The conservative disposition


Will writes from Washington, D.C. (well, Arlington, Virginia). You can reach him at willblogcorrespondence at gmail dot com.

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24 Responses

  1. My argument ends right about where yours does: a call for a careful, reasoned assessment of which changes are good and which changes are bad. This is an eminently democratic position because it is nothing less than a call for messy controversy.Report

  2. I think this is probably an accurate depiction of conservatism. To be honest, I don’t know that citing political philosophers would be terribly relevant in doing so, either – good conservatives are not, by and large, interested in such matters. The conclusion I’ve increasingly been coming to is that the defining characteristic of a conservative is primarily a desire to preserve a way of life. With the possible exception of the abortion issue, just about all conservative-supported state action can be justified as a defense against a perceived threat to the way of life that conservatives so treasure. One thing that has increasingly come to mind when I think about conservatism of late is that, despite the caricature of the “angry conservative,” conservatives are generally a significantly happier lot than liberals. (I don’t have time to find the supporting link right now). Perceived threats to that happiness – whether emanating from cultural shifts, the USSR, al Qaeda, a proposed new government program, or a group of judges finding a long-standing social policy unconstitutional – will spur conservatives to action to destroy that threat, no matter the costs.

    This is an understandable worldview and no less inherently moral than a disposition towards using the power of the State to correct social injustice or towards destroying the State’s authority to enforce social injustice, each of which come with their own moral costs.

    However, it’s also a worldview that is inherently incompatible with the liberal and libertarian impulses.Report

    • Simon K in reply to Mark Thompson says:

      @Mark Thompson, I think that’s about right. But where it gets really interesting is when the way-of-life conservatives are reflexively defending is largely liberal or libertarian in its origins. This is especially apparent in the US where there really are no pre-liberal institutions – the founding creed of the country, which American conservatives are implicitly committed to supporting, is some variety of liberalism.

      Ironically a lot of the recent partisanship of American politics arises from people with conservative and liberal dispositions holding the same liberal ideology for radically different reasons, and therefore meaning very different things when they use liberal rhetoric. When a conservative talks about “freedom” he means specifically freedom to lead the kind of life he’s used to living, even where he might (probably unaware) have been taking advantage of others lack of freedom. When a liberal talks about “freedom” he means specifically freedom to change his kind of life if he chooses, even where doing so actually requires restrictions on others freedom.

      Doubly ironically I think this might be part of the explanation for the recurrent theme of anti-intellectualism in American conservatism – there’s just isn’t a suitable alternative set of ideas available to conservatives. In England conservatives can appeal to the monarchy, to the church, to a particular people, and to a national connection to the land, and all of this makes sense to people, even those who don’t like it much (like me). There isn’t such a set of ideas available in the US nationwide (I think perhaps the South has one …) because the country is founded on liberal and ideas and appealing to liberal ideas inherently forces you to accept liberal conclusions, and liberalism necessary implies change and progress and constant improvement, which are precisely the things the conservative is trying to resist.Report

      • gregiank in reply to Simon K says:

        @Simon K, I think this makes sense. Could you clarify what you mean by this “When a liberal talks about “freedom” he means specifically freedom to change his kind of life if he chooses, even where doing so actually requires restrictions on others freedom.” I’m not sure what policies you are referring to.Report

        • North in reply to gregiank says:

          @gregiank, Just to throw this out there Greg some examples that spring to my mind:
          -Liberating minorities, sexually, racially and sexually, to be freer socially and economically greatly restricts the freedom of conservatives to benefit from oppression, maintain old ways or simply be free of having to notice said groups once they cease to be invisible.
          -Liberating workers to bargain collectively and enforce labor standards limits the freedom of corporations and businesses to treat people in the manner that they once did (as interchangeable parts or animals)
          -Liberating everyone from governmentally enforced social mores inhibits the freedom of some to effortlessly inhabit a world that they view as wholesome. Now wholesome living requires effort (censoring your children, reviewing their school curriculum, watching what they eat, the horror!)Report

          • gregiank in reply to North says:

            @North, Well those were kind of things i was expecting. Of course stopping a dominant group from oppressing another and defining it as taking the freedom away the dominant group is a bit Orwellian. I remember from when bush the lesser was elected, i read an impassioned screed from a conservative about getting rid of all funding for public defenders and law services for the poor. For whatever reason poor people getting a lawyer was a real impediment to whatever his business was.Report

            • Simon K in reply to gregiank says:

              @gregiank, I don’t see it as Orwellian so much as an example of how being “pro-freedom” isn’t an adequate definition of a politcal position. The question is – whose freedom?Report

            • Mark Thompson in reply to gregiank says:

              @gregiank, I think the conservative/right-libertarian response to that, in many cases at least, would be that the dominant group isn’t so dominant, or more likely, as Simon suggests above, to deny that the dominant group’s success has any real connection to the less dominant group’s freedom or unfreedom. I think you could probably add to that the legitimate effects of stability and reliance on a society’s capacity for freedom. The simple act of attempting to remedy the fact that the greater freedom of Dominant Group A comes at the expense of the freedom of Weaker Group B can wind up lessening the position of both by changing the rules mid-game and making those rules less predictable.Report

        • Simon K in reply to gregiank says:

          @gregiank, Liberals tend to favour policies that enhance the freedom of relatively powerless groups – ethnic minorities, LGBT people, women, the homeless, unskilled labourers, illegal immigrants and so on. North has some good specific examples above. In order to support those groups the typical liberal policy is to give them some recourse to state power – either paying for things that help them with tax money, or giving them enforceable rights they previously didn’t have or at least couldn’t enforce.

          But all of these are done at the expense of someone else’s freedom. At the very least taxes infringe on my freedom to spend my money as I choose. But also employer’s freedom to hire and fire, religious people’s freedom not to associate with homosexuals, and so on. Some of these freedom’s are quite unjustifiable – I don’t think many people would argue in favour of the freedom to beat your wife or own slaves (once both defended by conservatives), but others are more defensible.Report

      • Mark Thompson in reply to Simon K says:

        @Simon K, +1

        Especially this:
        “When a conservative talks about “freedom” he means specifically freedom to lead the kind of life he’s used to living, even where he might (probably unaware) have been taking advantage of others lack of freedom. When a liberal talks about “freedom” he means specifically freedom to change his kind of life if he chooses, even where doing so actually requires restrictions on others freedom.”Report

  3. Jaybird says:

    Have you read “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” lately?

    Read it again:

    The parts of me that are Conservative rather than Libertarian or Libertine are Conservative because of such insights as are contained in this poem.

    (They’re coming back, by the way. Greece is their Herald. Learn quickly.)Report

    • North in reply to Jaybird says:

      @Jaybird, Jaybird, I am second to none in my love of Kipling. But I don’t see much pragmatic Kipling in the right in the US right now. In conservative parties elsewhere in the world yes, but not here.Report

    • North in reply to Jaybird says:

      @Jaybird, Oh and one last thing. With Kipling a huge amount of caution is needed to try and stay as close to “Gods of the Copybook Headings” or “Martha’s Sons'” Kipling and to stay as far as possible away from “Take up the White Man’s Burden” Kipling.Report

      • Jaybird in reply to North says:

        @North, the paternalism is the part that is soooo tempting to everybody.

        “You’re doing this wrong. You poor thing, you don’t even know how ignorant you are. I, we, can help you. We can drag you, kicking and screaming, to adulthood… to civilization. In the end, you will thank us.”

        How terrifying to find those words sweet on the tongue!Report

        • North in reply to Jaybird says:

          @Jaybird, Aw come on Jay, surely not for a libertarian like you?
          But there’s certainly temptation in that line of thought for a lot of people.Report

          • Mike Schilling in reply to North says:

            Maybe not a libertarian like Jay, but read the comments in libertarian blogs. Strip away the really awful stuff like the casual racism and cop-hatred, and much of what’s left is a rude version of exactly that sentiment: “You moron, you don’t realize that the nanny state has enslaved you. Maybe if you read some Ayn Rand and bought a bunch of guns, you could learn to be just like us.”Report

          • Jaybird in reply to North says:

            @North, I do everything I can to make sure that I keep in mind that there is more than one way to do it.

            Usually just keeping in mind that it is *I* who will be dragged kicking and screaming rather than someone else is enough to keep me from thinking that “SOMETHING OUGHT TO BE DONE”.

            But, sometimes, it’s hard not to think that all we need is a decent Caesar who has some sense of ownership (AND I KNOW JUST THE GUY)…Report

  4. Mike Schilling says:

    So what does this have to do with conservatism? I think it should remind us to be wary of hasty or dramatic social, political, or economic changes, lest we unwittingly dismantle some critical strut that under girds the American polity.

    From that point of view, the most dangerous event of my lifetime is the Reagan Revolution.Report

  5. David says:

    At its heart, conservatism is a preference for order and security above personal freedom. Historically, the conservative believed that this is best acheived by protecting existing institutions that maintain order and security. There is nothing about this preference that necessarily is against a large and powerful government. In fact, such a government may be viewed as necessary to preserve order and security. This is contrast to classical liberalism or libertarianism, which is a preference for individual rights and personal freedom. Taken to its logical extreme, libertarianism would result in anarchism. In this sense, conservatism and libertarianism are opposites.

    As pointed out above, the United States was built upon a foundation of classical liberal thought. But our constitution does not provide merely for the recognition of individual rights. It also establishes institutions and procedures for maintaining safety and security. In this sense, it is an attempt to marry conservatism and liberalism.

    This brings us to our modern American use of these terms. Modern American conservatism is not about overthrowing the liberal foundations of our country so much as it is concerned about trying to maintain the balance in the marriage between conservatism and liberalism in order to maintain threats to order and security. In a sense, however, this is no different than modern American liberalism, which can also be viewed as trying to maintain this balance. Obviously, the two sides do not have the same views on how to strike this balance. One would expect the conservative to favor the status quo, but this is not always the case. Many times, it is the liberals defending the status quo with the conservatives taking a more classicly liberal position. Striking a balance means not always taking logically coherent posisitions.Report

  6. Rufus F. says:

    I tend to envision the conservative position as there being a crowd of people excited about a large undertaking that they’re about to begin and there’s one guy in the back saying, “Woah, woah, wait! Are we absolutely sure this is a good idea?” Therefore, I don’t see conservatism as a disposition being terribly at odds with life as a liberal.Report