A correspondent sent me a lengthy set of comments on my Conservatism FAQ. Some of them seemed like they might be of general interest, so here’s my summary with responses:
Objection: “Tradition” is vague. Also, it seems to mean “do what’s already being done.” How can it act as a guide?
Response: “Tradition” is vague in the same sense as other very general standards like “reason,” “freedom,” “democracy,” and “religion.” Nonetheless, it’s enough to indicate a general orientation away from the notion that social order is basically constructed and asserted and toward the notion that it basically grows up and is accepted and lived. If people take the latter view then things like radical secularism, the welfare state, and attempts to rationalize sexual and family life on a utilitarian and strictly egalitarian standard seem much less sensible.
It’s true that traditionalism generally favors continuity. That doesn’t mean it favors the retention of novelties that originally arose out of a disposition to reject tradition, and that have been found not to work because they disrupt traditional institutions and practices. Traditionalism, as opposed to absolutely simple-minded conservatism, is a somewhat critical view.
Objection: There are many traditions in America. How can tradition as such be a guide for America?
Response: Every going concern has some sort of tradition that enables it to function as such. That’s as true of America as anything else.
“America” is not, however, a single unified thing. Within any overall tradition there are normally many traditions. The network of connections that constitutes a cultural community of any size is multileveled and diverse. The connections are somewhat like family connections. Family rivalries and disputes are part of family life. Also, family resemblances exist even though there are very few specific features shared by each and every member. American traditions like limited government, federalism, local self-rule and the emphasis on private property are important because they provide a way of dealing with those things in a political setting.
I should add that America can’t be understood as a “nation of immigrants” without disappearing altogether. It’s been a going society, with its own culture, standards etc., for almost 400 years. Those who come here intending to participate as citizens must accept it as such. They can retain their own views of how things should be, and try to persuade their new fellow-citizens to their way of thinking, but they can’t expect American society to transform itself to give their views and habits equal status.
There’s nothing antitraditional about the development of ways for people with differing ways of life to live together. What’s antitraditional is the demand that all ways of life be treated just the same, or that the outcome be perfect unity. That kind of demand is an artifact of liberalism.
Objection: What good can tradition do once radicalism has been established? Tradition did not play much of a role in the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Response: Historical loyalties and recollections—nationality, religion, and memories of a time that preceded totalitarianism and was therefore, whatever its flaws, incomparably freer and more hopeful—certainly played a role in the collapse of communism.
Also, there’s the question of what can succeed communism. If you reject the totalitarian method of total bureaucratic ordering by official experts and ideologues, and don’t think the market—money—makes up for all the deficiencies of bureaucracy, then you need something additional. The obvious candidate is the principle of respect for practices and understandings of what’s good, bad, right and wrong that arise among a group of people in the course of their life together and seem to those people to define what makes life good. That, however, is the principle of tradition.
Objection: But what do you do when the existing system of society is not working? When liberalism has produced a society that no longer works, what choice do conservatives have if not to insist on wholesale societal changes and reforms?
Response: The principle of tradition—traditionalism—can certainly be radical with respect to established public practices and doctrine. Still, it’s not as radical as it seems, because liberalism and leftism are parasitic. They can only exist to the extent there still exist the nonliberal and in fact traditional institutions—family, informal authority, ethnic and cultural connectedness, faith in something transcendent—that are necessary for society to function at all. So the thing to do when the problems become unbearable is to reject the abstract standards that create them, accept that some things liberalism classifies as racism, sexism, homophobia, religious bigotry and so on are in fact necessary parts of any tolerable society, and so allow natural human ways of establishing and maintaining social order to function more freely.
Objection: Doesn’t traditionalist conservatism whitewash all tradition and inherited practices? After all, there were antisemitic traditions that contributed to the Holocaust, and various freedman’s acts and Jim Crow laws in the American South were intended to preserve inherited arrangements to the extent possible.
Response: There was nothing traditional or conservative about the Nazis. Denunciations of The System, demands for a New Order, struggle as the sole law of existence, insistence on absolute unity, the will of a single man as the highest law, and transformation of the world through the extirpation of whole peoples are not marks of a conservative movement. Nor is there anything especially traditional about biological antisemitism.
As to race in the American South, there’s no doubt that an institution (like slavery) can be unjust, and that attempts to preserve as much of it as possible can also be unjust. Conservatism, understood as the attempt to maintain as much of what’s inherited as possible, isn’t a machine that guarantees good results in all cases. Still, trends in black life since the ’60s—crime rates, family structure, slower economic advance—suggest that attempts to extirpate by force of law distinctions that people have found relevant for a very long time is very likely to make things worse.