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Is conservatism just foot-dragging?

A wholesale objection to conservatism is that things have always changed, conservatives have always objected to changes, and the way things are now is obviously better—as even conservatives agree.

An obvious rejoinder is that there’s always a lot more stability than change, and a lot of radical initiatives have ended in catastrophe. There’s no conservatism that consists in opposing all change. Everyone has something he wants to change, and everyone’s willing to let some things happen. There’s a generic conservatism, attachment to inherited goods and connections, that’s simply a requirement of sanity. There’s also conservatism as a self-conscious tendency, rejection of the Enlightenment project of remaking the world in accordance with human wishes, technology, and the logic of simple concepts. After the disasters of 20th century radicalism it should be obvious that some degree of philosophical conservatism is necessary for political sanity as well.

People thought socialism was the wave of the future and the plain requirement of any moderately free and intelligent understanding of morality. Conservatives weren’t convinced, and everyone now agrees socialism doesn’t work. Sympathy with it betrayed non-conservatives into cooperation or sympathy with some of the greatest and most obvious political crimes of all time. (The sympathy still exists, although it’s not thought to detract from the moral virtue of liberalism.) Isn’t that outcome on one major issue of the 20th century a strong point for conservatism?

Here though are some reforms naming which is supposed to refute conservatism:

  • The welfare state. People still think it’s a plain requirement of any reasonable understanding of morality. There are very basic problems with it though. What the welfare state attempts to do is interrelate and reconcile human needs, desires and capacities through rational public institutions. As a moral ideal it insists that bureaucratic relations be substituted for the complex combinations of personal responsibilities, obligations to others, and ideals of family and communal life by which people have always lived. As such it’s at odds with any normal understanding of morality. The welfare state deprives personal integrity of any legitimate function—we should rely on the system as a whole rather than each other individually—and so turns integrity into a rather annoying quirk that ought to be trained out of people. It radically undermines connections between the sexes and the generations by saying they shouldn’t depend on each other. As a result, people aren’t having children, the ones they do have are badly brought up, and men and women don’t know what to do with each other. Does anybody really think the system will continue to work—that today’s Europeans will be comfortably supported in their old age by the Muslims they’ve imported to work for them and who find their way of life appalling?
  • Feminism. Relations between the sexes are normally a balance among a variety of things, so the basic question is who the tyrants and ideologues are and who’s willing to let things find their balance. It’s often claimed that the question is whether things should have stayed exactly as they were in 1950, 1850 or 1350, or whether some flexibility should be allowed. Affirmative action and PC are not required for flexibility, though. The real question is whether common habits and attitudes should be allowed to evolve consistent with natural needs and tendencies—in which case most of the past would be carried forward in some wau or other—or whether the extirpation of sex as a principle of social organization has to be forced on everyone everywhere by all necessary means. A related question is what life was like then and what it’s like now. Was the whole of the past a pit of misogynistic horrors from which equal opportunity commissions had to rescue us? On that question it’s a mistake to rely on the feminist hate literature and commie agit-prop accepted as mainstream today. Read non-ideological accounts of actual life written for other purposes, and ask yourself whether relations between men and women are really happier and more functional now than they were 50 years ago. And a final question is whether it makes sense to identify wealth and public position as the sole standards of human worth and dignity, as much of feminism seems to presume. I think the answers to all those questions come out negative for feminism—for more, see my anti-feminist page.
  • The civil rights revolution. Here, many of the same points apply as for feminism. The basic issue is not frozen conservative injustice vs. liberal progress, but the conservative assumption that change is usually an adjustment within a complex reality vs. liberal ideological tyranny. If things are bad in some way, as they always are, which approach fits human nature better and works better? Black people are human beings, and human beings—barring extreme conditions very difficult to maintain in modern America—largely make their own world. Before the revolution of the 60s their economic position had therefore been improving for many years. Their social position and the culture of their community necessarily depended on a huge variety of things that couldn’t be forced, but they were improving as well. After the 60s, the rate of black economic advance slowed down, and black society largely disintegrated—crime, drugs, family breakdown, you name it. Isn’t it obvious that there’s something very wrong with the standard mythology of monolithic racism and oppression before the civil rights movement followed by radical beneficial transformation through judicial and legislative activism? Might not a more hands-off approach, involving removal of formal legal barriers and positive abuses but no attempt to force equality, have worked better? (For more, see the discussion and resources I provide in my Anti-Inclusiveness FAQ.)

Another reform that is often thought a crushing objection to conservatism is the abolition of slavery. However, slavery in the American South had very little to do with conservatism. Conservatism cares mostly about fundamental institutions that define the social order and people’s sense of who they are. Slavery doesn’t really fit—it was a “peculiar institution” found in one part of Western society that people at the time considered odd and in need of some special explanation. If a man owned slaves it wasn’t being a slaveholder that made him special, it was wealth. The institution wasn’t a complex of habits, attitudes and understandings that was given legal recognition because it already existed socially, it was something that required special legislation to exist at all. And in any event the disputes among abolitionists and their opponents didn’t relate to an identifiable political conservatism, which didn’t exist in America at the time.



I suspect you are familiar with David Stove’s essay “The Columbus argument”. If not you should read it, you would like it.

“However, slavery in the American South had very little to do with conservatism. Conservatism cares mostly about fundamental institutions that define the social order and people’s sense of who they are.”

I have to disagree on this point. Conservatism also relies on a sense of the universe as cosmos—an ordered hierarchical world. Southern slaveholders simply recapitulated the hierarchies that conservative Greeks put forward as “natural order”: master and slave, Greek(European) and Barbarian(African). I’d agree that it is an incorrect form of conservatism, but I don’t think it misses the mark to call it conservative.

We can’t know with any certainty the reasons 1861 American Southerners had for their devotion to State’s Rights. As a deep Southerner that has lived in close proximity to blacks, unlike most Northerners, I know that black culture is defective, not that current white culture is indefective. Perhaps, some can appreciate the South’s fear of blacks. I need not go into the detail we hear daily on TV, but an anecdote might help:

During SEGREGATION, I was a Southern babe blissfully ignorant of black people as anything but violent humans or as affectionate female maids that stole without a doubt. The realization came when I was about 10. I saw “segregated” blacks pull a white from a St. Bernard Mardi Gras float on the border of New Orleans Parish and my wonderful St. Bernard Parish, the penultimate of Mardi Gras fun, and beat him nearly to death. It is something I have avoided talking about.

I’ll look up The Columbus Argument next time I’m in a library. Thanks for the recommendation.

It’s hard for me to see the Southern (ultimately secessionist) position as an expression of universe-as-ordered-cosmos. Did that view pop up in the constitution of the CSA, in the emphasis on property and independence, or for that matter in the complete lack of reciprocity in the master-slave relationship? My impression, at any rate, is that if some people appealed to such ideas it was ad hoc.

I think that it takes a careful look at the history of slavery to be able to apply conservative/anti-conservative labels to it.

My own understanding of slavery’s history—which is lacking, I’ll admit—tells me that in many times and places, support of the American institution of slavery was probably conservative.

That does not raise too many problems for my own conservative views. I do not believe that society started off in a perfect state. I accept and welcome a slow evolution of society in response to changing circumstances. What I reject is rapid, revolutionary change in response to new ideology.

The gradual transformation of society from one that tolerated slavery to one that could no longer tolerate it was the real impetus behind slavery’s end. The big events that punctuated that transformation are mainly distractions from this. They were predicated on a larger social change.

The real task of a conservative, I think, is to understand the difference between evolution and revolution. The former cannot be stopped, but it needs to be carefully guided to see that it does not lead to that latter.

I’d agree the question is complex and slavery was probably less of an anomaly—and therefore had more going for it from the standpoint of general conservatism—in 1761 than in 1861. My impression is that there was more acceptance of social hierarchy at the earlier time and less emphasis on personal independence and political equality. Also that the law of slavery was somewhat less radical in depriving slaves of human status. I can’t say more though without more investigation of historical specifics than I’ve done.

Also, I’d agree that this isn’t a do-or-die issue. The point is not that following tradition is an infallible machine for generating truth. It’s really more that tradition has genuine authority of its own, that it can’t be strictly subordinated to personal opinion, social science, expert conclusions, current consensus or whatnot. All the latter things can be wrong too, and in fact on the whole are more likely to be wrong.

“…slavery in the American South had very little to do with conservatism… it was a ‘peculiar institution’ found in one part of Western society that people at the time considered odd and in need of some special explanation.”

It’s notable that the first two sociology texts published in this country, by Henry Hughes and George Fitzhugh, appeared in 1854 for the express intent of defending slavery. Hughes even argued before the Mississippi legislature in favor of resuming the slave trade.

There have been important sociologists of a conservative bent— Pitirim Sorokin, Ernest van den Haag, Steven Goldberg— but in general this “discipline” seems to gravitate towards radicalism.

The current fiasco over same sex marriages gives us pause to reflect here. I had a major fight with my two oldest daughters two weeks ago over moral and political issues from Iraq to gay marriage. I didn’t “win” the argument, but I did “win” the right to express my views, after considerable acting-out, the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth that not-infrequently goes on between parents and their - teenage - children.

But to the point here. I’m also in apparent dispute with my two Republican senator, for whom I have cast votes on numerous occasions. Here is the base text of the email I sent them, with a few amendments to match the specific senator’s position (which as I understand it, slow-rolls the constitutional amendment in the name of “states rights”:

Dear Senator Allen:

I am a Republican living in Spotsylvania County who has voted for you every time your name has been on the ballot, back to your election to the House of Representatives. It is with great concern, distaste and disgust that I am writing you in response to the Washington Post article of today, “Key Va. Republicans Balk At Gay Union Amendment”, which cites you as standing in opposition to President Bush’s position on same sex marriage.

To put this as mildy as I can, President Bush has done nothing more than he has had to do on the question of a constitutional amendment on same sex marriages. He has acted with both discretion and vigor - not too quickly and not too slowly, given the facts on the ground. It was not we Republicans or we conservatives who brought this matter to a constitutional and legal crisis. And this is not just a matter of partisan politics - it is an issue that strikes at the very heart of our national existence and the integrity of our federal and constitutional order.

Make no mistake about it - to give the individual states the ability to act for themselves on this issue, under a misguided notion of “states rights” - is a terribly erroneous position, both practically and in principal. Whether you or I like it or not, the state of the law, in this country as embodied in the 14th Amendment as well as the “Faith and Credit” clause denies the possibility of local autonomy on this matter, eventually the entire nation will be moved by the courts, if not by the constitution itself - to a single legal standard defining marriage, one way or the other. It is foolishness to imagine otherwise.

For this reason, support for a consitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage is the ONLY prudent and rational position for those of us who care about the legitimacy of our government at all levels, and who seek to preserve some sense of public morality in this nation. Although I would assume you to be on our side, your equivocation on the bases of “states rights” abstractions is something I can only interpret as moral cowardice and political expediency, the kind of conservatism I often call “wimp conservatism”. And if you do not change your position, publically and rapidly, to support President Bush on this issue, I will have no choice but to oppose your continued public service as my elected representative.


William C. Riggs

Now, to evoke Luther, Da stehe ich(Wie konnte iche anders tun ?). Position set, commitment in full, Devil take the hindmost. But such is not the way of philosophy. As rational beings,it is now necessarhy to consider the unpleasant possibility of living in a sovereign political society in which the government authorizes same sex marriages in one form or another - it is not necessary at this point to distinguish between full tilt same sex marriages and the lite version of same, commonly referred to as “civil unions”. As something of an anglophile, I would point out in passing that common law tradition, in addition to giving judges the idea that they can legislate for themselves, might have given us a means to muddle our way out of this mess - but such is not likely to happen (and most sitting judges lack the wisdom and strength of character to pull off such a move, since it would imply the synthesis of values instead of the more familiar “heads I win, tails you lose approach” to adjudication.

So, in the absence of absolute victory for OUR SIDE, that being the passage and continued existence of a constitutional amendment banning same sex marriage in some or all its forms (which of course will necessitate continued civil disobedience and acting out by the other side, for that is what they DO….) it is necessary to consider the outcome for us in terms of our relation to a state (broadly defined, embodying all the levels of government that claim sovereignty over us) in which same sex marriage is the law, the whole law, and nothing but the law (To Be Continued)

In my last post, I postulated a scenario in which same sex marriage is become the law of the land. What does this mean, philosophically, and for conservatives ?

There is a moral fiction among neoconservatives, the essence of which is “The Government Is Alays Right”. This is not to say that we neocons consider all the acts of government to be virtues, but that by the nature of being an act of government, an action in imbued with a moral authority it would not otherwise have. The corrolaryn of this is that only the government can morally do certain things, the most prominent example being the taking human life. Over against this - I will claim it to be a “conservative” view are the opposing views of liberals and libertarians, either on the basis of natural law, or some other abstraction that proclaims that the morality of government action is subject to some higher principle, be it the divine order of being, or the indissoluble worth of the individual human being, or the intrinsic worth of the class to which one belongs (Homosexualist ideology seems to have inherited this idea from communism via feminist ideology).

All things considered, then, we all end up standing in the lineage of Hobbes, Locke, and Thoreau (who perhaps is the same as Rousseau here) and one idea I am today going to float is that there may be a fourth position that is
possible to take. Hobbses’s absolutist form of social contract is most clearly like the neocon proclamation that the “government is always right”. In the unfortunate instance that same sex blessing becomes the law of the land, then all the power of the state will be immediately brought to bear in defense of the presumption that this choice was the right choice to make, for even a Hobbesian government does not exist purely in a vaccum, sustained by force alone. With nearly 2/3 of the public downright opposed to same sex marriages, a great deal of moral as well as legal and physical coercion will be required to protect what will inevitably be claimed to be the “rights of the minority” - a liberal litany with which we are all too familiar. What is really dangerous about this is that the the interests - none dare call them “rights” of those who are materially damaged by same sex marriages: noncustodial fathers of children borne by lesbians, grandparents on both sides of the family who wish to pass on their values as well as their genes to posterity, ethical monotheists who simply find all the happy talk about things they regard as sin to be deeply offensive (and in many cases are locked in dead struggles to preserve the integrity of their church institutions) - all of these must be silenced if same sex marriage is to be brokered in, not just in civil society, but in that portion of society that depends on governmental mandate for its continued being. For in a Hobbesian world, the barriers between the civic religion and civil society are especially low, and little opportunity for legal dissent exists in fact as well as theory. Hobbes is useful when a society must go to war, but not so helpful when Odysseus returns home, to an unrecognizably changed world, and must, in the loving vernacular of the progressives, “move on”.

Is there a way to fight back against this Leviathan of change ? Well, the first tendency of Americans is to refer back to our own founding principles - and there one finds the heritage of glorious and inglorious revolutions alike. A cynic might look at the whole matter as a kind of verification of Jefferson’s notions of “permanent revolution” - that humanity being base, unworthy, and imperfect, no constitutional order can last forever, and so off to the ramparts we go. Is the preservation of marriage being confined to a man and a woman worth a whiff of grapeshot ? One doesn’t wish to be either inflammatory or cynical here, but it isn’t as much a stretch as one might imagine - after all, the last two revolutions mounted by Americans had to do with their inalienable right to export enslaved humans beyond the bounds of their self-proclaimed local sovereignties, and before that, to exempt themselves from taxation by the representative government body empowered to pass such taxes into law across the broader sovereignty to which they (at least originally)laimed loyalty. Marriage is certainly an important enough issue to wage war over - but no sane politician would (at least now) make this a plank in their platform. The true sadness of the so-called “states rights” position is that it accentuates the centrifugal political forces that are exerting themselves on the American polity. What was once unthinkable is become actively discussed and debated, and though not being an advocate of revolutions, certainly not revolutions against constitutional democracies, I will only point out that the shortsightedness of the gradualist approach to acceptance of same sex blessings is that it takes away just one more reason for individuals in this country to buy in to the social contract - as Jefferson and Locke require - as opposed to mere passive assent - as Hobbes demands.

There is of course, a third way, embodied in the tradition of Thoreau and Martin Luther King, which seeks neither to overthrow the government nor to passive assent to the law’s requirements. Although civil disobedience is generally thought in this country to be a virtuous activity, the onus on those who would commend this approach is to demonstrate how civil disobedience is likely to change what is now being wrought - by civil disobedience !! Not only does such activity ruin the sense of moral consensus that gives a society and its government the confidence to act in the world, to maintain its existence and to further those values it can agree upon, it undermines, over time, the legitimacy of the law itself. Ultimately, the law of force and the theory of Hobbes takes over. Is the sanctity of marriage important enough to go to jail over ? I believe that it is - but one may not expect a brass band waiting when one gets out of jail….

This, then, is where we end up as Christians and as Americans. The idea that we are living under a state that, not just having its flaws - is actively promoting evil - is utterly foreign to us, although it certainly does not lie outside the experience of Christian history. St. Paul wrote the following words about a Roman state whose tyranny was such that it executed him on the basis of unsubstantiated rumors a few years later:

Romans 13: 1-4
[1] Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.
[2] Whosoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God: and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation.
[3] For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same:
[4] For he is the minister of God to thee for good. But if thou do that which is evil, be afraid; for he beareth not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath upon him that doeth evil.
[5] Wherefore ye must needs be subject, not only for wrath, but also for conscience sake.
[6] For for this cause pay ye tribute also: for they are God’s ministers, attending continually upon this very thing.
[7] Render therefore to all their dues: tribute to whom tribute is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honour to whom honour.

So much for civil disobedience, and refusing to pay our taxes.

Likewise, Jesus said, in Matthew 22:17-21

[17] Tell us therefore, What thinkest thou? Is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar, or not?
[18] But Jesus perceived their wickedness, and said, Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites?
[19] Shew me the tribute money. And they brought unto him a penny.
[20] And he saith unto them, Whose is this image and superscription?
[21] They say unto him, Caesar’s. Then saith he unto them, Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.

But the question remains, what does one owe the unjust government by obligation, and what is one’s obligation to withhold support from that government ?

Bill R.

It’s a real problem. We have a government that insists not only on injustice (e.g., radical secularism, multiculturalism, feminism and now “gay marriage”) but increasingly on extending the system of injustice into all aspects of life from commerce to the work of charities to the education of the young to family life. In an age in which government is as pervasive as it is today, where should the line be drawn?