The Virtues of Conservatism

(Caveat Lector: I am not a conservative. However, recent reflections on institutional experimentation have reminded me of some of the virtues of the philosophical movement that goes under that name.)

With the publication of The Reactionary Mind, Corey Robin has taken up Phil Agre’s old point that conservatism is the defense of aristocracy and privilege. As he puts it in an interview with Daniel Larison:

Conservatism is an inherently counterrevolutionary philosophy and politics, born in reaction and backlash. […] What form will the reaction against these revolutions take? Here is where it gets really interesting, for as I argue in the book, conservatives and counterrevolutionaries often take their cues from the very revolutions they oppose. They mimic the tactics of the revolution, they ape the rhetoric, and most interesting of all, they often incorporate the very categories and idioms of the revolution, often in ways that they themselves are only dimly aware of. Conservatives can often sound like the most rabid revolutionary because, as they come to realize, you have to fight fire with fire.

This seems to me to be completely wrong. Too often, the sniping among elite representatives of liberalism and conservatism allows partisans to take pleasure in turning factual disputes into principled differences. Even Brian Leiter, who I generally agree with on these matters, criticized the conservative intellectual tradition recently, claiming that most are “are intellectual lightweights and dilettantes” and that only Burke and Hayek are worth reading. Worse:

“I strongly suspect that if he weren’t the canonical opponent of the French Revolution, even Burke would not be much read anymore (in a century that included David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Adam Smith, why would anyone even notice Burke except for his conservatism?).”

Are we back to claiming that Hume was a closet Whig? Fine. But surely Burke’s conservatism is valuable, too. Here is a list of conservative insights I put together for my students when teaching the Burke/Paine debate last semester:

  1. Society is irreducibly complex and cannot be redesigned from an armchair: for every well-meaning policy, there will be unintended consequences. (If you don’t understand the initial reasons for a policy, don’t eliminate it!)
  2. Populists often deceive the least advantaged with empty promises in order to win political power. (Beware of egalitarians driving fancy cars!)
  3. Most rich people didn’t work hard, but that doesn’t mean we should disparage hard work. (We should disparage unearned wealth and the exploitation that created it!)
  4. Inequality is bad, but it may be unavoidable: symbolic praise for ordinary Americans won’t fix material inequalities, but it is not empty, either. Rich people shouldn’t get uppity; they got lucky and they should recommit themselves to social equality.
  5. Family matters, communities serve an important purpose in our lives, and faith in God is probably here to stay. (Even if it is probably bunk!)
  6. Faith in experts is a lot more like faith in God than experts would have you believe. (Just like faith in Jesus Christ is a lot more like faith in Allah than priests would have you believe.)
  7. Liberals have silly biases, too.

In truth, I think few contemporary Republicans are actually conservatives in this sense. There’s a great deal of tension between different kinds of conservatives, and there’s little indication that the Burkean conservatism I am channeling here is particularly compatible with the kind of commitment to business and free-markets that also goes under the name conservative. There’s a reason “fusionism” is such a difficult circle to square. But Burkean conservatism is alive and well in the environmental movement, with skepticism about our capacity to tinker without a holistic understanding of “ecological functions” replacing Burke’s similar skepticism about tinkering in “social policy.”

If the underlying interest in conservatism is to preserve privilege and ideologize free markets, they have an odd way of going about it. Conservatives have long held the market at arms-length precisely because it is so disruptive and produces creative destruction in excess of what a society can handle. There’s plenty of market regulation coming out of conservative philosophical circles. They’ve regulated prostitution, drugs, immigration, and even speech, when it’s speech in the form of pornography, blasphemy, or religious radicalism. It’s conservatives that have tried to ban short-selling and leveraged speculation. Conservative banned interest on debt!

Here’s Michael Oakshott:

“relationships… lack something appropriate to them when they are confined to a nexus of supply and demand and allow no room for the intrusion of the loyalties and attachments which spring from familiarity.”

In contrast, liberals tend to be capitalist by default. It takes a lot of work to persuade the average liberal that some voluntary market activity is actually oppressive or coercive and needs to be regulated or banned. All most liberals take away from Marx and Engels is a call for safety regulations and a minimum wage.

Reification and totemization of small differences obscures the vast agreements among partisan ideologues, but among philosophers it is unforgiveable: discounting the conservative intellectual tradition just feeds conservative anti-intellectualism. Both parties have their favored subalterns, and representatives of both parties are willing to use populist language to justify their privileges. I find it especially disturbing when smart well-meaning conservatives are caricatured as elitist, or somehow in the pocket of privilege in a way distinct from liberals, while liberals enjoy most of the wage and status benefits of education, the cultural capital of cities, and intellectual capital of technological savvy.

Speaking only from my own experience: there are far too many BMWs in faculty parking lots.

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