29 October 2003

To be or not to be conservative

Gideon Strauss writes that he wishes he were a conservative, but, alas, he is not. He comes up with some good reasons, most of which I can agree with. But I think he's missed the most important one: there simply is not enough substantive content in the conservative vision.

There are several varieties of conservatives, and their beliefs may or may not be mutually compatible. In my book, Political Visions and Illusions, I treat conservatism as a political ideology in the third chapter. My biggest beef with conservatism in this sense is that it has no real doctrine of the state and its irreducible task in God's world. This is primarily because conservatism tends to defer to tradition, and, since traditions are multiple and dependent on time and place, they inevitably teach us different things.

Unlike liberalism, whose doctrine of the state is quite clear and revolves around a supposed social contract amongst sovereign, self-interested individuals, conservatism in its several forms is compatible with more than one view of the place of the state. This is why the tendency, especially in North America, to contrast liberalism and conservatism is not altogether adequate. After all, one can claim the conservative label and hold to an essentially liberal view of the state. Conservatives here do it all the time.

Now I recognize, of course, that conservatism needn't be reduced to a political ideology. One sometimes hears of people being described as conservative for whom politics may be of secondary interest. Conservatism in this sense is an overarching attitude towards life predisposing the person to hold on to cherished customs, institutions, symbols and beliefs. Some of these may be political, but most are not. This kind of conservative will value the long-established over the ephemeral, the classic over the trendy, in a variety of areas, for example, literature, music, the visual arts, the cinema. She will be exceedingly wary of current efforts to redefine foundational social institutions such as marriage and family in the interest of implementing abstract egalitarian principles. She will generally be cautious towards proposed reforms and tend to stick with the tried and true.

To some extent we could all do well to be conservative in this sense, although every society needs bold innovators and risk takers as well. Yet the defect of such a conservative approach is that in and of itself it lacks an animating vision of life. It lacks a set of normative criteria permitting us to sort out good and bad traditions. It can't tell us why, say, racial segregation in the American south ought not to have been defended or why absolute monarchy, where it still exists, might not be a good thing to maintain. If some conservatives can defend capitalism and others just as easily decry it, then we should probably be reticent in claiming the conservative label for ourselves without considerable qualification.

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