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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6 Responses

  1. YOU: This helps me understand a little bit. In 1620 hardly anybody lived here and
    those who did were described much better by Nathanael Hawthorne than some
    traditionalists want to believe. Between 1620 and 1730 the people who lived here
    were schismatics and persecutors as much as they were Biblical. Any country that
    enslaves thousands upon thousands of people and then justifies it through the
    scriptures cannot be regarded as facing into the light of God’s countenance.

    COMMENT: A ridiculous, myopic, severely twisted — no doubt public, government-run schools — view of Christianity in America with no documentation to support any of your assertions. Christians, incidentally, were in the forefront of the campaign to abolish the slave trade and slavery in America. And the Bible supports no race-based, chattel slavery! Read a book. Or, if you attended a government-run school, get a Christian homeschooler to read some good ones to you.

    YOU: I will not speak of the self-righteousness that defined the era and created the
    cultural guild that remains as the most explicit puritan heritage.

    COMMENT: The righteousness that defined the Puritan era was the righteousness of GOD — not of self-righteousness such as your own as you look down your nose at folks whose shoe buckles you are not qualified to polish.

    YOU: Yes, we were a more formally Christian country and I would like to see that
    restored. But please remember that that more Christian country was not the
    United States of America. It was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and
    Northern Ireland (I believe that was its title then). And we were primitive
    colonies on its margin, an after-thought for the most part.

    COMMENT: More stupidity. The colonies were not “primitive” but very advanced in terms of knowing that real freedom is under God, according to God’s Word. They set a model for the world when they were Christian. Now, we’re anti-Christian and most of the world hates us, as do I re: most of what we stand for.

    YOU: Why did you choose to end our more Christian era in 1730? Don’t you like George
    Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards. Many people consider that the high point after
    the inevitable corruption of the third generation of Puritans in the late
    1600’s.

    COMMENT: The period I mentioned was our most Christian period.

    YOU:
    After your language in your second paragraph, I’m not sure what you mean in the
    third. “Our country was founded on Biblical Christianity.” Which country do you
    mean? Britain or the USA?

    COMMENT: I’m an American writing this in America. If you mean Britain, I’d have to ask which founding you are talking about. I
    don’t see how you can say the current parliamentary system was founded on
    Biblical Christianity. I assume you mean by that Protestant Christianity and it did not exist when the present constitution of England was being forged in the 13th and 14th centuries.

    COMMENT: “Protestant” Christianity has always existed. It is merely Biblical Christianity.

    YOU: Or you could mean the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but I can’t see it there
    either. Of course, it influenced it, but is that what you mean by founded on?

    COMMENT: “Founded on” meaning as THE FOUNDATION OF.

    YOU: Or you could mean the Victorian era, when the Industrial revolution modified the
    government so dramatically that the post WWII changes became more or less
    inevitable, but I know absolutely that you aren’t talking about that.

    Do you mean that William the Bastard established Biblical Christianity at the
    Norman Invasion. No, I’m sure you don’t.

    OK, then you mean the Danelaw. No you don’t.

    The Anglo-Saxon-Jute invastions. No, I’m sure you don’t.

    The only time you could conceivably be refering to is when Constantine was
    converted and then Theodosius turned the Roman Empire, including Brittania, into
    a Christian empire. But that only lasted for 15 years before Honorius called the
    troops home, so I doubt you’re talking about that.

    Now, if you are a Catholic, I could see you referring to the arrival of St.
    Augustine in the 6th century, and your reference to western law tempts me to
    think that’s what you mean. If so, I’ll acknowledge that you have a bit of a
    case here.

    COMMENT: Not Catholic. Have someone read you Harold Berman’s 2-volume work “Law and Revolution” re: how the Bible is the foundation of Western law.

    But I’m guessing you were refering to the United States and not the UK when you
    said “we” were a more Christian country and that the dates were a conflation of
    sorts where you just included the era before we were a country for convenience
    and I don’t think I can nit-pick that point with you.

    However, those two great black line between 1730 (at which point you indicate
    that we became much less of a Christian country) and 1800 called the
    Revolutionary War and the Constitution have to be contended with.

    So to avoid making this whole long comment seem entirely sarcastic, which I
    really don’t mean it to be, but I know it can seem that way, let me ask some
    specific questions:

    1. Do you want us to return to, I won’t say the lifestyle, but the principles
    the colonies lived by in 1730 or the principles established in our constitution?

    COMMENT: We are all commanded to live by God’s Word.
    2. Do you believe those principles are identical or very nearly the same?
    3. What principles or elements of Biblical Christianity was our country founded
    on?
    4. Where do you see them in our founding documents?

    Do not misunderstand. I don’t entirely disagree with you. In fact, I would wager
    that I agree with you on the fundamental point that we would be better off if we
    were more Christian. But your posts have confused me, so rather than end the
    conversation with pleasantries I’d rather understand you. The details are not so
    easy for me to see as you might think.

    A couple more troubling questions:

    1. For whom were things much better when we were more Christian? Were there
    people for whom it was not much better?

    COMMENT: It’s always better for all when all live according to God’s Word.

    2. How was western law founded on Biblical Christianity? Here I need a
    clarification of what you mean by Biblical Christianity. Are you saying the Code
    of Justinian was founded on B.C? The Mos Maiorum? The 12 tables? The Theodosian
    code? Magna Carta? The doomsday book? The canon law of the Roman church? The
    canon laws of the ecumenical councils?

    I know that’s too many questions, but you see you appealed to me to wake up and
    this is what I’m like when I lie in bed early in the morning thinking. A million
    questions come to my mind and I roll them all around in my head until I can’t
    remember them anymore.

    That the name conservative has been used by people for their advantage I do not
    deny. I, however, am an essentialist in some sense of the word. I believe the
    word really carries meaning and that the true meaning of the contains an insight
    that we lose to our great harm. So I’m not willing to let frauds steal the word.

    Thanks for the reply. I hope I haven’t drowned the discussion in my confusion.

    • John,

      I have to ask you not to post here unless you avoid the ad hominems.

      I have a degree of respect for the Puritans, but my whole point is that you seem to be living in a fantasy about the past. Frankly, I believed a similar fantasy for a long time too, so I understand it. But I’m not a Puritan, I don’t idealize the Puritans, I have read about the Puritans, and I have valued the Puritans.

      You’ll find it very difficult to persuade me any more however that their righteousness is synonymous with the righteousness of God. I think you won’t find that compatible with your own beliefs about the scriptural teachings on our status before a righteous God.

      May I caution you? You seem almost to grant the Puritans the status of the blessed Virgin.

      I am a Christian and I love my country, so I cherish the idea of conflating my Christian beliefs with my love of country. But a close look reveals serious qualifications.

      Also, your argument has inconsistencies, perhaps only of expression, that I was hoping you would clear up.

      You are the first person ever to imply in any remote way that I am getting my ideas from the public schools. It was an unkind charge you threw at me when you said, “A ridiculous, myopic, severely twisted — no doubt public, government-run schools — view of Christianity in America with no documentation to support any of your assertions.”

      Had you said you disagreed with me and explained why, I could have responded in kind. Now all I can do is stare at you (metaphorically) and wonder what nerve I touched to bring out such a response. I can be taught. Tell me what I ought to believea and show me why.

      You and I have a great deal in common, but we won’t find that common ground if you insist on finding divisions that don’t even exist yet before we can find the common ground.

      I’ll have to ask you to back up and reread my reply a little more thoughtfully and try to avoid the ad hominems. Your ideas merit better representation.

      I welcome your discussion but reserve the right to ask you to leave if you attack people instead of arguments.

      Thank you.

  2. What Dabney said (over 150 years ago) is no caricature and is more true now than when he said it when it comes to today’s “conservatives”. Remember Bush, the “compassionate conservative” who gave us (until Obama) the most un-Godly, un-Constitutional, expensive, debt-ridden, intrusive Federal Government in history!

    And I said NOTHING about a Golden Age. When we were a more Christian country, things were much better, say 1620-1730 or so. And any country which murders 50 million innocent human beings in the womb has turned its back on God. Wake up, please!

    Our country was founded on Biblical Christianity, as is Western law.

    John Lofton, Editor, TheAmericanView.com
    Recovering Republican
    JLof@aol.com

    • Thank you. This helps me understand a little bit.

      1620-1730 is a long time and really represents a legendary era in our history. But one could easily argue that in 1620 hardly anybody lived here and those who did were described much better by Nathanael Hawthorne than some traditionalists want to believe.

      One could contend that between 1620 and 1730 the people who lived here were schismatics and persecutors as much as they were Biblical. Any country that enslaves thousands upon thousands of people and then justifies it through the scriptures cannot be regarded as facing into the light of God’s countenance.

      I will not speak of the self-righteousness that defined the era and created the cultural guilt that remains as the most explicit puritan heritage.

      Yes, we were a more formally Christian country and I would like to see that restored. But I know you remember that that more Christian country was not the United States of America. It was the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (I believe that was its title then). And we were primitive colonies on its margin, an after-thought for the most part.

      Why did you choose to end our “more Christian” era in 1730? Don’t you like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards. Many people consider that the high point after the inevitable corruption of the third generation of Puritans in the late 1600’s.

      After your language in your second paragraph, I’m not sure what you mean in the third. “Our country was founded on Biblical Christianity.”

      This might sound picky, but it’s important. Which country do you mean? Britain or the USA?

      If you mean Britain, I’d have to ask which founding you are talking about. I don’t see how you can say the current parliamentary system was founded on Biblical Christianity (BC henceforth). I assume you mean by B.C. Protestant Christianity and it did not exist when the present constitution of England was being founded in the 13th and 14th centuries.

      Or you could mean the Glorious Revolution of 1688, but I can’t see it there either. Of course, it influenced it, but is that what you mean by founded on?

      Or you could mean the Victorian era, when the Industrial revolution modified the government so dramatically that the post WWII changes became more or less inevitable, but I know absolutely that you aren’t talking about that.

      Do you mean that William the Bastard established Biblical Christianity at the Norman Invasion. Dumb question, as I’m sure you don’t.

      OK, then you mean the Danelaw that followed the Viking onslaught. No, you don’t.

      The Anglo-Saxon-Jute invasions? No, I’m sure you don’t.

      One time you could conceivably be refering to is when Constantine was converted and then Theodosius turned the Roman Empire, including Brittania, into a Christian empire. But that only lasted for 15 years before Honorius called the troops home, so I doubt you’re talking about that.

      Now, if you are a Catholic, I could see you referring to the arrival of St. Augustine in the 6th century, and your reference to western law tempts me to think that’s what you mean. If so, I’ll acknowledge that you have a bit of a case here.

      But I’m guessing you were refering to the United States and not the UK when you said “we” were a more Christian country and that the dates were a conflation of sorts where you just included the era before we were a country for convenience and I don’t think I can nit-pick that point with you.

      However, those two great blacks line between 1730 (at which point you indicate that we became much less of a Christian country) and 1800 called the Revolutionary War and the Constitution have to be contended with. After all, prior to that we weren’t a country at all, and after that you indicate that we were less Christian. I need this point clarified because it is what makes me think you might be creating a past out of your wishes.

      So to avoid making this whole long comment seem entirely sarcastic, which I really don’t mean it to be, but I know it can seem that way, let me ask some specific questions:

      1. Do you want us to return to, I won’t say the lifestyle, but the principles the colonies lived by in 1730 or by the principles established in our constitution?
      2. Do you believe those principles are identical or very nearly the same?
      3. What principles or elements of Biblical Christianity was our country founded on?
      4. Where do you see them in our founding documents?

      Do not misunderstand. I don’t entirely disagree with you. In fact, I would wager that I agree with you on the fundamental point that we would be better off if we were more Christian. But your posts have confused me, so rather than end the conversation with pleasantries I’d rather understand you. The details are not so easy for me to see as you might think.

      A couple more troubling questions:

      1. For whom were things much better when we were more Christian? Were there people for whom it was not much better? If so, where do they come into the equation?
      2. How was western law founded on Biblical Christianity? Here I need a clarification of what you mean by “Biblical Christianity” and “western law”. Are you saying the Code of Justinian was founded on B.C? The Mos Maiorum? The 12 tables? The Theodosian code? Magna Carta? The doomsday book? The canon law of the Roman church? The canon laws of the ecumenical councils? Are you contending that western law arises from the 10 commandments and the Pentateuch?

      I know that’s too many questions, but you appealed to me to wake up and this is what I’m like when I lie in bed early in the morning thinking. A million questions come to my mind and I roll them all around in my head until I can’t remember them anymore. By then it’s night, so I go back to sleep.

      One final point, and it’s beside the point above, but stilll imporant to me:

      that the name conservative has been used by people for their advantage I do not deny. I, however, am an essentialist in some sense of the word. I believe the word conservative really carries meaning and that the true meaning of the word contains an insight that we lose to our great harm. So I’m not willing to let frauds steal the word and I think it is important enough to go to the effort of figuring it out. If you abandon the truth because somebody creates a counterfeit of it, I’m not sure how you are opposed to the counterfeit.

      Thanks for the reply. I hope I haven’t drowned the discussion in my confusion.

  3. Forget, please, “conservatism.” It has been, operationally, de facto, Godless and therefore irrelevant. Secular conservatism will not defeat secular liberalism because to God both are two atheistic peas-in-a-pod and thus predestined to failure. As Stonewall Jackson’s Chief of Staff R.L. Dabney said of such a humanistic belief more than 100 years ago:

    “[Secular conservatism] 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. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth.”

    Our country is collapsing because we have turned our back on God (Psalm 9:17) and refused to kiss His Son (Psalm 2).

    John Lofton, Editor, TheAmericanView.com
    Recovering Republican
    JLof@aol.com

    PS – And “Mr. Worldly Wiseman” Rush Limbaugh never made a bigger ass of himself than at CPAC where he told that blasphemous “joke” about himself and God.

    • John,

      I’m not sure what you are responding to in your post. first, I’ve never argued for “secular conservatism.” In my view, secular conservatism is an oxymoron.

      Second, the only connection between what Dabney says in his caricature (typical of his writings, from what I’ve been able to tell) and what I was writing about is the coincidence of the word conservative.

      Furthermore, not wanting to sound too harsh, one of my greatest frustrations discussing politics with Christians is this maddening belief that there was some golden age in American politics where we were governed by godly saints. Show me the weekend when that happened. Please. When was our country gazing so directly into the face of God that now we can say we have turned our back on him?

      I love my country, but I’ve learned the truth. We’re another flawed country that started out with some really good ideas that we got from the British political tradition. They work well for British people and those willing to accept the principles. They don’t work at all for people who don’t like and accept the British heritage, which is why we don’t live by them anymore.

      And if I understand the placing of your PS, why would you throw Rush Limbaugh up in my face? I have not regarded him as a conservative for at least a decade. He’s a libertarian at best, and that’s not very good. He’s a symptom of the defecated state of conservatism in America. As long as Rush is our spokesman, we will be every bit as silly as the left contends. Too bad, because he gives what would be a fresh perspective if he wasn’t so utterly tiresome.

      anyway…

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