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Moderate and paleo conservatism

At times the distinction between moderate and paleo conservatism seems too ill-defined and polemical to be useful for analysis. Still, there’s something important in it worth discussing. At bottom, it’s the distinction between conservatism as a pure principle of caution, so there’s no limit to what can be negotiated or naturalized as part of the social order a conservative is called to defend, and conservatism as a defense of truths that must be maintained in the face of whatever opposition or defeat.

In some ways moderate conservatism may seem to fit the theory of conservatism better. Conservatives tend to trust the actual functioning of society more than grand theory. As a result, they are tempted to accommodate persistent social tendencies, whatever they may be, rather than insist on particular principles not everybody agrees on. A moderate conservative may feel, in fact, that all he can demand in the end is that change be cautious, piecemeal, and consistent with practicalities.

Still, conservatism can’t just be a principle of slow acquiescence. The jibe that yesterday’s liberalism is today’s conservatism is a bit too pointed. If it is worth having, conservatism must recognize realities and limits, including difficult realities and limits on the value of moral skepticism. Not everything can be compromised. A conservative cannot accept, in the name of continuity, moderation and loyalty to the concrete society to which he belongs, social trends that make nonsense of those things. The New York Times to the contrary notwithstanding, old-line dogmatic communists are not conservative.

Nor is it conservative to accept other forms of Leftism that are radically at odds with the human connections on which the well-being of society depend. Where that point hits home today is that moderate conservatism fundamentally if critically accepts the 60s, while paleoconservatism rejects them. To the moderate conservative, America is fundamentally secular, the sexual revolution is mostly a done deal, equal participation by women in the economy and public life is a permanently worthy goal, and Martin Luther King is a great American hero and prophet.

Paleoconservatives reject all that, on the grounds that to accept such views is to accept the disruption of stable prerational connections necessary to a society worth having—in the long run, to accept the replacement of culture with technocracy and therefore rational freedom and humane values with money and an inhuman system of centralized compulsion as the basis for social order.

In the next couple of days I’ll deal more specifically with the grounds for rejecting current moderate conservative positions.