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What conservatism?

We live in a liberal age. A conservative, then, is someone who resists liberalism. He wants to reverse it or at least resist its advance.

There are a variety of reasons for resisting liberalism, and they lead to different kinds of conservatism. Some are more liberal or radical than conservative, and each can be at odds with any or all of the others. Short of an extreme situation like an invasion from Mars there’s not much they would all agree on.

Anyway, here are some of the possibilities:

  1. The Simply Conservative Conservative:
    • The Antichange Agent. Liberalism demands change. Most changes are for the worse, and any change takes something away. So why not oppose change, especially if you like what you have already?

      This kind is common if not often articulate. Their emphasis on established possession often gives conservatives a bad name. That’s unfair, since the desire to keep possession is no worse than the desire to acquire it. Investment bankers risk what they have for the sake of getting more, mothers are cautious with what they have. Are the former more admirable than the latter?

      Antichange views always carry some weight, but mostly in the background. Contrary views are at least as energetic and common today. You can win the presidency by promising “Change” simply as such. People want things that are New and Improved. The desire to keep what you have is necessary and legitimate, but it can’t explain by itself why and when it should prevail. To dispute the matter you need argument as well as impulse and interest.

    • The Mini-Burkean. He’s rather like the Antichange Agent, but more philosophical. As such, he likes stability, and wants to know where he is and what’s what. He thinks things are better if they’re settled, not just for him but for pretty much everybody.

      This kind seems common in England and among older people in comfortable circumstances. Jeffrey Hart, a retired professor of eighteenth century English literature, is an example. Roger Scruton often speaks like one too.

      While the Mini-Burkean seems less focused on self-interest than the Antichange Agent, his conservatism is still too much a matter of articulating a disposition to put up serious resistance to liberal trends. More is needed.

    • The Maxi-Burkean, or Kirkian. Like his Mini cousin, he resists liberalism because he likes social and cultural stability. He differs though by emphasizing substantive goods and social functioning more than personal tastes and comforts.

      He complains that liberalism destroys the traditions, connections, and unstated agreements necessary for normal life. In particular, it disrupts institutions other than global markets and bureaucracies: family, local community, particular culture, religion, and traditional understandings of morality and personal integrity.

      In exchange for those things liberalism offers us a system that is supposedly altogether rationalized. It turns out though to be a system of irresponsible, self-deluded, and ever-more-absolute power manned by careerists and psychopaths ruling over a dysfunctional aggregation of wimps, losers, cranks, druggies, couch potatoes, obsessed shoppers, and professional victims.

      The Maxi-Burkean Kirkian makes good points, but has trouble making them effectively because they’re so much at odds with technological assumptions. In addition, the emphasis on tradition and continuity makes it hard for him to do more than oppose abuses and excesses within a basically sound system. He’s too wedded to gentility. When things get bad he starts ignoring issues and otherwise drops out of the discussion. That enables him to maintain his respectability but at the cost of relevance.

  2. The Conservative Liberals:
    • The Libertarian. He’s philosophically liberal, but notes that liberal principle devours itself when taken too far. The absolute dominance of freedom is still the tyranny of an ideology. His solution is to make private property absolute and so freeze liberalism at a particular stage of development so it can’t do too much. It’s a simple view that’s easy for present-day people to understand, but it’s too arbitrary for actual human life.
    • The Neocon. He’s a liberal who accepts the Maxi-Burkean’s point that social functioning requires traditional nonrationalized habits and loyalties. So he favors such things, but only to the extent they are needed to support liberal institutions. He wants God for the masses, Machiavelli for the classes. The approach is not likely to work, but is effective as a way of securing a seat at the table. Since he subordinates conservatism so totally to liberalism he’s the natural liberal talking partner, and will never lack for talk show gigs.
    • The Team America man. He’s a normal person who can’t get by just on abstract principle, so he needs specific ties to the world. It’s hard to work out general principles for himself, but he likes team sports, so he signs on to America as the home team. He supports whatever America supports, and doesn’t like people who don’t. As such, he’s tailor-made for Neocon manipulation. America’s a proposition, they tell him, and they know just what the proposition demands.
  3. The Radical Conservatives:
    • The Independence Buff. He rejects liberal beliefs as false, stupid, insipid and oppressive. They falsify the world and deny human agency and identity. It’s humiliating to live under them or even pay lip service to them, so it’s liberating to confront and disrupt them.

      The category is somewhat novel. G. K. Chesterton foreshadowed the type but with definite Catholic content. H. L. Mencken and Nietzsche provide purer models. The problem with the pure view, of course, is that it’s undirected. By itself it’s not going to go anywhere.

      This kind is common in America and among energetic and high-spirited young guys. To some extent they share a common impulse with libertarians. They’re not as fixed on a simple concept of reason that answers all questions, which means they’re not as nerdy, they read less science fiction, and they generally aren’t computer programmers.

    • The Fascist. He takes the Kirkian point that that social functioning requires nonrationalized habits and loyalties, the Team America point that national loyalty can make up for whatever’s missing, and the Independence Buff point that liberal beliefs are false, stupid, insipid and oppressive. His solution is to go for energetic irrationalist illiberal nationalism. The approach was never common in America, and hasn’t panned out, so it’s not found much today. Still, it’s a theoretical possibility.
    • The Ethnic Nationalist. Like Team America, but with America as a people rather than a proposition or legal structure. Sometimes very much like the Fascist.

      The basic thought seems right that America should be thought of as a people rather than a proposition or legal structure, but just what is that people? Is it one and unified or complex and divided? Is it part of something bigger or an empire unto itself? The sole standard of politics or one consideration among others? Something to be accepted where it exists or something to be enhanced and pushed forward?

    • The Trans-Burkean, sometimes viewed as the Maistre Maniac. He notes that tradition points to the transcendent but is prone to error, manipulation, suppression, and occasional incoherence. The triumph of liberalism shows that social tradition can’t maintain itself without an authority that is not merely traditional. On the other hand, the fascists demonstrated that merely arbitrary authority leads to disaster. Since the civilization of the West was based on concepts of revealed truth and its authorized interpreters, why not go for it?

      Trans-Burkeans are mostly Catholic traditionalists, although various theonomists and others share some characteristics. There aren’t many of them, but liberals see Talibanic bogeymen under every bed, so there must be something to the view.