Liveblogging World War I: August 15, 1914: Régiment de Sambre-et-Meuse
Weekend Reading: McSweeney’s Internet Tendency: Unused Audio Commentary By Howard Zinn And Noam Chomsky, Recorded Summer 2002 For The Fellowship Of The Ring (Platinum Series Extended Edition) Dvd. Part One.

Hoisted from the Archives from 2008: Conservatism and Its Absence of Contents

NewImageConservatism and Its Absence of Contents: Jacob Levy thinks he has a problem: he cannot present conservatism attractively in his classes because there are no attractive modern conservatives:

Jacob T. Levy: Tyler Cowen... makes the insightful point that "none [of the 20th century American conservatives] have held up particularly well, mostly because they underestimated the robustness of the modern world and regarded depravity as more of a problem than it has turned out to be." It's a real problem--one I've often talked with people about in a teaching context, because there's no modern work to teach alongside Theory of Justice and Anarchy, State, and Utopia that really gets at what's interesting about Burkean or social conservatism.... The problem isn't... that the conservative temperament isn't easily reduced to programmatic philosophical works.... 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 who does not think he's already living in hell-in-a-handbasket. 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.... 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?...

I don't see any great answers in the comment thread yet. I guess I might say Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy, and Kristol, Two Cheers for Capitalism, but the former isn't really distinctively conservative enough and I'm not sure the latter is a classic.


You can see this most clearly if you take a close look at Edmund Burke. Edmund Burke does not believe that Tradition is to be Respected. He believes that good traditions are to be respected. When Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France makes the argument that Britons should respect the organic political tradition of English liberty that has been inherited from the past, he whispers under his breath that the only reason we should respect the Wisdom of the Ancestors is that in this particular case Burke thinks that the Ancestors--not his personal ancestors, note--were wise.

Whenever Burke thought that the inherited political traditions were not wise, the fact that they were the inherited Wisdom of the Ancestors cut no ice with him at all. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that they would conquer, torture, and rob wogs whenever and wherever they were strong enough to do so. That tradition cut no ice with Edmund Burke when he was trying to prosecute Warren Hastings. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that all power flowed to Westminster. That tradition cut no ice with Burke when he was arguing for conciliation with and a devolution of power to the American colonists. It was one of the traditions and institutions of Englishmen that Ireland was to be plundered and looted for the benefit of upwardly-mobile English peers-to-be. That tradition, too, cut no ice with Burke.

Even in Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke doesn't argue that Frenchmen should build on their own political traditions--the traditions of Richelieu and Louis XIV, that is. He argues--well, let's roll the videotape:

Burke: Reflections on the Revolution in France: We [in Britain] procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men; on account of their age; and on account of those from whom they are descended.... You [in France] might, if you pleased, have profited of our example, and have given to your recovered freedom a correspondent dignity. Your privileges, though discontinued, were not lost to memory. Your constitution... suffered waste and dilapidation; but you possessed in some parts the walls, and in all the foundations, of a noble and venerable castle. You might have repaired those walls; you might have built on those old foundations. ... In your old [E]states [General] you possessed that variety of parts corresponding with the various descriptions of which your community was happily composed; you had all that combination, and all that opposition of interests, you had that action and counteraction which, in the natural and in the political world, from the reciprocal struggle of discordant powers, draws out the harmony of the universe.... Through that diversity of members and interests, general liberty had as many securities as there were separate views.... [B]y pressing down the whole by the weight of a real monarchy, the separate parts would have been prevented from warping and starting from their allotted places.

You had all these advantages in your antient [E]states [General].... If the last generations of your country appeared without much lustre in your eyes, you might have passed them by, and derived your claims from a more early race of ancestors. Under a pious predilection for those ancestors, your imaginations would have realized in them a standard of virtue and wisdom.... Respecting your forefathers, you would have been taught to respect yourselves. You would not have chosen to consider the French as... a nation of low-born servile wretches until the emancipating year of 1789.... [Y]ou would not have been content to be represented as a gang of Maroon slaves, suddenly broke loose from the house of bondage....

Would it not... have been wiser to have you thought... a generous and gallant nation, long misled... by... fidelity, honour, and loyalty... that you were not enslaved through any illiberal or servile disposition... [but] by a principle of public spirit, and that it was your country you worshipped, in the person of your king? Had you made it to be understood... that you were resolved to resume your ancient [liberties,] privileges[, and immunities]... you would have given new examples of wisdom to the world. You would have rendered the cause of liberty venerable in the eyes of every worthy mind in every nation. You would have shamed despotism from the earth...

Burke's argument is not that France in 1789 should have followed its ancestral traditions. Burke's argument is, instead, that France in 1789 should have dug into its past until it found a moment when institutions were better than in 1788, and drawn upon that usable past in order to buttress the present revolutionary moment. This isn't an intellectual argument about how to decide what institutions are good. It is a practical-political argument about how to create good institutions and then buttress and secure them by making them facts on the ground.

What are good institutions? Burke sounds like Madison: checks-and-balances, separation of powers, rights of the subject, limitations on the state. Burke's views on what good institutions are Enlightenment views--that branch of the Enlightenment that took people as they are and politics as a science, that is, rather than the branch that took people as Rousseau hoped they might someday be and politics as the striking of an oppositional pose. Because he finds that the English past is usable as a support for his Enlightenment-driven views, Burke makes conservative arguments in Reflections. But whenever conservative arguments lead where Burke doesn't want to go--to Richelieu or Louis XIV or the plunder of Ireland or the Star Chamber or Warren Hastings or imperial centralization--Burke doesn't make them and they have no purchase on him. England's inheritance of institutions and practices is to be respected wherever it supports Burke's conception of properly-ordered liberty, and ignored wherever it does not. For Burke, conservatism is a sometimes useful rhetorical weapon, not a set of principles.