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What Conservatism Means

Hint: There’s no such thing as creative destruction.

John Stuart Mill famously dubbed the Conservative Party the “stupid party.” Mill was, of course, a liberal—but then so are most intellectuals. The English conservative, Roger Scruton, has recently written of his own experience growing up in the middle of the 20th century: “[A]lmost all English intellectuals regarded the term ‘conservative’ as a term of abuse. … [it was] to be on the side of age against youth, the past against the future, authority against innovation … spontaneity and life.”As well as hostility, there is likely to be ignorance. Conservatism does not lend itself easily to schematic, didactic exposition, and conservatives do not readily engage in it. In introducing his anthology The Conservative Tradition, R.J. White defensively (or perhaps smugly and archly) claims, “To put conservatism in a bottle with a label is like trying to liquify the atmosphere or give an accurate description of the beliefs of a member of the Anglican Church. The difficulty arises from the nature of the thing. For conservatism is less a political doctrine than a habit of mind, a mode of feeling, a way of living.”

Bearing this resistance to formal treatment in mind, it is perfectly in character that what is widely accepted as the ablest and most influential statement of conservative views—Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France —is not a systematic statement of a position but a polemic reacting to a particular political situation: an unprecedented upheaval in the most illustrious and powerful country in Europe. Embedded therein, in unsystematic fashion, are the tenets of a political philosophy.Two initial points about Burke’s Reflections: first, it was published in 1790, before the most violent manifestations of the revolution—before the terror, the regicide, the revolution devouring its own children, and the emergence of a military dictatorship. Therefore, Burke was writing with foresight, not hindsight.

Second, at the time it was published, the revolution was still seen in England as an immense liberating step forward. Most are familiar with Wordsworth’s “Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive” reaction and that of Charles James Fox: “How much the greatest event it is that ever happened in the world! And how much the best!” In launching his denunciation of the revolution, Burke was not expressing a popular opinion among thinking Englishmen but rather going against the tide.

Central to his reaction was a profound hostility toward what he called variously “speculation,” “metaphysics,” or “theoretical reasoning” as applied to social and political questions and his conviction of the danger of such applications. He was writing at a time when the revolutionaries in France seriously believed that they could reconstruct the world from scratch by the application of general, abstract principles—to the point of introducing a new calendar to mark the beginning of that new world. In holding this belief they were not exceptional but representative of the most sophisticated opinion of their time, putting into action belief about the power of reason that representatives of the Enlightenment had energetically propagated. Burke rejected that belief for two reasons, the first having to do with the nature of society and politics, the second with the nature of human beings and their rational faculties.

When he wrote the Reflections, Burke had been engaged in politics at a high level for three decades. He saw that activity as an infinitely complex, difficult, and delicate one. The factors at work were many, and the ways they interrelated were complex. Politicians had to act in concrete, discrete situations, not in general or abstract areas. He wrote,

The science of constructing a Commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every other experimental science, not to be taught a priori. It is a matter of the most delicate and complicated skill. … A statesman differs from a professor at a university. The latter has only the general view of society; the former, the statesman, has a number of circumstances to combine with those general ideas, and to take into his consideration. Circumstances are infinite, and infinitely combined; are variable and transient; he who does not take them into consideration is not erroneous but stark mad—he is metaphysically mad.

In other words, discrimination in terms of circumstances trumps consistency in terms of principle and logic, and insistence on consistency regardless of circumstances and consequences is likely to be disastrous. Think of this the next time someone insists that because we act in one way toward Country X (say with respect to human rights) it would be hypocritical not to act in the same way to Country Y, regardless of the difference between the two countries or of the difference in our relationships. As Dean Acheson once put it, “I am not in the slightest bit worried because somebody can say, ‘Well, you said so and so about Greece, why isn’t all this true about China?’ I will be polite. I will be patient, and I will try to explain why Greece is not China. But my heart will not be in the battle.”

Society, for Burke, is neither a collection of loosely related individuals nor a mechanism with interchangeable parts. It is a living organism, and anything that affects the well being of any part of it will affect the whole. It is, therefore, he insists, “with infinite caution that any man ought to venture on pulling down an edifice which has answered in any tolerable degree for ages the common purpose of society.”

There are two problems of which Burke, and conservatives after him, have been acutely aware. The first is that of unintended consequences—that because of the complexity and interconnectedness of things, in initiating change on an ambitious scale, more is almost invariably set in motion than the initiator had in mind, and the result may be quite different from the intended one. Thus, in Burke’s words, “[V]ery plausible schemes with very pleasing commencements have often shameful and lamentable consequences.” To stop elephants from being killed, the ivory trade was banned. This made ivory scarce. Prices went up, and the rewards for poaching became greater. More people engaged in it, and more elephants were killed than before the ban was introduced.

The second problem is that of latent function. As well as their apparent functions, institutions often perform other, hidden functions of a very important nature—something that may not become apparent until those institutions have been dismantled.In his 1959 book, Political Man, widely regarded as a classic of its kind, the sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset observes the apparently “absurd fact” that 10 out of the 12 stable European and English-speaking democracies are monarchies. This, to Lipset’s mind, could not be an accident. He suggests that during the rapid and profound social and economic changes of the last 100 years, which apparently were making monarchy increasingly irrelevant, the institution played a crucial role in retaining the loyalty of those groups that were losing as a result of the changes: the aristocracy, the traditionalists, the clerical and rural sectors. The persistence of the central institution provided reassurance that the world they knew was not totally lost, that the new social and political order could be adapted to. On the other hand, in countries that dispensed with monarchy (e.g., France, Germany, and the Hapsburg Empire after World War I), reconciliation and stability proved much scarcer commodities. Therefore, concludes Lipset, the changes that apparently made monarchy more anachronistic actually increased its importance as an “important traditional integrative institution during a transitional period.”

Conservatives may be more attuned to the appreciation of latent function than liberals precisely because they tend to be more concerned with stability and what might disturb it and because they have an organic view of society. If one’s focus is on individual rights and needs, and if one thinks in terms of rational patterns, then one may be less alert to latent functions.

If the complexity of society and the political order was one reason Burke feared radical and rapid change, a second and just as powerful reason was his reservation about the proposed engine of change: the role of reason in human affairs. Burke rejected the Enlightenment view of man as a predominantly rational, calculating, logical being. His rational side exists, but it is a small part of his total make-up. “We are afraid,” said Burke, “to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small” Habit, instinct, custom, faith, reverence, prejudice—the accumulated practical knowledge acquired through experience, all this was more important than abstract reasoning. Collectively, and for better or worse, it constituted man’s nature.Burke was not alone in expressing these views. The great Scottish philosopher David Hume had insisted on the importance of habit and custom a generation earlier. And a year or two before Burke wrote, across the Atlantic the shapers of the American Constitution and authors of The Federalist Papers were insisting that in constructing a political order, the aggressive, selfish, acquisitive aspects of man’s nature must be taken fully into account. “A man must be far gone in Utopian speculation,” thought Hamilton, “to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious.”But they were all arguing against the prevailing intellectual tide of the times—the Age of Enlightenment—which saw customs and habits and prejudice as impediments that could be swept aside to restore the human mind to its pristine state as a clean slate on which reason could then write its message. For the French revolutionaries, what passed for human nature was not something to be accommodated or curbed, as the authors of The Federalist Papers believed, but rather to be altered.One might see this as the crucial difference between the French, with their notion of restarting history and creating an entirely new set of perfectly rational political institutions, and the Americans, who when it came to framing a Constitution, put their faith in checks and balances and separation of powers to keep in control the effects of what Christians would term original sin. This conflict between the tabula rasa school and the human-nature school has continued and has been central to many debates about social and political policy.

In contrast to what was happening in France, where everything was concentrated in Paris, Burke put great emphasis on the local, the proximate, and particular. “To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle (the germ as it were) of public affections.” Here Burke may be seen as anticipating Tocqueville in stressing the importance of civil society and intermediate, participatory associations, as against the state; the actual particular wills of people going about their particular lives, as against the abstract General Will espoused by the revolution.

As opposed to the abstract Rights of Man, Burke spoke of the existing rights that man actually possessed and enjoyed. He sometimes used the term natural rights but meant by it the historical, prescriptive rights inherited within the context of particular societies and legal systems: the rights of Englishmen, or Americans, or Indians or Frenchmen—not of “man” in the abstract. Again the particular is contrasted to the general and the historical to the abstract.

For Burke, historical continuity was central to his understanding of society. In one of his most quoted phrases, he described it as a “partnership … between those who are living, those who are dead and those who are yet to be born.” That is, the present is not the property of the living, to make of it whatever they will. It is an estate held in trust. Those who hold it have a fiduciary responsibility to hand it on in good condition. This trust the revolutionaries were in the process of betraying. In the name of reason, liberty, and equality they were destroying all the historical institutions of legitimate authority.

With authority gone, the result would be not liberty but increasing dependence on naked force to compel obedience and maintain order. With extraordinary insight, and no historical precedent to guide him (the concept of totalitarianism was still to be invented), at the outset of the revolution, when optimism and idealism reigned, Burke intuited that it must end in terror and dictatorship.

Burke has frequently been represented as a reactionary. But Burke was not defending or advocating a return to an aristocratic or monarchic order. He was defending the mixed system that existed in the Britain of his day—a combination of aristocratic, commercial, oligarchic, and democratic elements. Far from opposing all reform, Burke insisted, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” The issue was not reform versus no reform; it was between the view that reform was a simple matter that could be engaged in sweepingly and the view that it required prudence and was best approached incrementally.

That Burke sometimes sided with those in authority, and sometimes with those resisting it, has led to the charge that he was inconsistent and opportunistic. But Burke was perfectly consistent in that he opposed the abuse of power, whoever was abusing it—king, corrupt company, intellectuals, or mob.

When, then, do his ideas become relevant and attractive? Michael Oakeshott gives the obvious answer: when there is much to be enjoyed and when that enjoyment is combined with a sense that what is enjoyed is in danger of being lost. It is the combination of enjoyment and fear that stimulates conservatism.

That seems convincing until one considers: if one is living in and enjoying, say, a liberal or a social democratic or a capitalist society; and if that society suddenly comes under threat, why can’t one defend it with liberal arguments, or social democratic, or capitalist arguments? Why does one need conservative arguments?

In an article called “Conservatism as an Ideology,” published in 1957, Samuel Huntington observes that unlike nearly every other ideology, conservatism offers no vision of an ideal society. There is no conservative Utopia. Indeed, conservatism has no substantive institutional content. It has been used to defend all sorts of different institutional arrangements, from traditional to feudal to liberal to capitalist to social democratic. Because it is concerned not with content but with process, with change and stability, its true opposite is not liberalism but radicalism. Conservatism advances arguments that stress the difficulty and danger of rapid change and the importance of stability and continuity and prudence; radicalism expresses enthusiasm concerning innovation and boldness in embracing change.

Conservatism, Huntington maintains, is the product of intense ideological and social conflict when consensus breaks down and when an existing institutional order can no longer be defended in its own terms. “When the challengers fundamentally disagree with the ideology of the existing society … and affirm a basically different set of values, the common framework of discussion is destroyed.” When it is precisely liberal values and institutions that are being rejected, there is no point in appealing to those values to defend them. It is then that conservative arguments become indispensable: arguments that defend the established institutions precisely because they are established. When radicalism prevails, conservative arguments must be resorted to in order to counter it.

Particularly intriguing about Huntington’s argument is that it perfectly predicted what was to happen in the 1960s. In that decade, there was a powerful upsurge of radicalism, associated initially with the Civil Rights movement and protest against the Vietnam War but quickly going beyond that to reject the whole fabric of American society. New Deal liberalism was denounced and rejected as “Cold War liberalism” or worse, and the radicals began their long march through our institutions.

It was in these circumstances that a group of liberal intellectuals—almost all of them members of the Democratic Party, many of them prominent members of the New York intellectual community—began to oppose the radical movement, to defend American institutions and values with classic conservative arguments. They were attacked from the left and derisively labeled “neoconservatives.” It was meant as an insult but readily accepted by Irving Kristol—the godfather of neoconservatism—and his colleagues.

They became an important force in American politics and have remained so. Many joined the Republican Party. They brought with them intellectual and polemical skills that had been in scarce supply on the Right, and by the 1980s they had seized the intellectual initiative from the Left.

Under the neoconservatives’ guidance, we now have a president committed not only to nation building in Iraq but also to region building throughout the Middle East. The belief that democratic institutions, behavior, and ways of thought can be exported and transplanted to societies that have no traditions of them is a profoundly unconservative, indeed a radical, belief. Conservatives traditionally have believed in the slow, organic growth of political institutions, not their imposition from without. Yet the most enthusiastic advocates of exporting democracy are American neoconservatives, which perhaps suggests that their break with their earlier modes of thought has been less than complete.

In the 1770s, when Britain had recently added North America and India to its Empire, when its economy was the strongest in the world, when it ruled the seas, it occupied a position not too different from the one occupied by the United States today. Contemplating all this power, Burke uttered a warning that seems to be pertinent in our present circumstances:

Among precautions against ambition, it may not be amiss to take precautions against our own. I must fairly say, I dread our own power and our own ambition: I dread our being too much dreaded. … We may say that we shall not abuse this astonishing and hitherto unheard of power. But every other nation will think we shall abuse it. It is impossible but that, sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin.


Owen Harries was Editor-in-Chief of the National Interest from 1985-2001. This essay is an edited version of a paper that appeared in Policy, the journal of The Centre for Independent Studies, Sydney, Australia.



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