Politics & Policy

What Is a “Conservative”?

We're 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.” There’s also “big-government conservatism” which, until recently, would have seemed like more of an epithet than adjective. And, of course, there’s 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. I’d 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 hasn’t 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 it’s 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.

So What is a Conservative?

I’ve been wrestling with this for a long time and I don’t pretend to have a perfect or definitive answer. William F. Buckley Jr., employing a richer experience with the subject and a far, far better mind, tried this in his brilliant essay “Notes Toward an Empirical Definition of Conservatism.” I don’t intend to revisit all of the points he made there, but if you haven’t read it hie thee to a bookstore.*

From the beginning, American conservatives have been trying to answer this question definitively to almost no one’s 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 I’ve 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 don’t always fully realize they’re making it. They think the rise of politically conservative religious activists is anti-conservative because it smells anti-liberal. Two conservatives of British descent who’ve been making that case lately are Andrew Sullivan and our own John Derbyshire. I think the fact that they’re British is an important factor. British conservatives, God love ‘em, are typically opponents of all enthusiasms, particularly of the religious and political variety. Personally, I’m very sympathetic to this outlook (Some may recall my Inactivist Manifesto). And it seems to me patently obvious that religion and conservatism aren’t necessarily partners. Put it this way, Jesus was no conservative–and there endeth the lesson.

What isn’t Conservative?

But that spins us back to the same point Hayek was making. Conservatism in its most naked form is amoral. It all depends on what you’re conserving. A true revolutionary in a truly decent and humane society is almost surely going to be a fool, an ass, a tyrant, or, most likely, all three. A conservative in a truly evil regime is even more likely to be the same. Hence, it seems to me, that no person can call himself a Christian if he isn’t in at least some tiny way a conservative because to be a Christian is to conserve some part of the lessons or teachings of that revolutionary from 2,000 years ago.

It also needs to be said that you don’t 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 don’t 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. (It’s 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 I’d 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. That’s 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–Limbaugh’s drug use, Bennett’s 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 doesn’t “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 I’ve 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 “You’re right, but life isn’t 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 don’t want to accept it because they believe that in a just society there would be no such trade-offs.

The Conservative Faith

In Tuesday’s column, Derbyshire listed six tenets of Anglo-American conservatism (I prefer Russell Kirk’s but these will do):

1. a deep suspicion of the power of the state.

2. a preference for liberty over equality.

3. patriotism.

4. a belief in established institutions and hierarchies.

5. skepticism about the idea of progress.

6. elitism.

You’ll 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 won’t 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 I’m 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 weren’t 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 aren’t 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 didn’t 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 I’m running long here. So I’ll 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 we’re never going to change the fact that we’re fallen, imperfect creatures. There’s 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 don’t mind at all a president who has a personal relationship with Jesus. It’s just that I don’t 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. That’s 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. I’m not calling the opponents on the right or left Stalinists or Nazis when I say they are totalitarians. A good many hippies who’d never hurt a fly are more completely totalitarian in their thinking than most members of the Soviet politburo ever were. They merely say they’re “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 don’t 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 that’s 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 they’ve learned that’s always the way to bet. Conservatism isn’t 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 that’s a subject for another column.

* You can find this essay in several books, including Did You Ever See a Dream Walking and Frank Meyer’s What is Conservatism?


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