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Mirror of Justice
What does it mean to be a conservative? It's been on my mind; Bitmaelstrom had a blog post, and Sen. Richard Lugar an op/ed; I wouldn't have identified myself as such when I lived in Britain, and in another place, I said this week that I feel culturally and temperamentally out of step with many of those with whom I share the label. Essentially, I have been pondering what we mean by the word in the context of 21st Century America.
Earlier in the year, I suggested a glib formulation of the creed: "To be a conservative, it seems to me, is to be for the traditional over the novel, the proven over the risky; for doubt over certainty; for the wisdom of all generations over the conceits of the current one; for yesterday's experience over today's guesses." Today I want to build on Dexter Perkins' 1957 essay Conservatism in America in offering a more elaborate sketch of at least one component of American conservatism.
Perkins offered five broad comments on conservatism, suggesting three negative definitions and two positive ones. Conservatism in America, he argued, is not:
(1) Reactionism. The reactionary wishes to turn back the clock, "nullifying what has already been accomplished." While conservastism in America "may desire to see legislation repealed which … has been unsuccessful in practice," Perkins thinks that "it is much more typical of the American political method to stop and digest reform rather to overturn it."
(2) Stand-pat-ism. Conservatism does not stand against progress, but against discontinuous and theory-based change. It restrains the pace and direction of change, preferring the organic, the incremental, and the experiential. American conservatism cheerily embraces "measures which ... will increase the general atmosphere of stability and make less likely the violent assaults upon the existing order which, by temperament, he is likely to dread." Tradition is "not just a conservative force, but rather a principle that ensures the continuity and identiy of the same attitude through successive generations."1
(3) A necessary or essential fruit of religion. While this point is often missed today, Perkins argues that while "there is a sense in which religion may give support to conservatism," "it is by no means true that the religious spirit always expresses itself in this way," observing that most of the major reform movements of American history to that time had been religiously motivated.
Perkins argues that there are two key elements to the American conservative point of view:
(4) A "not altogether sanguine view of human nature," a rather treacly circumlocution meaning no more than this: The American conservative sees men as they are—weak, selfish, sinful, and so on—rather than as idealizing them,2 or, worse yet, believing them to be perfectable. And naturally, she insists that systems must be built with this understanding.3 Quoad this point, the modifier "American" may be superfluous (is that not bedrock for all conservatives, at least in Christendom?), and many things follow from this view. The one with which I most closely identify is Perkins' suggestion that the conservative is apt to "have only a limited faith in the rule of the masses." While the conservative would not deny "the validity of the general principle of popular government," and while American culture demands a certain rhetorical obeisance to democracy, the conservative "would, almost invariably, hedge that government with restrictions, … limit its powers," and "find ways to prevent the impulse of the moment from dominating the political scene." The conservative fears direct democracy and unconstrained majority rule—anything that "gives a transient majority the right to 'tamper … with the main pillars of the state,'" and will typically think of herself as a republican rather than a democrat.4 (Eventually, a long-percolated post on this subject will appear in these pages.)
(5) Similarly, the conservative doubts "that government could make over the social pattern or cure the dominant social evils." While America lacks a class or caste system, inequalities exist, especially economic inequalities, and the conservative thinks that that will not change "despite the efforts of legislators and statesmen" to the contrary, for as Edmund Burke warned, "those who attempt to level never equalize."5 He does not conceive of government "as an agency of social change." This is by no means to say, however, that conservatives are necessarily for small or feeble government—two distinct views which, I fear, are often conflated today—as many libertarians seem to be. The conservative realizes that it's sometimes necessary "to bring authority to bear, not to alter but to protect the existing order," invoking government to withstand rather than to promote social change. (Hayek—a libertarian although he sniffed at the label—actually thought this a weakness of conservatives, complaining that we "are inclined to use the powers of government to prevent change or to limit its rate to whatever appeals to the more timid mind."6)
What can be said for Perkins' points?
We could say more on this general theme, and articulate it as either a sixth item or a qualification to number two. While I agree that conservatism is not stand pat-ism, we should confess that it is the commonest political operationalization of the "turtle disposition"—a woman is unlikely to have conservative politics unless she first has "conservative instincts," in Russell Kirk's wording. Conservatism isn't so much a system of thought (indeed, it is skeptical of systems of thought per se) as it is an instinct, a mood, a disposition, or to reappropriate Marvin Meyers' phrase, a persuasion: It is, at root, a proclivity for what is over what might be, for stability over radical change, and for tradition over innovation. While conservatism by no means opposes gradual, evolutionary change in light of experience, it fears sudden, radical change, especially when the change is rooted in abstract theory rather than concrete experience.
The reason for that, I think, is that the conservative has only a limited faith in one individual's intelligence. We recognize "[t]he fallibility and limited reach of human reason."9 Whereas the rationalist-modernist10 is "courage[ous] and confiden[t]," prepared "to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead."11 By contrast, the conservative realizes that society is a richly interconnected and reticulated thing, and, as I fretted in 2007, "[t]o alter any part of a densely interlinked system is to set off reverberations that cannot be predicted with effects that may be undesirable, will likely become irrevocable, and may ultimately be deleterious." Human wisdom cannot possibly know every invisible string that holds a society together, that holds up the good and holds down the bad.12 Who knows what will happen if we remove this one straw from the Kerplunk tower? Who knows how far things will go if we pull this one loose thread? 13
Thus, in number 4, we see an affirmative reason for conservative approbation for the Constitution, and our concomitant opposition to its alteration by things like the Seventeenth Amendment and reform of the electoral college. But that is not quite all. As I have implied, the conservative is instinctively skeptical of broad change because we suspect that one man cannot possibly foresee the consequences of change. This does not appreciably change if we substitute one generation for one man. This is why the river of tradition, a metaphor I developed last month in this post, is an appealing figure, I think: While rocks in the river may have been thrown in by an individual, conservatives are happier once they have been washed clean and ground smooth by the approbation of tradition.
There is much more that could be said; I am particularly remiss in saying nothing about private property and its central role in the conservative worldview. (Fred Thompson tied it nicely to the limits of government: "A dollar belongs in the pocket of the person who earns it, unless the government has a compelling reason why it can use it better." Russell Kirk observed that conservatives believe that "property and freedom are inseparably connected, and that economic leveling is not economic property"; the experience of the twentieth century, as Justice Scalia noted in Economic Affairs as Human Affairs, 4 Cato Journal 703 (1985), supplies ample proof that where economic liberty —"property"—is disregarded, political liberty—"freedom"—soon goes the same way, and vice versa.) But those are thoughts for another day; for now, I offer the thoughts above.
MP: Altar bells and keeping faith with tradition (Nov. 10, 2011)