Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
May 22, 2009
POLITICS: Conservatism's Essential Element
What is the essential element of conservatism?
I have had a number of conversations and arguments on this question in recent months, as befits a movement doing its time in the wilderness. The responses by Beldar, Prof. Bainbridge and arch-libertarian Brink Lindsey to Judge Richard Posner's provocative blog post on the subject of conservative intellectualism is only the latest installment in this debate, but a good excuse to weigh in on my own.
First up, there are those who argue that the core of conservatism is the intellect, the use of reason. These tend, by and large, to be the economic conservatives, doing constant battle with the Left's efforts to repeal the laws of economic reality to cater to demagogic appeals to "fairness" and blatant nonsense like protectionism and minimum wage and rent control laws. Or the legal conservatives, struggling to hold the line for the consistent application of the rule of law in the face of appeals to "empathy." (Judge Posner, being the dean of the economic-analysis-of-law movement, sits neatly at the intersection of both). Or, at times, the national security hawks, arguing for more cold-eyed realism and fewer appeals to the self-abnegating moral vanities of the moment.
All of these have their point. Reason and intellect have a vital role in conservatism. But the intellect, taken alone, carries its own dangers and limitations. Polls regularly show that Americans with post-graduate educations tend to be less, rather than more conservative, and that's been true for years. Conservative intellectuals in particular have often been late to join the populist waves that have given political conservatism its greatest victories. More broadly, intellectuals are rightly notorious for building castles in the air that have neither appeal nor connection to the common man and the world he inhabits. Intellectuals as a class have fallen prey to nearly all the worst ideological fads and enthusiasms to sweep the Western World since 1789. Too often, as Beldar notes, intellectuals have left themselves defenseless against moral monstrosities and the seductions of power (especially where the ideology in question offers to give power to intellectuals as a class). A conservatism solely of the intellect can be a powerful force in a debate society, but it will never be either politically resonant or wholly trustworthy with power.
The failings of intellectuals give rise to the opposite argument: that the weakness of liberalism, which conservatives must remedy, is precisely that it is a sterile intellectual creed, reducing man to his wants and his biological imperatives and neglecting what really animates the human animal: pride, anger, fear, love of family and country and all that is dear and familiar. Law-and-order and national-security conservatives will tell you that the Left's legalisms leave it unable to grapple with the true threats posed by dangerous men and too limp to appeal to legitimate needs and methods for gaining the people's loyalty and redressing their injuries. We have people on the left these days who want to bring terrorists to our shores and put them in our prisons, and cannot for the life of them understand why anyone would object to that, because they have locked themselves so thoroughly into their own mental straitjackets that they can't use simple common sense. Students of patriotism will tell you that men will fight for their homes in ways that they would never fight for international abstractions. Students of culture will tell you that all the studies and programs in the world are no substitute for what a man will do for his family if government stops trying to substitute itself for his role. Critics of abortion will tell you that the cold utilitarianism of the "pro-choice" movement and its clinical approach to the most powerful force known to humanity - a mother's love for her child - leaves women who make that fatal choice with an emotional wound they may never entirely salve. Critics of big government argue that central planning and the rule of experts is doomed to grief because it passes the point where a man is willing to be nagged.
The heart is indeed a powerful and mysterious thing, one that must be accounted for in public policy. But the heart can be an even more treacherous guide than the mind, more prone to romantic fantasies that are all the more inexplicable when the madness passes. Conservatives may thrive at times on their connection to deep emotional currents, but they are just as often called upon to curb them.
A further school of thought is that the core dividing line between conservatives and liberals is faith. Mind and heart alike may be powerful tools, but they can only be properly guided by an informed conscience, which is a gift from God. The devotees of the role of faith in conservatism have polls on their side: even in the worst of times, regular churchgoers are conservatism's most faithful core. Strong religious faith is a powerful indicator of being conservative, moreso even than having a family, a mortgage or a job. Turning from politics to policy, certainly there is much to say for the view that a society that loses its faith loses its conservatism and, ultimately, its moral bearings and even (as Mark Steyn is wont to observe) its desire to populate the Earth with the next generation.
But faith alone is too narrow a definition. Religions are notoriously fractious and factional, so while a political consensus can be built on broadly shared moral foundations that themselves are the products of faith, one cannot be built directly on faith itself. And in any event, many faiths simply don't provide the answers needed to grapple with the myriad banal matters of politics, and are rightly suspicious of entangling themselves in trying to answer them. Conservatives may include many people of faith, but to get how conservatism works, something more earthbound is required.
Reason, emotion, and faith are all important. But the crucial and distinctive element of conservatism is experience. There's a reason why people in general tend to grow more conservative as they age: partly because they have more responsibilities and pay more taxes, yes, but also because they have seen more of life. That process is only a microcosm of the broader conservative belief in tradition: not tradition as nostalgia or fear of the unknown, but rather tradition as the proving ground of human experience, the ultimate laboratory of humanity. Experience, as the saying goes, is the school of mankind, and he will learn at no other.
Principles and Ideology
Defining conservatism as the product of experience is not to deny that conservatism, American-style at least, has general and indeed indispensable principles: patriotism, individual liberty, free enterprise, the rule of law, protection of innocent life, the centraility of faith to an informed conscience and a meaningful life. But it is experience and tradition that guide us as conservatives in applying those principles in the real world and in resolving the tensions when those values conflict.
It is also true that the conservative movement has room within it for a variety of ideologies. But conservatism itself is a philosophy, not an ideology, and every kind of ideology on the Right comes to grief when it loses its moorings in experience and tradition. Judge Posner, for example, has for years espoused - in media ranging from his judicial opinions to his blog posts - probably the most sophisticated version of one conservative ideology, the relentless search for economic efficiency and the application of that same methodology to every aspect of life. Now, the search for efficiency-maximizing rules is a useful lens for analyzing problems, but man does not live by efficiency alone, and the public wisely tends to balk when told that it should accept results people view and unjust or cold-hearted for no other reason than that it's the most efficient way of doing things.
Likewise, libertarianism is a vital element of every conservative's intellectual toolkit; the libertarian questions are the ones we need our representatives to never stop asking. Why does the government need to be doing this? Why the federal government, not states or localities? Is the problem caused by what the government is already doing? Can private business provide a solution? Should individuals bear the costs of their own choices? These are essential lines of inquiry, and the libertarian skepticism they embody is of great value. But libertarianism has only questions, not answers; it is not a workable program so much as a Socratic exercise. Just try going to your local town or city council meeting and suggesting privatizing the fire department if you want an illustration of what happens when dogmatic libertarianism collides with common experience. Even when we ask the best of questions, if we want the answers, we must look to the world as it is and historically has been.
Translating Experience Into Policy
The conservative preference for reliance on life experience manifests itself, procedurally, in four major ways: a preference for democracy over rule by judges and other 'experts'; a preference for free markets over centralized planning; a preference for federalism over one-size-fits-all centralized government; and respect for tradition in all things.
Democracy may not seem like a point of controversy in modern America, but it is, and conservatives time and again end up standing on the side of increasing the power of democracy in its long struggle against centralized, unaccountable authority.
Now, conservatives generally do not fetishize democracy for its own sake. Many conservatives would share Winston Churchill's observation that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter. Indeed, it's not hard to find conservatives who would, at least in theory, be perfectly happy to live under a monarchy if it respected liberty, free markets, the rule of law and the other virtues treasured by conservatives. The Founding Fathers themselves were mostly content to call themselves loyal subjects of the King so long as their established rights were respected. Experience, not ideology, taught them otherwise.
Yet, conservatives in modern America are not only staunch defenders of democracy, they are often - as in the case of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush - eager to evangelize it around the world. Why? Because long experience has shown that, in Churchill's more famous phrase, it is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried. The good king may be preferable to messy democracy, but the good king is a rare breed - one is far from guaranteed to get a good king at the outset, and even if you do, he is subject to the corrupting temptations of power and difficult to be rid of without bloodshed if he goes astray. Democracies are, we know from experience, less apt to make war on one another, and more pliable in correcting their own errors. When coupled with the separation of powers, democratic governments are also, whatever their periodic failings in this regard, less likely to make dramatic changes generally and specifically less apt to toss away long-recognized rights of the citizen and long-established forms of common sense. As George Orwell wrote in explaining the deficiency of government by so-called experts:
The immediate cause of the German defeat was the unheard-of folly of attacking the U.S.S.R. while Britain was still undefeated and America was manifestly getting ready to fight. Mistakes of this magnitude can only be made, or at any rate they are most likely to be made, in countries where public opinion has no power. So long as the common man can get a hearing, such elementary rules as not fighting all your enemies simultaneously are less likely to be violated.
Democracy's virtues arise from that connection to the common man, who is valuable not because there is great virtue in being "common," but simply because the common man, being more numerous than the uncommon man, has more opportunities to learn from his mistakes. Democracy draws from a broader pool of human experience than other forms of government, by involving the greatest number of people in the making of decisions, thus bringing to bear the most wisdom (the most folly, too, but individual decisionmakers are hardly immune to folly).
This is precisely what separates it from the liberal/progressive model by which the wisdom of the people and their representatives is considered suspect if it collides with the "conscience" or judgment of a much smaller number of experts. This is especially blatant when judges arrogate to themselves the power to decide things like what rights are "fundamental" or what punishments are uncivilized, even when the public has voted them into law. Abrogation of democratic enactments by judges is unconservative in three ways: it substitutes the experience of the few for that of the many; it is often based solely on appeals to a narrow type of reasoning, rather than the competing judgments of reason, emotion, faith, tradition and experience that inform the views of the populace as a whole; and it involves pronouncing rules that are inflexible and hard to change if proven faulty through trial and error. Conservatives do, of course, recognize that sometimes the judiciary is charged with restraining the popular will - but the judiciary acts legitimately in doing so only when it is bringing to bear the popular judgments of prior generations. The core concept of conservative judicial review is to invoke constitutional limitations grounded in tradition and blessed at some time in the past by the people - in short, to say that the judgment of the people today must give way only to a judgment made with greater reflection by the people in the past. Yet the Framers of the Constitution nonetheless allowed for the possibility - in Article V's amendment process - that the people could always win out in the end over their predecessors, but only if their determination to change the constitution was sufficiently sustained and widespread. This vision of gradual and broad-based change over time is precisely the opposite of the progressive vision of sudden, jolting, permanent revisions by small numbers of legal specialists.
And the judiciary is hardly the only area where liberal/progressives seek to erode democratic decisionmaking and its necessary companion, democratic accountability (i.e., the means for the people, upon deciding that something has been tried and hasn't worked, to hold responsible the people ultimately in charge); the proliferation of independent agencies, the rise in power of unelected international institutions, the creation of this or that permanent mandated legal entitlement, and the use of the federal government to relieve states of direct responsibility for financing their own spending are all destructive of the basic principle that the best decisions are those made by the most people and subject to their continual review as experience warrants.
In foreign affairs, the enthusiasm for democracy has sometimes created controversy within as well as without the conservative movement. Critics are apt to decry President Bush's view of the value of democratizing Iraq and other Middle Eastern states as being unduly utopian social engineering. The critique is not a totally unfair one and outside the scope of this article to resolve, but there is nonetheless a powerful argument in favor of the Iraq War and the subsequent democratization of Iraq precisely on the theory that the war was about removing the obstacle of a bad government and replacing it with the kind of government that has been proven by experience to be the best option across many different cultures over the past several decades. As I have written before, the conservative argument is that since men can change governments more easily than governments can change men, the best one can do to address the problems of dysfunctional Arab Muslim societies is to remove the obstacle of a problematic centralized government and give the people the space to work things out on their own - a model more consistent with the American Revolution, as well as those in Eastern Europe, rather than the French or Russian models whereby a new government seeks to compel society to fit its theories.
(2) Free Markets
The conservative enthusiasm for free markets is, at the end of the day, simply another aspect of conservative enthusiasm for democracy. Both have their failings, but the idea in each case is that the individual decisions of the many from their own experience, when added together, will produce more reliable value judgments over time than the dictates of the few, however well-intentioned or technically proficient. Free markets for products, for investment capital, and for labor are the ultimate example of trial and error - and they work only when the error part is permitted to exact its price. The U.S. auto industry, for example, has been brought to its knees over time by the consumer and investor markets' judgment of the industry's product line and cost structure. Expecting an 'auto czar' with no background selling cars to pronounce a different verdict is the classic triumph of hope over experience.
Louis Brandeis famously referred to American state legislatures as "laboratories of democracy." Brandeis was no conservative, but he understood that the best way to promote progress in government over time was to start small, test ideas in one place and see if they work before imposing them across the nation. Federalism in the United States is an accident of history, but then conservatism is all about accepting the accidents of history if time tests them and finds them useful. What makes the conservative preference for federalism consistent with the preference for democracy and free markets is the idea that, yet again, the states provide a broader base for decision-making and a wider scope for stress-testing different approaches: 50 state legislatures are better than one, and state and local lawmakers, being closer to the people they govern, are more apt to make decisions based on local experience rather than ideology. States and localities can and do make terrible mistakes, but the nation as a whole is not saddled with them so long as other states and localities are free to witness the experience and choose a different path. On economic issues this is obvious: different tax and regulatory structures produce different results, and over time people and businesses migrate to the ones that produce results they prefer. On social issues, the nation would have a much more stable basis for resolving debates about, say, same-sex marriage or legalized marijuana if there was more confidence that differing localities could experiment with different rules without having to export them nationwide. Even on those issues where the federal government was ultimately needed to forcefully intervene, like slavery and Jim Crow, federal action did not come until there had been decades of experience with free states or states without segregation to offer a positive model to provide a contrast.
Perhaps the classic distillation of the antithesis of conservatism is the line popularized by Robert F. Kennedy that "some people look at the world as it is and ask why; I look at the world as it could be and ask why not." Now, this credo is a wonderful one for the inventor, the entrepeneur, the academic opening a graduate seminar. Asking "why not" is a fine way to stretch the mind to seek ways to try new things and find new answers.
But it's a horrible way to make public policy, which always must be rooted in knowing why the world is as it is. Conservatives can love theory, and experiment with all sorts of intellectual exercises, but fundamentally the only sustainable basis for conservatism is to offer solutions that have already been proven to work in the real world. That doesn't mean conservatives are slavish devotees of the status quo; far from it. Edmund Burke's famous dictum that a society without the means of change is without the means of its own conservation is as true today as it was 220 years ago.
The difference between the Burke worldview and the RFK worldview is respect for tradition. I've listed tradition fourth among the ways in which conservatives put the value of experience into practice for a reason: to emphasize that it's only one of several tools used by conservatives to determine what works and what doesn't, what is and isn't consistent with human nature, what solutions can be implemented without massive unintended consequences. But it remains experience's ultimate proving ground because it draws on an even larger sample size of human judgments and human life experiences than democracy or markets or federalism. Social, cultural, political, religious, legal and economic traditions incorporate within them the vast sweep of thousands of years of trial and error; as GK Chesterton was fond of saying, tradition is the true democracy, superior to the tyranny of whatever generation happens to be walking around at a particular moment. Human beings do things in particular ways for reasons they often do not even understand or think about because someone before them tried and witnessed the results. Liberals may love calling themselves pragmatists too, of course - but a pragmatism that discards tradition deprives itself of the raw material to test whether a purportedly pragmatic solution actually works.
What is most ironic about the Left's disdain for tradition is that it emanates from the same people who are most strident about the sacrosanct and unquestionable nature of Darwinian evolutionary biology. I have no quarrel with evolution as a scientific theory, but to recognize the basic mechanism of natural selection is by necessity to admit the value of tradition as a fundamental organizing principle of nature: that which works over time prospers, and that which does not falls by the wayside. Tradition, properly understood, is not statis; it is change, but change over time by constant experimentation with the new and comparison of its results to the old. It is growth that is organic to the human family. It is the school of mankind; and all the dictates and mandates of government can make us learn at no other.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Conservative successes in politics and policy have always been rooted in experience, in offering solutions that were consistent with the common experience of voters and that stood in contrast to the liberals' impractical efforts to bend the world to fit their theories. Conservatives rose from the 1960s to the high water marks of 1980 and 1994 by connecting with real worries about liberal theories run amok in law enforcement, tax, and welfare policy, and by offering solutions that were easily connected to common sense experience and historical tradition and/or were successfully tested locally. Obituaries of Jack Kemp, for example, noted that his view of the supply-side virtues of reducing marginal tax rates was based on study of how John F. Kennedy's tax cuts worked in the 1960s. By contrast, conservatives under George W. Bush struggled when the public was unconvinced that we were being conservative: when voters believed the Iraq War or Social Security reform to be unduly ambitious rather than in line with the lessons of experience and tradition. A conservative resurgence under the current government is most likely to depend on public recognition that the Democrats are doing things that just don't, in common experience, make sense.
Conservatives going forward should not take this lesson as a reason never to propose big ideas and big solutions, but the movement's many ideological factions can best sell themselves to the public by respecting the value of experience. Take control at the local or state level to test-run ideas (one reason why Barack Obama has fought so hard to compel GOP Governors to accept stimulus money and spend it as he wants it spent is precisely to prevent any Governor from offering a different model). Explain to voters why and how conservative proposals are consistent with things that have worked in the past, and why and how the left's ideas seek to impose ideology on reality rather than the other way around. Principles are fine things, but the voters by and large see our principles as secondary to a decent respect for how things work and what people are really like.
The conservative may seek to promote many good values, but liberals too have their own values. The conservative may make moving appeals to reason, emotion and faith, but liberals have their own appeals. The conservative may offer a hopeful vision of the future, but liberals offer their own vision and their own hope. At the end of the day, what makes conservatism both distinct and viable is not the castles it builds in the air but the roots that hold it deep in the ground. The essential element of conservatism is that by learning from experience and tradition, it reflects the world as it really is.