November 27, 2017


How Conservatism Guided America's Founding  (Forrest McDonald, July 1983, Imprimis)

Conservatism is not an ideology or a program--its programmatic content varies with place and time--but a set of values and an attitude toward changes in the established social order. Its opposite is not any particular dogmatic secular religion--such as communism or socialism--but dogmatic secular religion itself.

Peter Viereck once defined conservatism as "the political secularization of the doctrine of original sin." Eric Voegelin defined its opposite as the political secularization of the heresy of gnosticism.

Edmund Burke distinguished between "abstraction," or a priori reasoning divorced from or contrary to history and experience, and "principles," or sound general ideas derived from observation of human nature throughout time and space. Thus, despite the diversity inherent in conservatism, some principles may be delineated as having been held in common by conservatives from the eighteenth century through the twentieth.

A fundamental principle concerns morality. Conservatives believe that there are basic, universal, and eternal moral truths. They are not unanimous as to the source of these moral truths: most believe that they are ordained by God, but non-theists among them attribute the origin to the natural order. All agree, however, that good and evil are equally real, that every adult human except the mentally enfeebled is endowed with a moral sense that enables him to distinguish right from wrong, and that man's universal religious instinct is the truest foundation of the social order.

Conservatives are also concerned with morality in another sense of the term: morality as mores or social custom. Many moral values are peculiar to individual societies, and even the transcending moral values may be delimited or refined by social norms. "Thou shalt not kill," for instance, is a universal mandate, but no society interprets it to forbid absolutely the destruction of any living thing, animal or vegetable. Moreover, virtually every society makes exceptions even within the human species; most conservatives would hold that the commandment does not apply to self-defense, to defense of family and the innocent, and to legally sanctioned defense of one's country. Similarly, though incest is universally prohibited, the degree of kinship necessary to invoke the injunction vales from society to society, as does the way kinship is reckoned. Thus there are both absolute and relative moral values. The two are inevitably and sometimes confusingly related, meaning that bona fide moral dilemmas do arise.

Conservative attitudes toward morality give rise to a profound concern for the necessity of freedom. As a creature with a moral sense and as one endowed with free will, man can choose between moral and immoral behavior--but he is responsible for the consequences of his actions. Government and society, to be moral, must allow individuals the freedom necessary for them to be responsible. How much liberty is desirable beyond this minimum varies with the force and nature of social custom in each political regime. In general, liberty flows not from the extent of popular participation in law-making but from the extent that a people is habitually law-abiding: law is the fountain of liberty.

The conservative believes in justice tempered by equity, and he does not confuse the two. At its core, justice has to do with predictability and with the sense of security it provides. There are rules of acceptable behavior, known or knowable to all, and the rules carry with them rewards and punishments, also known or knowable. Few conservatives are so confident of their own rectitude that they would prefer strict and unvarying justice ("I cry for my country," Jefferson is reported to have said, "when I contemplate the possibility that there may be a just God"), and accordingly they believe that justice should be tempered with mercy, compassion, equity. But they also believe, with Blackstone, that "the liberty of considering all cases in an equitable light must not be indulged too far, lest thereby we destroy all law--And law without equity, though hard and disagreeable, is much more desirable for the public good, than equity without law: which would make every judge a legislator, and introduce most infinite confusion."

Paralleling the conservative's attitude toward law and justice is his view of society. Conservatives believe that social continuity is crucial and that, while a just society must allow for the dignity of its individual members, the needs of society itself are primary. They base this position upon recognition of the human condition: the long period of dependency during infancy and childhood dictates that mankind cannot subsist without society. But there is an ever-present tension between the social instincts and the instincts for self-gratification. It is the function of social institutions to temper individual instincts in the interests of social instincts and to convince the citizen of the primacy of the needs of the group. That social institutions normally, if imperfectly, do perform this function is attested by history: when circumstances make it necessary people overcome even the powerful instinct of self-preservation and willingly sacrifice themselves to preserve the society of which they are a part.

The relationship between society and government evokes the conservative principle of the desirability of variety, diversity, plurality, inequality. People differ from one another in various ways--ethnicity, sex, age, ability, class, wealth. If the results of any of these group differences should jeopardize the health of the entire body politic, government may legitimately intervene; but otherwise such diversity and inequality, as natural concomitants of the human condition, are either outside the province of government or entitled to its protection.

Another conservative principle is that of prescription: that there are rights and obligations which rest upon "immemorial usage, so that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary." Over the course of time, we have acquired habits, conventions, and customs which are woven unconsciously into the very fabric of our being. Conservatives believe that, in the absence of strong evidence to the contrary, man tampers with these or replaces them with more "rational" substitutes at his mortal peril.

Indeed, conservatives apply the principle of prudence to all change. They recognize that not every ill of society can be cured and that an incautiously applied remedy can be worse than the disease. The need for prudence can be expressed in terms of the underlying law of ecology: you cannot change just one thing. To make any change, however rational, in an immensely diverse, intricate, and interconnected social organism is necessarily to make changes affecting other parts and the whole, often in entirely irrational and unforseen ways. Prudence requires that one take into account, as far as possible, the long-range multiple consequences of any proposed action.

Finally, the prudent conservative recognizes that concrete situations may sometimes make principles inconsistent, internally or one with another. In such circumstances one makes choices from the available options on the basis of a priority of values, and, if possible, leaves open the door to change the course if it turns out to be wrong. [...]

Conservatives were able to dominate the convention because the clash of interests and ideas necessitated numerous compromises, and they were tempermentally adaptable to compromise whereas the ideologues were not.

As the Constitution turned out, it accomplished what the conservatives had set out to accomplish: it left intact the diverse social and political arrangements that had evolved and provided for additional institutions whose purpose was to check and channel local forces so they might flow harmoniously in the national interest.

The genius of the system was that the power of government, though great and emanating ultimately from the people, was divided rather than concentrated in any single representation of the people. Vertically, power was distributed among local, state, and national governments, the last itself being only "partly national, partly federal." Horizontally, power at the state level was subjected to certain restraints, particularly as regarded property rights; power at the national level was subjected to division among the branches and to checks, one branch on another. Temporally, the several branches of the national government were to be chosen variously for two, four, six years, and for life or good behavior, which meant that they would represent the will of the people, directly or indirectly, as expressed at different times. [...]

The chief architect of the Washington administration's policies, and the chief target of Jefferson's and Madison's efforts, was Alexander Hamilton. Hamilton's fiscal system, which breathed life into the Consitution, was an example of conservatism--of constructive, prudential change--at its best. As Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton was assigned the task of devising a way to manage the staggering burden of public Revolutionary War debts. He had several options. The debts could be repudiated in whole or in part, but that would be both imprudent and immoral. They could be paid promptly and in full, but given the nation's limited resources that was impossible. Instead, Hamilton followed the British example and proposed to "fund" the debts in such a way as to make them the basis for banking currency, and thus them as material building-blocks for nationhood.

The essence of the Hamiltonian way was to make national authority dependent as little as possible upon coercion and as much as possible upon what economists call "the institutional structuring of market incentives." He would ensure the perdurance of the new national government by making commercial activity dependent upon the continued working of the system. The long-range consequences of the adoption of Hamilton's program were profound, for they included committing not only American conservatives but also the United States government to capitalism--which, for all the Framers' insistence upon the sanctity of property rights, had been left open by the Constitution.

It was not until the spring of 1791, after Hamilton's system had been enacted into law, that Jefferson and Madison reacted to it ideologically. The break turned on one celebrated dinner party at which Jefferson, Hamilton, and Adams discussed political philosophy. Adams said that, "purge the British constitution of its corruption, and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would be the most perfect constitution ever devised by the wit of man." Hamilton's retort, echoing an essay by Hume, was, "purge it of its corruption, and give to its popular branch equality of representation, and it would become an impracticable government: as it stands at present, with all its supposed defects, it is the most perfect government which ever existed."

When Jefferson heard that, his revulsion and fear were immediate and total. Forthwith, he was convinced that Hamilton had been "bewitched and perverted by the British example" and had formed a "mercenary phalanx" of money men and speculators in a conspiracy to poison America, even as Hamilton's evil idol Walpole had poisoned England. That this was pure fantasy is beside the point: to Jefferson it was real. Thenceforth, he saw Hamilton's every word and deed, past and present, as confirmation of his evil designs.

Jefferson's "discovery" radically changed Madison's perception of the Constitution. Heretofore the polestar of his political theory had been nationalism. But now, in light of Hamilton's supposed perfidy, Madison's dream of a perfect commonwealth was shattered: the safe-guards that were to have ensured the republic's immortality proved illusory.

Thenceforth, the central constitutional tenet in the faith of the Republicans--I shift to the capital R, for Jefferson and Madison promptly set out to recruit likeminded souls to form the Republican Party--became the doctrine of state sovereignty (not states' rights; which is essential to the equilibrium of the federal system, but state sovereignty).

Two aspects of this shift want special notice. First, it is not out of character for secular millenialists to make 180-degree turns. They can, and often do, undergo conversion experiences that lead them to embrace a diametrically opposed ideology. The only change they are incapable of making is to stop being ideologues.

Secondly, there was a tangible political ingredient involved in the shift. State sovereignty in Virginia meant Republican power under the leadership of Madison and Jefferson. This was not incompatible with republican ideology, it was complementary. Now that the scales had fallen from Madison's eyes he could see that the states must be sovereign, for only they were unencumbered by internal checks and restraints, and thus only in them was the public (read, "the gentry") at liberty to do its republican duty.

Totalitarian Ideologues Then and Now

When the Republicans spoke in praise of liberty, that was the kind of liberty they had in mind; even as, when they praised limited government, they were referring only to the national government. In regard to the "real" American republics, the sovereign states, they were totalitarian ideologues. In the words of Fisher Ames, "They cry liberty, but they mean, as party leaders always do, power."

When the Republicans came to power in 1801 they set out to emasculate the national government, and for a time they were strikingly successful. They repealed much of the Federalists' legislation, set Hamilton's fiscal system in train toward extinction, virtually destroyed the government's capacity to enforce its laws, and (in a world aflame with war) reduced the army and navy to miniscule proportions. But they failed in their efforts to destroy the Supreme Court, of course, and soon the inner logic of their ideology led them first to a wholesale suppression of American liberty and then to a nearly disastrous war.

Jefferson's last fifteen months in office were a nightmare of repression: to carry out an experimental notion that belligerents in Europe could be subdued by peaceful means--the embargo--Jefferson found it necessary to wage war upon the American people. Three years later Madison blundered the nation into a war for which it was calamitously unprepared. Finally, having learned the hard way that a country cannot fight wars without a government, the Republicans reluctantly put the whole Federalist system back together again.

The regime of liberty was back in place, and the republican dogma itself withered away. Dogmatic secular millenialism--modernity--did not, alas, die with it. It erupted with the Jacksonians, the abolitionists, the populists, the Wilsonians, the New Dealers, the Great Society. It erupts anew in the plague of isms that infests our own times.

Throughout our history, conservatism has been the fountain of liberty in America and modernity has been liberty's veriest enemy.

Beauty Is At the Heart of True Conservatism (GERALD J. RUSSELLO, 11/21/17, Crisis)

The school of conservatism that might be most fitted for this moment, is paradoxically, the one that is the one least inclined to modernity. This would be a form of conservatism known as traditionalist, espoused most prominently by Russell Kirk. James Matthew Wilson has grasped the Burkean insight that to love our country (or our culture) one must first make it lovely. And making things lovely is at the core of conservatism and must remain at the center of any true conservative revival. Wilson reminds us that "[t]he conservatism of Burke and Coleridge sought to remind modern man, in an age of revolutionary upheaval, that politics was an activity built on art, meaning, representation, and community." Because of this, there is, thankfully, little to nothing here about policy prescriptions or election prospects. If a culture is healthy, those things sort themselves; if it is not, those things do not ultimately matter.

Wilson is a poet, and literature is at the foundation of his conviction for a cultural revival. In years past, this has been the weakness of this school: other conservatives thought it fine to invoke the literary history of conservatism but preferred not to delve too much into what that might mean. At worst, these conservatives took the insights from the literary tradition and watered them down into a political program. Wilson addresses the central problem that many in the conservative "movement" see conservatism as "a static and received, putatively sacred, order before which life must kneel and growth must stultify." But that is not how the exemplars of modern conservatism have seen it. T.S. Eliot, for example, was quite firm that by entering into a tradition one also changes it; tradition is the dynamic relationship between what Wilson here calls mythos and logos. Wilson relies on Eliot in his marvelous opening salvo "the drama of cultural conservatism." Burke, for Wilson, presents the truly modern attack on the ahistorical revolutionaries. For Kirk, too, his project was very much attuned to our contemporary moment: he built an alternative history of conservatism to present a narrative of unity and tradition against the mass-age of liberalism and now postmodernity's fragmentation.

Liberalism, by contrast, was and remains primarily political. It was born in the thought of Locke and Hume, Hobbes and Rousseau. The French Revolution and all the schools afterward brought it forward. Its central characteristics have been an irrational rationality and an ahistorical utopianism. Even today, when liberalism has morphed into an extreme individualism, with "choice" at its center, politics is inescapable. For the new liberalism needs the state to protect the ever-expanding list of individual rights. Further, it always needs an enemy which it can condemn as reactionary and against which it must wage an eternal fight.

Posted by at November 27, 2017 5:24 PM