"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Evolution Of A Conservative, Part One: First Delineations

I've been piqued by S. T. Karnick's recent statements, in the comments to a couple of his own essays, that he's "not a conservative." Now, he didn't make it sound as if it were somehow an unworthy thing to be; he just stated that he wasn't one. Yet in the absence of those statements, what I've learned of Mr. Karnick's values and general political posture would have caused me to conclude that he is a conservative. You see, I share those values and that posture, and "conservative" (of the libertarian variety) is what I call myself.

Political labels are always at least a tad fuzzy. These days, they appear to be more indistinct than they've been since before FDR. But most people do label themselves one thing or another. One of the reasons has always been to provide others with a condensed guide to their positions. Another has been the psychic comfort that comes with group identification. It seems that despite the gray zones around all of today's conventionally labeled political poles, labels still serve those purposes to an extent sufficient to make them attractive to most Americans. Which compels us to ask:


  • If Pat Buchanan, Charles Krauthammer, George Bush, and my old friend Smith who thinks that no one except soldiers should be permitted to cross the border in either direction are all conservatives;
  • If William Safire, Mark Steyn, William F. Buckley and my old friend Jones whose favorite pastime is hauling his Uzi and his bipod to Central Park and killing drug dealers in the wee hours are all conservatives;
  • If Steve Forbes, Bob Dole, Ernest van den Haag and my old friend Davis who's called for a 50% tax on all profits and the outright confiscation of all estates are all conservatives;


...what does "conservative" really mean? Could it be that the word has been drained of all objective significance?

(Incidentally, the names Smith, Jones, and Davis are used above as pseudonyms for real persons. My friends form a rather diverse lot.)

A century ago, a European observer of our society, a certain Herbert George Wells, wrote in his book The Future Of America that "All Americans are, from the English point of view, Liberals of one sort or another," by which he meant what we would call classical liberals. Wells, a socialist, was hostile to classical liberalism, the dominant political posture of the time. He saw it as the principal obstacle socialists such as he, the Webbs, and the Bloomsbury group would need to surmount to achieve their vision of a just society. This makes his observation all the more striking for the time it was made: the heyday of the Progressives, the muckrakers, and the Benthamites, not one of whom would have endorsed the principles of classical liberalism without first registering heavy qualifications to all of them. More, within fifteen years, the United States would go to war in Europe against powers that had not attacked it, Prohibition would be fastened onto the necks of Americans nationwide, and major elements of the program laid out in The Communist Manifesto would be incorporated into federal law.

Gentle Reader, all of that happened in a nation whose favorite nonfiction author was classical liberal titan Herbert Spencer. Let that sink in for a moment. Clearly, "liberal" had at least as much fuzz around it then as "conservative" does today. So "conservative" isn't the first widely used political label to suffer from a certain indeterminacy in specifics.

I've long been of the opinion that "liberal" and "conservative" more suitably designate particular attitudes of welcome or unease toward large social and political changes than coherent political philosophies. Neither term's adopters command a significant consensus about core principles. The political postures of conservatives, in particular, vary greatly and often contradict themselves on specific issues. Yet "conservative" is at this time the most commonplace political self-assessment in America. It must mean something to the persons who use it.

More anon.

5 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

It has been offered that "conservative" is more useful in contradistinction to "progressive."

Since "liberal," especially in its early use, was seen as being anti-statist, it's sort of up for grabs.

Kathy Hutchins said...

Any political orientation that attempts to arrange Randroids, Blood & Soil Buchananites, former Yellow Dog Democrats and Arnold Schwartzenegger under one canvas has got more than a big tent going on. It's no wonder there are contradictions among this bunch. For what it's worth, I have experienced my growing 'conservatism' more as temperment and aesthetic than as a coherent political philosophy. I'm more libertarian than most conservatives, but the unhinged Postrellian futurephilia, worshipping the Xtreme I at the expense of family and community ties and one's responsibility to the demos gives me the screamin' purple willies. So can you call me a conservative? Just don't call me a taxi.

Thomas said...

"Conservative" has become as meaningful a descriptor as "Major League Baseball." That is "conservatives" have disparate political views; baseball teams and players come come in a variety of competencies and field positions. For my take on American "conservatism," see this and then this.

Francis W. Porretto said...

Well, Tom, I can't agree with you on "Major League Baseball." I think it's still acceptably narrowly focused on its core meaning: a group of approximately 1000 overpaid crybabies between the ages of 20 and 45 who lie about their steroid use and slander one another in their pursuit of the Most Valuable Player award. That the specific individuals the group comprises change over time doesn't drain it entirely of meaning.

On a more pleasant note, how about those Yankees, eh?

Doug said...

I see myself as an anti-statist first and foremost. I guess that makes me a classical liberal with libertarian leanings. There are many positions which the current crop of conservatives hold dear that I cannot abide. To believe in freedom of human action tempered by personal responsibility seems to be a rare thing in the current political clime of the United States. I can only hope that an ideal of "ordered liberty" without dependence upon the largesse of the government can be realized.