Home/Daniel Larison/Temperamental Conservatism and the Importance of Limits

Temperamental Conservatism and the Importance of Limits

Tim Stanley puts together a list of “some of the things that make Americans more conservative than the British.” Several of the things he mentions may help explain why some Americans are more inclined to vote Republican, but they don’t prove that Americans are more conservative than the British. If anything, they prove just the opposite. For instance, Stanley writes:

Having so much space means they don’t share the British obsession with conservation of the natural habitat. Nor do they accept the notion of limits. Austerity is an alien idea in a land where natural wealth seems limitless and every man has a birthright to exploit it. Jimmy Carter style pessimism is a no-no.

Stanley has just listed the stereotypical American rejection of at least three things that are at the heart of any meaningful definition of conservative, and then said that these are reasons why Americans are more conservative than the British. Stanley is right that lack of interest in conservation, rejection of limits, opposition to austerity, and disapproval of pessimism make many Americans more likely to be Republican voters. These are also the reasons why temperamental and philosophical conservatism fares so poorly in the political coalition that identifies itself with ideological conservatism. If there is one thing truly alien to a conservative temperament, it is the rejection of limits. The Republican nominees believe that there ought not be any limits to American power in the world, and if they do exist at the moment they ought to be overcome. They are convinced that growth can be without limit as well. As far as they are concerned, acknowledging and respecting limits are the equivalent of embracing national decline. Unfortunately, it is exactly their rejection of limits that exhausts national strength and natural resources more quickly and hastens the coming of decline in the future.

Temperamental conservatism understands that in order to preserve anything, it must be kept within certain limits in order to be sustainable. It recognizes that resources are finite and can be exhausted by current generations at the expense of posterity. Finally, it knows that a nation’s power and influence are things that have to be husbanded and not frittered away in pointless displays of supremacy. Many Americans still possess a conservative temperament, but if they vote for Romney they are doing so in spite of that temperament and not because of it.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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