More questions on conservatism

More questions from my Finnish correspondent, with responses:

Q: If the possession of property is necessary for development of responsibility and virtue, it seems reasonable to desire an extension of this possession to as many as possible. Why don’t American conservatives make more of that issue?

A: I think that the notion that government action could encourage localism, smallness, tradition, virtue, family autonomy etc. seems much less believable in a country the size of the United States with no very substantive non-liberal political tradition at the national level than in a much smaller country with a different history.

The basic question I think is what possibilities are available. As an overall system the main alternative to a free-market economy today appears to be some degree of bureaucratic management and control of the economy, the effect of which always seems to be an increase in the influence of centralized government control of social life generally.

One could have particular things that government does within a generally free-market system—tariff barriers to favor localism, local zoning to regulate land use, government provision of roads etc. as public goods to facilitate economic activity, suppression of antisocial industries (heroin, pornography and whatnot). The libertarians of course are opposed to such things, but most conservatives aren’t.

Chesterbelloc wanted to encourage very wide distribution of productive assets, so that small business and single proprietorship would be as widespread as possible. It’s not clear to me that can be done directly though. There have been attempts, for example the various attempts to support small farmers, but in the long run so far as I know they haven’t worked well. The tendency toward large or small business seems to vary culturally, so maybe what people want is more important here than strictly legal arrangements.

Government regulation as such tends to make it harder for small business to survive. Regulators like to deal with bureaucracies. Also, the welfare state, not to mention state childrearing and state-enforced feminism, tends to detract from the family as an economic unit with serious functions. So it’s not clear to me that a generally libertarian view in economics is more antidistributist than other current possibilities.

So if the usual American conservative tendency toward generally libertarian economics is a flaw I’m not in a position to fix it. Is there some other way of treating these issues you find more helpful?

Q: The attitude toward change is prominent in conservative thought. At times it sounds as though it is what it is all about.

A: I think conservative thought becomes more comprehensible if the analysis starts not with the question of change as such but with the good for man, the nature of a good social order, and how such things might come into being and maintain themselves.

The good for man is complex and difficult to grasp whole. Its realization therefore depends on complex practices and institutions that can’t be constructed all at once or by following any well-defined procedure. If that’s so, then the good for man won’t be realized to any tolerable extent unless there’s a great deal of stability, continuity, and loyalty toward what’s grown up, and a will to see what’s good in it and live by it, so that the habits, understandings and attitudes that enable us to realize our good can develop, become established, and maintain and refine themselves.

It won’t be possible to formulate those things and test them for efficiency and rationality in any very clear way. It follows that rationalizing ideologies of social reform miss the point and if you act on them you’ll become the proverbial bull in a china shop. I think the usual conservative attitude toward change draws its justification from those considerations.

Q: In the conservative tradition, at some point change has been accepted, however reluctantly, and attributed to Providence. But does this mean that we have to stop struggling against perceived evils because it is unrealistic to revoke them or because the new situation has hereafter to be accepted as legitimate?

A: You have to choose your battles, and some don’t seem productive. On the other hand there have to be some overarching standards—coherence, consistency with human nature and so on. For example, no matter how well-established ideological liberalism gets, no matter how uniform its acceptance by all reputable social authorities, conservatives can’t accept it because it denies the understandings of human life and knowledge (see above) on which the principle of generally accepting tradition depends.

Q: Conservatives often attack abstractions, while claiming fidelity to principles. But how do we distinguish between these?

A: I suppose that general propositions that have an organic relationship to the good, beautiful and true are called principles, while those that don’t are called abstractions. If you try to extract social order from general propositions with purely logical content (freedom, equality, efficiency, inclusiveness etc.) you’re basing your thought on abstractions, while if you are guided by propositions with a closer connection to experience and reflection on human nature and the good that’s being principled. A related issue is the modern tendency to rely too much on general propositions. That’s more likely to come about if the propositions are a priori logical demands without much connection to experience and reflection.

Q: In a world that looks much like a down-hill slide toward liberalism, the suspicion is close at hand that we have not had enough of substance to counter the heresies.

A: Agreed. I think that pure conservatism isn’t enough. I’m working on a long piece that tries to deal with the issue. Basically it ends up saying that in the long run you have to have revelation, dogma, an authoritative Church, and a pope.

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