Conservative Philosophy

Conservative Philosophy:

Cassandra had a post yesterday examining conservative philosophy, and there was some interesting discussion around its history. Via Arts & Letters Daily today, a review of a book hostile to conservatism. The author of the review was unimpressed, but cites an earlier book that made the point better:

A decade earlier, Raymond English had touched upon a similar theme in an article in The American Scholar titled “Conservatism: The Forbidden Faith.” Their point was that conservatism as a political philosophy runs against the American grain and thus will always play something of an incongruous and subordinate role in a revolutionary nation dedicated to equality, democracy, and restless change. While the conservative case for order, tradition, and authority may be useful as a corrective for the excesses of democracy, it can never hope to supplant liberalism as the nation’s official governing philosophy. As Rossiter put it, “Our commitment to democracy means that Liberalism will maintain its historic dominance over our minds, and that conservative thinkers will continue as well-kept but increasingly restless hostages to the American tradition.”
We often talk about Jefferson as liberal (classically so, not a part of the modern 'social liberal' movement), and Hamilton as the conservative. It's easy to forget, though, that Hamilton was extremely liberal compared to English conservatives of the day.
What conservatives want is the right kind of person.

For example, one of the thing American conservatives insisted on was restricting the franchise to men; who were white; and also had property in the community of a certain value. That was shorthand for the kind of person they thought could be trusted to exercise power.

But the American Revolution was fought against Europe's version of Traditional Conservatism, which is a philosophy much older than this country. Even the most conservative of the American revolutionaries were wildly liberal (in the Classical sense) compared to English conservatives of the day. Recall that the English, in those days, had a similarly restricted franchise; but it only elected the House of Commons; and that parliament had a House of Lords that could flatly override the Commons, as they trusted nobility of blood more than any commoner; and there was a King who could, in some circumstances, ride herd on parliament.

That situation had only been produced by a series of liberalizing revolutions: the original power had been concentrated in the person of the king and his loyal nobility alone. It spread to the class of knights (who were not nobility) only because of the absolute need of such men in the wars of the period; the lower nobility and their knights won rights from the Crown during the reign of King John, whose barons forced the Magna Carta from him. But that gave rights mostly to the barons and the King: it was only over time that it came to be interpreted more broadly.

Etc., through the Wars of the Roses, which was followed by a conservative re-concentration of power under the Tudors and the "Divine Right of Kings" vision that predominated under the Stewart kings. That led directly to the English Civil War, which was the first major expansion of commoner power; but there was a counterrevolution under Charles II, followed by a re-counter-revolution under James II, followed by several attempted re-re-revolutions under the Jacobites.

So, yes, Hamilton was a conservative next to Jefferson; but neither of them were conservative next to the English conservatives. They believed that "the right kind of man" wasn't just any common man, but a man of noble blood and descent.

Education couldn't make a nobleman of a commoner. Right? They didn't have the upbringing.

That's the position that conservatives hold here. Education can't make the right kind of man: only upbringing can do that. And they're right, exactly to the degree that Aristotle was right.

The question -- and for Americans, a very difficult question -- is exactly where you draw the line. How do you say, in a land that is sworn to 'liberty and justice for all,' that only the right kind of man can be trusted with power?

More, the lines have shifted so far and so often that it's hard to see where we draw them now. It wasn't true that only the king and high nobility could handle power: Washington handled it, and he was a tradesman. It isn't true that only white men can handle it: Dr. King handled it with great finesse. You can run this line down as far as you like.

Yet there is a basic truth there, one that Aristotle saw and that remains true. Not everyone is trustworthy, and it really is a combination of blood and upbringing that makes you so. That is, some people are born wicked, for reasons that presumably have a physical cause; and some are raised so that they can't see the right, but have notions of "justice" that include killing innocents to bring about the Caliphate, or aborting children that interfere with their pursuit of gratification, or the idea that lying is OK if it's for a good cause. Etc.

That's the conservative position: that there is a kind of natural nobility among men, who are the right ones to lead. They need to be (at least) free of 'bad blood,' such as leads to wickedness; and they need to be given the right upbringing from an early age. If you get that person, they can become a good ruler and a wise leader once they are educated.

But not just anyone will do.
The American experiment is a liberal experiment, which has made inroads expanding the franchise easy. Indeed, it's made them seem like simple justice:
As for the culture war—well, most conservatives would be glad to have it over with, if only cultural liberals and radicals would call a halt to their provocations. The historical record is clear that the first shots fired in every engagement of the culture war came from the left in the form of school busing, the abortion decision of the Supreme Court, the Mapplethorpe exhibition, political correctness on the campus, and (now) gay marriage. Indeed, what many call the “religious right” came into existence in the late 1970s in response to the Carter administration’s effort to deny tax exemption to religious schools on the grounds that they were segregated. Absent liberal provocations, there would have been no culture war and probably no “religious right” to wage it.
"Busing" and the Carter administration's attempt to force integration at religious schools are a good example of how the extension of the franchise was only part of the liberal project of empowering everyone equally. That's exactly the kind of democratic impulse that leads to the mob, to the tyranny of the majority, and to all the things that Cassandra warns against.

In the context of America, though, it's very hard to argue against them. The English could point to a nobility of blood or the divine right of kings; we threw all that out from the start. So what's left? We started with race (white) and property (you should own some): but racism hasn't proven healthy, to say the least that may be said; and while the focus on property worked well in some respects, it cannot be justified in an economic system that can sometimes overwhelm your ability to own property through no fault of your own.

In the decades after the Civil War, for example, fewer and fewer people in the South, black or white, owned their own farms. This was not because they were not working hard, but because the price of cotton was declining every year due to overproduction. Yet the farmers were not free to farm something else, because they could get no loans from the banks if they did not agree to grow cotton. The banking policy was set in New York, by national banks not the least bit interested in the question of whether farmers owned their lands, or lost it; or if they had any interest, it was in taking over the farm and reducing the owner to a tenant. Under such a system, you could quickly disenfranchise good, hard working yeoman farmers of the sort that were the backbone of Jefferson's vision: exactly the kind of people he wanted to have the right to vote. The bankers would retain their right.

It is crucial to be able to get 'the right kind of person' into office, if only to balance the worst instincts of the machine politicians, the various interest groups and lobbies. This is why Reagan was in fact a conservative: he was very much the right kind of man. It is why Sarah Palin was exciting to many conservatives, even though she plainly needed quite a bit of education to be ready for the role she was asked to assume. It was at the heart of McCain's candidacy, especially in 2000. It doesn't bear up well against machine politics, though: democracy is its enemy, because the right kind of person is not like everyone. They won't promise just anything, nor deliver all the wealth of the nation in return for votes.

The Republican machine hasn't been able to produce these kind of people: what we've gotten from them instead is "Compassionate Conservatism," which is just more promising up the wealth of the nation. Nor is it easy to see how a party of such people could prosper in a hyper-democratic environment. Virtue is not popular, and calls to virtue even less so. Yet what is even harder than getting the right kind of person elected in this environment is changing the environment: there is simply no practical way to restrict the franchise, to repeal the 17th Amendment, or to do anything else to make America less democratic. Even to say the words "Let's make America less democratic" sounds like treason -- democracy was the whole point, wasn't it? Isn't that why we went to Iraq?

Well, no, opposition to tyrants is not necessarily an endorsement of unlimited democracy: but, as the reviewer points out, George W. Bush's use of Woodrow Wilson's language makes it seem like it was. The Republican party, including its last real leader, adopted the language of the liberal rather than the conservative movement. In their domestic spending spree, they adopted its method as well.

Conservatism may be, not quite dead, but relegated to the fringe. Republicans may return to power, but they will no more be able to enact sweeping changes than the Obama administration has been able to do. What will produce the change is the coming collapse of the government, as it bankrupts and fails to meet its sovereign debt obligations. That day is ever closer. It is time to start thinking about what we would like to do when it arrives.

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