On the Meaning of Conservatism

Having written my little “mini-lecture” on the heart of conservatism, I stumbled across this article from a British journal – The New Statesman – called The Meaning of Conservatism.  The author is not, I believe, a conservative himself, but he gives a great summary of conservatism in Britain and a bit of an explanation on where it went wrong here in the States. If you care about political approaches and economic theory, I recommend it with favor.

I describe myself as a “Burke to Kirk conservative,” a very different animal from the conservative who worships the free market as the fundamental principle of human life and who has powerfully impacted conservative thought here in the States.

This reference to Michael Oakeshotte and Edmund Burke gets at a core principle of true conservative thought – the only thought, in my opinion, that has answers for the dilemmas we confront today.

Conservatism for Oakeshott, by contrast (and this places him squarely in the tradition explored by Quinton), was not a creed, but a “disposition”. Such beliefs as the Oakeshottian conservative holds are acquired piecemeal, over the long haul; they are inductions from experience, not deductions from logical or metaphysical premises. The conservative is certainly disposed towards limited government, say, but not on the basis of general, abstract ideas about choice or autonomy, or some “natural right” theory of private property.

The same held true for Burke, whose conservatism was based on a distrust of all ideologies. The reason he denounced the French Revolution was that he saw in it an attempt to remake a society in the image of abstract ideals. But politics, in his view, was not a rational science; it couldn’t be, because it was limited by what human beings, imperfect creatures that they are, are capable of knowing.

Later, having described the inanity that American conservatism had become, the author adds:

To be a “conservative” was simply to hold a particular bundle of beliefs – about socialised medicine, taxation, the minimal state and so on.By the mid-1980s, this was true of British conservatism, too. And in remaking itself in the image of the American Republican right, the Conservative Party forgot not only Burke’s warnings about the dangers of a priori theorising in politics (like other experimental sciences, he wrote, the “science of building a commonwealth” cannot be taught as if it were logic), but also Disraeli’s concern with the ravaging effects of an unchecked free market (emphasis added).

Conservatism, in other words, knows full well that any political decision is a hypothesis. Here is our dilemma. This might work to alleviate the problem. Let’s try it here and see what happens. Over the centuries, societies work out remarkable adaptations to a wide variety of problems.

Liberalism, on the other hand, and the modern thing we call conservatism, is much more aggressive. Here is the problem. We have the solution and we have worked it out rationally, so it is right. We must see that this correct solution is imposed everywhere and at all times.

Again, I recognize that I have created a caricature, which I do as a favor for the liberal reader so that he can ignore my writing. But I also do it for my thoughtful reader (left or right) so he can reflect on the validity of the claim I am making.

The liberal continually calls for change. Barack Obama campaigned on “change we can believe in” because Clinton had already given us “change” and nobody believed in it anymore. Before Clinton, every liberal politician has proclaimed a message of change.

Which is about as empty a challenge as you can make. It’s like this weeny little advertising campaign that everybody seems to use: “You can change the world.”

I humbly ask: “Who are you to change the world?”

Do you see my point? To call for change is to presume that you know what is wrong and that you have the answer. And to call for change in the abstract is to call on a people to trust you without defining what you will do even in the slightest degree.

We all want change. Do the conservatives run for office on the idea that we should keep everything exactly as it is now?

What I want in a political speech is words that carry meaning. I will never, ever vote for a person who asks for my delegation to do something he won’t explain to me. And if he turns to “change” for his motto, I will know with absolute certainty that he is a demagogue.

So tell me what you want to do about a given issue. Tell me what you have already done about that issue where you have borne responsibility. Tell me what others have done or tried to do and tell me why what you are going to try to do is the best option. And tell me, this is crucial, under what circumstances it is the best option.

For example, what about affirmative action? Is conservatism opposed to affirmative action?

It depends. First, it depends on what you mean by it. Second, it depends on where you want it imposed and how.

Consider this context: if you are an African-American in a southern state in 1960, your local government has done virtually nothing to help you and an awful lot to hold you down and to exclude you (This is another caricature, but it is much more than mere perception).

When you begin to march for civil rights, you find that local and state governments oppose you. You find that the ones who help you are the federal branches of government. When you hear “states rights” you hear the right to oppress your people.

When you hear of opportunity, you hear about networks that help keep you in poverty, no matter how hard you work and that keep the old boys connected and well-off no matter how self-indulgent they become.

In that situation, the conservative is confronted with the ultimate dilemma. It was one he couldn’t resolve, frankly, because the culture he wanted to conserve had a cancer too deep for cure.

So in that situation, is the conservative opposed to affirmative action? It depends on what you mean.

And that is probably the universal conservative response when a person asks him whether he is in favor of or opposed to some policy.

It depends.

On what you mean.

On circumstances.

Unless you have a global solution. In that case, you can pretty well rest assured that the conservative will be opposed because there is no such thing as a global solution. To impose it would necessitate too much centralized power, irresponsible agencies, and a continual stream of unintended but altogether predictable consequences.

The right to make decisions needs to stay in the hands of the people who live with those decisions. That may be the core political principle of the conservatism I believe in.

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Not for the Faint-of-Heart

I love long sentences. I also love short sentences. In fact, give me a well-wrought sentence, and I’ll be happy for the whole time I read it.

In Joseph Williams’ book Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace, 8th edition, he includes a chapter on “shape.” Prior to the chapter he includes these quotations:

“The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.” John Stuart Mill

“Sentences in their variety run from simplicity to complexity, a progression not necessarily reflected in length: a long sentence may be extremely simple in construction–indeed must be simple if it is to convey its sense easily.” Sir Herbert Read

Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if we don’t want our writers to write as though their readers never move from the free throw line.

In this chapter on shape, Williams offers some counsel on how to make long sentences effective. However, in spite of his introductory paragraph, I came out of this chapter not having been touched by the heat of a passion for writing. In other words, I didn’t get the impression Williams loved this topic. It’s a tepid chapter.

However, it begins well:

If you can write clear and concise sentences, you have achieved a lot, and much more if you can assemble them into coherent passages. but if you can’t write a clear sentence longer than twenty words or so, you’re like a composer who can write only jingles. Despite those who tell us not to write long sentences, you cannot communicate every complex idea in short ones, so you have to know how to write a sentence that is both long and clear.

He goes on to provide counsel on long sentences in four areas:

  1. Revising long sentences
  2. Reshaping sprawl
  3. Troubleshooting long sentences
  4. Innate sense

To revise, he offers three rules of thumb (with plenty of examples):

  1. Get to the subject of the main clause quickly
  2. Get to the verb and object quickly
  3. Avoid interrupting the verb-object connection

To reshape he suggests that the writer cut out anything that can be eliminated or shortened, change, whenever possible, clauses to modifying phrases, and coordinate words, phrases, and clauses. Coordination, he points out, is “the foundation of a gracefully shaped sentence.”

Thus, to troubleshoot long-sentences, he offers the following guidance: Look for and correct

  • Faulty coordination
  • Unclear connections
  • Misplaced modifiers

Finally, he points out that “not even the best syntax can salvage incoherent ideas,” so you have to be sure that what you are saying makes sense, regardless of the elegance of your expression.

I know I have presented this to you abstractly with no examples to speak of, but if you are an experiened writer or teacher I hope it has given you some suggestions you can implement or reflect on. If you are new to some of these terms, then I hope I have done you the service of raising some questions, the answers to which will enable you to gain more control over the craft of writing.

That control is the source of genuine writing confidence. Nothing else will suffice.

To get a copy of this book, which I recommend for its very practical guidance and plethora of samples, follow this link.