The word ‘conservative’ has lost all meaning these days, which is both sad and depressing. It is now used as short hand for all manner of romantic reactionaries (who want to go back to some Golden Age), bigots, racists, obscurantists, buffoons, and carnival barkers. Yet modern conservatism is a serious and intelligent approach to politics espoused by some of the finest and deepest minds in the history of political thought. I always say that when I studied political philosophy in graduate school I went into my studies as a political liberal, and while I came out more convinced of the justness and soundness of liberal constitutional democracy, the thinkers that had impressed me the most were mainly conservative political philosophers, particularly David Hume, Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre and James Madison. An encounter with these minds is a bracing experience. You do not survive it without your mental architecture being somewhat rearranged.
In what follows, I will attempt a restatement of modern (because it is also, like liberalism, a product of the Enlightenment) conservative political thought as I understand it, and try to indicate why I deeply respect this approach to social and political challenges even if I don’t always agree with it.
The Anthropology: There is a great dictum of Sir Isaiah Berlin’s that at the basis of every social and political theory there is an anthropology, that is, a view of what a human being is. When these theories are put into practice their chances of success will be largely determined by whether or not what they think a human being is turns out to be true. Now, while liberals tend, in the main, to have an optimistic view of human beings, conservative political philosophers start with a sober view. They focus on our selfishness, our greed, our appetites, our preference for those close to us, our inability to sustain feats of goodness or heroism, our propensity to violence, and so on. Their view tends to be that while human beings are certainly capable of dazzling feats of generosity and nobility, a lawmaker should not make that the operative assumption in the design of institutions and laws. They believe that assuming human frailty is much wiser. And that is a view that deserves considerable reflection.
The facts of experience and reform proposals: Conservative political philosophers are skeptical of grand theories. They are empiricists. They say: look at the facts of experience. See what has worked and try to understand why. Therefore, they are skeptical of grand schemes for the reform of societies and governance. They say there is a presumption in favor of existing institutions and forms of governance. That presumption is, of course, rebuttable but it exists nonetheless. They are open to reform, for as Edmund Burke would say a system of governance without a means of reform is also without a means of conserving itself. You reform in order to conserve. But these philosophers privilege careful, evolutionary reforms, that is reforms that take account of the tacit wisdom often embedded in established practices, usages, customs and norms. Society, they argue, is not a blank slate. You can’t simply draw whatever you want on it. And we can all see today several instances where ‘revolutions’ or foreign interventions have knocked down admittedly nasty autocracies only for all hell to break lose and thousands of lives to be lost, and millions of people forcibly displaced.
Liberal constitutional democracy: Modern conservatism is a child of the Enlightenment so constitutional democracy is a fundamental commitment (including rule by monarchs constrained by constitutions or constitutional conventions as in the United Kingdom). However, the emphasis of conservative thinkers is on constraining the role of government and leaving citizens, businesses and citizen groups largely to their own devices. They are opposed to direct democracy and, like James Madison, tend to prefer those aspects of the constitution that moderate the direct impact of public opinion on public policy. They are forever worried about tumults and enthusiasms within the populace and what fevered and destructive pathways those might lead society. And we can all see from the overflows of different kinds of social media enabled mass “enthusiasms” in different political communities today how wise this attitude is!
One Nation Conservatism: These days, a lot of odious and greed-mastered political operators call themselves conservatives. And in many constitutional democracies the creed has become synonymous with a total lack of social concern, with wanting to destroy support for the underprivileged while figuring out how to make the rich and powerful ever more so. Yet there is within modern conservatism an emphasis on community and its claims, on duty, on service to the community, on looking out for the entire community. Whether it is called One Nation Conservatism or Compassionate Conservatism, the strand is there. While conservatives will usually encourage people to fend for themselves and not look for handouts there is a strand that emphasizes fellow-feeling, charitable giving, noblesse oblige, and, above all, the need for usages, forms, institutions and laws to restrain the powerful and protect the weak.
Now, will this understanding of modern conservatism survive the current tumults and enthusiasms in different political communities? One can only hope… and pray.
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