Wednesday, May 25, 2005


I have pointed out that conservatism is primarily a psychological syndrome -- with interrelated traits such as cynicism, wariness, realism, pragmatism, belief in compromise, satisfaction with the world and willingness to accept complexity and to accept a lack of cut-and-dried solutions to problems. But that psychology does very easily lead to distinct policy preferences as well. And conservative realism about the fallibility of others does routinely lead to an unwillingness to put themselves into other people's hands if it can be avoided. In other words, it makes them seek a high degree of individual liberty and makes them distrustful of governments. There are any number of quotations showing the high value that conservatives have always placed on liberty, with Ronald Reagan having been particularly emphatic about it, but I thought readers might like to see what one of the better-known conservative philosophers had to say about it:

"Further it is said that a disposition to be conservative in politics reflects what is called an 'organic' theory of human society; that is tied up with a belief in the absolute value of human personality, and with a belief in a primordial propensity of human beings to sin. And the 'conservatism' of an Englishman has even been connected with Royalism and Anglicanism.

Now, setting aside the minor complaints one might be moved to make about this account of the situation, it seems to me to suffer from one large defect. It is true that many of these beliefs have been held by people disposed to be conservative in political activity, and it may be true that these people have also believed their disposition to be in some way confirmed by them, or even to be founded upon them; but, as I understand it, a disposition to be conservative in politics does not entail either that one should hold these beliefs to be true or even that we should suppose them to be true. Indeed, I do not think it is necessarily connected with any particular beliefs about the universe, about the world in general or about human conduct in general. What it is tied to is certain beliefs about the activity of government and the instruments of government, and it is in terms of beliefs on these topics, and not on others, that it can be made to appear intelligible. And to state my view briefly before elaborating it, what makes a conservative disposition in politics intelligible is nothing to do with a natural law or a providential order, nothing to do with morals or religion; it is the observation of our current manner of living combined with the belief (which from our point of view need be regarded as no more than an hypothesis) that governing is a specific and limited activity, namely the provision and custody of general rules of conduct, which are understood, not as plans for imposing substantive activities, but as instruments enabling people to pursue the activities of their own choice with the minimum frustration and therefore something which it is appropriate to be conservative about."


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