Skip to comments.Conservatism Construed
Posted on 11/17/2001 1:42:38 PM PST by EveningStar
This is an outstanding essay on the definition of conservatism.
The word "conservatism" gets tossed around a lot; and in todays political world a great many people tend to label themselves as being a conservative. But rarely do we see a workable or usable definition attached to that term. Its almost as if people are afraid to attach meaning to the appellation for fear that by doing so, they will disturb whatever homogeneity exists in the conservative movement. Most often when you ask a person why he is a conservative he answers that he is a conservative because he rejects liberalism; then he goes on to define those components of liberalism he rejects never again returning to what conservatism adheres to.
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On one level this is valid. The modern conservative movement came into being in the late 1940?s. And those that created it tended to do so because in their lives they had seen changes they were dedicated to reversing. They rejected the economic policies of Roosevelt?s ?New Deal.? They had seen and feared the rise of the totalitarian state as a political entity and rejected as well the statism inherent in both the fascist and communist incarnations of totalitarianism. They rejected as well the creeping nihilism of the 20th century that brought with it a political, social and cultural anomie.
While valid in and of itself, however, this ?anti? component to conservatism is troubling because it depicts conservatism only through the prism of what it rejects. This perspective negates conservative thought as a stand-alone system of political philosophy. In other words, if conservatism is simply a rejection of liberalism, that means it is a component of liberal thought in the same way that atheism is a component of religious thought. In both cases, the concept is simply a negation of the question. Looking as conservatism in this way would abrogate conservatism as a positive based system of political thought that could exist without liberalism. Moreover by looking at conservative thought as a rejection of certain trends inherent in the twentieth century, it suggests that conservatism is a recent development. Even many knowledgeable and intelligent conservatives tend to trace conservative thought to this time period or that, as if to attempt to mark a date when conservatism emerged. This trend is exacerbated by the tendency of some to get caught up with the language. They note that the term ?conservatism? has only been around as a political description for about 200 years, and assume that the ideological principles inherent in conservatism must have started when the word gained popular usage.
Before attempting to provide a definition for conservatism, a word need first be said about the ?left? versus ?right? dichotomy so popular with many. The practice of labeling conservatism ?right? and liberalism ?left? has its origins in the French Revolution and has no real relevance today, and in many ways actually serve to blur the definition of conservatism. The right/left dichotomy assumes that political ideology exists on a linear spectrum. On one side of the axis lies conservatism, and the closer one gets to the far end of that line the more perfectly one is aligned with conservative thought. The further from the end, the more one is distanced from pure conservatism, the more one is a moderate. Liberals believe the same thing in reverse of course. The closer one is toward the liberal end of the spectrum, the more one is a pure liberal. Both conservatives and liberal tend to disdain moderates. These moderates are seen as simply slackers, people who have reneged on principles for some reason or other. In many cases there seems to be an implication that this backsliding is do to some lack of moral fortitude or lack of dedication to the truth and light. I submit that in many cases the definition for moderation has been misapplied. Most moderates are not people who have veered from principles; they are people whose principles are simply not as radical as some others.
Two cases in point come readily to mind. Thomas Jefferson was a moderate. He created the Republican Party to do battle with the Federalists, and, in the election of 1800 the Republicans took both Houses of Congress as Jefferson himself entered the Presidency. The Republican Party was made up of two groups, the radical ?Old Republicans, and the moderates. The ?Old Republicans? were ideologue states? rights advocates led by Nathaniel Macon, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the brilliant and abrasive John Randolph. The moderates were led by Jefferson and Madison. They were less states? right oriented than the ?Old Republicans,? and less strict constructionist in their interpretation of the Constitution. But while they may have seen as shirkers by the ?Old Republicans? Jefferson and Madison were men of principle; they simply had more moderate principles in some ways. Abraham Lincoln was also a moderate. And his Republican Party also had two wings. Those called Radical Republicans were abolitionists. They were more eager to pursue the war. The moderate wing was headed by Lincoln. The moderates lacked the abolitionist tinge. And as the war drew to a close they were less interested in punishing the south than the radicals were. Throughout his administration Lincoln was constantly berated by the radical wing of the party for his moderation on issues. Neither Jefferson nor Lincoln were without principles. But their principles were simply more moderate then the radical principles of some of their contemporaries. In fact, Lincoln got the nomination in 1860 because he was a moderate. His party distrusted the policies of the Republican Party radicals such as Solomon Chase. The real problem here lays in our overly simplistic left/right conception of political ideology. We see ideology as that aforementioned spectrum, but that perception rarely helps us define conservatism.
Also within the elusive nature of the definition of "conservatism" lies another problem. Conservatives tend to be issue oriented. Thus they argue abortion or second amendment issues or affirmative action or any other issue that tends to be conservative based. But what they are describing is simply a small part of larger principles. Yes, conservatives claim that their revulsion at the welfare state is an ideological construct and a bonding component for all conservatives, but liberals now also claim to hate the welfare state. And by that most recent announcement on the part of liberals, the core beliefs of conservatives have been ripped away - leaving them only the individual issues I noted earlier. After all, a political paradigm that is dependent on issues alone dies when those issue are no longer active. Thus, there is a need to define conservatism in such a fashion to show that it is a positive all-pervasive political ideology that incorporates the individual issues of Republicans while providing a coherent paradigm that the simple rejection of the welfare state does not. Thus, I present what I have concluded to be the component parts to conservatism. While liberals may adapt the issues conservatives believe in they cannot adopt conservative principles.
First, it?s important to stop and take a look at how we look at issues and principles. There are generally thought to be two systems of logical analysis: deductive analysis and inductive analysis. In deductive analysis, the individual starts with an assumption that is thought to be true. For example, a Christian starts with the assumption that the Bible contains the divinely inspired word of God. Everything else springs deductively from this starting point. If, on the other hand, one uses as a starting point the assumption that the Earth rides on the back of a turtle, everything else will spring from that. Wherein deductive analysis goes from the general to the particular, inductive analysis goes from the particular to the general. Inductive analysis starts with no preconceived assumptions; rather it gathers facts and through these facts predicts a truth.
People arrive at Conservatism in two different ways: deductively and inductively. Deductive Conservatives begin with certain assumptions. These assumptions have to do with the inherent nature of man, the nature of man and his relationship with society, the purpose of government, and the moral and philosophical precepts that come as a result of 6,000 years of civilization. Inductive Conservatives start with no assumptions. Rather, they begin with an issue. The issue may be abortion, or it may be gun control or it may be some other pet ?hot button? issue. From an avocation of this issue they inductively arrive at the conclusion that they are conservative - as well they might be. But they arrive at conservatism via a different process then Deductive Conservatives, and they construct a form of conservatism that has a shaky foundation at best.
Deductive Conservatives reason from principles to issues, while Inductive Conservatives reason from issues to principles. The problem is that in the Inductive Conservative?s haste to advocate his particular hot button issue, he often ignores or is unaware of the principles involved. Often his position is based on concerns more emotional than anything else. The problem is that Conservatism is made up of many issues. And whereas the Deductive Conservative sees these issues as simply the natural extension of the rubric of conservatism writ large, Inductive Conservatives have a difficult time seeing how all the various issues under the conservative umbrella connect as an integrated whole. And it?s important to realize that these assumptions do relate as a coordinated whole. As Thomas Sowell once pointed out in The Vision of the Anointed: ?The views of political commentators or writers on social issues often range across a wide spectrum, but their positions on these issues are seldom random. If they are liberal, conservative, or radical on foreign policy, they are likely to be the same on crime, abortion, or education. There is usually a coherence to their beliefs, based on a particular set of underlying assumptions about the world - a certain vision of reality.?
Thus Inductive Conservatives become single-issue Conservatives, more interested in their own hot button issue then in advancing the principles of Conservatism. In elections, they vote less for the Conservative candidates than for the candidate that knows enough to cater to the hot button issue in question. This is destructive. It allows candidates to play these hot button issues and get elected notwithstanding their conservative credentials. Approaching conservatism inductively allows Conservatives to remain myopic and often outright ignorant of overall Conservatism.
If Deductive Conservatism is superior to the alternative, and if Deductive Conservatism is based on certain assumption, it begs the question: what are these assumptions. There are six general assumptions. They are:
1. Conservatives believe that the nature of man is inherently flawed.
2. Conservatives believe in the value of the past, and in the importance of civilization.
3. Conservatives believe that there are inherent moral laws to the universe.
4. Conservatives believe that a balance between civic virtue and natural rights maintains society.
5. Conservatives reject arbitrary and artificial institutions
6. Conservatives believe that liberty takes precedence over equality.
I will describe each of these assumptions seriatim.
The first and perhaps the most important assumption is that Conservatism presupposes that human nature is inherently flawed. Man?s nature tends to be inherently a collection of passions, self-serving instincts and an almost thoughtless reflex to satisfy needs, regardless of the consequences. He is weak, and in his weakness he too often commits immoral and violent acts to achieve whatever goal is in his sight. Liberals take the opposite view and see man as being inherently good. Indeed their view is that if man is left to be guided by his instinct, he will do the right thing. If he does wrong, it?s because there is either some impediment to right action or that there is an impediment to his ability to react instinctively.
What do I mean by being inherently good or bad, and where can these traits be seen? Perhaps the best practical illustration is to look at children and how conservatives and liberals perceive them. Young children tend to be impulsive, selfish, and self-centered. They want to take no responsibility for themselves or their behavior. Raising a child is a constant exercise in curbing these traits and inflicting on the child checks on their behavior. In psychoanalytic terms when we talk of these selfish, self-serving impulses we are talking about the id. In this paradigm, one of the roles of the parent or teacher is to constrain this tendency to act impulsively. And over the course of years, the child, as he grows, generally internalizes these lessons. However, a child left to his own devices will often become an adult with a nature as flawed as the child from which he emerged. He will retain the tendency to act out his passions in a selfish and destructive manner.
The liberal view is different. They believe in the Humanistic perspective that preaches that children are inherently good and will naturally grow in a way to fulfill their potential unless some impediment interferes with that growth. Thus, the role of the parent in this liberal Weltanschauung is generally to stay out of the child?s way and allow him to listen to his instinctive self. If a parent or teacher has a purpose, it is to help the child internalize a healthy self-image. Because if a child likes himself (or so the theory goes) he will naturally live up to his own expectations for himself; but they have to be his own expectations not the expectations of society at large.
Since liberals believe that man is more or less perfectible, it also means (by logical extension) that man is thus more or less a product of his environment. After all, if man commits wrong actions it must be because there was something in his environment that corrupted his inherent tendency to do good and to actualize his full potential. Consequently liberals also believe he is relieved of the responsibility for his behavior since that behavior is a product of programming, not choice. This is why it often happens that liberals do not hold individuals accountable for their actions. It is the environment that is the culprit, not the person, so why should the individual be held accountable? Conservatives, on the other hand, maintain that man retains both choice and responsibility for his actions.
This ideological dichotomy extends to the nature and purpose of government. Conservatives believe in a need for government as an organ to preserve order, security and stability within society. At the same time they distrust government of man. ?What is government itself but the greatest of all reflections on human nature,? James Madison once wrote in Federalist number 47. ?If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.? Conservatives are conscious of the fact that its men, not angels, that inhabit government. Thus conservatives, cognizant as to the flawed nature of man, fear also the flaws of any government made of men. This is why the founders built a system whereby laws bound the action of the government; and it is why they designed a system of government that was deliberately kept limited in power.
Liberals believe that man is inherently good, and by extension that government is inherently good. Consequently the ideal liberal government is one that has no constraint on the behavior of those in charge. Moreover since government in the liberal paradigm is good, the more government the better. The logical conclusion here is the growth of the modern totalitarian nation-state, evidence of which we have seen throughout the twentieth century.
Closely aligned to this first assumption of conservatism is a second important difference between liberal and conservatives: conservatives see a value in the past and of civilization in general in a much more pronounced way than do liberals. There is a myth that conservatives are backward looking and want to return to the past while liberals are forward looking and want to tackle the future. This is mere propaganda. Conservatives do not want to return to the past; they simply want to learn from the past. Human nature is a constant, thus whatever man found valuable in the past may be of use today. In the 6,000 years of civilization many things have been tried and either rejected or accepted as usable. The very fact that institutions have held strong through the passage of time means that they proved superior to whatever challenged them.
There is also a myth that this institution or that remains unchanged over time, a tribute that the Neanderthal tendency of man to worship the past in some knee-jerk mindless fashion. But this is rarely the case. The institution that seems to be unchanged over time simply seems that way from the perspective of someone who views it from his limited temporal perspective. All institutions change; all traditions are altered. The rate of change varies with the need for change. But the change is always there. Indeed, the very fact that necessity does have an effect on societal change suggests that there is already a built-in regulator for change. And when change is allowed to occur naturally, it usually means that there exists something to replace that which is being eliminated.
It was Newton who once commented that he was able to reach the heights he did because he stood on the shoulders of giants. He was not alone. The great thinkers of history produced many truths. Conservatives attempt to use those truths, and indeed they attempt to add the weight of their thoughts to what they have inherited in order to pass on to posterity an even more valuable gift then the one they received. Each generation learns from the past and with that knowledge they are supplied with the tools that will aid them in their struggle with the future. If anything, this is a future oriented perspective because the future is prepared by use of the tried and true foundations of the past.
The liberal concept of ripping away at the fabric of society in a radical and careless way endangers the whole of society from coming apart. During the French revolution, radicals wanted to do away with religion in general and the Catholic Church in general. And yet, they offered no replacement. The result was a nihilistic society that lacked a core. During the English Civil war, the roundheads did away with the monarchy in a society that psychologically was not ready for a republic. Again, the result was chaos. More recently in the 1960?s, radicals wanted to tear down a societal system they grew to detest. But what was there to replace it, even if they had been successful?
Civilization and the institutions of civilization, then, offer flawed man a great service in that they provide him with a knowledge of the quiet lessons of the past. But they provide something else as well. Conservatives tend to believe that there is a need for something outside themselves to provide some redemption from his own flawed nature. To some, that redemption comes through religion. To others, man?s needs are satisfied by civilization in general. Civilization, as does religion, provides man with codes of conduct in regard to the treatment of others. Without these rules the inherently flawed man will often mistreat other inherently flawed men, the result of which would sink mankind into the despair of either anarchy or tyranny. In such a world, Thomas Hobbes once wrote in Leviathan: ?. . . men live without other society, than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal. In such condition there is no place for industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain: and consequently no culture of the earth, no navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by sea; no commodious building; no instruments of moving and removing such things as require much force; no knowledge of the face of the earth; no account of time; no arts; no letters; no society; and which is worse of all, continual fear, and danger of violent death; and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.?
This conservative worldview differs markedly from the liberal Weltanschauung on this point. As I noted above, since liberals believe that the nature of man is inherently unflawed, it assumes that the trappings of civilization (its traditions, institutions and beliefs) are what is responsible for man?s corruption. They believe that man in primitive times lived in peace and harmony. Jean Jacques Rousseau, an eighteenth century philosopher who was very influential in the development of the liberal worldview, referred to people of this sort as ?noble savages.? In these pre-civilized days, according to this paradigm, man lived communally. Property was held in common so there were no class distinctions, since class distinction arise with an inequality of resources going to one group or person. This utopia, according to liberals, was destroyed with the advent of civilization. It was man that was good, say liberals, but civilization with its corruption corrupted man as well. The solution is to tear down civilization and return to this perfect utopia, where man, free from the corruption inherent in civilization would once again be happy, treat one another with kindness and everyone will live happily ever after. Liberals, then, strive to return to this utopia.
Since civilization is a corrupting influence, the least advanced civilizations are models to most emulate. Liberals assume that the more they can sweep away these institutions the quicker they can regain this inherent goodness. Liberals believe that since people are inherently good, the nation-state, religion and all the institutions of western civilization need to be wiped away. They see life not as does Hobbes, but they see a Roussian worldview.
Hollywood has really latched n to this concept and one can see this worship of pre-civilized society popping up everywhere, be it in Dances With Wolves or Disney's Pochahantas, both movies that depict the primitive world as a virtuous and utopian one. The problem is that it is a false paradigm. In primitive society there was cannibalism, slavery, murder, war and incredible poverty and starvation. In short, in primitive society we see that man is already flawed and corrupted and society had nothing to do with it.
It?s instructive perhaps to look at the example presented by William Golding's Lord Of The Flies. Here we see presented a planeload of English boarding school adolescents who crash-landed on a desert island. Within scant days these upper class kids have shed the veneer of civilization and revert to barbarity and murder. Golding writes with the conservative Weltanschauung. The liberal version of the William Golding story is the movie The Blue Lagoon in which two kids find utopia once they have been stranded on a desert island.
Before moving on a word needs to be said about how religion figures into this paradigm. Liberalism is not anti-religion per se. But Judeo-Christian ethics teaches that man was born in sin and requires redemption. Since Liberals believe that man needs no redemption, he has no need of the Judeo-Christian worldview. Moreover, since organized religion tends to have evolved as an institution of civilization, Liberals especially distrust those religions with roots intertwined with civilization as a whole. Thus while liberalism may not be anti-religion, it proceeds on the basis of different assumptions than do most organized religions. We see then a popularity of various forms of new-age sects and belief systems. We also see a reversion to primitive forms of religion such as wiccanism.
A third assumption common to conservatism is that they believe that there are inherent moral laws to the universe. As mentioned earlier, the nature of man is a constant. What is intrinsic in him changes little over the years. This makes the study of history important for conservatives, because the study of history prevents each generation from having to ask and answer the same questions and learn the same lessons. Man?s constancy tends to be a flawed one. His foibles and mistakes serve his passions and self-interest. He is a relatively weak vessel even though he often aspires to greatness. This begs the question, however: what is good? What is evil? Is there a set of objective criterion that man can use to measure good or evil, right or wrong. Attempting to find this criterion in civil law is frustrating. Man?s laws are arbitrary at best, tyrannical at worst. If man is corrupt and flawed, his laws will be corrupt and flawed. Consequently, man?s laws are of little use in providing us with objective moral criterion since societies willy-nilly have had laws that have been clearly immoral and were more a reflection of the flawed nature of man then an objective standard for moral behavior.
Conservatives believe that there exists a definite moral order. This order is best described as being a manifestation of what is called natural law. Natural Law begins with the premise that man has a unique nature. This uniqueness sets him aside from other forms of life. This is not a claim made for man alone of course. Each animal has a nature unique to itself. Horses differ from geese in part due to the fact that they have different tendencies and characteristics. If man, then, is unique and forms a class unto itself, it begs the question: what are the qualities and characteristics of man that distinguishes man from any other class of thing? After all, in order for man to form a certain classification he must have certain inherent qualities that help create that classification. One method is to observe man?s actions and extrapolate from those actions what is natural to man. The problem here is that man seems capable of pretty much anything at one time or another. And, often as not, he operates on the basis of selfish and self-serving motives that change with the occasion and circumstance. So while we will get a large collection of behaviors, none of this will help us discover what man ?should? be doing, only what man ?does.? In other words, the observation of behavior alone will not give us a clue as to any moral imperatives that exist. And natural law is simply another way of describing universal moral imperatives.
So how does man?s unique nature help us to discover natural law? Especially since his behaviors are not a reliable indicator of moral imperative. Universally, mankind respects qualities like courage, honesty, diligence etc. We admire them in part because these qualities make those that possess them seem more human. Or, to state it better, there are qualities that we identify with what we would prefer that all humans were. Thus, we admire them because we know them as the qualities we would want ourselves to posses. In short, then, we respect people of character. After all, when we talk about character we are talking about those very character traits mentioned that have universal respect.
Of course on one level we want to associate with honest people or people that work hard or even people of courage. There is a self-serving component to it. Its comforting to know that a person will are associated with will not cheat us for example, and will carry his own weight in a joint task. But the truth is that we respect these qualities even when it serves no need for us to. We respect these qualities even when it goes against our needs. It?s normal when watching (say) the Olympics to admire and respect the qualities of an athlete that shows extraordinary courage. Even when that athlete is a rival and it serves our ego needs that he lose the event, we can?t help rooting for that person if that person displays some demonstration of unusual character or resolve. On the other hand, if an athlete from our teams cheats or demonstrates some universally abhorrent quality we can?t help but to lack respect for that person, even if his winning is in our interest.
Just as there are qualities we universally admire or disdain, so too there are practices and behaviors we see as being either good or bad. People commit adultery. Not everyone of course and not even a majority. But enough people commit adultery that it is not thought of as being all that unusual. But people tend to disdain the practice of adultery. Indeed, even the adulterer disdains the practice and has twinges of guilt. The adulterer may rationalize the practice and say that it?s an accepted behavior or perhaps blame the spouse for forcing him or her into the adulterous relationship, but that twinge still exists in most. And even when the adulterer is finally able through psychological slight of hand to eliminate that twinge, there usually remains the realization that some type of code of conduct has been broken. Often the adulterer accepts this and persists in the behavior. After all, there may be pleasant components to adultery that the individual is not willing to forgo. However, persistence of a practice that is at variance with natural law doesn?t mean that the particular law doesn?t exist, it simply means that the pay-off for breaking the law is too seductive to pass up. After all, man is inherently flawed.
There was an interesting scene in Bonfire of the Vanities that serves as an example. It was a court scene and the courtroom was a confused mesh of deception anger and lies. In the midst of this the judge was forced to make sense of it all and provide a semblance of justice. He makes, what turns out to be the right (albeit unpopular) decision that enrages the people in the courtroom. In response to this anger the judge makes an eloquent explanation of his ruling. ?Let me tell you what justice is,? the judge says, ?Justice is the law. And the law is man's feeble attempt to lay down the principles of decency. Decency! And decency isn't a deal, it's not a contract or a hustle or an angle! Decency . . . decency is what your grandmother taught you. It's in your bones!?
The judge?s monologue silenced his court. Apparently all those in the courtroom implicitly understood his meaning. More importantly, you and I and all others that read the book or saw the movie also implicitly understood the scene. We all know that there is a self-evident concept of right and wrong. We simply choose to ignore it a good deal of the time. C. S. Lewis once pointed out that ?there were two odd things about the human race. First, that they were haunted by the idea of a sort of behavior they ought to practice, what you might call fair play, or decency, or morality, or the Law of Nature. Second, that they did not in fact do so.?
By this point it is probably obvious that there is a danger in adhering to natural law. Already there are judgments being made. Who decides, for example, that adultery and murder are violations? In a large sense a recognition of what is genuine natural law tends to require the very universality I spoke of, both culturally and temporally. Otherwise it becomes too easy to confuse for natural law what might only be culturally linked or temporary expedients. What is natural law, and what seems to be natural law from the limited perspective of an observer caught up in his own time, his own cultural and whatever happens to be the specifics of his situation.
Once the existence of natural law is conceded, evidence of it seems to appear with ever-increasing frequency and with this increased frequency comes a strengthening in the legitimacy of natural law. After all, it?s hard to discern examples of something you never realized existed. Ignoring natural law, on the other hand, and taking on the assumption of moral relativism is also self-reinforcing. If no activity is deemed better or worse then any other except where self-interest is involved, it?s easy to become de-sensitized to right or wrong. Murder enough people, and eventually murder becomes the norm in the minds of people to whom the norm is always associated with the good. Thus, as I mentioned earlier, while natural law is discernable to all, some simply choose to ignore it.
The Judeo-Christian ethic includes natural law. However, natural law pre-dates Christianity. It is perhaps most closely associated with Aristotle who once wrote ?The real difference between man and other animals, is that humans alone have perceptions of good and evil, right and wrong, just and unjust.? Indeed, the ancient world assumes natural law as the norm. This is quite separate from the Judeo-Christian tradition, which also has a natural law component. Natural law does eventually become intertwined with Christianity, especially through the writings of Thomas Aquinas. But that doesn?t make natural law unique to Christianity. For example, natural law is an important component in the beliefs of Taoism, Confucism, Islam and most of the other major belief systems of the world.
The supremacy of natural law was maintained until fairly recently. But in the 17th century a new concept arose that we call natural rights. Natural rights are those rights that are inherent to us as human beings. They are dependent on no society or government. They are universal in that they do not change with a particular political system or a particular era. These rights cannot be legitimately taken from us. Natural rights differ from what we commonly refer to as rights. In day-to-day living we often say we have a right to unemployment or a right to good healthcare. But whereas some may consider these to be rights, they are not natural rights per se. A natural right is one that is self-contained; in other words the exercise of that right cannot deprive others of their rights. Nor can the exercise of natural rights create a positive obligation on others in society or on society as a whole except to allow that free exercise of the natural right. The exercise of a natural right may make no positive demands whatsoever. Thus, as is often said, while one may have the right to free speech, no one has the right to yell fire in a crowded movie theater. And while one may have the right to freedom of worship, society has no obligation to allow religious expression to those whose religious practices include drinking the blood of virgins. And the right to self-protection ends when the defensive act becomes a preemptive strike on innocent people.
Americans are generally familiar with the concept of natural rights because the legitimacy for our American Revolution was based on this concept. The Declaration of Independence is a statement of natural rights, or as Jefferson called them at the time, ?inalienable rights.? Our Bill of Rights is our attempt to protect the natural rights of citizens. As such it addresses such rights as the right to free speech, the right to religion, the right to self-protection etc. However, natural rights doctrine describes only what the government or society may not inflict on the individual. It contains no positive mandate for good or moral behavior. For these guidelines, we must look to natural law.
The distinction between natural law and natural rights has perhaps an artificial component to it. After all if natural law (for example) mandates that one should not commit murder, it is not too far of a logical jump to suppose that one have the natural right not to be murdered. And it is a shorter hop still to assume that we have the natural right to self-defense. But natural rights serve a real and practical purpose in that it provides a moral and legal argument as to why a government, or a society or even a component of society may not oppress individuals. It provides a mechanism in which one may declare a government to be illegitimate and thus lose the authority to govern.
We were born as a nation from revolution and because of this fact it has often been said that we are an inherently liberal nation. But, whereas the founders waved the banner of natural rights they never abandoned a dedication to natural law. John Locke himself once wrote: ?Municipal laws are only so far right as they are founded on the law of Nature, by which they are to be regulated and interpreted.? And this is where conservatives differ from liberals. Conservatives see a necessary blend of natural law and natural rights. Liberals deny natural law while attempting to corrupt natural rights.
Liberals dislike the notion of natural law because the existence of universal norms goes against the liberal Weltanschauung, which preaches that man?s norms are to be dictated by society or by government. To a certain extant liberals also have a problem with the concept of natural rights and this is where the corruption comes in. Liberals associate natural rights with government - slowly corrupting the concept of natural rights so that natural rights eventually simply is another term for entitlements, something that emanates from the government and is dependent on the state. In essence, they attempt to confuse the issue by using the term civil rights in place of natural rights. In the case of natural law, however, liberals simply claim they do not exist.
As mentioned earlier, natural rights philosophy is limited in that its emphasis is on self-interest over the good of society as a whole. And whereas natural rights provide a good philosophic core around which a revolution may be organized, it adds little of use regarding the nature of society. There must also be a glue that holds the fabric of society together. This glue is the concept of civic virtue. Civic virtue in essence is the willingness of an individual to sacrifice self-interest for the good of society. By extension, it is also the concept of an informed citizenry taking an active part in the government of the state in an effort to improve society as a whole. Conservatives realize that society can only be maintained in an atmosphere of security and order if its citizenry possess a level of civic virtue and are willing to place the needs of society over self-interest.
But the benefit of a virtuous citizenry doesn?t only help society as a whole. One of the great gifts we receive by being a social being is the ability to exhibit self-sacrifice for good of the community. It ennobles us. And as we exercise these muscles of selflessness we acquire a habit of nobility. The practice of civic virtue, than, acts as a crucible in which the character of the state?s citizenry is forged.
There is something of real importance to society in the concept of civic virtue that we are rapidly losing. The man that volunteers to fight to defend his country is far more virtuous than the man who fights because he is drafted. The person who donates money to the poor is far more virtuous than the person who is taxed for money that the government uses for charitable purposes. And the individual that enters public office with an eye to public service is more virtuous than the individual that uses public office to feed his own ends. Indeed, once it was axiomatic to remind ourselves to ?ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.?
Now increasingly, however, as creeping liberalism takes root, we hear that conservative concept echoed less and less. Rather we hear the new mantra, ?what has my country done for me lately?? For example, we hear now and again about women playing a combat role in the military. The argument is that since women are precluded from being able to serve in combat, they are denied promotions and career opportunities that men have. But rarely do we hear the argument that this woman or that wants to serve a combat function in order to provide increased security for the country. Instead, we hear only that it is unfair to deprive woman of a career opportunity. The very concept of civic virtue as put forth in John Kennedy?s inauguration speech that was almost universally acclaimed would sound out of place to many just a scant generation later.
At first glint at all this, the concept that citizens have an implicit duty to the community may sound a bit collectivist in nature. But there is an important difference between civic virtue and the liberal paradigm. When discussing civic virtue, the predominant concept is that the individual decides. He is free to disregard self-interest for the good of society or not; its completely his discretion. Under liberalism we rarely see that choice. It?s the government that decides what will be done, and it is the government that decides how it will be done. Liberals prefer the oxymoron of ?paid volunteerism? to the conservative notion of ?a thousand points of light.?
But a people that allows this liberal paradigm is a people that also allows itself to be corrupted as a people. They lose the habit of virtue; and society loses the expectation that the citizen will be virtuous. With a lose of expectations, the citizens are endowed with even a greater doctrine that society is there only to provide a warm teat, the milk coming from a liberal governmental udder.
One of the things that must be made clear about enumerating assumptions of conservatism is how those assumptions inter-relate and are self-reinforcing. Nowhere is it so evident as the conservative assumption that rejects arbitrary and artificial institutions. After all, man is flawed in nature. How then can the institutions of man be anything but flawed? At the same time, if there is an overriding natural law, why can?t there be laws that govern man?s institutions? Conservatives are aware that there is much they do not know, but that there seems to be guiding principles to the universe that will point the way. If those laws can be identified, than man has sign-posts as to how to guide his affairs.
These assumptions aren?t necessarily of a transcendental or spiritual nature, but simply take into account that since man has a particular and consistent nature, his institutions will also. How many times have you heard it said that communism sounds good, but it?s unworkable because it fails to take into account human nature? This axiom is often repeated because there is a certain truth to it. Man-made institutions, arbitrarily made without an eye to human nature will fail to serve their purposes. Moreover, arbitrary practices in general, conducted on a governmental scale will also fail, or worse they will create an oppressive governmental structure.
Liberals, on the other hand, believe in the existential nature of the universe. Since man is inherently good and since the past holds little of value, liberals feel free to base decision-making on ad hoc solutions. There are no set guidelines to the universe, no universal moral code. Nor are there rules that govern any other human endeavors or institutions such as economics, politics etc. There is no clear and certain truth to Liberals except for the truth that there is no clear and simple truth. There is a certain conceit in this liberal Weltanschauung. Liberals seem to believe that no matter the problem, they can manufacture a solution out of whole cloth. Indeed, it often seems that their goal to micro-manage the universe.
A couple examples will serve as illustrations. Let?s take economics, for instance. Three hundred years ago the dominant economic theory in the western world was mercantilism. Mercantile economic system engenders an extreme centralized economy. The government (in this case the agents of the King) decided what is to be exported, what is to be imported and what is to be produced. Particular corporations had an alliance with the government. Even the banks were part owned by the government. Indeed, the Bank of the United States started by Alexander Hamilton was mercantile in nature. And Hamilton himself was, as Russell Kirk points out in The Conservative Mind, a dedicated mercantilist.
Mercantilism worked poorly, so poorly in fact that its very existence was a primary cause of the American Revolution. The economic strings for North America were being pulled by a far away government in London that ruled with no eye to reality. The colonies, as a result, pulled away from its motherland. Interestingly enough, in 1776, the same year as the colonies declared independence Adam Smith write his masterwork The Wealth of Nations. Smith pointed out that there were certain economic rules found in nature that were far superior to man?s arbitrary plan of centralized planning. He said that there was an ?invisible hand? at work, and that the law of supply and demand, free from governmental interference, would create a system of economics far superior than anything composed in the mind of man. In the twentieth century there has been attempts to once again centralize economics, this time by liberals. And once again we see that any system based on man?s arbitrary laws is doomed to failure.
Governmental bodies in general are also guided by natural rules. Perhaps the first and best elaboration of these rules was by Montesquieu who in 1748 wrote his book The Spirit of the Laws. Government had traditionally been arbitrary in nature and always seemed to result in either a quick slide to tyranny, or first anarchy than tyranny. Montesquieu postulated in his book that governments in order to last must separate powers within the government than allow each of these parts to act as a check on the other. This system of checks and balances, he suggested, provided that there is adequate power at the center of government, thus guaranteeing that anarchy doesn?t rule. While, at the same time, by spreading the power out over more than one branch it assures that ultimate power doesn?t lodge in one locus of power.
No political philosopher was as often quoted in America at the time of the framing of the Constitution than was Montesquieu. And just as John Locke is rightfully credited with influencing Jefferson?s Declaration of Independence, Montesquieu greatly influenced James Madison as he wrote the original version of the Constitution.
We see that foreign policy I yet another area where differing assumptions make a difference. Liberal foreign policy, like liberal domestic policy believes in a top down centralized formation of policy aims. Decisions are to be made by a select few in a process that Jeanne Kirkpatrick has referred to as ?diplomatic collectivization. Often they are made as a result of political or social whims. Conservative foreign policy, on the other hand, like conservative domestic policy, believes that there are immutable laws of nature that directs successful actions. And whereas economic policy is directed by the immutable laws of the market place, foreign policy needs to be directed by the immutable law of ?national interest.? A country must do what serves its national interest.
The sixth and final assumption of conservatism is that Conservatives believe that liberty takes precedence over equality. Liberals, for their part, believe that equality is more important than liberty. These opposing assumptions help define the ideological battle we see today.
First, its important to understand what the term equality means. We in this country use the term rather imprecisely. When we talk of equality, what we usually mean is that we advocate that the laws of the land be enforced impartially on all. What we often call equality is simply the concept that no one is above the law. But that concept hardly advocates equality in any real sense.
Thus, while conservatives believe all men are born equal, what they mean by that phrase is that all people are born with equality under the law to seek out their own destiny with the gifts and determination inherent to them. Any other type of equality is forced equality. Usually it?s forced by the state limiting the liberty of someone else, either in terms of that person?s liberty to acquire property or by imposing other limitations on his freedom of action. Conservatives believe that emphasizing liberty over equality, it frees the human spirit to accomplish almost unimaginable achievements.
Liberals on the other hand seek true equality. Perhaps the best example of the liberal concept of equality comes from a play I saw over 25 years ago. The name of the play was "Between Time & Timbuktu," written by Kurt Vonnegut. The play describes a futuristic society in which all people are equal. As a matter of fact this future society mandates equality. If a man is athletic, he is required to wear weights wrapped around his legs. If he is a genius, he is required to wear earphones that broadcast loud noise, disrupting the individual?s ability to think. It?s a truly equal society in the only way a society can be equal. It forces those with attributes to rise no higher than those with no attributes. The play, of course, gives artistic license to societal trends. But the trends are based on a liberal Weltanschauung based on their assumptions on the relationship of man and society. And this assumption forms a strong component of the liberal agenda.
Liberals want all people to be the same. Indeed, they assume that all people are the same except for those that have somehow cheated or been given unfair advantages. They call those who do well in life as being the beneficiary of ?life?s lottery? as if to place scorn on those who somehow become unequal. No matter how much one may have earned this inequality, liberals will say that this inequality was due only to ?life?s lottery? of chance. These people are to be disdained, unless of course they admit that their inequality was indeed chance. Then these individuals become the ?caretaker of resources,? not the owners of wealth. And with that shallow distinction one can have wealth and still be a liberal.
Liberals believe that class distinctions based on any standard whatsoever are wrong, even if those parameters are based on merit. They believe all people inherently work to actualize their potential unless impediments to that actualization are present. Thus, class distinctions based on land, intellect, money or any other standard are unfair since each person in society is working as hard as he can with what he has. Thus liberalism rejects capitalism as being class based because it produces a group of people that have more property or capital than others. Capitalism then in this view reduces equality among those in society. Liberals reject capitalism because is creates inequality. More importantly, capitalism is thought to be inherently evil because whatever creates inequality disturbs the assumed nature of man in society.
This paradigm is not limited to pure economic theory. Nowhere has the liberal penchant for equality more insidious than in affirmative action. What is affirmative action? Often we are told that it is a program instituted to rectify racism or sexism. But of course this is a rather thin reed. No evidence of racism or sexism has ever been required before instituting affirmative action quotas. What affirmative action is, is a program by which merit is no longer the primary determinate in awarding jobs or other guerdons. Since all people are equal, it becomes easy to base jobs (for example) on quotas rather then qualifications. And since affirmative action assumes racism or sexists, it becomes easy for those that prefer liberty over equality to be branded as racists or sexist. Rampant equality in the form of affirmative action and quotas in general has gotten so bad that some liberals even want quotas on death row.
We also see the liberal concept of equality in education. Liberals assume that all children have a right to an equal education; they also think all children are equally educable. If children seem not to be equally educable, there must be a reason other than the child to blame. Consequently we get a dumbing-down of the curriculum, because its only when the curriculum is dumbed-down that students seem to be equal. The brightest no longer have to work hard, and even the less bright is able to hit an acceptable academic level. Much of this is do to the fact that over the years the concept that all children have a right to an education has become changed to the axiom that all children have a right to be educated, regardless of the work or intelligence of the child. As a rule, liberals are anti-intellectual In nature. This is an extension of the idea that Liberals reject distinctions between people. Intellectual and/or artistic distinctions challenge parity as much as does capitalism and class distinctions. And intellectual possesses ability and talent that comes through hard work even as the capitalist. Howard Roarke and Henry Rearden represent the same evil in the eyes of the Liberal worldview
This penchant for equality also slips in to curriculum, especially in regard to multi-culturalism and cultural diversity. The concept of cultural diversity is simply another part of this liberal construct and is consistent in practice with other liberal notions such as economic collectivism. A component of collectivism is forced equality, and whereas economic collectivism forces economic equality within a socialistic paradigm, cultural collectivism forces cultural equality in the guise of multi-culturalism. Multi-culturalism (or cultural collectivism) is based on the premise that all cultures have equal value, and that each has as much to offer society as the next. By extension it is also based on the notion that the components within each culture are also of equal value. Thus, the Kenyan literary tradition is of equal value as the British, and the Chinese political system is as valid as the American. The reality, of course, is that throughout history strong cultures have always tended to emerge superior to weaker cultures. The Mongols conquered China, and yet it was the Mongol culture that was absorbed by that of the Chinese. Rome conquered Greece, and yet Greek culture eventually dominated Rome. Barbarian hoards conquered Rome and then adopted the culture of the empire they destroyed. But in the liberal Weltanschauung, all cultures are equal.
Even subjects such as the study of History are held hostage to this assumption of equality. It is now popular is some scholarly circles to ridicule the concept of the ?hero.? According to this school of thought no one really did anything that someone else would have done just as well. If Columbus did not discover America, someone else would have. If Jefferson had not written the Declaration of Independence it would have gotten written anyway. Historical inevitability rules where great men once strode.
Conservative assumptions are obvious. Conservatives believe that man is at liberty to achieve whatever his potential and hard work allows. He believes in a meritocracy and a world where anyone has a right to be better then those who choose not to grab the freedom that is his inherent right.
?Deductive Conservatism? has a great many advantages. Probably chief among these is that arguing deductively allows the conservative the ability to promote conservatism in a more effective manner then otherwise possible. The conservative is able to make a consistent argument in a clear and concise fashion rather then relying on half-thought out concepts and vague notion of common sense. Moreover, it?s important to note that the dirty little secret is that most people in this country are conservatives. It?s in our blood. It?s in the air we breathe. It?s a part of the land we live on. And once people are acquainted with the simple conservative assumptions on which conservatism is based, they will be hard-put to reject them, because conservative assumptions are the assumptions most of us have. The strength of liberals is in inductivity. ?Inductive Liberals? are always able to endlessly point to the particular in isolation of the whole and thereby make political hay. This they are always able to speak of starving children and gun-locks. And by doing so they paint conservative as advocates of cruelty and violence. The way that conservatives can win the debate is not to allow the liberals to define the argument, because if they do they will always choose to argue inductively.
In conclusion there are still two questions that need to be addressed. First since the list of assumptions I have presented are necessarily general, are there various manifestations of conservatism or is conservatism limited to the political culture of late 20th century United States? And, by extension, if there are various brands of conservatism how is the particular strand we follow unique to us in this country?
We in this country tend to be so attached to our own manifestations of conservatism, whether they are the Constitution or the Bible or the concept of laissez-faire economics, that we too often think that conservatism cannot exist without them. But nothing could be further from the truth. A man in China today, a follower of Confucius (for example), can be every bit as much a conservative as can an America. All he need do is accept the basic assumptions of conservatism. Moreover, there have been conservatives throughout history. Can anyone doubt the conservative credentials of Augustine, Paul of Tarsus or Socrates?
Conservatism is not a limited concept we trot out to battle liberalism, nor is it limited to a particular time or place. It is an organic integrated positive belief system that has been a component of human thought since the beginning of civilization and will probably be here as long as man walks the planet.
Well..here's my commnet...this is a LONG article....I can't possibly be a conservative if its all that!!
You'll never know unless you read it. ;)