“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
Speaking with precision matters; words have meanings. Today, there is a great deal of discussion within the GOP about what it means to be conservative. We have seen various forms of purity tests, and we have seen national figures declaim others for just not being conservative enough. But what is conservatism? And by what rubric do we, or can we, purport to measure an individuals’ “conservatism”? When we use that word, do we mean a set of shared policy preferences in today’s political environment (outcomes), do we mean a mode or method of thinking about issues and society (inputs or a process), or do we mean some combination of the two?
The American conservative thinker Russell Kirk best defined the term “conservative” in his seminal essay “Ten Conservative Principles.” Unlike some today, Kirk recognized that conservative thought is broad enough to embrace a wide variety of opinions. In fact, he welcomed this diversity and saw it as a sign of strength and intellectual vitality. As Kirk put it “it is not possible to draw up a neat catalogue of conservatives’ convictions; nevertheless, I offer you, summarily, ten general principles; it seems safe to say that most conservatives would subscribe to most of these maxims…. the diversity of ways in which conservative views may find expression is itself proof that conservatism is no fixed ideology. What particular principles conservatives emphasize during any given time will vary with the circumstances and necessities of that era. The following ten articles of belief reflect the emphases of conservatives in America nowadays.”
Kirk’s ten principles continue to provide a useful frame of reference for defining conservatism in America today.
“First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order.” In other words, conservatives recognize the existence or behavioral norms, some of which may, or must, be codified in law. As Kirk noted, “[t]here are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth… A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.” Parchment barriers to tyranny are no substitute for a virtuous citizenry, nor are the mere mechanics of majority rule as expressed through free elections, in the final analysis, standing alone, an adequate safeguard to liberty- instead, liberty’s true foundation is the morality of the people.
“Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity.” Conservatives recognize that legitimacy is a fragile, but necessary, component of both the social, the economic, and the political orders. Custom, and convention, are often one of the primary sources of legitimacy. To quote Kirk again, “Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. Thus the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls. Human society is no machine, to be treated mechanically. The continuity, the life-blood, of a society must not be interrupted. Burke’s reminder of the necessity for prudent change is in the mind of the conservative. But necessary change, conservatives argue, ought to he gradual and discriminatory, never unfixing old interests at once.”
Here, Kirk touches on a fundamental tension always present in conservative thought- we recognize the importance of custom and tradition, and yet, we recognize that change is a universal constant in a world where all things are forever in motion. In this regard, I think what conservatives recognize is that change is not beneficial merely for its own sake. The new is not necessarily better than the old merely because it is new. Instead, we must focus upon what is being changed, and why.
“Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription.” As Burke noted, “[t]he individual is foolish, but the species is wise.”
“Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence.” As Kirk explains, “Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.”
“Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety.” Conservatives, “feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems.”
“Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability.” Here, I think Kirk goes to the very heart of the matter- conservatives see human beings as being exactly that- human. We are imperfect, we are fallible, we are all given to prejudices and passions. No matter how sweeping our own conceits, we are all limited in our thinking, to a certain degree, by the social context and the times and place in which we live. Moreover, human nature may be the one fixed point in the universe, for it is unchanging. In this regard, conservative though echoes back to that of Madison in Federalist #10- “As long as the reason of man continues fallible, and he is at liberty to exercise it, different opinions will be formed. As long as the connection subsists between his reason and his self-love, his opinions and his passions will have a reciprocal influence on each other; and the former will be objects to which the latter will attach themselves…. The latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man; and we see them everywhere brought into different degrees of activity, according to the different circumstances of civil society. A zeal for different opinions concerning religion, concerning government, and many other points, as well of speculation as of practice; an attachment to different leaders ambitiously contending for pre-eminence and power; or to persons of other descriptions whose fortunes have been interesting to the human passions, have, in turn, divided mankind into parties, inflamed them with mutual animosity, and rendered them much more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”
Our Founders, in other words, recognized that the system of government they were creating would be run by imperfect human beings and structured it accordingly.
We have also seen, in modern history, the terrible consequences of utopian projects to, politically, remake the social order, and create a “new man.” To quote Kirk, “Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created… The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.” Communism, for example, set out to level social and class distinctions in the name of equality and create a “new man” and a utopian world for him to live in- the project ended in bloodshed, boorish tyranny, and both moral and economic poverty.
“Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked.“ “Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Upon the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built. The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth. Economic leveling, conservatives maintain, is not economic progress.” However, at the same time “[t]he conservative acknowledges that the possession of property fixes certain duties upon the possessor; he accepts those moral and legal obligations cheerfully.” Again, this willingness to recognize duty and obligation, in my view, is one of the main basis that serves to distinguish properly conservative from libertarian thought.
“Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism.“ Here, although Kirk was writing with the totalitarian communist regimes in mind, I think he also touches on the principal of subsidiarity- a main stream running through much of conservative thought that is echoed in the concept of Federalism and in the Tenth Amendment. In a nutshell, the principle of subsidiarity holds that decision-making authority ought (a very conservative word, yes, implying as it does the existence of fixed reference points to guide our choices?) to be fixed at the lowest level of authority competent to address a problem. As Pope Pius XI put it, “[i]t is a fundamental principle of social philosophy, fixed and unchangeable, that one should not withdraw from individuals and commit to the community what they can accomplish by their own enterprise and industry.” Properly applied, the principle of subsidiarity fosters localism and empowers individuals, families, and private businesses and associations.
At the same time though, many of my conservative friends today miss, or neglect, a second aspect of subsidiarity more further developed in Catholic social doctrine, namely, the existence of a positive duty on the part of government to create, foster, or defend (as the case, and the times, may be) a social order/environment which is conducive to the full development of the individual- in which human beings have the possibility of reaching their full potential. In our times, this positive aspect of subsidiarity might manifest itself in a commitment to fostering conditions creating a real equality of opportunity for all Americans- through reform of our education system, or policies fostering the integrity of the family. It would also include the recognition that the full development of the individual requires an economic system in which work, housing, and adequate healthcare, are available. We are all familiar with this concept, but under a different name- what we are talking about here is the common good. This should not be surprising, for by now I hope the reader can see that in conservative thought, rights and duties, freedom and obligation, are always paired together.
Again, to quote Kirk: “[A] nation is no stronger than the numerous little communities of which it is composed. A central administration, or a corps of select managers and civil servants, however well intentioned and well trained, cannot confer justice and prosperity and tranquility upon a mass of men and women deprived of their old responsibilities. That experiment has been made before; and it has been disastrous. It is the performance of our duties in community that teaches us prudence and efficiency and charity.”
“Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions.” Again, this principle finds an echo in Federalist #10… as Kirk puts it “When every person claims to be a power unto himself, then society falls into anarchy. Anarchy never lasts long, being intolerable for everyone, and contrary to the ineluctable fact that some persons are more strong and more clever than their neighbors. To anarchy there succeeds tyranny or oligarchy, in which power is monopolized by a very few.”
More important, for our own times, is Kirk’s next observation: “It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good—so long as the power falls into his hands.” One sees, I think, a manifestation of this in the Obama administration today. Now, by saying this, I do not mean to say that the President is a communist. The fevered imaginings of the fringe are exactly that- fevered imaginings. I do mean to say, however, that he is a product of currents in American liberalism that are profoundly radical particularly as they relate to the state as a vehicle for creating social justice. He is surrounded by many similar thinking individuals.
“Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society.” “The intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise. The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.”
Reasonable men and woman will often differ on how to translate these principles into public policy, or how to prioritize among them to shape an agenda for action. Good. Only the weak fear discussion and debate. Only the weak crave a false unity in which dissent is trampled down. Those are the hallmarks of totalitarian regimes precisely for this reason- because totalitarianism is always weak, and always afraid.
Traditional conservatism is not solely focused on the rights and freedoms of the individual- on the contrary, it reflects and recognizes a duality- right is always paired to duty; individual liberty, to communal obligation. Traditional conservatism has always recognized, and indeed emphasized, our duties to society, and our shared obligation to advance the common good.
None of us is the vessel of any special dispensation; we are all alike blinded, in one way or another, by our own conceits and self-love. I hope this discussion of conservatism will help foster an openness of spirit among us and lead to a real debate about how best to translate these principles into effective public policy here in Delaware today.
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