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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.

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