Basic Conservative Principles, Part 2

[Continued from Part 1.]

Reviewing quickly: these were the nine basic conservative principles we settled on a week ago.

(1) Supervening over — 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. Culture, being a product of the usually tacit beliefs of its practitioners, is “downstream” from its worldview.

More Basic Conservative Principles: Self-Restraint of Passions.

Since we have discussed (1) through (4), I am setting those aside and will simply assume them from here on out, although we’ll have cause to refer back to them occasionally. Proceeding, in that case, with (5) through (9):

(5) Conservatives believe private passions need to be restrained through proper parenting, education, and acculturation. And while conservatives always prefer smaller government to larger government, they are pragmatic about it. If a behavior needs to be regulated or even contained, and private options are either unavailable or have failed, then conservatives recognize that the job of regulation and/or containment falls to government.

Why can’t we just have laissez-faire about private passions? Because passions are not private, not really. Passions lead to actions, and (y)our actions affect others. Unrestrained passions, by their nature, affect the lives, freedoms, business, property, etc., of others, except maybe for the occasional hermit.

Sometimes restraining one’s passions means tolerating others’ carelessly negligent behavior that ultimately isn’t harmful or threatening. It’s late evening, you want to go to bed, but your neighbor’s dog is barking up a storm in his back yard. What are your options as a conservative in your personal life, not just in politics? You can call up your neighbor, ask him to please bring his dog inside, and trust or at least hope he will honor your request. Trying somehow to force him into compliance would be ill-advised. Not to mention shooting the dog! Either of these options means you haven’t restrained your passions, and the result will be long-term harm — more to you than to your neighbor, since again, a barking dog is an inconvenience, not a life threat.

Sexuality provides a weightier range of examples. Improperly self-regulated, uninhibited sex can lead to unplanned pregnancies and STDs. Everybody knows this, or should. A hedonistic consumer culture such as ours, permeated with sexual innuendo (since “sex sells”) can lead teenagers to want to experiment before they are ready, and this can cause harm. Being taught to restrain one’s sexual passions from the very start might be a good idea!

Conservatives should agree: decoupling sexuality from morality, beginning with Sigmund Freud (1856 – 1939), taking a quantum leap with the “scientific” studies of human sexuality by Alfred C. Kinsey (1894 – 1956) and his team, and then being spread into popular culture by Kinseyites such as Hugh Hefner (1926 – 2017), has been a cultural catastrophe overall.

I will leave to others, or to readers’ imaginations, to ponder the effects of this decoupling on marriage and the divorce rate, on the pro-abortion culture, on sexual abuse / spousal abuse, on feminism broadly conceived and relations between the sexes generally, on the rise of ideologies of “gender,” on nominally illegal practices such as sex trafficking, and so on.

There are plenty of other examples of behaviors a person needs to self-regulate: excessive drinking; use of mind-altering drugs where legal; games such as video poker; more immediate technologies relying on, and encouraging, short attention-spans and the dopamine drip received from screens.

Speaking of which: if you’ve nearly been sideswiped on a major highway by someone driving at high speed paying more attention to their phone than their driving, you may see the problem technology can create in a society built on assertions of, “It’s my [absolute] right, dammit!

All of which is why thoughtful conservatives realize the need to keep our passions on a short leash. And to exercise mindful responsibility.

This is best if built into the sort of education that begins in a stable home.

Within boundaries, passions can be sources of great happiness and joy, as with newlyweds making love during their honeymoon, planning or at least hoping for a baby.

Outside boundaries, passions and negligence of various sorts can upend or destroy lives — as with the phone-obsessed driver who drifts and causes a fatal accident.

Conservatives do not believe in “rights” that are closed, out-of-context absolutes. The fact that rights language needs qualification is a sign of how far we are from anything remotely resembling conservative beliefs and practices. You don’t have a “right” to endanger others on public roadways, and “privatization” of roadways would not create such a “right” any more than property rights would allow you to sacrifice someone on your property. Lives and safety trump property rights, and we can cite this as a general rule even if there might be cases that are not immediately decidable.

Again, trust is key. As a general rule, the more the members of a population can trust that others will behave with restraint and responsibility, the fewer laws and regulations on behavior will be needed. This would be a good thing, because again, those who protest that laws are easily abused, blunt instruments at best, are doubtless correct. The more they become necessary evils, the more the battle for a healthy and prosperous society based on life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness is lost.

Needs Versus Wants

(6) A special part of control over one’s passions is to distinguish needs from wants. While there is “wiggle room,” in most cases the distinction is clear.

A need is something you have to have to survive. The obvious examples are breathable air, drinkable water, nutritious food, something in the way of shelter, and perhaps as a condition for psychological health, the company of others.

Life in civilization creates additional “structural needs,” one might call them: education, electricity, telephone service, in some cases health care supplied by others; and gradually since shortly before the turn of the millennium, a reliable connection to the Internet for one’s professional if not always one’s personal life. There are lots of variations on these, of course.

Wants are everything outside this orbit. If you can live without it, or do without it and not suffer debilitating inconvenience, it’s a want, not a need. You can live without television and cable, so those are wants, not needs. You can live without alcoholic beverages, so those are wants. You’ll live if you never have another mouthful of sushi, so that’s a want. Likewise with pizza and all fast foods and processed foods. You can even live without coffee (though that’s pushing it!!).

Most people do not distinguish their wants from their needs consistently. Sound personal financial education would start with this distinction and use examples. Sound money management requires it, so you can track where your money is going and end certain ways of spending it. Sadly, there are good reasons public schools do not teach personal finance. This would imperil the structural “needs” of a mass consumption economy.

Advertising and marketing tend to blur the distinction between needs and wants and create “needs” that weren’t there before. Salespersons they try to persuade, sometimes very skillfully, that you absolutely cannot live without whatever they are selling a moment longer.

You must want something to buy it. If you can be made to believe it’s a need, then you have to buy it! The person who consistently spends wildly on credit lacks self-discipline and ends up with massive consumer debt. Some say this “helps the economy” — 70 percent of our wonderful culture of consumer capitalism, after all, is based on consumer spending.

But does this help the people themselves?

Does it help you?

Do you want to go massively into debt to “help the economy”?

There’s a contradiction here, and one doesn’t have to have an “anticapitalistic mentality” to see it.

Given that huge numbers of consumers do not have even a few hundred dollars set aside for emergency needs, we should have all the evidence we need to question the idea that massive consumer spending is a sign of genuine, overall societal health — regardless of what “economists” say.

A genuine conservative believes there is more to a society than its economy (a point we will elaborate on below), and that mass consumption is overrated. Obtaining more just leads to wanting more, in a cycle that never ends. (Those who don’t care for Christianity might find it worth consulting what Buddhists say about the painfulness of life being caused by uncontrolled cravings.)

Freedom of Speech and Opinion.

(7) Freedom of speech and opinion is superior to an orthodoxy or dogma maintained by an official political class, academic group of “experts,” a priesthood, or any other group employing censorious propagandistic techniques.

Again, as always, there are common horse sense limits: e.g., the chestnut about not shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater. Restrictions on incitements to violence are reasonable. Again, the common denominator: what physically endangers others should not be done — or said. What destroys property its owners may have huge investments in, should not be done or said, and can legitimately be criminalized.

Here the classical liberalism derived from someone such as John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) had the basic idea. Avoid speech — and actions — that knowingly cause harm to others. This has become known as the harm principle, encoded in the health sciences as the Hippocratic Oath: “at first, do no harm.”

Outside that parameter, speech and inquiry should be free, because even if false or wrong or leading nowhere, we can learn from it because we can learn from our mistakes. When inquiry is restricted in favor of a dominant opinion or point of view, that opinion hardens into a rigid dogma that is more, not less, vulnerable to challenge. We learn from critical evaluations from others. If the dominant view is right, we learn why — we’ve hopefully unearthed what supports it. If it is wrong, we learn that as well, and why, and know to look for something else. The workability of such a system, of course, requires restraint of another passion: that of ego and its potential for feeling bruised.

Conservatives should see a constant essential tension between support for a status quo belief and support for something new. That which has been tested and proved its mettle over time is bound to generate “bias” in its favor. That which is new must be proven worthy. The burden of proof is on its advocates, not on skeptics.

We should all be willing to have our ideas tested to ensure they are on the right track. If ours are the right ones, they’ll stand up to a test. We should not try to control the opinions of others. This, as the Stoics said, are among the things outside our control. The wise are those who are restrained enough to agree to disagree, or just walk away if their disagreement falls on deaf ears.

Those who disagree over the basic worldview premises, or conventions, or traditions, a large community has embraced over time should always be free to leave, or organize their own internal private enclaves subject to the above qualifiers, provided they do not interfere with those outside their orbit. Forming internal private enclaves may mean relinquishing some benefits being members of the larger community provides.

The Essential Tension.

(8) Calls for change are therefore to be listened to, and heard, but treated with a certain amount of suspicion; and the more radical the called-for change, the greater the suspicion.

This doesn’t mean a knee-jerk reaction that shuts discussion down. To reiterate: calls for change are to be listened to, and heard. And critically discussed to discern as many likely ramifications as possible — keeping in mind that some consequences of change can’t be seen until it’s too late.

Then change what must be changed. But with caution, and with openness to the need for midcourse corrections. Here the essential tension is between the desire for stasis and calls for change.

Early advocates for ending discrimination against blacks and other racial minorities argued that civil rights legislation would extend Constitutional, economic provisions, and in general the right to live the so-called American Dream, to all Americans. Treat equals equally, all having been created by God. Allow maximal equal opportunity to all.

This made sense on paper, but proved phenomenally hard to implement! It was not clear what equal opportunity meant in practice, or that equal opportunity was what all blacks wanted (think of Malcolm X’s criticisms of blacks wanting equal access to the white man’s world). Nor was it clear that such practices as forced busing to majority white schools would accomplish anything in helping black children learn. Blacks continued to self-segregate, often grew hostile about their situation, and overall the social experiment was a disaster for education.

The struggles, compromises, and overall failures would call for a separate essay — or book (numerous have been written).

Where we really go off the rails is if we embrace change for the sake of change, because it is novel and exciting, because someone with clout and celebrity suggested it, or for some loosely similar reason.

Worse still is the Jacobin idea that all of society’s traditions, institutions, and practices (even “bad” ones!) can be criticized all at once and razed to the ground if not meeting standards set by rationalist abstractions or some professional intellectual’s vision of Utopia has always been a recipe for disaster.

In Revolution-era France, it precipitated chaos and death followed by several years of tyranny. History remains a source of valuable listens for those who can be bothered to study it. One of the most important documents in the history of ideas leading to the modern conservative spirit was Reflections on the Revolution in France by political philosopher Edmund Burke (1729 – 1797) who spelled this out.

Political Economy Is “Downstream” From Culture, and Culture Is “Downstream” From Worldview.

(9) Political economy is ‘downstream’ from culture. Culture, being an aggregate product of the usually tacit beliefs of its practitioners, is “downstream” from its worldview.

Consider the marketplace. Is it merely individual atoms running around satisfying their needs and wants by acting autonomously (“sovereign consumers”)? In a world where everyone is constantly bombarded by influences of all sorts, not all of which we are even consciously aware, what can that even mean?

Who is this “sovereign consumer”? Is he (she?) anything more than the abstract homo economicus of a group of classical liberal economists, created to keep their calculus manageable?

The economists are right in this much: people respond to incentives.

Many things can incentivize us, especially when our most basic needs are either satisfied or mostly satisfied. Not all of these are necessarily good, and it is useful to remember that the more people spend money they may not have on things that aren’t real needs, the more the economy “hums” in the sense the economists like — but which does not necessarily improve personal or cultural health.

When the masses are spending money on fast food, video poker, pornography, and so on, is this improving either personal or cultural health? Not that these are equivalent, but you should get the idea, and realize how such examples further enhance needs for internal restraints and responsibilities, including sometimes on pure market activity.

Moreover, among all natural human desires (as Bastiat observed in The Law back in 1849)  is to gain the most with the least possible effort.

If “short cuts” of whatever sort are made available, most people will take them.

If welfare is made available beyond absolute necessity, many people will take it.

Those who control the incentive systems unleashed by policies of various sorts can control consumer behavior and through that, much of the economy. Which is why it was a bad (if understandable) idea to separate political economy into “political science” and “economics” as separate academic disciplines. Political and economic activity cannot really be separated, anymore than a civilization either can or should be made into a single large marketplace.

Conservatives should not be lulled by the hypercapitalists; conservatism is not neoliberalism, that bastard deformation of classical liberalism which reduces all value to exchange value as it reduces all persons to commodities to engage in exchanges (or be exchanged).

Conservatism should stress the idea that culture stands outside of political economy; there will always be cultural artifacts that cannot be assigned a price or market value — usually these will be the artifacts that define a people’s connection to the Transcendent.

Conservatism is therefore as much a philosophy of culture as it is a political philosophy. Some have written of cultural conservatism, which must be in place before the political philosophy is sustainable, and it must circumscribe the marketplace. If embodied in people’s habits, this will minimize the need for restrictions on people’s “free choices.” Why is this a good thing? Because once conservatives need to start resorting to authoritarian gestures through government, they’ve lost the battle in the cultural “marketplace.”

So how does one have a conservative culture? Whether anyone likes it or not, through a solidly established religiosity that permeates both public and private landscapes.

John Adams, the U.S.’s second president, famously wrote to the Massachusetts Militia on October 11, 1798:

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by  … morality and religion. Avarice, ambition,… revenge or galantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other….

This is not the place to wade into whether or not the Founding Fathers were supportive of a Christian worldview or should have been (many, we know, were not). The question we should ask from where we stand today, with over two centuries of hindsight: how important to culture is a worldview which anchors morality to the Transcendent.

Not for intellectuals, mind you, which the Founders were. For the general public, for the nonintellectual masses, if you will. Most of the latter are, almost by definition, followers. They have always needed some creed to follow, be it religious or patriotic or some combination of these. A Christian worldview can supply such a creed. There is no evidence that materialism can supply it, whether in the metaphysical or the economic sense. Hence the realization that if political economy is “downstream” from culture, culture in turn is “downstream” from a civilization’s prevailing worldview — a topic to which I’ve given great attention previously on this blog.

There we have them: basic conservative principles, the outlines for a conservative political philosophy and philosophy of society more broadly. It may have a flavor of the quixotic about it, especially these days when freedom is everywhere in retreat and when efforts to organize supporters of freedom is akin to herding cats! The pessimist in me wonders if all this is too late, if there is anything left to conserve.

In the back of my mind while writing was an essay written roughly 90 years ago by one Albert Jay Nock, more associated with Libertarians than conservatives: “Isaiah’s Job,” it was called. The Prophet Isaiah relates (Isaiah 1:1-9) how he was called by the Lord to preach to the Judeans near the end of King Uzziah’s reign — right before a period of prosperity ended and everything went to pieces (does this sound familiar?). The Lord is speaking to Isaiah (this is Nock’s paraphrase):

“Tell them what a worthless lot they are…. Tell them what is wrong, and why and what is going to happen unless they have a change of heart and straighten up. Don’t mince matters. Make it clear that they are positively down to their last chance. Give it to them good and strong and keep on giving it to them. I suppose perhaps I ought to tell you …. that it won’t do any good. The official class and their intelligentsia will turn up their noses at you and the masses will not even listen. They will all keep on in their own ways until they carry everything down to destruction, and you will probably be lucky if you get out with your life.

In that case, Isaiah wondered, Why bother?

“Ah,” the Lord said, “you do not get the point. There is a Remnant there that you know nothing about. They are obscure, unorganized, inarticulate, each one rubbing along as best he can. They need to be encouraged and braced up because when everything has gone completely to the dogs, they are the ones who will come back and build up a new society; and meanwhile, your preaching will reassure them and keep them hanging on. Your job is to take care of the Remnant, so be off now and set about it.”

Isaiah’s job was to take care of the Remnant, and that’s the philosophical conservative’s job today.

That is the spirit I have offered this two-part essay — writing under the assumption that it will never “go viral” but that despite the fear, the distractions, the horrid ideas, the attempts to erase modern history, the false rabbit trails, this will nevertheless be found by a small audience of appreciative readers who, whatever happens in the near future, will remain committed to building the next civilization, based on principles that have been all but forgotten, on lessons that have been learned.

About Steven Yates

I have a Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of Georgia and teach Critical Thinking (mostly in English) at Universidad Nacionale Andrés Bello in Santiago, Chile. I moved here in 2012 from South Carolina. My most recent book is entitled Four Cardinal Errors: Reasons for the Decline of the American Republic (2011). I am the author of an earlier book, around two dozen articles & reviews, & still more articles on commentary sites on the Web. I live in Santiago with my wife Gisela & two spoiled cats, Bo & Princesa.
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