Rescuing Conservatism

In a reply to a comment about “Psychological Insights into Leftism,” I said this about an article to which the commenter linked:

[T]he writer’s obvious bias is that change is good, which is really rather a stupid thing to believe. It all depends on what the change is and what effects it will have. Second, conservatives aren’t for stability for its own sake, but because — like good scientists — they believe that the null hypothesis (the status quo) holds true until they see strong evidence to the contrary. That is, they actually rely on evidence, not emotion — and it’s unthinking emotion that often fuels leftists. The global warming scare is a perfect example of this.

Which leads me to Chris Mooney, the Discover staffer who commissioned the piece. Mooney is the author of such books as The Republican War on Science and The Republican Brain: The Science of Why They Deny Science — And Reality. There’s a whole lot of psychological projection going on there. Most anti-scientific activity these days is on the left. In addition to the over-hyped and poorly understood subject of AGW (rife with pseudo-scientific charlatanism), there’s IQ (which leftists like to disparage while claiming at the same time to be more intelligent than conservatives), the Keynesian multiplier (a mathematical con game), guns and crime (how are those strict gun-control laws working out for Chicago?), biological differences between men and women (quite real and wide-ranging), the effect of the minimum wage on unemployment (leftists like to cite the one study out of dozens that shows little or no effect), and on and on.

Later in the comment thread, I added this:

A big part of the problem here (and in general) is definitional. Leftists are statists who seek control of others in order to advance a certain agenda. But there are also right-statists, whose agenda is generally the opposite of the left-statists’ agenda. Right-statists are often wrongly called conservatives. They are not conservatives, who prefer to rely on the institutions of civil society, not the state. But the mislabeling allows leftists to get away with calling conservatives anti-scientific and emotional, when they’re really talking about their kindred spirits: right-statists.

Larry Thornberry highlights the problem of faux-conservatism in “If You Like Your Problem, You Can Keep Your Problem” (The Spectacle Blog, April 24, 2017):

The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll showing Donald Trump with a falling job approval rating — 54 percent disapprove to 40 percent approve — has gotten wide print and broadcast coverage. But most of the coverage has been on how Trump’s numbers have been trending, down from February, and how he compares with previous presidents as this point in his presidency, not so very well.

Digging down to some other non-Trump-related numbers in the poll, conservatives, or anyone else who wishes to “make America great again,” will find even worse news. The poll found that 57 percent of respondents, including 28 percent of Republicans, say that government should be doing more to solve problems and help people. MORE!

I suspect that the percentage of Republicans who say “more” would be a lot higher when push comes to shove (e.g., avoiding cuts in Social Security and Medicare benefits, preserving pork-barrel spending that they perceive as beneficial to themselves). It’s also noteworthy that the percentage of all respondents who say that government should do more is the highest for 26 such polls, which date back to 1995.

Here’s a case in point, a not-unusual one I think: My late father-in-law had many admirable qualities. He was a career Air Force officer who flew combat missions in World War II and the Korean War. He was a faithful and considerate husband, a good father to his children (though not around as much as a civilian father would have been), a steadfast friend, a good neighbor, and a fount of jokes and song lyrics. He was thrifty (and thus left his widow with ample funds to see her through her old age), and he kept his yard and garden in good trim.

But after my father-in-law’s second retirement (from the job he took when he retired from the Air Force), he became increasingly outspoken about politics. He adopted the conservative mantle and identified himself as a Republican, like many an ex-Democrat Southerner. He grumbled about big government (reasonably enough), but would defend “his” Social Security benefits; denigrated toll roads (as if roads should be “free”); distrusted market outcomes, often stating that the price of something was “too high,” as if he knew what it should be; claimed repeatedly that he should receive free VA hospital care (though his income and wealth disqualified him); railed against illegal immigration while paying illegal immigrants to clean his house; and listened faithfully to Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly (a mirror image of the equally rude and blustering Chris Matthews), parroting whatever lines they were peddling at the moment, without critically evaluating their offerings.

Aside from “ordinary people” like my late father-in-law, there are “conservative” bloviators like Limbaugh, O’Reilly (whose downfall I don’t lament), and Michael Savage. If they’re truly conservative, they hide it well. Their demeanor belies their claims to conservatism.

Which is to say that true conservatism is really an unusual state of mind in America. In order to prevent the election of more leftists than are already in office, true conservatives must rely on the influence of bloviators like Limbaugh, O’Reilly, and Savage, and on the votes of faux conservatives like my late father-in-law. Further, the true conservative must often hold his nose and vote for the lesser of two evils — who, more often than not, will be a mediocrity, hypocrite, or poseur.

What, then, is true conservatism? It is first and foremost a disposition. That disposition leads to an attitude toward governance. I’ve written about this many times, but what I’ve written bears repetition. So here goes.

A key aspect of the conservative disposition, as I said earlier, is skepticism about change, but not steadfast opposition to it. At the heart of skepticism about change is respect for tradition, which, as Edward Feser explains in “Hayek and Tradition,” is

nothing other than the distillation of centuries of human experience…. Far from being opposed to reason, reason is inseparable from tradition, and blind without it. The so-called enlightened mind thrusts tradition aside, hoping to find something more solid on which to make its stand, but there is nothing else, no alternative to the hard earth of human experience, and the enlightened thinker soon finds himself in mid-air…. But then, was it ever truly a love of reason that was in the driver’s seat in the first place? Or was it, rather, a hatred of tradition? Might the latter have been the cause of the former, rather than, as the enlightened pose would have it, the other way around?)

Michael Oakeshott delves more deeply in “On Being Conservative” (Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays), from which I have quoted at length in this post and this one.  Follow the links (or buy Oakeshott’s book) if you want to read more than these suggestive passages:

[The conservative] does not suppose that the office of government is to do nothing…. [T]he office he attributes to government is to resolve some of the collisions which this variety of beliefs and activities generates; to preserve peace, not by placing an interdict upon choice and upon the diversity that springs from the exercise of preference, not by imposing substantive uniformity, but by enforcing general rules of procedure upon all subjects alike.

Government, then, as the conservative in this matter understands it, does not begin with a vision of another, different and better world, but with the observation of the self-government practised even by men of passion in the conduct of their enterprises; it begins in the informal adjustments of interests to one another which are designed to release those who are apt to collide from the mutual frustration of a collision. Sometimes these adjustments are no more than agreements between two parties to keep out of each other’s way; sometimes they are of wider application and more durable character, such as the International Rules for for the prevention of collisions at sea. In short, the intimations of government are to be found in ritual, not in religion or philososphy; in the enjoyment of orderly and peaceable behaviour, not in the search for truth or perfection….

To govern, then, as the conservative understands it, is to provide a vinculum juris for those manners of conduct which, in the circumstances, are least likely to result in a frustrating collision of interests; to provide redress and means of compensation for those who suffer from others behaving in a contrary manners; sometimes to provide punishment for those who pursue their own interests regardless of the rules; and, of course, to provide a sufficient force to maintain the authority of an arbiter of this kind. Thus, governing is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises. It is not concerned with concrete persons, but with activities; and with activities only in respect of their propensity to collide with one another. It is not concerned with moral right and wrong, it is not designed to make men good or even better; it is not indispensable on account of ‘the natural depravity of mankind’ but merely because of their current disposition to be extravagant; its business is to keep its subjects at peace with one another in the activities in which they have chosen to seek their happiness. And if there is any general idea entailed in this view, it is, perhaps, that a government which does not sustain the loyalty of its subjects is worthless; and that while one which (in the old puritan phrase) ‘commands the truth’ is incapable of doing so (because some of its subjects will believe its ‘truth’ to be in error), one which is indifferent to ‘truth’ and ‘error’ alike, and merely pursues peace, presents no obstacle to the necessary loyalty.

… [A]s the conservative understands it, modification of the rules should always reflect, and never impose, a change in the activities and beliefs of those who are subject to them, and should never on any occasion be so great as to destroy the ensemble…. [H]e will be suspicious of proposals for change in excess of what the situation calls for, of rulers who demand extra-ordinary powers in order to make great changes and whose utterances are tied to generalities like ‘the public good’ or social justice’, and of Saviours of Society who buckle on armour and seek dragons to slay; he will think it proper to consider the occasion of the innovation with care; in short, he will be disposed to regard politics as an activity in which a valuable set of tools is renovated from time to time and kept in trim rather than as an opportunity for perpetual re-equipment….

… The man of this [conservative] disposition understands it to be the business of a government not to inflame passion and give it new objects to feed upon, but to inject into the activities of already too passionate men an ingredient of moderation; to restrain, to deflate, to pacify and to reconcile; not to stoke the fires of desire, but to damp them down….

Political conservatism is, then, not at all unintelligible in a people disposed to be adventurous and enterprising, a people in love with change and apt to rationalise their affections in terms of ‘progress’…. Indeed, a disposition to be conservative in respect of government would seem to be pre-eminently appropriate to men who have something to do and something to think about on their own account, who have a skill to practise or an intellectual fortune to make, to people whose passions do not need to be inflamed, whose desires do not need to be provoked and whose dreams of a better world need no prompting. Such people know the value of a rule which imposes orderliness without directing enterprise, a rule which concentrates duty so that room is left for delight.

The essential ingredient in conservative governance is the preservation and reinforcement of the beneficial norms that are cultivated in the voluntary institutions of civil society: family, religion, club, community (where it is close-knit), and commerce. When those institutions are allowed to flourish, much of the work of government is done without the imposition of taxes and regulations, including the enforcement of moral codes and the care of those who unable to care for themselves.

In the conservative view, government would then be limited to making and enforcing the few rules that are required to adjudicate what Oakeshott calls “collisions.” And there are always foreign and domestic predators who are beyond the effective reach of voluntary social institutions and must be dealt with by a superior force.

By thus limiting government to the roles of referee and defender of last resort, civil society is allowed to flourish, both economically and socially. Social conservatism is analogous to the market liberalism of libertarian economics. The price signals that help to organize economic production have their counterpart in the “market” for social behavior (which really encompasses economic behavior). Behavior which is seen to advance a group’s well-being is encouraged; behavior which is seen to degrade a group’s well-being is discouraged.

Civil society is, in the main, self-policing — or it was before the Greatest Generation failed its children and the busy-bodies began seriously to destroy its bonds and usurp its tutelary, disciplinary, and charitable functions.

Related posts:
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Fighting Modernity
Defining Liberty
Conservatism as Right-Minarchism
Getting It Almost Right
The Social Animal and the “Social Contract”
The Pseudo-Libertarian Temperament
Parsing Political Philosophy (II)
How Libertarians Ought to Think about the Constitution
Getting Liberty Wrong
Romanticizing the State
Governmental Perversity
Libertarianism and the State
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
My View of Libertarianism
No Wonder Liberty Is Disappearing
The Principles of Actionable Harm
More About Social Norms and Liberty
The War on Conservatism
Friedman on Anarchy and Conservatism
Old America, New America, and Anarchy
The Authoritarianism of Modern Liberalism, and the Conservative Antidote
Society, Polarization, and Dissent
Another Look at Political Labels
Individualism, Society, and Liberty
Utilitarianism vs. Liberty (II)
Consistent Conservatism
Economically Liberal, Socially Conservative
Why Conservatives Shouldn’t Compromise
Liberal Nostrums
The Harm Principle Revisited: Mill Conflates Society and State
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined