perhaps other siblings. The extended family, which prevails in agrarian-based societies, might actually be superior to nuclear families such as the one I grew up on, because various labors ranging from educating the young to workaday chores of cooking, cleaning, tending animals, and so on, can be divided among more people, and everybody’s skills used more efficiently and effectively. This can more easily result in overall health, productivity, and continuity from generation to generation.
Absent functional families, extended or nuclear, this is much harder. Adults from dysfunctional families generally have a much tougher row to hoe, and though it is possible to turn one’s life around after a bad start, or even develop a sense of complete responsibility for oneself when one is young and finds oneself on one’s own, it doesn’t often happen. We were not designed to be isolated individuals, entirely on our own—which may be why people forced into isolation, as with solitary confinement in prisons, often develop psychological disorders of various sorts. Doubtless there are a lot of people in prison because this was their situation, and they never had much of a chance. Conservatives ought not encourage policies or tendencies, whatever their source or origin, that tend to break up families unnecessarily.
(4b) Private property is property purchased, earned through work, inherited, or occasionally gifted. What is so great about private property? It has been said that what one owns, one cares for and tends. In societies based on the trust that one’s private property will be honored by all others, including governing authorities, this is enhanced. On the other hand, in societies where people believe, perhaps based on experience, that their property can be seized arbitrarily because governing authorities have abruptly changed the rules, the capacity of private property to serve as an arena where family, education, business, etc., can flourish is undermined.
It does not follow that one should be able to do absolutely anything one pleases on one’s private property. The right of ownership of property may be important, but other principles can override it. To cite an extreme example, one cannot engage in human sacrifices on one’s property, because property is overridden by the sanctity of human life. Acceptance of rules for respect on the property of others (e.g., guests in someone’s home, employees in a business, customers of that business, etc.) is a sign that all is healthy and well. That such rules are challenged, argued over, must be spelled out, elaborated further, chatted up indefinitely, might be a sign that something is wrong.
Taxation? No one likes taxes. That’s just a given. But if members of a body politic have decided that they want an institution able, e.g., to resolve disputes with final authority, because disputes will not necessarily resolve themselves or be resolved peacefully otherwise, then they might decide to invest in such an institution. If they’ve realized, moreover, that the world outside their community is filled with potentially hostile groups who do not play by their rules, or by any rules at all, they might decide that this institution ought to provide an effective defense at their borders because their borders will not protect themselves. Creating and maintaining this force-of-arms defense is a full time job just like any other full time job, and is not therefore a free service. Hence the need for members of the community to support it financially. Such an institution of governance will not be perfect, but this is only a reminder of Madison’s wise adage that “men are not angels” and “are not governed by angels”: see (2) above. The ultimate check on the power of this institution is explicit recognition within the entire community that its members will withdraw their support, retreat or secede into private enclaves, or move outside the borders, if and to the extent it becomes abusive. This requires awareness, of course. It is a given that if members of communities do not stay aware of what those they’ve entrusted to these various responsibilities are doing, then they deserve the calamities likely to befall them. Institutional systems do not regulate and maintain themselves. Very likely the best we will do is a careful and perhaps always shifting balance between different institutional systems as they place checks on one another driven by the enlightened self-interest of their participants.
(4c) Limitations on government and the rule of law: it has often been said that government which governs best, governs least. In healthy societies, much of what happens, happens automatically as their people interact to meet each other’s needs, solve problems, or serve in other ways. There are probably no formal rules governing how this all happens able to cover all cases. The systems and processes are too complex; there is too much variability; there are too many particulars and contingencies that can’t be brought under a single formal set of rules. Hence a certain amount of laissez-faire is probably a good thing — provided trust can be maintained. When a political class interferes with these systems for whatever reason (they may see what some among them believe is a problem and sincerely believe they have a “fix” for it), they cannot account for all the particularities and hidden incentives that may be operating, and hence are always in danger not only of failing to solve the perceived problem but creating new problems in their wake. Government, even at its best, has been a blunt tool for solving problems. Thus conservatives want to keep it small, constrained, and used to service just a few essential functions: formulating the rules that need to be formulated including for its own structure and purposes including where police power ought to be visible, serving as an agency or arena of punishment for those who violate its rules, and securing the borders of the territory over which it has agreed-upon authority as described above.
All this according to the rule of law. What does this phrase mean, precisely? It is best understood in contrast to the rule of dictators or tyrants who are empowered to make the rules that govern a body politic — or a political class that can do so, or change existing rules to suit its interests presumed different from the interests of the society as a whole. Rule of law consists of those formal rules that are possible, that serve as parameters of acceptable political and legal conduct (avowing explicitly, for example, that murder and stealing are wrong, to whatever extent this is necessary; and where these apply).
A conservative ought to hold, it seems to me, that the idea of the rule of law is best justified, and legitimated in practice, if it is tied directly in some way to that idea of a transcendent reality and a moral code anchored outside of specifics of time, place, history, and culture. Because of the flaws in human nature itself, conservatives are dubious of the idea that we ever really can be entirely our own authorities, or that we should try.
It may be wise to spell all this out in a founding document such as a Constitution or other Declaration of Principles — as was done in the 1700s and before.
For the entire system depends on trust. It depends on members of society believing they can trust one another, being part of something larger than themselves, and caring about — even loving — this something their society and the common good. Such words seem strange just to write. Maybe that is an index of how badly trust in our own Western societies has eroded over the past few generations, and how people have felt more secure turning inward and just ‘tending their own gardens.’ There is no longer any agreement over any ‘common good.’ Such a society is doomed, and there may be little or nothing a conservative can do to turn it back from the brink. All he can do is work out a diagnosis others later can study and learn from, assuming there are any others able and willing to do so, and that any of us really learn anything from the past.
[For Part 2 click here.]