December 26, 2008


Conservatism (Bruce Frohnen, 12/25/08, First Principles)

Conservatism is a philosophy that seeks to maintain and enrich societies characterized by respect for inherited institutions, beliefs and practices, in which individuals develop good character by cooperating with one another in primary, local associations such as families, churches and social groups aimed at furthering the common good in a manner pleasing to God.

Often defined simply as a predisposition to conserve existing political and economic structures, conservatism generally is seen as having its roots in opposition to the radical innovations of the French Revolution of 1789. In that revolution, established hierarchies in politics, religion (especially the Catholic Church, in France heavily influenced by an all-powerful monarchy), and society at large were overthrown in favor of an abstract theory of human equality that proclaimed an age of reason yet ushered in years of oppression and mass executions known as the Reign of Terror. The generally acknowledged founder of modern conservatism, the Irish-born British statesman Edmund Burke, wrote his masterpiece, Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790), in opposition to this revolution in its early stages, predicting the terror to come and arguing that the drive to remold society according to any abstract theory, including the revolutionaries’ Rights of Man, must lead to tyranny and bloodshed.

Unfortunately, conservatism’s modern origin in opposition to revolution has led many to define it in simply negative terms, as a kind of “stand-pattism” or opposition to change. And conservatism is “against” many things to which contemporary liberals in particular are attached. Principally, conservatives reject liberals’ faith in the ability of political planners to “perfect” human nature through a combination of economic incentives (subsidies and the like) and, more crucially, the reshaping of character through therapy and progressive education. Fundamentally, the liberal’s goal is to liberate individuals from inherited institutions, beliefs, and practices. Policies like no-fault divorce and politically correct speech codes and courses of study put into action the liberal desire to remold people into autonomous individuals “liberated” from prejudice and other historical inheritances so that they may build their lives on the basis of radically free, unencumbered choices constrained only by the certainty that all people, choices, and lifestyles are morally equal.

Conservatism is opposed to this radically individualist view of man’s nature and goals. Some who are labeled “conservative” stop here. Skeptics of a conservative predisposition, whether conscious followers of eighteenth-century philosopher David Hume or modern neoconservatives, accept many institutions put in place by liberals (the centralized administrative and welfare state being the prime example) so long as they do not descend into overtly revolutionary policies and activities. These stand-pat conservatives offer no transcendent set of standards by which to judge political and moral developments, resting on skepticism and faith in the inherent strength and goodness of modern American institutions and ideologies, taken in their patriotic mold.

But as a full-fledged philosophical outlook, conservatism does not stop here. It is not constituted by mere pessimism concerning human nature. Nor, despite some conservatives’ romanticization of eras bygone, does it aim simply to restore what once may have been. To the contrary, conservatism defends a positive and fully integrated view of the individual and his role in society. True, conservatives are too skeptical of the power of abstract reason to believe that politicians can improve human nature, though they believe that politicians may corrupt it. True, conservatives believe that the individual, shorn of his inherited social ties, will act less morally because he will lose the bonds of affection that keep pride and selfishness in check. But these are mere defensive responses to the overreaching claims of liberalism and its radical outgrowths. The roots of conservative opposition to liberalism lie in a very positive conception of the human person and the possibilities of social life.

Conservatives are attached, not so much to any particular regime or form of government, as to what they believe are the requirements for a good life for all peoples. In the American context, conservatives defend the ordered liberty established by the Constitution and the traditions and practices on which that constitution was built. In particular, the common law understanding of custom as a necessary basis for law and public action and the primary role of local associations in framing the character and lives of the people are central to the conservative vision of America. Because conservatives believe that people live in their families, associations, and communities more than in their government, they seek to maximize the number of important relationships available to individuals as they seek to minimize the role of particular politicians and policies in dominating, destroying, or displacing these associations.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 26, 2008 8:09 AM
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