"There are only two ways of telling the complete truth—anonymously and posthumously."Thomas Sowell

Monday, September 18, 2006

The Evolution Of A Conservative: Playing Defense

One must have something in mind when applying a label to oneself. A label subject to as many divergent associations as "conservative" makes this requirement harder to meet, but no less urgent.

My preferred interpretation stems from an article written by Lew Rockwell, that appeared in Liberty magazine some years ago. Rockwell was, at that time, setting forth on the ideological journey that would put him at odds with most other American libertarians and conservatives. Yet there were several observations in that article that ought to have been taken quite seriously by members of both camps -- indeed, by members of all American political designations. Central among them was this:

Western civilization, most particularly American civilization, is eminently worthy of preservation and defense.

The key words of that assertion are the three at the end: preservation and defense. The target of such efforts, by Rockwell's lights, should be our civilization and culture as a whole and in fundamentals, rather than any detail excrescence. Thus, the top marginal tax rate, whatever it might be, is relatively unimportant, but the rule of law, a justice system blind to identity and group affiliation, free speech, free markets, and an ethic of public decency must be upheld at all costs.

To me, this expresses the core of conservatism. A conservative seeks to protect the fundamental principles from which the nation he loves has sprung. He's willing to entertain detail differences about specific policies with his fellows. He'll argue reasonably with anyone who's in accord with him on the pre-eminence of those fundamentals. But he'll brook no assault on them; that's tantamount to treason.

A conservative is a defender.

Here is where the Libertarian Party has committed its most grievous misstep. Party spokesmen and candidates have interpreted the assaults of Black Tuesday, and other Islamic terror attacks on Americans and their interests, as arguments for an American retreat from the Middle East and a return to a non-interventionist foreign policy. The milder ones argue that Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom were at best terrible mistakes; others claim that the expeditions exceeded the federal government's Constitutional authority. The question of what degree of political and military engagement with other nations would be best is debatable, but to argue that America had no right to respond to a terrorist atrocity on its own soil, thousands killed and tens of billions of dollars in property destroyed, puts its proponent beyond the pale for anyone who regards our civilization as worthy of defense.

Of course, Buchananites have taken the same position. They receive more tolerance from mainstream conservatives because of their premise: that our military expeditions have actually harmed American interests, and our ability to defend them, over the long term. Even so, the intimation that the best thing to have done was not to respond sits very poorly with the overwhelming majority of conservatives, sufficiently so that Buchanan is now considered unwelcome in mainstream conservative gatherings.

In the precursor to this essay, Tom Van Dyke counterpoised "conservative" to "progressive." Well, yes and no. Wholesome conservatism will embrace changes that are consistent with the fundamentals it seeks to preserve and defend, if those changes can be shown to yield net positive results -- progress -- by some widely accepted standard. Progressivism, historically, has been dismissive of such constraints. Its progenitors were fond of saying that "reality is inherently unfinished," and that a sufficient application of will and effort can transform it into whatever we want it to be. Such a doctrine vitiates the very notion of an enduring principle.

A classical liberal who upholds a set of fundamental principles is also a conservative, whether or not he chooses to style himself as such.

More anon.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Yes, conservatives can be liberals, but not progressives.

Of course, at one time, before they got "classical," liberals were quite radical, and the opposition to the liberals was of course, conservative.

Edmund Burke is called the first "modern" conservative, but he of course admitted the need for a society to grow (by cautious change) or die, which makes him a sort of liberal (but not progressive) conservative.

And the Liberal Party of Australia, John Howard's, is what we'd call conservative. In the US, there are two types of conservatives, one that is anti-statist and libertarian (the Edmunds), the others who believe a society must change its traditions sparingly for the sake of continuity and self-preservation (the Burkes).

But we are united against the Jacobins (the progressives), who believe that all tradition is simply arbitrary convention (usually preserved for the haves, against the have-nots), and we're just a few good ideas away from the best society.

Now of course, FDR was a progressive, but we might say that the preservation of his welfare state, which is still very much with us, could be seen as "conservative."

It's all so confusing. Upon further review, perhaps "radical" is a better counterpoint to "conservative." In view of the carnage of the 20th century, I confess to a certain fear of New Ideas, and will happily cop to "conservative."

Pascal Fervor said...


At the part where you joshed "it's all so confusing," it does not have to be once you review the participants' tactics.

Consider the many who rise to defend the welfare state on the one hand, or to vigorously suppress or subdue all who try to reform it on the other.

The former are displaying attributes typical of antidisestablishmentarians (good cops) and the latter behave as reactionaries (bad cops).

I suspect it won't easily be accepted, but I believe its worthy of consideration because it provides clearer distinctions than the clich├ęd liberal vs. conservative ever could (witness your lament).

It's not hard to spot the former group because you'll find they retread many of the same arguments as their Antidisestablishmentarian forebears.

As for reactionaries versus radicals, that's hardly worth making a distinction. In this instance, those "radicals," in that they are zealously defending what their radical forebears' demands helped bring about, they are quintessentially reactionaries.

See this FWP essay for more development.