Saturday, March 01, 2008

Conservatism is NOT an ideology: A reminder of what conservatism really is

There have been a lot of tributes to William F. Buckley, Jr. written since his death earlier this week. Almost without exception they have been laudatory--even those written by people who argued with him during his lifetime. They have all commented in some way on Buckley's conservatism. But I came across one tribute that reminds me that there are a lot of people, even those who would admire Buckley's beliefs, who don't necessarily know what conservatism is--or what it isn't.

The remark, well-intended to be sure, was this one:
As an ideological conservative, an historian, and a member of “Generation X,” I am keenly aware that whipper-snappers like me owe a debt of gratitude to men like Buckley, Russell Kirk, Irving Kristol, Henry Regnery, Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, and a host of others who were willing to publicly argue for worthy ideas.
Take careful note of the part of the first clause in italics: an ideological conservative. The author, being a self-described member of "Generation X" (is there anyone else who abhors these generational distinctions as much as I do?), obviously has not had as many opportunities to read the writings of the people this young conservative attempted to honor with the label "ideological conservative" as we baby boomers have had (oops, there I go), so he can be excused. But had he had that opportunity, he would probably have discovered that, at least in the first two instances (Buckley and Kirk, who both co-founded National Review magazine), they would have bristled at being described this way.

Conservatism is not an ideology.

Those who think it is need to read Russell Kirk's The Politics of Prudence, where, on the first page, he contrasts prudential politics with ideological politics, and identifies conservatism clearly with the former, and contrasts it with the latter:
"Politics is the art of the possible," the conservative says: he thinks of political policies as intended to preserve order, justice, and freedom ... The ideologue, on the contrary, thinks of politics as a revolutionary instrument for transforming society and even transforming human nature. In his march toward utopia, the ideologue is merciless.
In establishing this thesis, however, a further definition of 'ideology' itself is probably in order.

Kirk points out that the term 'ideology' was first coined by Destutt de Tracy in Napoleonic times, as an "abstract intellectual of the sort since grown familiar on the left Bank of the Seine, the haunt of all budding ideologues..." Ideology encompasses the positivist notion that there can be a "science of ideas" that, if implemented properly, can bring about a human utopia. Kirk points out that Napoleon himself rejected this doctrine of the ideologues, pointing out that the world is governed not by abstract ideas, but by imagination. Ironically, Napoleon's view had its analog in Einstein's own view of science.

Ideology produces, not "harmony and contentment," but a destructive messianic mentality that, in the 20th century, brought about the deaths of millions. It is the idea that salvation can be had in this world, and that it should replace those doctrines that believe it can be found in the next. It is political religion, or divinized politics--or, as Flannery O'Conner put it in her novel Wise Blood, the "Church of Jesus Christ without Jesus Christ." It is, in Kirk's words, "inverted religion," "a political formula that promises mankind an earthly paradise."

Now of course there are many people who describe themselves as conservatives who are ideological, and insofar as their beliefs are ideological, they are simply not conservatives. I have met them, plenty of them. They sincere and well-meaning, but ultimately their beliefs are just as destructive as those they claim to be fighting against. The idea, for example, that it is the purpose of the United States to "bring Democracy to the world," is one such ideological notion that plagues much conservative thought--or at least thought that goes by that name. Such an idea would have been foreign to the founders, one of whom, John Adams, called ideology, "The science of idiocy."

I am sure there are those who would contest this notion of conservatism, but they need to be aware that, in doing so, they are questioning the whole tradition of conservative thought that goes back to Edmund Burke, a tradition whose best tribute was penned by Kirk in The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, and whose most effective exponents were Kirk and Buckley.

So if conservatism is not ideology, what is it? Once again, we go to Kirk, who, in The Politics of Prudence, sets forth the following conservative principles: (the descriptions are a mixture of Kirk's remarks and my commentary)
  • The conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order: Order is made for man, and man for order, and both human nature and moral truth are unchanging and permanent.
  • The conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity: Tradition is the best source for good political ideas, and the best foundation for society's rules and institutions is the trial and reflection of the generations who went before us, not the novel ideas that just sprung up yesterday.
  • Conservatives believe in what may be called the "Principle of Prescription": We should resist the siren song of those who claim to base their ideas on "reason" in contrast with tradition. "The individual is foolish," said Kirk, "the species is wise." If you base your political ideas on tradition, you get the Boston Tea Party; if you base them on so-called "reason", you get the Terror.
  • Conservatives are guided by their "Principle of Prudence": That we should be guided in all of our political decisions by how it affects society in the long-run, not by how it might improve things tomorrow. "Providence moves slowly," said John Randolph of Roanoke, "but the Devil always hurries."
  • Conservatives pay attention to the "Principle of Variety": The variety of traditional cultures should be preferred to the "deadening egalitarianism" of modern ideologies, and the reality of local cultures should be preferred to the artificiality of so-called "global culture". Note that "Diversity," as currently promoted and practiced, is "variety's" evil twin.
  • Conservatives are chastened by their "Principle of Imperfectability": Because of man's imperfections, Utopia is impossible. Original sin. Apostle Paul. Check out.
  • Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked: The respect for private property is the most necessary of all conditions for a free society, although not necessarily sufficient. When H. L. Mencken said that "economic freedom is the only freedom worth a damn," this is probably what he meant.
  • Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism: The best government is that which is closest to the citizen. In fact, the best and least dangerous kind of government is small and inefficient. Oh, and the only real community is local community: any other kind is simply a mirage of some well-meaning but delusional person who has never actually been a part of a real community. Ignore them--or better yet, defend yourself against them.
  • The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions: This was the idea behind the checks and balances incorporated in our form of government.
  • The thinking conservative understands that permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society: "A body that has ceased to renew itself," says Kirk, "has begun to die." To call for change for the sake of change us just as counterproductive as saying that we should do what we are doing now because that's the way we've always done it.
This was the philosophy of William F. Buckley, Jr. When those who call themselves conservatives are successful, it is, in large part, because they adhere to these principles, and when they fail, it is largely because they deviate from them.

No comments: