On Conserving Change and Changing Mankind
I've had quite a bit of unanticipated slack this month, so I've been blowing through a number of books, some of which deserve at least a post or two. One of these is The Conservatives: Ideas and Personalities Throughout American History, by Patrick Allitt. To his credit, Allitt treats the subject in a detached and scholarly manner (in the old-fashioned liberal sense of the term), to such an extent that it is impossible to say what his own politics might be.
Another good thing about the book is that it is free of... what's the word? You know, that historical fallacy where you project present circumstances into the past -- for example, condemning slavery from our historical vantage point, when in fact slavery was at one time universal. By simply condemning it, you're not likely to understand it. Or to say that men oppressed women, when in fact 90% of humans slaved away on farms from sunup to sundown. For most people there were only two options: toil in the fields raising crops or toil in the house raising children. Frankly, I would prefer the latter.
One critical point Allitt makes is that prior to the 1950s, there was no such thing as "conservatism" as we know it today -- that is, "conservative" as noun, with a specific ideological content. Rather, there was only conservative as adjective. As such, it was more an attitude than any definite agenda, This is no doubt why it began to be thought of as "reactionary," because in a way it was.
The founders even built this dichotomy into the Constitution, with the idea that the house would channel the often irrational passions of the citizenry, while the senate would serve to convert the passions into thought, so to speak -- very much as a mother does with a baby, i.e., serve as the container for the contained. (In fact, it wasn't even until the early 20th century that senators were democratically elected instead of being appointed by state legislatures.)
(From the Department of I Didn't Know That: "The modern word senatorial is derived from the Latin word senātus (senate), which comes from senex, "old man." And now you know why Barbara Boxer looks like a little old man.)
One of the reasons William F. Buckley is so important is that prior to his efforts, there was no coherent conservative movement in the United States. Nor did people identify themselves as "conservative." Nevertheless, it always existed, just implicitly. Allitt says that it is primarily an "attitude to social and political change" that "puts more faith in the lessons of history than in the abstractions of political philosophy." It is skeptical, anti-utopian, and very much aware of the Law of Unintended Consequences. But mainly, it has no delusions about what man is or is capable of being.
If you don't know what man is, then your political philosophy will go astray with its first step. Therefore, psychology must precede politics, and religion (i.e., metaphysics) must precede psychology. (Contemporary) liberalism begins with opposite assumptions about man, failing to appreciate the fragile nature of civilization and the darkness in the heart of man (which is why an enduring feature of liberalism is its naivete toward true evil).
As Allitt writes, conservatives generally share the view "that civilization is fragile and easily disrupted. Every generation must learn anew the importance of restraint, manners, deference, and good citizenship; the survival of the republic presupposes the virtue of its citizens."
Which goes to one of the biggest cliches spewed by our troll goddinpotty, who maintains that conservatives are "against change" and progress. This is absurd on its face, since conservatives are champions of the free market, and nothing in human history has brought about as much dynamic change and progress as the free market.
For example, just since 1990, a billion or so souls (concentrated especially in India and China) have been lifted out of poverty because of free trade. This is absolutely unprecedented in human history, and certainly could not have occurred with leftist economic policies, which would have frozen these people in their state of destitution.
In fact, another highly recommended book is Economics Does Not Lie. In it, Sorman writes that more people have perished as a result of bad economic policy than perhaps any other cause in human history. But of course, through most of history human beings had no idea what correct economic policy was. In short, they didn't have the foggiest notion of how wealth is created. Sorman says that economics has only been a truly objective science since the 1960s.
So who's against change? Indeed, the end result of "global warming" legislation would be to condemn millions of people to poverty. Even if the theory were true -- which it isn't -- far more humans would perish as a result of trying somehow to stop the climate from changing.
It's similar to how millions -- millions! -- of Africans have died of malaria as a result of the ban on DDT. But of course, environmentalists never have blood on their hands, since their intentions are good. When it comes to unintended consequences, they are inveterate scofflaws. Socialized medicine imploding in Canada? Don't worry. We'll eliminate the bugs in the system!
In America, conservative and liberal mean very different things than they do in Europe. For most of American history, they simply referred to two varieties of classical liberalism. But around the same time conservatism emerged as a distinct body of thought, liberalism morphed into the illiberal leftism we know and hate today. You could say that the new left triumphed with the nomination of McGovern, while the new conservatism did with the election of Ronald Reagan. Obama is merely the extension of McGovern, while conservatives are still waiting for their next Reagan. Certainly the liberal George W. Bush wasn't it.
Another critical point to bear in mind is that the conservatism that emerged in the 1950s consisted of a sometimes uneasy coalition of free marketeers, traditionalists, and anti-communists. You might say that the first group embodies the dynamic and radical change of the American system, while the second group embodies the continuity as well as the virtue without which the system cannot function optimally. Liberals have no regard for the second group, but instead want to replace its function with a large and powerful state as a counterweight to the first.
But again, the nicest thing you can say about them is that they ignore the Law of Unintended Consequences, because the state simply becomes a way for untalented or ruthless people to gain power and prestige, in the way that the market allows the talented and productive to gain power and prestige. By denigrating tradition, you simply end up with two sets of scoundrels.
This, by the way, is one of the reasons Buckley excluded the Randian objectivists from the movement he forged, since they were and are profoundly anti-tradition (as are capital-L Libertarians).
Originally, "traditionalist" mainly meant "Catholic." The so-called religious right did not become a political force until the 1970s, especially after the judicial abortion of Roe v Wade. Indeed, the first candidate they backed was the "born again" Jimmy Carter; most people had never even heard the term "born again Christian" before. (Theological "fundamentalism" is in many ways more modern than traditional.)
Which leads to a current struggle within the conservative movement, i.e., the place of the religious right. Many so-called conservative elites have always been uneasy with, and embarrassed by, these people, and some would frankly like to distance themselves altogether from them. To a certain extent, I can relate. As far as I am concerned, they tend to be overly emotional, and their intellectual and theological content is more or less negligible. I wouldn't want them to be the leaders of the movement, because that would throw off the whole balance of the conservative coalition. I don't think that the Pat Robertsons and Jerry Falwells are bad people. But, with all due respect, I think they need to be led, not the leaders.
I am sure that there are some sensible Democrats who have a similar problem with their left (as indeed the "blue dogs" have discovered). You cannot eliminate the kos's the huffpos, the Olbermanns. But if you allow them to lead.... well, look at what has happened in just six months! Republicans shouldn't get too cocky, because the same thing would happen in reverse should the religious right take over the party. This is a center-right country.
Of course, there are also different types of traditionalists, most notably, the "agrarian traditionalists" such as Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and Albert Nock. One could also place Schuon and the Traditionalist school of perennial religion in that category. I have a number of problems with them, but perhaps the central one is, assuming they are correct, how would you ever convert their ideology to specific policies?
For example, let's say that Schuon is correct that the pre-Renaissance medieval synthesis represents the apex of culture. How would you go about reinstituting that system, as opposed to simply using it as a bludgeon to critique contemporary culture? Let's just say that it would have to involve a fair amount of tyranny. Frankly, that would be a form of conservative fascism. I have to say, I love the blessings of modernity. Without them I'd have been dead long ago.
Well, I better stop. Long day ahead.