Monday, May 23, 2005


There has always been a fair amount of debate about what conservatism is. Lots of people define it in terms of a particular set of ideas (belief in individual liberty, Christianity etc.) But I don't think you can do that. As Feiling, a great historian of the British Conservative party, points out, the ideas vary too much from era to era. So I, like many past and present observers of conservatism, think that you can only define conservatism psychologically. I do think that a conservative psychology tends to lead to preference for individual liberty rather regularly and it is certainly compatible with at least some forms of Christianity but I don't think that such ideas DEFINE what a conservative is. There are many overlapping and interlocking accounts of conservative psychology but the extract from Joseph Sobran that I put up a few days ago should give you an idea of the sort of thing that I (with many others) am talking about. Below is another example -- from Jonah Goldberg. Jonah sees "comfort with contradiction" as basic to conservatism

"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.... Liberals and leftists are constantly denouncing "false choices" of one kind or another. In our debate, Jonathan Chait kept hinting, hoping, and haranguing that - one day - we could have a socialized healthcare system without any tradeoffs of any kind. Environmentalists loathe the introduction of free-market principles into the policy-making debate because, as Steven Landsburg puts it, economics is the science of competing preferences. Pursuing some good things might cost us other good things. But environmentalists reject the very idea. They believe that all good things can go together and that anything suggesting otherwise is a false choice....

Now look at the arguments of conservatives. They are almost invariably arguments about trade-offs, costs, "the downside" of a measure. As I've written before, the first obligation of the conservative is to explain why nine out of ten new ideas are probably bad ones. When feminists pound the table with the heels of their sensible shoes that it is unfair that there are any conflicts between motherhood and career, the inevitable response from conservatives boils down to "You're right, but life isn't fair."

Any ideology or outlook that tries to explain what government should do at all times and in all circumstances is un-conservative. Any ideology that sees itself as the answer to any question is un-conservative.... Contrary to all the bloviating jackassery about how conservatives are more dogmatic than liberals we hear these days, the simple fact is that conservatives don't have a settled dogma.... we all understand and accept the permanence of contradiction and conflict in life. Christians and Jews understand it because that's how God set things up. Libertarians understand it because the market is, by definition, a mechanism for amicably reconciling competing preferences. Agnostic, rain-sodden British pessimists understand it because they've learned that's always the way to bet. Conservatism isn't inherently pessimistic, it is merely pessimistic about the possibility of changing the permanent things and downright melancholy about those who try".

So Goldberg is very much in accord with those many prior English and American conservative thinkers (e.g. Norton & Aughey, 1981; Gilmour, 1978; Feiling, 1953; Kirk, 1993, Scruton, 2002, Standish, 1990) who see conservatism as an adaptive, pragmatic, "trimming" approach to the problems of the world -- i.e. conservatism as rational balance or the true "middle way".

Feiling, K. (1953) Principles of conservatism. Political Quarterly, 24, 129-133.
Gilmour, I.H.J.L. (1978) Inside right. London: Quartet.
Kirk, R. (1993) Ten conservative principles. Russell Kirk Center.
Norton, P. & Aughey, A. (1981) Conservatives and conservatism. London: Temple Smith
Scruton, R. (2002) A question of temperament. Opinion Journal, Dec. 10th.
Standish, J.F. (1990) Whither conservatism? Contemporary Review 256, 299-301.


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