The conservative premise

In a discussion elsewhere, Noah Lenz tendered the suggestion that “until pretty recently, ‘conservative’ was a designation of the establishment, of the business community, guys in country clubs, lawyers with white shoes,” and suggested an interesting-looking book called The Reactionary Mind by Corey Robin. I think Noah mistakes “conservative” for “Republican,” but the conversation returned me to something about which I was thinking during our recent visit to Britain.

I should first note that my understanding of “conservatism” is the intellectual tradition that snapped into sharp focus with Edmund Burke and was perhaps given its clearest voice in the twentieth century by Michael Oakshott, Russell Kirk, Clinton Rossiter, William F. Buckley, and Barry Goldwater. It is the logical political response in a person who takes certain positions on a clutch of important epistemelogical and prudential questions. See Philosophy of philosophies, 1 MPA 144 (2012). And while it’s true that in America, conservatism has come to be cut with libertarianism, and while the marriage is generally a happy one notwithstanding the spouses’ occasional propensity to hurl the china at one another, the two have not entirely become one, and the intellectual ancestry of the bride and groom are too distinct for any but the most casual observer to allege incest.

Now, over in Britain, they have a popular book series called “A very short introduction to—” whatever the topic. (Its target audience is somewhere north of “for dummies” readers but short of those ready to take a graduate course in the subject.) Browsing through a huge carousel of these titles, it struck me that although they have volumes on not only everything but also nothing—I mean literally “nothing,” see Frank Close, Nothing: A Very Short Introduction (2009)—they do not have one on conservatism. That seems an astonishing omission. A few stacks away, they had a nice big history of the tory party (Robin Harris, The Conservatives: A History (2011)), and I thought further about how astonishing it is that, to my knowledge, there is no recent and thoughtful survey of conservative thought and the intellectual history of one of the dominating political ideas of the last four centuries, and the one that (I would argue) is most directly and deeply-rooted in basic human psychology. There are some interesting books about it, see, e.g., Kieron O’Hara, Conservatism (2011), some useful readers, see, e.g., American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century (Buckley, ed. 2011); Conservatism in America since 1930 (Schneider, ed. 2003); Conservatism (Muller, ed., 1997), and some terrific short introductions, see, e.g., Russell Kirk, The Intelligent Woman’s Guide to Conservatism (1957), but none of which I am aware that is modern, systematic, synthetic, and as comprehensive as the subject will allow. I would love to read that book, and perhaps if needs must I shall write it, but I don’t feel today that I could even write the table of contents.

I look forward to reading Robin’s book, but from what Noah and Amazon have to say about it, I infer that his thesis is that conservatism is fundamentally a substantive (albeit vague) political commitment to hierarchy and order. That observation isn’t uncommon, cf., e.g., George Lakoff, Moral Politics 81 (2002); Stephen Wayne et al, Conflict and Consensus in American Politics 171 (2006), but I admit to doubts. It’s true that American conservatism is more substantive than British conservatism—partly that’s historical, partly it’s the libertarian ball-and-chain’s influence, cf. Catholic social teaching and public policy, 1 MPA, supra, at 154-55—but I think that conservatism is fundamentally procedural rather than substantive. Since Burke, conservatives have (perhaps reluctantly) acknowledged that a “state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation … [and] might even risque [sic.] the loss of that part of the constitution which it wished the most religiously to preserve,” Reflections on the Revolution in France 23 (Selby, ed. 1814), because the progressive mindset is an ever-present geological force. Like plates grinding together, in every age it presses to be in motion, and when motion is thwarted, pressure may build. The job of the conservative is not to win, but to lose as little as possible at a time, to preserve as much as possible for as long as possible without risking a sudden and violent rupture at the pressure point. To take the dream two levels deeper than above, I think that conservatism is a political response to a philosophical position on certain key questions of epistemology and prudence, as I’ve said, which in turn arises from an intuition about the complexity and interconnectedness of everything and the capacity of individual comprehension, which is ultimately rooted in two of the deepest and most intuitive human responses, the awareness of God and fear of change. From these precepts, the higher-order concerns flow.

Perhaps the latter sounds critical. It is meant, however, as commendation; guides to human behavior that are at odds with humanity generally don’t end well. And even if it is taken as criticism, I suspect that every philosophical standpoint that a person can take is rooted in basic axioms which themselves have basic psychological taproots. I’ve never put progressivism on the couch, so to speak, but I suspect that it has a more sophisticated and abstract relationship to basic human psychology. But what do I know? I’m not a psychologist; I look forward to seeing what Jonathan Haidt and Robin have to say.