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Why Conservatism Can’t Win

The traditional conservative James Kalb gets all theoretical about why conservatism in any real sense is not possible in contemporary America. Excerpt:

The only authority conservatives could appeal to in opposition to the antitraditional features of American life that carried weight in national public discussions was reason. They could claim to be logical and realistic in opposition to la-di-da liberals. In the long run though that claim leads nowhere, because liberalism is entirely logical given the accepted basis for serious mainstream public discussion today.

That basis is a stripped-down and basically technocratic view that says that at bottom that there’s no God and no objective moral order that can be relied on, just atoms, the void, and free-floating human desires and sensations. As a result, nothing has an essence, natural goal, or reason for being, since there are no intrinsic natures or goods. The only meaning things can have for us is the meaning we give them. It follows that wanting to do something is what makes it worth doing, and the good is simply the satisfaction of preferences.

That view also tells us that all preferences, and all actors, are equally preferences and actors, with no higher standard to make one better than the other. It follows that each has an equal claim to satisfaction. Morality therefore becomes a system that has nothing to say about how to live but only tells us to stay out of each other’s way and support arrangements that help everyone reach whatever his goals happen to be. The uniquely rational approach to social order, it turns out, is to treat it as a sort of machine—a soulless technically-rational arrangement—for maximizing equal satisfaction of preferences.

But that’s liberalism. The basic liberal standard of equal freedom—that is, equal preference satisfaction—turns out to be simply rational given current understandings of what’s rational, real, and moral. So if someone notices that there are problems with the actual liberalism we see around us, the conclusion is always going to be that we need a freer freedom and more equal equality. A present-day movement that wants to engage public discussion on its own terms must support or reinvent liberalism if it wants to be coherent and rational.

Incoherence and irrationality aren’t very effective in the long run, so conservatism has repeatedly ended up reinventing or rebranding liberalism. There’s nothing else it can do if it goes along with the basic picture of reality that provides the setting for public discussion today. It can point out practical problems, in line with the claim it once made to be logical and realistic, but it has to accept liberal goals, and if it wants to be American it also has to adopt a can-do attitude. The result is that in the long run it has to treat the problems it points out as things it can solve. It has to give up the appeal to logic and realism in favor of an appeal to faith in America.

Read the whole thing.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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