A simply conservative conservatism?

A minor upset (my guess is that it rippled from this situation to this comment) suggests once again the question of whether a purely conservative conservatism, one based simply on attachment to habits and attitudes that seem to work out to the general satisfaction of those involved, is possible as a practical matter. My answer is “no.” Some observations:

  • By saying “no” I don’t mean it’s impossible for pure conservatives to exist or have an effect, or that they deserve insult. What I mean is that such views don’t make for a conservatism that’s going to go anywhere, that offers hope for bringing about a re-orientation of society away from libertine statism and toward personal responsibility, limited government, local social cohesion, and a stable and predominantly self-organizing way of life that most people find satisfying. To my mind the kind of conservatism we need today is one that presents a basis for social order, and purely conservative conservatism doesn’t do that.
  • I give some of my reasons here. The basic thought is that all men by nature desire to know, and a tolerable social order requires voluntary sacrifice. Put those things together, and you find that when things get difficult and something has to be done people need to know why they have to give up things they like and do things they don’t like. Simple habits and attachments or simple love of personal freedom don’t do the trick because those are the very things that on occasion have to be sacrificed. So beyond such things it seems there has to be a conception of something higher and worthy of sacrifice that is not simply their summation.
  • To be a bit more pointed and everyday, no collection of habits and attitudes works out to what everyone understands as his benefit. Laws protecting life and property don’t work out to the satisfaction of strong impulsive stupid men with vehement appetites and not much concern about the future. Ordinary sexual morality isn’t pleasing to pedophiles, Andrew Sullivan, or for that matter the average teenaged boy. And none of us likes paying taxes. So the need to demand, and in a proper case to enforce, the sacrifice of what can be one’s dearest goals is an everyday thing and not just something that happens in unusual emergencies. It’s not clear what purely conservative conservatism has to say to that need. “You have to give up what you want because I’m more comfortable that way” doesn’t seem sufficient grounds for coercion.
  • Experience seems to bear out the foregoing. “Social progress” is three steps forward and one step back, but it’s a mistake to build too much on the one step back. Purely conservative views have been common in England, but with the accelerating disintegration of the English traditions they’ve failed to preserve they strike me as more and more irrelevant. Habitual reticence and “muddling through” simply aren’t adequate as answers to all pressing questions. Imperial Confucianism, which revered social and cultural tradition but was often atheistic, might be an example of an enduringly useful purely conservative conservatism. There were special circumstances, though. Imperial Confucianism was the view of a scholarly and bureaucratic elite and depended for its usefulness on the existence of an empire based on other things, for example Legalist use of force, popular superstitions, the native extended family system, and the concept of the emperor as the Son of Heaven. It was good for adding an element of decency, order and high-mindedness to a social order otherwise based, but I think our needs, and for that matter the needs of the Chinese, go deeper today. (The item linked second above suggests that Australia may be a counterexample. That might be so, but it’s not the impression I get from what I’ve seen of the Australian press or from Oz Conservative.)
  • To avoid confusions that actually arise: the fact I think that purely conservative conservatism doesn’t have much of a future doesn’t mean I think it’s necessarily bad to restrict a particular discussion to pure conservatism. It may or may not be bad. And the fact I believe that a religious element is necessary doesn’t mean that I think every religious conception or even every Christian conception leads automatically to good political results. The necessary is not the same as the sufficient.