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Monday, March 12, 2012

What is Conservatism?


Just a little while ago, I saw a link on Facebook from some under-30 Conservatives, wherein they were discussing just exactly what Conservatism is. I thought I'd throw this out there for the handful of people who want to know. It is not quite "done," being but a section of a much longer work-in-progress dealing with the differences between Libertarianism and Conservatism. If parts of it seem less than fully baked, that is the most likely reason.
It's never an entirely easy thing to say exactly what a Conservative is. It doesn't help that many of the ideas associated nowadays with Conservatism were formerly identified as "liberal." Even now, in attempting to say what Conservatism is, people often wind up using the term "Classical Liberal." The fact that I have written about Conservatism, common-sense conservatism, laundry-list conservatism, Neoconservatism, Crunchy Conservatism, and Paleoconservatism shows that the waters, shall we say, have been muddied. There are streams within Conservatism, that is, just as there are very few "pure" Libertarians, there are very few "pure" Conservatives. Picking the strands of this tapestry apart and keeping them separate is difficult, as has been noted by writers other than myself', as you can easily make the case that Conservatism is more an attitude and approach to things than it is a universally agreed upon set of ideas, such that one can definitively say, "This is Conservative, it is on the list, that is not Conservative, it is not on the list." That has not, of course, stopped people from making a list (and I recommend you read that one, it is one of the best) of Conservative ideas. In the end, though, Conservatism is less a laundry-list of political points than an approach to life and to governance that presupposes certain truths, certain ideas.

I have little doubt, based on my reading of history, that many of those Conservative ideas reach back to the dawn of history, though they may not have always been employed and understood consistently or articulated as we might today. Some read Aristotle and find a Conservative; more than a few so identify Cicero. You can tell from that that it is not necessary to be a Christian to be a Conservative, though I do think that Conservatism reaches its peak when under the aegis of Christianity.

Conservatism, you might say, is the practice, perhaps the reflexive practice, of prudence, the prudential working-out of some basic ideas about the Divine and Man.

Conservatives, for the most part, take it for granted that there is a Divine order. When I say that they take it for granted, I do not mean to imply that they think the proposition incapable of proof or that no Conservative ever tries to prove it, but more that Conservatives may generally be said to regard the existence of the Divine as a matter so obvious as to require little or no defense. As Dr. Kirk says:
...if you should be seeking for a sound book of a conservative cast that has no religion in it--why, you might as well search for the philosopher's stone; or inquire, with Tiberius, what songs the Sirens sang.
In a similar way, Conservatives further take it for granted that Man is not at the top of that Divine order, that is, there is a Power (or powers) higher than Man, to which men, even kings, are responsible. They further take it for granted that government is part of this Divine order. You can find this idea all the way back at the beginning of Herodotus, if not before. Conservatives might differ on exactly what the role of government should be or what the rewards and perks of governing should be, but they never really doubt that government is a necessary, normal, inevitable, and even Divinely ordained facet of human existence. Conservatives will point out that man is never really without government, not for long, at least not when there are more than a handful of men within walking distance of one another; you may find that this government is overthrown or that government is abolished, but a real, total lack of government, anarchy, never lasts long. Nobody likes it. Conservatives never really doubt that men need governing, not all men being particularly good or particularly intelligent and well-educated--Christian conservatives, in particular, maintaining that Man is sinful and rebellious by nature and by choice. Conservatives may also be said to presuppose that although men may not be counted on to always do what's right, they nevertheless have certain rights. Again, I am not saying that all Conservatives work these things out in rigorous logical detail, but I daresay that most Conservatives wouldn't disagree with me when I say that one cannot say that murder is wrong without presupposing that men have a right to life; that one cannot say that stealing is wrong without presupposing that they have a right to own property; that one cannot say that one really owns property unless he mostly or entirely controls its disposition; that he cannot control the disposition of his property without a certain degree of liberty, and so on. If, then, Conservatives are generally people who believe in the Divine and divinely-ordained concepts of right and wrong, they necessarily believe, necessarily presuppose, that Man has certain inherent rights. They also think that if government is part of the Divine Order, then it must have a purpose and it must, too, have bounds. This whole package of ideas may have found its most succinct and well-known expression in the Declaration of Independence:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men...
In my own case, the question that ultimately brought me from Libertarianism to Conservatism was, "Does government have the right to tax?" Some Libertarians might, possibly, concede that government has a right to tax, but in practice, Libertarians never seem to get around to finding a tax that is acceptable to them. A remarkable number of them (Neal Boortz is an exception) hate the Fair Tax; they hate the income tax; they hate tariffs; they hate property taxes. The more hard-core Libertarians, as I mentioned earlier, will actually tell you that taxation per se is theft, theft by government. It was when I was reading through Paul's words in Romans about government being God's minister of Justice on this world that I began to understand that government is not only legitimate, but God-ordained, and when I began to understand the importance of him saying that "For this reason"--that is, as payment/financing for the enforcement of justice--"you pay taxes," I likewise began to understand that taxation for legitimate, God-ordained purposes is likewise God-ordained and therefore not theft!

It was difficult, having come to the conclusions that government and taxation are both divinely ordained institutions, to remain a Libertarian. On the other hand, in my opinion, "for this reason" rather implies "not for that reason." Government is Divinely ordained, but so are limits to government's role in human life (and this is explained at great length in Lex, Rex). The Conservative abhors lawlessness, but despises tyranny, at the same time acknowledging that human nature being what it is and human limits being what they are, the perfect balance between too little and too much government will not be achieved in this world.

With all this, and more, much more, rattling around in his mind, when there is a question of life or governance to be answered, the Conservative asks questions like, "What will actually happen if we do this? Are the potential consequences worth the risk? Are we competent to the execution of this change? What do the lessons of history teach about the sort of thing we are contemplating doing? What might an enemy do in response to this action? Before we change what people in this area have been doing for decades, for centuries, even for thousands of years, are we certain we understand why they've been doing it and what the consequences of changing it might be?" Prudent questions, the sort of questions that take it for granted that one tampers with a working system, even a badly working system, with fear and trepidation and no small amount of prayer, for men, including the most noble minded and well-intentioned, are flawed and limited and cannot foresee everything. The Conservative knows that the smartest of individuals sometimes make egregious mistakes, but people in mass, over long periods of time, tend to have reasons for doing things the way they do. The famous phrase is that the individual is foolish, but the species is wise. The Conservative approaches the prospect of changing long-established practice and custom, not with hubris, but with humility and respect. This does not mean that the Conservative reflexively opposes all change; he knows that a society must be capable of prudent changes to survive and thrive. Nevertheless, change must be thoughtful and prudent, not hasty, not emotional, not sweeping aside the whole of existing society. The Conservative knows, deep in his bones, that it is all too possible for the cure to be worse than the disease and it is probably better to put up with some small, bearable grievances than to risk catastrophe for the sake of quickly implementing wholesale change, the consequences of which are very hard, if not impossible, to foresee and manage. This idea, too, is found in the Declaration:
Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.
Further, history provides us with a textbook example of just exactly what I am talking about here: the French Revolution. If you want to know more, try Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France, Further Reflections on the Revolution in France, and Letters on a Regicide Peace.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, may be about as good an introduction to Conservatism as I can make in a small space. There is much more to say, of course. You might try clicking on the links given above, if you're interested, or, if you're interested in book-length treatments, you might try Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind, or his The Politics of Prudence, or Mark Levin's Liberty and Tyranny.

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