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Why I say that I am conservative, but not a Republican.

3 March 2012

I recent comment left on one of my posts, challenged me with the statement, “How the hell do you think that you are a conservative when you have nothing but criticism for the Republican Party? You must be stupid!” – Well, Yes, I am conservative in my views. And no, I am not stupid.I am a conservative who dissents from what is popularly considered to be “conservatism” in contemporary America. I dissent from the kind of conservatism, so called, that is found in that potent mix of narrow-minded religion, laissez-faire fetishism, and American Exceptionalism currently found in the Republican Party.

Mine is not the ideological form of conservatism that owes much to the influence of Goldwater and Reagan with their uncompromising views. Goldwater held up an abstract conception of radical freedom as the highest possible value in American society: freedom from law, freedom from community values, freedom from government, freedom from responsibility to others, and freedom from any vision but your own personal one.  Their’s is a quintessentially American ideology complete with simplistic fantasies about self-sufficiency, or rugged individualism. Individualism is good to a point but can be taken to far. We all need to keep in mind that from the day our mothers push us out into the world, until the day that eight surviving friends lower our body into the ground, we all need one another. We are all in this together, and unless we each keep the common good in mind then we will fail to thrive as a community and as a nation.

These modern “conservatives” are ideological conservatives, I am not. The sort of conservatism that I admit to is no ideology: it is a cast of mind, a type of character, a way of looking at the civil social order. Conservatism in the sense that I am using the word is the negation of ideology. Being this kind of conservative means that one is given to looking for guidance first in such places as the Constitution, established customs, common convention, long held consensus, and precedent, not in the narrow abstractions of ideological commitment. This kind of non-ideological conservatism is able to accommodate a considerable diversity of views on a good many subjects, there being no acid test, no official creed. It is just about a cast of mind.  The conservative is just someone who finds the things of permanence to be more reliable and desirable than the constant change and upheaval caused by ideologues.

I know that this is not the kind of conservatism, so called, that one gets from listening to the vulgar hucksters on Fox News, or on talk radio. Those charlatans have bullied their way onto the center stage and claimed to be following conservative principles. They don’t actually want to conserve very much though. They seem most interested in not paying taxes, and in letting multinational corporations rape and pillage without restraint across the length and breath of the land.

If you really want to have a picture of what true conservative principles are about, I can hardly recommend anything better than the list of ten principles that Russell Kirk put to paper many years ago. Russell Kirk (1918-1994) was the leading exponent of intellectual conservatism in the United States, and a dominant figure in the post-World War II revival of Conservative thought in this country.  Kirk was conservative in the manner of European conservatism.  Because of that some of his views would not resonate with a great many of those Americans who want to call themselves conservative today. Yes he was religious, but would not have thought of creating any religious test to apply to those running for public office. He was a believer in free enterprise, but he strongly criticized the radical individualism of the libertarians, and supported some government intervention in the economy. His list of conservative principles, meant to be descriptive not prescriptive, is as follows:

“1) First, the conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent.

This word order signifies harmony. There are two aspects or types of order: the inner order of the soul, and the outer order of the commonwealth. Twenty-five centuries ago, Plato taught this doctrine, but even the educated nowadays find it difficult to understand. The problem of order has been a principal concern of conservatives ever since conservative became a term of politics.

Our twentieth-century world has experienced the hideous consequences of the collapse of belief in a moral order. Like the atrocities and disasters of Greece in the fifth century before Christ, the ruin of great nations in our century shows us the pit into which fall societies that mistake clever self-interest, or ingenious social controls, for pleasing alternatives to an oldfangled moral order.

It has been said by liberal intellectuals that the conservative believes all social questions, at heart, to be questions of private morality. Properly understood, this statement is quite true. A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.

2) Second, the conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. It is old custom that enables people to live together peaceably; the destroyers of custom demolish more than they know or desire. It is through convention—a word much abused in our time—that we contrive to avoid perpetual disputes about rights and duties: law at base is a body of conventions. Continuity is the means of linking generation to generation; it matters as much for society as it does for the individual; without it, life is meaningless. When successful revolutionaries have effaced old customs, derided old conventions, and broken the continuity of social institutions—why, presently they discover the necessity of establishing fresh customs, conventions, and continuity; but that process is painful and slow; and the new social order that eventually emerges may be much inferior to the old order that radicals overthrew in their zeal for the Earthly Paradise.

Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know. Order and justice and freedom, they believe, are the artificial products of a long social experience, the result of centuries of trial and reflection and sacrifice. Thus the body social is a kind of spiritual corporation, comparable to the church; it may even be called a community of souls. Human society is no machine, to be treated mechanically. The continuity, the life-blood, of a society must not be interrupted. Burke’s reminder of the necessity for prudent change is in the mind of the conservative. But necessary change, conservatives argue, ought to be gradual and discriminatory, never unfixing old interests at once.

3) Third, conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore conservatives very often emphasize the importance of prescription—that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary. There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity—including rights to property, often. Similarly, our morals are prescriptive in great part. Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste. It is perilous to weigh every passing issue on the basis of private judgment and private rationality. The individual is foolish, but the species is wise, Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.

4) Fourth, conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. Burke agrees with Plato that in the statesman, prudence is chief among virtues. Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. As John Randolph of Roanoke put it, Providence moves slowly, but the devil always hurries. Human society being complex, remedies cannot be simple if they are to be efficacious. The conservative declares that he acts only after sufficient reflection, having weighed the consequences. Sudden and slashing reforms are as perilous as sudden and slashing surgery.

5) Fifth, conservatives pay attention to the principle of variety. They feel affection for the proliferating intricacy of long-established social institutions and modes of life, as distinguished from the narrowing uniformity and deadening egalitarianism of radical systems. For the preservation of a healthy diversity in any civilization, there must survive orders and classes, differences in material condition, and many sorts of inequality. The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at leveling must lead, at best, to social stagnation. Society requires honest and able leadership; and if natural and institutional differences are destroyed, presently some tyrant or host of squalid oligarchs will create new forms of inequality.

6) Sixth, conservatives are chastened by their principle of imperfectability. Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. Because of human restlessness, mankind would grow rebellious under any utopian domination, and would break out once more in violent discontent—or else expire of boredom. To seek for utopia is to end in disaster, the conservative says: we are not made for perfect things. All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. By proper attention to prudent reform, we may preserve and improve this tolerable order. But if the old institutional and moral safeguards of a nation are neglected, then the anarchic impulse in humankind breaks loose: “the ceremony of innocence is drowned.” The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.

7) Seventh, conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all. Upon the foundation of private property, great civilizations are built. The more widespread is the possession of private property, the more stable and productive is a commonwealth. Economic levelling, conservatives maintain, is not economic progress. Getting and spending are not the chief aims of human existence; but a sound economic basis for the person, the family, and the commonwealth is much to be desired.

Sir Henry Maine, in his Village Communities, puts strongly the case for private property, as distinguished from communal property: “Nobody is at liberty to attack several property and to say at the same time that he values civilization. The history of the two cannot be disentangled.” For the institution of several property—that is, private property—has been a powerful instrument for teaching men and women responsibility, for providing motives to integrity, for supporting general culture, for raising mankind above the level of mere drudgery, for affording leisure to think and freedom to act. To be able to retain the fruits of one’s labor; to be able to see one’s work made permanent; to be able to bequeath one’s property to one’s posterity; to be able to rise from the natural condition of grinding poverty to the security of enduring accomplishment; to have something that is really one’s own—these are advantages difficult to deny. The conservative acknowledges that the possession of property fixes certain duties upon the possessor; he accepts those moral and legal obligations cheerfully.

8) Eighth, conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism. Although Americans have been attached strongly to privacy and private rights, they also have been a people conspicuous for a successful spirit of community. In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. Some of these functions are carried out by local political bodies, others by private associations: so long as they are kept local, and are marked by the general agreement of those affected, they constitute healthy community. But when these functions pass by default or usurpation to centralized authority, then community is in serious danger. Whatever is beneficent and prudent in modern democracy is made possible through cooperative volition. If, then, in the name of an abstract Democracy, the functions of community are transferred to distant political direction—why, real government by the consent of the governed gives way to a standardizing process hostile to freedom and human dignity.

For a nation is no stronger than the numerous little communities of which it is composed. A central administration, or a corps of select managers and civil servants, however well intentioned and well trained, cannot confer justice and prosperity and tranquility upon a mass of men and women deprived of their old responsibilities. That experiment has been made before; and it has been disastrous. It is the performance of our duties in community that teaches us prudence and efficiency and charity.

9) Ninth, the conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. Politically speaking, power is the ability to do as one likes, regardless of the wills of one’s fellows. A state in which an individual or a small group are able to dominate the wills of their fellows without check is a despotism, whether it is called monarchical or aristocratic or democratic. When every person claims to be a power unto himself, then society falls into anarchy. Anarchy never lasts long, being intolerable for everyone, and contrary to the ineluctable fact that some persons are more strong and more clever than their neighbors. To anarchy there succeeds tyranny or oligarchy, in which power is monopolized by a very few.

The conservative endeavors to so limit and balance political power that anarchy or tyranny may not arise. In every age, nevertheless, men and women are tempted to overthrow the limitations upon power, for the sake of some fancied temporary advantage. It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good—so long as the power falls into his hands. In the name of liberty, the French and Russian revolutionaries abolished the old restraints upon power; but power cannot be abolished; it always finds its way into someone’s hands. That power which the revolutionaries had thought oppressive in the hands of the old regime became many times as tyrannical in the hands of the radical new masters of the state.

Knowing human nature for a mixture of good and evil, the conservative does not put his trust in mere benevolence. Constitutional restrictions, political checks and balances, adequate enforcement of the laws, the old intricate web of restraints upon will and appetite—these the conservative approves as instruments of freedom and order. A just government maintains a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of liberty.

10) Tenth, the thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world. When a society is progressing in some respects, usually it is declining in other respects. The conservative knows that any healthy society is influenced by two forces, which Samuel Taylor Coleridge called its Permanence and its Progression. The Permanence of a society is formed by those enduring interests and convictions that gives us stability and continuity; without that Permanence, the fountains of the great deep are broken up, society slipping into anarchy. The Progression in a society is that spirit and that body of talents which urge us on to prudent reform and improvement; without that Progression, a people stagnate.

Therefore the intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression. He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise. The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.

Change is essential to the body social, the conservative reasons, just as it is essential to the human body. A body that has ceased to renew itself has begun to die. But if that body is to be vigorous, the change must occur in a regular manner, harmonizing with the form and nature of that body; otherwise change produces a monstrous growth, a cancer, which devours its host. The conservative takes care that nothing in a society should ever be wholly old, and that nothing should ever be wholly new. This is the means of the conservation of a nation, quite as it is the means of conservation of a living organism. Just how much change a society requires, and what sort of change, depend upon the circumstances of an age and a nation.”

So yes, I am conservative in the sense that Russell Kirk is talking about. But I am a conservative who dissents from what is popularly considered to be “conservatism” in contemporary America. I am more skeptical of the free market than many others who call themselves conservative, because I believe the market to be a revolutionary force. It is the driving force behind some powerful changes and upheavals in our communities and in our nation. And it is not good enough to just claim that there is nothing we can do about that. Because we CAN do something about it. We can put some brakes on unwanted and unhealthy changes.   The free market system is a good in that it works better than anything else that any radical has tried to replace it with. But it  is only a conditional good and a certain amount of regulation is needed and healthy in order to keep the market forces  from trampling all over things that are of greater value.

I am more in favor of environmental regulations than Republicans are these days. It’s curious don’t you think – the way so many people who claim to be “conservative” have so little interest in conserving? I believe that we have a moral responsibility to treat God’s creation with awe and respect. My traditional Christian values tell me of the need to be a good stewards of the earth. I find most of the policies advocated by the Republican Party to be wasteful and exploitative.

I am very skeptical towards the foreign policy of most Republican public officials, because I can see how completely the Republican Pary has given itself over to the crusading abstractions of Nationalism and American Exceptionalism.  These “isms” are contrary to the very meaning of what it is to be conservative. It is contrary to everything truly conservative people believe to be true about human nature. Those Republicans who are so eager to see America spread democracy using tanks and missiles have far more in common intellectually and temperamentally with French revolutionaries like Condorcet and Robespierre than they do with conservatives like Edmund Burke.

I am appalled by the Republican Party’s lack of interest in the most vulnerable members of our society. My conservative views are informed by my Christian faith. And that Christian faith has formed me in the belief that each human being exists as a result of the creative act of God. Each has never been before and will never be repeated. Each one who is, or will be conceived is unique and irreplaceable. Each was created in the image and likeness of God. This means that there is a dignity which is due to each human person. There are many human needs which find no place in the “free market.” The image and likeness of God that is marked on each human person makes it unthinkable that we should, through selfishness, idleness or apathy, allow fundamental human needs to remain unmet, or to allow those burdened by such needs to perish.We are our brother’s keeper. My basically conservative temperament does not keep me from recognizing the advantages and desirability of some of the policies that are more associated with Social-Democrats.

My political views do not lend themselves easily to any label, I know. I continue to call myself conservative though not only because my philosophical and moral views are, at the bottom line, conservative, but because I cannot find a home among liberals.  I do not share the liberal view that the world can be remade as we desire. I do not have the liberal faith in the inherent goodness of mankind.  I do not have the liberal faith in the goodness of reason unaided by faith and character. I think that liberals have a bad habit of overestimating their own intelligence.  I believe liberals, along with many conservatives, place far too much confidence in science and technology, and in a technological solution to our problems. I am inclined to believe that what Edmund Burke said is true: “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”

I am not a liberal, but I am a dissenter from what passes as conservatism in America these days.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 March 2012 1:12 am

    I fear this view of “Conservatism” is new to me, and I thank you for introducing me to it. I find much to agree with in Kirk’s points, though I have never considered myself a conservative. According to his tenants, I realize that I am a Conservative. Very disconcerting, but not an unpleasant discovery. 🙂

    I only found your blog today as I checked out some links from a friend’s blog. I think I am hooked, and that is saying something.

  2. 3 March 2012 4:34 pm

    Thank you for taking the time to leave a positive comment.

  3. 10 July 2012 4:37 am

    There is a perfect alliance for all these disparate methods; how could such ‘left type’ and ‘right types’ people like Kirkpatrick Sale, Thomas Naylor, Clyde Wilson (a Kirkian conservative), Ralph Nader, and probably a host of others find agreement; I think the word has been the much vilified and fear traditional decentralization ( subject much fear by the neo-conservative movement, and the national Democratic party, etc). If you can’t agree on a host of internal domestic question, then just leave it to communities (within ‘reason’ many would say, that is, people have to follow at least the basics of the Bill of Rights, and no communist concentration camps, or slave plantations).

    How could you have Ralph Nader and Pat Buchanan be so friendly to each other, agree so much, and find common cause with each other over what stereotypically ‘should’ be their ‘allies’?

    Though I don’t agree with everything on the blog (obviously, if I did, it wouldn’t be as interesting), I think you bring up great quotes!

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