March 2, 2013


Enlightened Conservatism (Lee Harris, February 18, 2013, American)

But what exactly is Nature's objective in bringing about this carefully contrived balance of political temperaments? Though Willis does not explain this point himself, I think he might well have something like this in mind: those who are born a little liberal bring something to the table that those who are born a little conservative cannot. The temperamental conservative, because he is by nature suspicious of change, will often oppose even those changes that are clearly improvements. Without the liberal to egg him on, the temperamental conservative would fall easily into what is known as the "status quo bias," defined as an irrational preference for the current state of affairs, both within one's personal domain and the wider political arena.

This is the point at which the enlightened conservative enters helpfully into the picture. He, too, is born a little conservative and is thus in a position to understand the feelings and sentiments of his fellow temperamental conservatives. But, like Private Willis, he is able to rise above his temperament. He does this by recognizing that the only way to keep his own inborn status quo bias from doing harm is to acknowledge it openly and to seek correction for it from the inborn counterbias of the liberally inclined, just as a nearsighted man will ask the help of the farsighted in reading a distant sign.

This recognition of his own inherent limits, however, does not mean that the enlightened conservative will not push forcefully for his own conservative views. Yes, he is aware of his own bias, but he is also aware that his conservative bias is a necessary corrective to the liberal bias of his political opponents. For if conservatives are naturally prone to exhibit status quo bias, liberals are just as naturally prone to what might be called "reformist bias," defined as an irrational preference for change or, to put it more colorfully, for fixing what ain't broke -- a bias that has all too often led to disastrous and ill-fated experiments in social engineering.

Nowhere is this liberal bias more obvious than when liberals decide to champion a cause -- usually a cause with a capital "C." Liberals have always had a passion for causes -- many sensible, others a bit daft. But all such causes tend to leave the temperamental conservative cold. You cannot espouse a cause, after all, without becoming an activist, and an activist, by definition, is someone who wants to alter the status quo, often quite radically. The born conservative, in contrast, sees nothing wrong with the status quo. Indeed, in his unenlightened state, the born conservative is an adamant foe of all suggested reforms and so-called improvements. He is a firm stand-patter, who would fully concur with Alexander Pope's famous dictum: whatever is, is right.

Here the enlightened conservative begs to differ. He is willing to accept some measure of reform, though only when his refusal to accept it would endanger the order and stability that he holds so dear. Even then, he prefers the change to come gradually and by sensible increments, and not through revolutionary upheaval. It is his very sensible fear of the nasty consequences of such upheavals that prods him, however reluctantly, to accede to change at all. For example, Teddy Roosevelt was playing the role of the enlightened conservative when he argued that it is better to accept some economic reforms in the capitalist system than to leave it alone and thereby invite the triumph of socialism.

Yet despite his willingness to accept some reforms, the enlightened conservative will -- and should -- remain deeply suspicious of all causes. As he sees it, a cause is to politics what fanaticism is to religion -- a plague to be avoided at all costs.

Posted by at March 2, 2013 9:06 AM

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