September 23, 2010
E J Dionne on The appeal of conservatism: The columnist for the Washington Post and senior fellow at the Brookings Institute questions what has happened to the intellectual humility that led to the growth of American Conservatism. (Jonathan Rauch, 9/05/10, Five Books)
You have two books on your list that are more obscure and both are about the interaction between business and conservatism. The first is from 1951, by Robert Green McCloskey, American Conservatism in the Age of Enterprise 1865-1910. What do we have to learn from a book about the Age of Enterprise?
I put these books on this list partly as a provocation because I realise that most of the folks picking conservative books are inside the conservative movement. Since I’m not, I thought I would pick two provocative books.
And the provocation is what?
The provocation is that conservatives often like to paint themselves as populists – when in fact much of their strongest support, financially certainly, comes from business people, often big business people, often business people resisting social reform, resisting trade union organisation. I think both these books make that clear. I found McCloskey very enlightening when I read him back in the 1990s because he offers real insight into two areas that I think are very important in understanding conservatism. One is the rise of social Darwinism. He talks a lot about William Graham Sumner. I always like to argue to my liberal friends that they ought to have a lot more sympathy for William Jennings Bryan than they do from simply watching Inherit the Wind about the Scopes trial – the reasons why Bryan resisted Darwin that went beyond a fundamentalist critique of science. Social Darwinism was, and still remains, in my view, a pernicious doctrine that saw the competition among classes as leading to the rise to the top of the worthiest people. It’s essentially a doctrine that preaches the futility of social reform – far better to let this often vicious struggle be carried out because, in the end, it strengthens societies. I never like to toss around the word fascist because it is over-used but I think that fascists did make use of some of these ideas later on to rationalise systems that democratic conservatives themselves would reject. I think that social Darwinism is important in our history and McCloskey gets at that. The other important area is the role of a very conservative Supreme Court in our history. He talks about Judge Stephen Field and I think in the debates we are about to have over what I see as increasingly activist courts, it is very useful, again – whatever side you are going to be on in these debates – to revisit the conservative activism in the courts in the Gilded Age.
Stephen J Field was on the Supreme Court 1863 to 1897 and was a results-oriented champion of laissez-faire policies and property rights against all-comers, which is much more than social Darwinism.
I agree. In fact, I think the religious right is helpful to us collectively because I think the religious right does resist social Darwinism. I mean, I disagree with them in their view of evolution and the science curriculum but I think that their very Christian sense of compassion turns them off to any idea of social Darwinism and I think that’s a positive good.
...Christians don't reject it because it happens to be anti-social but because it's bad science. Accept the latter and there's no basis to criticize the former, which is why he envies them.
Posted by Orrin Judd at September 23, 2010 6:25 AM