James has some interesting thoughts on Austin Bramwell’s TAC review of Heads In The Sand (not online yet, sorry) and his definition of conservatism, which Bramwell has defined in terms of defending the legitimacy of institutions.  I may say something about the review at another time, but I want to address the other item first. 

If we applied the label institution widely enough to include social and religious institutions, that might take account of part of what conservatism is, but to ground it in a defense of legitimacy without reference to authority or legal or religious tradition seems potentially more “vacuous” than to say that conservatives respect tradition.  Dwelling on the obvious limits of this basic statement about tradition, Bramwell is correct when he writes:

A “tradition” is no more than something which is handed down.  That which is handed down, however, can be wise or unwise, uplifting or debasing, liberating or constraining.

Yet an institution’s legitimacy is always grounded in some political and legal or, quite often, in a religious tradition.  The legitimacy of institutions depends on a tradition, which, as Bramwell says, may be wise or unwise, uplifting or debasing.  The Supreme Soviet had de facto legitimacy in its own state and the Soviet government’s institutions were regarded as legitimate, but does that then mean that the men who sought to defend and preserve it were conservatives?  In what way does this defense-of-legitimacy definition differ from the utterly unsatisfying “conservatives resist change” thesis, which is another way of saying that conservatives defend the status quo?  What is more, if that is what the defense-of-legitimacy thesis means, why would anyone embrace it unless he believes that the status quo is acceptable?  In other words, if this is the essence of conservatism, why would anyone find conservatism even remotely worthwhile?  Defending the legitimacy of institutions that have none, or have lost it, is not terribly edifying, either, and such a defense seems to take no account of whether such institutions’ legitimacy deserves defending.  Are the members of ZANU-PF conservatives?  Of course they are not, but under this definition they could readily be considered as such. 

We are reluctant to recognise legitimacy in barbaric and totalitarian states on the assumption that they base their rule in a rude appeal to power, rather than authority, and indeed they displace the idea of authority all together.  Historically, communist regimes tend to strip away legitimising myths (“power comes from the barrel of a gun”) at the same time that they promote the biggest fantasy of them all, which is that they were, are, workers’ governments.  So, properly speaking, such regimes cannot have legitimate institutions that rightfully possess authority, but the legitimacy of those institutions is still defended by those who would maintain the status quo, and particularly those who would maintain the conditions that permit these defenders to hold some considerable power and status.  So to speak of legitimacy without discussing authority and usurpation does not get us very far.  There is something that must precede any discussion of legitimacy, and this is respect for rightful authority, which implies that authority can be wrongfully claimed and thus illegitimately possessed by a usurper.  That, in turn, implies that this legitimate authority has grounding in something other than accident or widespread deference.

Someone who respects a certain tradition will want to defend the legitimacy of the institutions that derive from that tradition in part because the tradition is bound up with this matter of legitimacy.  Furthermore, in respecting the tradition it is possible to recognise departures from it or attacks upon it from usurpers.  Remarkably, Bramwell’s entire discussion of legitimacy does not consider the problem of usurpation and what the appropriate conservative response to it would be.  Usurpers will frame their actions as legitimate and appropriate.  Caesar was supposedly a protector of the Republic, and William III was not an invading foreigner aided by traitors, but was the liberating, rightful ruler!  Those who believe these fictions and follow the usurpers are not, as far as I can tell, conservative in any sense of the word.  They may be very pragmatic, and they will find a place for themselves in the new order, but allies of usurpation cannot be conservatives.  If conservatives are concerned with the legitimacy of institutions, there must be some standard against which they can measure whether those institutions have been taken over by those who do not have a legitimate claim to them.  One can very easily imagine how this defense-of-legitimacy conservatism could rally around an abusive executive in the name of defending the legitimacy of the Presidency; indeed, this slavish attitude towards the Presidency has been present among a great many self-styled conservatives for a long time.  If “respecting tradition” is too vague or vacuous, Bramwell’s alternative seems to me to be potentially quite pernicious. 

While Bramwell puts too much weight on a defense of legitimacy as the defining element of conservatism, he similarly undervalues the importance of legitimism within any particular political tradition.  For example, he can say about an arch-usurper that he “preserved legitimate government in North America in the only way possible,” which is to say, “he preserved legitimate government in North America” (the poor Canadians don’t count, I suppose) simply by coercion and power and not by any appeal to rightful authority.  Curiously, legitimate government was not threatened with extinction–certainly no more so than when the colonies rebelled–so how was Lincoln’s course of action “the only way possible”?  Did the Crown lose its legitimacy in the eyes of all its other subjects when it failed to suppress the colonial rebellion?  It did not.  Then again, if avoidance of war on this continent was the goal, our ancestors certainly should not have rebelled against British rule.  Further, it would seem to follow that the Loyalists (and our Canadian neighbours) were, are, the last defenders of legitimate government on this continent, and they managed this without having to kill hundreds of thousands of people.  If that was the case, this suggests that legitimate government is more durable and is less in need of mass slaughter to preserve itself than the example of Lincoln would have us believe.  Indeed, one might make the limited need for coercion and the lack of violent resistance the proof that a government continues to be accepted, or at least endured, as the legitimate government.  Arguably, once it must suppress those it considers to be its people with bloodshed it has not only “lost” legitimacy because of the violence used to suppress its people, but had already lost that legitimacy, which is why there was the need to resort to force to shore up its deteriorating position.     

Bramwell also neglects religion or religious authority in sanctioning certain institutions as legitimate.  Most states throughout history have claimed that their legitimate authority on earth derives from some divine authority or heavenly mandate, and certainly Christians believe that they are obliged to obey the lawful government, which receives its power from God, and even some modern states still rely on employing religion to bolster their legitimacy.  While there are and have been secular conservatives, it is curious that Bramwell makes no mention of the preservation of religious tradition or religious institutions in providing his definition of conservatism.  Perhaps he means to include religious institutions in his more general discussion of institutions, but when discussing legitimacy the failure to mention religion in any way seems to be an important oversight.