Our problems remain epistemological.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Garry Wills on conservatism and its view of government

What is the conservative conception of the proper role of government? The American Conservative has posted an essay originally written in 1964 by now-liberal but then-conservative Garry Wills that seeks to answer that question: The Convenient State. Just in the midst of the Goldwater moment in the GOP, Wills wrote a cogent and classically informed take on the necessity and limits of the state in conservative thought.

Far from being utopian or ideological, conservatism as Wills explains builds upon the fundamental conviction within western civilization that there is a zone of individual liberty upon which the state may not intrude, a part of man that is his and his alone. Libertarianism expands this zone beyond its prudential limits, while totalitarianism denies its existence altogether. In the western world, conservatism has thus seen the role of the state as limited, as a vindicator of justice that respects the individuality of the human person. In this, it seeks (as conservatism always does) to preserve balance. In this, Wills follows no less a conservative thinker than Edmund Burke.

Where libertarianism suffers the temptation to eschew justice in favor of maximization of private privilege and restraint from limitation, and totalitarianism absorbs the individual into a vision of the true, the good and the beautiful that is uniform and coerced, for the Wills of 1964 conservatism embraces the contingent nature of justice in human societies marked by diversity and variety. In its quest, conservatism avoids the sterile and dogmatic seduction of rationalism; not for the conservative is the quixotic attempt to remake society on the basis of abstraction. As Wills puts it:
Each society must form a unique constitution, an “agreed station” of components, growing out of the resources it can command. The ideal state–of a justice or a freedom defined outside any particular human context–is as meaningless as some uniform ideal of individual fulfillment. Is monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy the best form of government? Such a question simply breeds further questions: Best for what society? And what kind of monarchy or democracy? These questions are as hopeless as similar ones would be in the case of an ideal life for individuals. Is it better that man be an artist or philosopher, monk or martyr, doctor or teacher, worker or statesman? And if he is a doctor, should he engage in research, psychology, or compassionate work among the poor? If an artist, should he write or paint in an austere or demonstrative style? To attempt an abstract answer to these questions is to deny the mystery of individuality, the secret springs of motive, that make up the human fact of freedom. As ever, rationalism leads to sterile paradox, to an ideal freedom that is a denial of freedom. 
Read it all.

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