Lessons from the History of the Cold War: Comment at the Berkeley Tom Schelling Symposium
UC Berkeley Schelling Symposium

Presentable Conservatives


Jacob T. Levy: [F]eh. Scoring points is fun and all, but the point being scored here is entirely beside the, well, point. Brad has no difficulty finding classic teaching texts for views he considers unattarctive--say, Marxism....

John Finnis' Natural Law and Natural Rights and Robert George's Making Men Moral are major, intellectually serious statements of a social conservatism I find deeply unattractive. But for current purposes my problem is not that they're unattractive, it's that they're unteachable--pitched at too high a level, too drenched in literatures undergraduates in political theory courses won't have read, too Raz-ishly dense (and Raz is hardly teachable to undergraduatess in the first place).

Schmitt's Concept of the Political and Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy [also] provide teachable, cogent, serious statements for a position I trust Brad finds "unattractive." So does Maistre. Why is it easier to find enduring reactionary texts than enduring texts that state the basic position of conservatives in liberal democracies? That's the puzzle.

I think Jacob has already solved his own puzzle higher up in his post, where he writes:

One of the problems is that history keeps right on going--and so any book plucked from the past that was concerned with yelling "stop!" tends to date badly to any modern reader.... This is a particular problem because of race in America--no mid-20th c work is going to endure as a real, read-not-just-namechecked, classic of political thought that talks about how everything will go to hell if the South isn't allowed to remain the South.... This is a special case of Tyler [Cowen]'s depravity point--but in the context of 20th c American conservatism, an important special case. And note that Oakeshott has his own version of these problems; doesn't "Rationalism in Politics" end up feeling faintly ridiculous by the time he's talking about women's suffrage?...

Levy is happy assigning de Maistre and Schmitt because he doesn't mind that they convict themselves out of their own mouths of being Monster Raving Loonies. His problem with Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind and Hayek's The Road to Serfdom and, indeed, Oakeshott's "Rationalism and Politics" (and, indeed, Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France and Letters on a Regicide Peace cto the extent that one reads them not as expressions of a mood but as a call to crown the Comte de Paris at Reims next Easter) is that they too have acquired the tinge of looniness with the passage of time.

I wager that Robert George and John Finnis will seem similarly tinged with looniness in another half a generation. Had they been writing a century ago one of the "powerfully seductive and corrupting vices" that they think should be suppressed by the state with dungeon and manacle would be the idea that women have a role to play in the public sphere; had he been writing half a century ago one of the PSaCVttTSBSbtSwDaM would have been miscegenation, and votes for Negroes; but they are writing today and so they concentrate their fire on heterosexual sex outside of marriage, on--indeed--heterosexual sex "not of the reproductive kind" inside of marriage, and on homosexuals:

Source: David Paul Morris/Getty Images.

But in all likelihood history will continue to progress toward the light, homosexuality wiill become more broadly accepted, some Pope will endorse artificial birth control, and some future Jacob Levy will complain that George and Finnis are unacceptable not just becuase they are rarified but because what they claimed would cause the sky to fall came to pass, and the sky did not fall.