May 17, 2008

A response to my critics

Many thanks to all those who commented on my recent post (”Who are we?”). Some responses:

1.  Some wrongly imputed to me the view that order for conservatives must be maintained at all costs, even by the most unsavory means. Under my account, however, conservatives defend not order but legitimacy—viz, that species of order which is maintained by near-universal assent. Indeed, it seems to me that conservatives per se have no particular position on whether and how order should be maintained in the absence of legitimacy.  They defend legitimacy precisely to avoid the need for violent or oppressive reestablishment of authority. 

2.  Predictably, many don’t think legitimacy should be defended in all circumstances. That’s fine with me. I offered only an account of conservatism, not an argument that one should be a conservative.  Perhaps legitimacy for whatever reason really isn’t worth defending. Those hostile to legitimacy should simply be clear about what they are saying: in their minds, the people’s happiness with their government is unacceptable and they should instead be converted into malcontents. Again, that’s fine with me, but I cannot see how the cultivation of grievances can be considered in any way conservative.

I may as well point out the obvious at this point and say that my account of conservatism is in no way an account of movement conservatism or any school of movement conservatism. It is not surprising that conservatives do not share such well known movement conservative complaints as that local or regional loyalties have been improperly displaced by national loyalties (pace Russell Kirk and other admirers of the Southern Agrarians), that our managerial elites are wicked oppressors (pace the movement conservative heretic Sam Francis) or that our natural rights are being traduced (pace Ayn Rand, any number of libertarians, and Harry Jaffa). These ideas are largely harmless, just as Burke’s grasshoppers were harmless to the British constitutional oak. The conservative is more often than not simply bemused by movement conservative ideas, provided that nobody starts taking them too seriously.

3.  Just as predictably, many took umbrage at my favorable comments on Lincoln. I have no intention of stirring that hornets’ nest any further. I would only observe that Lincoln was unquestionably a great man.  His apotheosis is deserved and can’t be reversed. I only offered a conservative defense of Lincoln to those willing to accept it.

4.  Many interpreted my remarks on the conservative’s attitude towards reason to mean that conservatism is irrational. On the contrary, conservatism strikes me perfectly rational. In particular, it is perfectly rational not to expect reason to play much of a role in forming political loyalties. 

5.  Some questioned my claim that “The United States Constitution furnished a new basis for a federal government that made the United States the most stable and prosperous nation on earth.”  This sentence should have been clearer. What I meant to say was that the United States has been remarkably stable, thanks largely to the Constitution’s superior design.  This stability has been a necessary condition of the United States’ prosperity. In short, the Constitution’s design has ensured the stability of our forms of government, which in turn has made our prosperity possible.

6.  Commentators familiar with Weber’s typology of authority objected that, by my definition, the conservative must defend the legitimacy of charismatic authority, which is inherently unstable (because charismatic authority disappears or must be “routinized” once the charismatic figure passes from the scene) and therefore un-conservative. Assuming Weber’s typology to be correct, my account of conservatism can easily be saved from this objection by adding the following addendum: to wit, that the conservative defends legitimacy only in either its traditional or legal-rational forms. The conservative is if anything skeptical of charismatic authority, unavoidable as it may be at times (even today).

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