What Do Conservatives Wish to Conserve?
Michael S. Swisher
The subject of discussion today is conservatism — what is a conservative, and what does a conservative wish to conserve?
Our estimable publisher and editor, Barry MacDonald, has attempted to answer this in concrete terms by proposing a number of concepts and policies that self-identified conservatives support. This is a good step toward an operating definition.
In their comic opera Iolanthe, Gilbert and Sullivan place the following words in the song of Private Willis, a Grenadier Guard on sentry duty outside the Palace of Westminster, where Parliament is meeting:
“When in that House M.P.’s divide,
If they’ve a brain and cerebellum, too,
They’ve got to leave that brain outside,
And vote just as their leaders tell ’em to.
But then the prospect of a lot
Of dull M.P.’s in close proximity,
All thinking for themselves, is what
No man can face with equanimity.
Then let’s rejoice with loud Fal la, – Fal, lal, la!
That Nature wisely does contrive – Fal lal, la!
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative!
Fal, lal, la!”
The notion asserted there, to wit, that we are born liberals or conservatives, may actually have some scientific merit; the effect of birth order, or even the presence of some genetic markers, are held by some to be predictive of political and social viewpoints. But what are those viewpoints?
One can have an epiphany anywhere, and some years ago I had one while shopping at a local supermarket. As I was looking at a shelf of pickles, savories, and condiments, one stuck out — it was a jar of French cornichons (what we would, I suppose, call gherkins) — all labeled in French, and prominent on the label was the indication “PAS DE CONSERVATIVES.” Did it really say, “no conservatives”? I puzzled over this for a moment before I remembered that the word conservative in French does not refer to a person who holding a particular point of view but, rather, means what in English we would call a preservative. .
There is a kind of conservatism that is properly described as preservative. When we speak, in a non-political sense, of a “conservative” investor, we mean one who is concerned primarily with preservation of capital and avoidance of loss — such a person would prefer a cautious investment, such as well-rated general obligation bonds, rather than taking a flyer in the latest tech stock, even though that meant settling for a low and steady return as opposed to vast potential gains. A “conservative” business owner avoids debt and plays his cards close to his vest, while a “conservative” banker prefers to make loans to customers with excellent credit ratings, solid revenue streams, and ample collateral.
In terms of public policy, the standard type of conservative was for years characterized as one who wished to “maintain the status quo,” in contradistinction to the liberal, who favored “change.” Ambrose Bierce, in his usual corrosive manner, proposes the following definition:
“CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.”
Rudyard Kipling expresses this sentiment concisely in “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”:
“When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease. But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: ‘Stick to the Devil you know’.”
And William F. Buckley, Jr., famously wrote:
“A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
The British political philosopher Michael Oakeshott remarks as follows, contradicting Buckley:
“Americans, even ultra-conservative ones, have not given up on the idea of progress; English conservatives wish (or used to wish) to retard, even stop, progress. Evelyn Waugh once remarked that he would never again vote for the Tories: They had been in power for more than eight years and hadn’t turned back the clock one minute.”
The conventional wisdom that conservatives wish to maintain the status quo, if it ever was true, doesn’t typify my views, or those of most self-identified conservatives with whom I am acquainted. At best, it might characterize a few so-called conservatives, for example, George Will, who has expressed his hope that Joe Biden wins the upcoming presidential election, which Will hopes will herald a return to “normal politics.” That, I fear, will prove a vain hope.
The status quo is not now — and was not even in 1951, when Buckley published God and Man at Yale — something about which conservatives find much to sympathize. Indeed, the situation has become worse in many ways. While the decades since have seen one great victory — the collapse of the Soviet Union — most of conservatives’ other victories have been transitory. The other side has gained steadily. Indeed, “liberal” is now an old-fashioned word, and our adversaries have increasingly dropped it in favor of “progressive” or even “socialist.”
The academy, with a few scattered exceptions, is overwhelmingly on the left, to an extent that Buckley could not have dreamt in 1951. It could be said with more justice that young people today receive a college indoctrination than a college education. The news media are similarly disposed. ABC, NBC, CBS, their cable affiliates, and CNN, along with newspapers all over the country, from the New York Times and Washington Post down to your local fish wrapper, all peddle the leftist line. The conservative holdouts are Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, and even these may be lost to us when Rupert Murdoch shuffles off this mortal coil. Popular entertainment and sports now toe the leftist line uniformly. Considering today’s culture, we might well sympathize with William Ralph Inge, dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral during the 1920s:
“Ancient civilizations were destroyed by imported barbarians; we breed our own.”
Most alarming has been the recent rise of “woke capital.” Big business at one time had a respectable contingent of conservatives. Those whose memories go back far enough may remember Lemuel Boulware, the General Electric executive who became the mentor and backer of Ronald Reagan, and made him the company’s spokesman. There is no one like Lemuel Boulware today. Small-business owners are generally conservative because they have to deal every day with the tax and regulatory burdens of government, but larger businesses can hire lawyers and lobbyists to deal with these problems. Many see acquiescing to the demands of the social-justice-warrior left as either the price of being left alone, or find rewards in rent-seeking opportunities made available to them as a benefit of “crony capitalism.”
It is not surprising that these developments have led to dissatisfaction and disagreement among conservatives. These have manifested themselves most recently in the 2016 Republican primary and the subsequent general election victory of Donald Trump, to the horripilation (among others) of the editors of Buckley’s old magazine, National Review. I do not mean to involve that in this discussion, other than to point out that the turmoil that surfaced then, and continues to preoccupy the commentariat, had by then been going on for two or three decades. The late Sam Francis, who died in 1995, pointedly remarked:
“For most of its history, the American conservative movement has been an oxymoron: it doesn’t move anywhere and has never conserved anything.”
It is interesting to note how long a similar sentiment has been felt. The theologian and scholar Robert Lewis Dabney wrote this in 1897:
“This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. . . . Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle.”
Is today’s conservatism one of “expediency only, and not of sturdy principle”? And does basing it on “sturdy principle” mean that it must necessarily be ideological?
I have heard some conservatives (or self-styled conservatives) answer that question in the affirmative. Jonah Goldberg, formerly of National Review, is one who has, something that is somewhat amusing in view of his NeverTrumpism, which is so rabid that it makes him willing to see all that conservatives have achieved in government over the last four years replaced by a Biden victory, which will quickly undo as much of it as it can.
Russell Kirk, on the other hand, argued strenuously that conservatism was not an ideology, but rather a philosophy of prudential governance. The word “ideology,” it should be pointed out, is an artifact of the French revolution, coined by one of its exponents, Antoine Destutt de Tracy. The enormities of the French revolution, like those of the Russian revolution and other subsequent revolutions, represent the products of ideology, in which abstract ideas prevail over organic social and economic arrangements, most often at the expense of considerable bloodshed.
Kirk’s view (and that of Edmund Burke, his exemplar) was that experience is a better guide than reason — that man as an individual may be foolish, but that as a species is wise, and that tradition represented the collected wisdom of generations, garnered through harsh experience. Chesterton, in like fashion, described tradition as “the democracy of the dead.” Conservatism, Kirk held, was tradition plus prescription (as embodied in Christianity) and prudential judgment.
The conflicts between conservatives often boil down to whether the disputant views conservatism as an ideology, or rejects that view. Thus, we have a significant contingent among conservatives that views this as a “propositional nation,” characterized by a set of ideas rather than by “blood and soil.” The latter phrase is chosen by the propositional ideologues for its sinister sound, and of course it evokes the Nazi ideology of “Blut und Boden.” Yet there is, somewhere between the two, an unacknowledged element, which is common culture. I, and I think many people who call themselves conservative, seek to conserve our historic common culture.
That common culture is, first of all, Western Civilization. Those who can remember the political activism of college students a generation or two ago may recall the demonstrations at Stanford (among others) in which they chanted “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western Civ has got to go!” This was understood at the time to refer to the one-year survey course, once required of first year students, in the History of Western Civilization. As we’ve seen more recently, it seems like today’s social justice warriors want to dispense with Western Civilization itself.
The destruction of statues is emblematic of this ambition — the mobs moved on quickly from Confederate monuments to those of the Founding Fathers, several of Abraham Lincoln (including one paid for with funds collected by emancipated slaves), Theodore Roosevelt, then an immigrant abolitionist Union soldier in Wisconsin, now Frederick Douglass, Fray Junipero Serra, Miguel de Cervantes, Saint Louis, and even (in Portland, Oregon) an elk. It is hard to know what the mob found offensive about some of these, other than perhaps they were representational art created in accordance with classical principles of design. All have fallen to an ideological furore that rejects and demonizes our past and characterizes anyone who admires, defends, or feels even a little bit of nostalgia for it as racist, sexist, homo- or trans-phobic apologists for the purported genocide of indigenous peoples, etc., etc.
Apart from Western Civilization in general, a part of our common culture here in the United States is that we share it with the rest of the English-speaking world. In particular, I would cite our heritage of Magna Carta and the English common law.
It is commonplace in discussing the American Founding to point to political philosophers such as Hobbes, Locke, and Montesquieu as its intellectual sources. People who study political philosophy tend to think that political currents are impelled by political philosophers. However, as we look at them in more detail, we find that the movers and shakers at any given moment do not reflect what contemporary political philosophers wrote — rather, the political philosophers reflect what the political actors of their time were already doing. Hobbes searched about in the days of the English civil war for some principle on which government could be organized; he found what he thought were suitable strong leaders, first in Charles I, and then in Cromwell. Locke wrote after the English civil war at a time when the claimed absolute authority of kings was yielding to a division of power in which the will of Parliament prevailed. Montesquieu idealized the separation of executive, legislative, and judicial powers, but he was in fact looking across the English Channel at the practical compromise the British had developed following the “Glorious Revolution.” This he contrasted with the residual feudalism and theoretically absolute, but practically decrepit, Bourbon monarchy under which he lived in France.
A much more substantial influence was exerted on the patriots of the American Revolution and the Framers of the Constitution by English common law than by any contemporary political philosopher. Of our earliest presidents, John Adams was a lawyer; Thomas Jefferson was a lawyer; and James Madison was a lawyer. And where had they learnt their law? Not from the relatively recent works of Blackstone, which Jefferson disparaged, but from the Institutes of Sir Edward Coke, Lord Chief Justice of England at the time of Charles I. Coke it was who wrote the Petition of Right, protesting the levying of ship-money by Charles I without an act of Parliament. The Petition stated:
“Your subjects have inherited this freedom, that they should not be compelled to contribute to any tax, tallage, aid, or other like charge not set by common consent, in parliament.”
The Long Parliament of 1640 effectively ended extra-parliamentary taxation. After the “Glorious Revolution” of 1689, it was formally prohibited by the English Bill of Rights.
All of this history was much more familiar to the Founders in 1776 than it is to Americans today — and of course, it was their history. They were closer to it in time than we are to them, and they believed that taxation without representation was a violation of their rights as Englishmen. Coke, not Hobbes, Locke, or Montesquieu, provided the rallying cry of the Founders. The Declaration of Independence is in a sense Jefferson’s homage to Coke. In similar fashion, the provisions contained in our Bill of Rights forbidding bills of attainder and ex post facto laws reflect the Framers’ determination that such legislative actions, which had often been abused by English Parliaments, should not be within the power of Congress.
Returning to the subject of common culture, any propositionalist who doubts its importance need only compare the similarities and differences between the United States and any of the countries south of the Rio Grande. Both this country and every country from Mexico to Tierra del Fuego were settled by European colonists. They faced very similar challenges dealing with hostile terrain and a hostile indigenous population. They all at some point threw off colonial rule and declared their independence, using very similar arguments to justify so doing.
Why, then, is the United States so different from Mexico, or Colombia, or Argentina? The differences in common culture explain it. We benefited in particular by our common law tradition, and by traditions of representative government that dated back to the Anglo-Saxon witan. It is easy to forget, reading Jefferson’s aspersions against George III in the Declaration of Independence, that by the late 18th century, Britain was already a functional constitutional monarchy with an active system of Parliamentary government and an independent judiciary. Under the common law, trials were adversarial, the accused enjoyed a presumption of innocence, and were entitled to be represented by counsel — as were, for example, the British soldiers tried for the Boston Massacre, who were defended by John Adams.
By contrast, the former Spanish colonies to our south had a system of Roman law, under which trials were inquisitorial, and there was no presumption of innocence, nor any right to confront one’s accuser. There was no tradition of elective local government to compare with what colonists enjoyed in British North America, but rather a centralized bureaucracy run on a top-down basis on the principles of Bourbon Spain.
Many ideologies, and all utopian ones, rely on a secularization of what was originally a religious belief — namely, that history follows a timeline. In the Christian tradition, the timeline begins with God’s creation of the heavens and the earth, and ends with the events described in the Book of Revelation, the result of which will be, to quote a learned father of the church, that:
“Jesus Christ shall have rendered up to God the Father his kingdom in a peaceable condition, out of all danger and contamination of sin . . . [and] the so much desired peace shall be attained unto and enjoyed, and that all things shall be brought to their end and period.”
This is called the Eschaton, the conclusion of the timeline. All self-styled progressives propose, in some way or other, that such an end can be attained without the spiritual or religious component of the original — that we can somehow redeem ourselves without the need for a Redeemer, and institute a paradise on earth. The political philosopher Eric Voegelin described such utopian systems as seeking to “immanentize the eschaton,” a phrase made famous by William F. Buckley.
Apposite here is the warning of Dean Inge, 100 years ago:
“The votaries of progress mistake the flowing tide for the river of eternity, and when the tide turns they are likely to be left stranded like the corks and scraps of seaweed which mark the high-water line. This has already happened, though few realize it. The praises of Liberty are mainly left to Conservatives, who couple it with Property as something to be defended, and to conscientious objectors, who dissociate it from their country, which is not to be defended.”
What conclusions may conservatives draw from all of this? I suggest these principles:
- We live in a fallen world, and are compelled to make the best of it we can, while recognizing that it will not, in this life, ever be perfect.
- Experience is usually a better guide than reason. Tradition is the democracy of the dead.
- Men may be created equal in rights, as asserted by the Declaration of Independence, but they are not equal physically, intellectually, or even morally, and any attempt to make them so by the power of the state is inevitably tyrannous.
- Liberty is therefore in conflict with, and preferable to, enforced equality.
- The institution of private property is essential to liberty.
- As Tocqueville observed, liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith.
- Cultures are not equal; by their fruits ye shall know them.
- A propositional state cannot create a culture — but neither can genetics or geographic location alone. Culture is an organic development.
- Prudential government is by nature conservative, gentle, and sparing; the lesson of history is that it does as little harm as possible. Ideologies are by nature rigid, and spare no one who gets in their way — one can’t make omelets without breaking eggs. However described, ideologies are opposed to conservatism.
- There is very little left in today’s status quo of which we can feel very fond. We will get nowhere by being preservative — that is a losing battle, and indeed is mostly lost already. Let us strive to be restorative conservatives! *