What’s Wrong with Conservatism


Conservatism is concerned with conserving (keeping or preserving) something; it shares the same root as conservation. The question, then, is what is the something that a conservative is trying to conserve?

Today’s American conservative movement is a hodgepodge largely of mercantilist racial nationalism and religious fundamentalism, as manifest in the political marriage of Donald Trump and Mike Pence and their supporters. But conservatism has taken many forms. Conservatism at its best looks to the Enlightenment principles of America’s founding—but then it is not, as I point out, fundamentally conservative.

Here I reproduce two sections from my essay “Reclaiming Liberalism,” contained in Reclaiming Liberalism and Other Essays on Personal and Economic Freedom. I am concerned more with the inner logic of conservatism than with its history or contemporary manifestations.

I must note at the outset that I use the term “liberal” here quite differently from how most Americans use it today. By liberalism I do not mean Progressivism, the advance of the welfare-regulatory state, or any sort of Marxism or socialism.

Rather, I follow Ludwig von Mises in using liberalism to refer to

the great political and intellectual movement that substituted free enterprise and the market economy for the precapitalistic methods of production; constitutional representative government for the absolutism of kings or oligarchies; and freedom of all individuals from slavery, serfdom, and other forms of bondage. (Human Action, 3rd Revised Edition, 1966 foreword)

See my longer essay for more of my thoughts on liberalism.

Obviously vastly more can be said about conservatism than what I say here; this is my essential critique.

The Incoherence of Conservatism

As an ideology, conservatism ultimately is incoherent. Conservatism makes sense only with respect to a particular and specified historical tradition; to oppose any and all change as an end in itself is to embrace stupidity, not an ideology. A delimited conservatism necessarily sanctions the ideological roots of the tradition it seeks to conserve; hence, conservatism is not an ideology, but rather a commitment to some particular ideology implied by or manifest in some tradition. So a conservative, depending on particulars, might favor monarchic rule over revolution, American constitutionalism over “living constitution” Progressivism, slavery over abolition, or religious tradition over secularization (as a few examples).

Conservatism cannot be salvaged as a coherent ideology in its own right by taking it to mean favoring “institutions and practices that have evolved gradually and are manifestations of continuity and stability” (as the Encyclopaedia Britannica has it). Such an interpretation has two basic problems.

First, in almost all places and times, multiple traditions coexist, so to conserve one line of tradition often means to rebel against another. So, for example, when the tradition of slavery butts heads against the (newer) tradition of individual rights, which shall the conservative conserve? In many cases, conservatism is but an intellectually sloppy way to rationalize the embrace of one tradition over another while leaving deeper reasons or motivations shrouded. The attitude often seems to be, “What reasons need I? I’m a conservative.” By the same token, one who looks hard enough can place any proposed change within the boundaries of some tradition or other, often going back to the ancient Greeks or further. Both the Nazis and their enemies could claim the conservative mantle, as could both the slavers and the abolitionists.

Second, there is no such thing as consistently gradual evolution of human institutions over sufficiently long periods of time, so conservatives necessarily embrace whatever radical changes transpired in the tradition they seek to uphold. Do Christian conservatives deny that their religion was at its founding radical, and that its widespread embrace led to profound and relatively fast social change? Do Constitutionalists deny that the American Revolution was a radical response to monarchic abuse, resulting in far-reaching social upheaval? Scratch a conservative, find a revolutionary—if you take a given tradition back far enough.

To continue this last point, one problem with conservatism is that any revolutionary can claim to be a conservative; there is no change so dramatic that its defenders can’t frame it neatly within some tradition. By any sensible reading, Christianity is radically different from the religion of the Torah. Yet Jesus (through his biographers) cast himself as a conservative: “I have come [not] to abolish the Law or the Prophets . . . but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).

So too were America’s revolutionary Founders conservatives by their own lights. They weren’t upheaving the existing order; they were merely obeying “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”—what could be more conservative than that? The Founders acknowledged the imprudence of overthrowing a government “for light and transient causes,” yet saw the move as necessary in their case due to the monarch’s pervasive abuses. To adapt Jesus’s words, the Founders came not to abolish English legal traditions, but to fulfill them.

If Jesus and America’s Founders can be conservatives, then anyone can be a conservative. Even Marx can be considered a conservative, in that he casts every movement of history as the culmination of previous movements. Conservatism becomes a tool—a trick, really—to pacify those who romanticize the past.

Every moment in history is partly new, partly rooted in the past. Every moment is at once a revolution and a conservation. To insist that a given incident is one rather than the other usually is not very helpful. Noticing what changes and what stays the same can be more helpful. There is no firm line separating fast change from slow; rather, speed of change lies on a continuum. Ancient Egyptian society stayed largely the same for long periods of time; the Enlightenment and the resulting Industrial Revolution resulted in breathtakingly rapid changes. (Which does the American conservative prefer?) But Egypt was not completely unaffected by the passing of time, and the Enlightenment was not an absolute break with the past. At most, the sensible conservative can say, “This is the wrong type of change,” or, “We should proceed relatively slowly in this given case.”

In many cases, a person calls himself a conservative to avoid saying precisely what he is for, and why. To imply that you are right because your view is the traditional one is to evade the essential questions. Which traditions do you support, which traditions do you oppose, which innovations do you support, which meddlings do you oppose—and why? A conservative without deeper reasons for his positions is a fraud or a huckster; a conservative with reasons is not, fundamentally, a conservative.

Conservatism, Utopianism, and Liberalism

Conservatives erroneously think that they alone stand against utopianism and that liberalism tends toward utopianism. In fact, genuine liberalism rejects utopianism (literally, no place)—despite the fact that some utopians are also confused about this. A political philosophy fancied as liberal by its advocates is not, in fact, liberal, if it aims at some imaginary version of liberty while undercutting the basis of the real thing.

The great economist Friedrich Hayek (who was strongly influenced by Mises) hesitated to call himself a liberal because “American radicals and socialists began calling themselves ‘liberals,’” and “in Europe the predominant type of rationalistic liberalism has long been one of the pacemakers of socialism.” Hayek, then, feared that one strain of liberalism tended toward socialist utopianism.

In railing against “rationalistic liberalism,” Hayek points to ideologies that ignore the importance of institutions (particularly those of government), ignore realities of human nature, and seek instead to achieve a “liberty” unmoored from reality. Hayek worries that such utopian ideologies sully the tradition of liberalism; I counter that they are not truly part of that tradition, but opposed to it.

Following Hayek, Jonah Goldberg too rails against utopian “liberalism.” Indeed, he suggests that the socialist variants of “liberalism” are what keep him from embracing the mantle of liberalism. He says that “progressives stole the label” liberal. He grants, “The American Founding, warts and all, was the apotheosis of classical liberalism, and conservatism here has always been about preserving it.” Paraphrasing Hayek, he says that only in America could “one . . . be a conservative and a defender of the liberal tradition.” He continues:

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.

Remarkably, Goldberg, writing for the flagship conservative publication National Review, here is saying that he is a (classical) liberal—a conservative liberal.

But a careful look at Goldberg’s defense of a uniquely conservative sort of liberalism reveals that he doesn’t really have a defense. Rather, he contrasts his conservative liberalism with (illiberal) utopian fantasies such as anarcho-capitalism and with (illiberal) views that are not “grounded in reality,” not attuned to human flourishing, and the like. He fails to capture any ground for a specifically conservative subset of liberalism.

Liberalism properly understood necessarily includes a respect for human nature, an understanding of institutions, and due concern about unintended consequences of social change—things that Goldberg sees as conservative. A “liberalism” without such qualities achieves not liberty but chaos, oppression, and tyranny. Without its careful attention to the institutions of government—particularly the checks and balances needed to hinder political fads, demagogues, and democratic madness—the revolutionary era would not have been the “apotheosis of classical liberalism.”

Genuine liberalism necessarily excludes utopianism; it is inherently conservative in certain respects. So, properly understood, the “conservative” in “conservative liberal” is not a qualifier narrowing the concept; it is an emphasis of certain necessary aspects of liberalism.

But Goldberg and American conservatives generally are not content to find the conservatism inherent in liberalism. Rather, they seek to stitch liberal views with illiberal ones and name this Frankenstein’s monster conservatism.

Consider how often conservatives eagerly sacrifice liberty in the name of religion, tradition, or popular will. People should be free—but not to decide which drugs to consume. Government should protect freedom of expression—and ban certain forms of pornography involving consenting adults. People should be free to trade with others, unimpeded—but not with foreigners. Employers should be free to hire whom they please—except for Mexicans. People should be protected equally under the law—unless they are gay and wish to marry. People should be free to decide how to spend their money—unless the government or some social welfare program really needs it. People generally should be free to live their own lives—except government should force women to carry a just-fertilized zygote to term. (These are all typical but not universal conservative views; for example, Goldberg is “very sympathetic to arguments for gay marriage.”)

Among less-intellectual politicians and activists, conservatism often becomes an excuse to pragmatically embrace a huge array of statist measures, including expanded government controls of medicine (RomneyCare), corporate bailouts, massive welfare programs, tariffs, subsidies (Marco Rubio as sugar’s sugardaddy), and myriad business regulations. In effect, conservatism becomes a license to cheat on Lady Liberty at will.

Image: Daniel Waters

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