Conserving the apotheosis of classical liberalism

“There are any number of definitions of conservatism out there on the Interwebs, though my sense from googling around is that at least half of them are invidious; caricatures plucked from the imaginations of anti-conservatives looking for convenient enemies, sort of like Apollo Creed handpicking Rocky Balboa out of obscurity because he thought Rocky fit a convenient, and easily defeatable, stereotype.”

…from a very interesting piece by Jonah Goldberg, on why it’s difficult to define conservatism.  The entire thing is worth the time, but here’s a few extended excerpts:

One of the problems with the term “conservative” is that unlike, say “socialist” or even “progressive,” it can mean wildly different things in different cultures. Samuel Huntington made this point in his brilliant 1957 essay “Conservatism as an Ideology.” A conservative in America wants to conserve radically different things than a conservative in Saudi Arabia, Russia, or France does

America’s founding doctrine is properly understood as classical liberalism — or until the progressives stole the label, simply “liberalism.” Until socialism burst on the scene in Europe, liberalism was universally understood as the opposite of conservatism. That’s because European conservatism sought to defend and maintain monarchy, aristocracy, and even feudalism. The American Founding, warts and all, was the apotheosis of classical liberalism, and conservatism here has always been about preserving it. That’s why Friedrich Hayek, in his fantastic — and fantastically misunderstood — essay “Why I am Not a Conservative” could say that America was the one polity where one could be a conservative and a defender of the liberal tradition.

It’s also why I have no problem with people who say that American conservatism is simply classical liberalism. As a shorthand, that’s fine by me. But philosophically, I’m not sure this does the trick. There are many, many, rooms in the mansion of classical liberalism and not all of them are, properly speaking, conservative. Anarcho-capitalists are a blast at parties and Randians always make for an interesting conversation if you sit next to one on a flight, but they are the first people to tell you that they’re not conservatives. John Locke, Edmund Burke, and Adam Smith were among the founding fathers of classical liberalism, but there are plenty of libertarians who don’t share their piety or reverence for tradition…

Indeed, as I have argued before, I think [conservatism is] a contradictory thing, a bundle of principles married to a prudential and humble appreciation of the complexity of life and the sanctity of successful human institutions.

This reminds me of one of my all-time favorite meditations on conservatism from my friend Yuval Levin:

To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.

Gratitude captures so much of what conservatism is about because it highlights the philosophical difference between (American) conservatism and its foes on the left (and some of its friends among the libertarian camp). The yardstick against which human progress is measured shouldn’t be the sentiments and yearnings that define some unattainable utopian future, but the knowable and real facts of our common past. So-called liberals love to talk about how much they just want to do “what works,” but it’s amazing how often “what works” doesn’t. Even more remarkable is how the mantra of “what works” is almost always a license to empower the “sophisters, calculators, and economists who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs.” In contrast, the conservative belief in “what works” is grounded in reality, not hope…

I’ve argued before that conservatism properly understood demands “comfort with contradiction.”

I mean this in the broadest metaphysical sense and the narrowest practical way. Think of any leftish ideology and at its core you will find a faith that circles can be closed, conflicts resolved. Marxism held that in a truly socialist society, contradictions would be destroyed. Freudianism led the Left to the idea that the conflicts between the inner and outer self were the cause of unnecessary repressions. Dewey believed that society could be made whole if we jettisoned dogma and embraced a natural, organic understanding of the society where everyone worked together. This was an Americanized version of a German idea, where concepts of the Volkgeist — spirit of the people — had been elevated to the point where society was seen to have its own separate spirit. All of this comes in big bunches from Hegel who, after all, had his conflicting thesis and antithesis merging into a glorious thesis. (It’s worth noting that Whittaker Chambers said he could not qualify as a conservative — he called himself a “man of the right” — because he could never jettison his faith in the dialectical nature of history.)

Man is flawed. This world is imperfect. Youth is fleeting. Life isn’t fair. Conservatives are comfortable acknowledging all of these things. That doesn’t mean we are complacent or opposed to change. But we are humble about the kinds of change that are possible and grateful for the progress we’ve already achieved. Liberals love to talk about diversity, but they are constantly at war with any meaningful forms of diversity that conflict with their worldview. As I keep saying, “right-wing” has simply come to mean “non-compliant.” …

Yuval Levin notes that all of Edmund Burke’s metaphors about politics are about space while Thomas Paine’s (the progenitor of American progressivism, according to Levin) are all about movement. This strikes me as a really brilliant insight into the philosophical differences between Left and Right generally. The Left wants us all to march together towards its collective understanding of happiness…

In my book, conservatism is simply a partial philosophy of life that describes how the system should be set up for humans to flourish within it. That flourishing requires freedom, including the freedom to be wrong. Which reminds me of this line from Michael Oakeshott in Rationalism in Politics:

But what I hope I have made clear is that it is not at all inconsistent to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity. And, in my opinion, there is more to be learnt about this disposition from Montaigne, Pascal, Hobbes, and Hume than from Burke or Bentham.

This points to one of my greatest peeves with the liberal caricature of conservatism. We’re constantly told that conservatives are opposed to change. And, to be sure, we’re opposed to some changes. But conservatives embrace change more passionately and eagerly than liberals ever do in the realm of life that most directly touches the most people: the market. The free market is constantly transforming society in profound ways. And who stands athwart history yelling “Stop” at this unceasing tide of change? The Left. The entire left-wing economic agenda is geared towards slowing or stopping economic change. Just look at their opposition to free trade, Uber, GMOs, fracking, and now driverless cars.

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