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Procedural and substantive conservatism

Like other political views, conservatism can be substantive or procedural:

  • A substantive conservative is conservative because he believes there are truths we need that can’t be demonstrated to be true or even articulated fully. He is attached to his own tradition primarily because he sees those truths embodied in it. Substantive conservatives are usually religious conservatives, since truths that are necessary but can’t be fully stated or grasped are a specialty of religion.
  • A procedural conservative is conservative simply because he likes change to be slow and deliberate. If change is slow it is likely to be more intelligent and less disruptive, and relative stability makes it easier for people to organize their lives productively. On ultimate standards, however, a procedural conservative is a relativist. Procedural conservatism fits modern ways of thinking better—in fact, it is entirely consistent with liberalism—so respectable well-connected institutional conservatism tends in that direction. Neocons are normally procedural conservatives, for example.

As long as America could be understood as a fundamentally religious and traditionally moral society the distinction could be overlooked. The Clinton years made it difficult to understand America that way, and so put the two forms of conservatism decisively at odds with each other. As a result, SCs see PCs as turncoats, while PCs see SCs as provincial, out-of-date, unrealistic or fanatical. It is hard to see what could close the gap. The conservative movement of recent decades, based on opposition to the ’60s as disruptive and nihilistic, therefore appears over. Those who dislike nihilism are going one way, those who mostly just dislike disruption another.

I might add—a few years ago I wrote a short essay to the effect that tolerance was once a procedural virtue having to do with how you treat people while pursuing your substantive goals, but had since become a substantive virtue that prescribes what goals you may have. So one could summarize what has happened since the ’60s by saying liberalism, which was once procedural, has become substantive, while conservatism, which was once substantive, has become procedural.