On the question of conservatism, one can count on two things: First, that at any moment, some opinion-monger or other is holding forth on the nature of conservatism, and, second, that nearly everything he is saying is unedifying. Conservatism as conventionally understood is either vacuous (“conservatives respect tradition”except when they don’t”), asinine (“conservatives resist change”), or imperceptible (“conservatism is no more than a certain temperament”). A recent exchange on the Volokh Conspiracy group blog illustrates the point. Sympathetic to it or not, neither Jonathan Rauch, Ilya Somin nor Dale Carpenter“three very smart and fair-minded writers”understands conservatism in a way that would make one take it seriously.
Whatever the difficulties of conservatism, surely one can improve upon the typical performance of those who take it upon themselves to explain it. In place of the conventional accounts, try this one: Conservatism is the defense of legitimacy wherever it happens to exist. “Legitimacy” here is defined in the empirical, Weberian sense: that is, an institution is legitimate if and only if the opinion has become widespread that it is right (for whatever reason or lack thereof) to obey it. The conservative, in short, cultivates obedience to existing institutions. This definition, I submit, has all the advantages of the conventional definitions, none of their defects, and some important advantages of its own.
First, the defects that this definition avoids.
It is not vacuous like “conservatism is respect for tradition.” A “tradition” is no more than something which is handed down. That which is handed down, however, can be wise or unwise, uplifting or debasing, liberating or constraining. One may speak as easily of the “Marxist tradition” or the “sado-masochist tradition” as, say, the “Judeo-Christian tradition” or the “tradition of limited government.” Meanwhile, every man born has innumerable ideas and roles handed down to him that compete for his loyalty, not all of which he can oblige at once. A consistent traditionalism is therefore not even logically possible. Whether he admits it or not, the man who claims to be a “traditionalist” champions not tradition per se but rather certain traditions and not others.
It does not, like “conservatism is resistance to change,” make conservatives look stupid. Conservatives have no particular attitude towards change and on some occasions may even hasten it. The Treaty of Paris and the Congress of Vienna, for example, made continent-wide changes that quelled the threat of revolution and war in Europe for (by some accounts) nearly a century. 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. In each case, conservatives, to the chagrin of their opponents, forced rapid changes. At other times, such as on the question of immigration and national identity, conservatives loathe gradual change and try to foment controversy in the hope of reversing it. Resistance to change or even radical change is the ideology of the jackass, not the conservative.
It says something about the actual world we live in, unlike “conservatism is a kind of temperament.” That a man has a certain temperament tells us nothing about what policies he favors; conversely, that a man favors certain policies tells us nothing about his temperament. The cautious man may favor same sex marriage, for example, because he thinks it will strengthen the ideal of the family, while the reckless man may favor it because he thinks it will lead to the family’s abolition. Converts from Saul of Tarsus to Whitaker Chambers have undergone dramatic changes in belief while still retaining their same underlying temperament. For these reasons, one who truly believes that conservatism is a temperament must, if he wishes to be consistent, refuse to express any opinion on who or what is actually conservative (as Michael Oakeshott, the author of the theory, in fact did). There is little evidence in any case that actual conservatives have shared the same temperament. History’s great conservatives”Burke, deMaistre, Metternich, Disraeli”nare as diverse a collection of personalities as any. The theory that conservatism is equivalent to a temperament or disposition does not explain actual facts about the world so much as avoid the question.
So much for the defects of conventional definitions of conservatism. Each has its merits, but the definition of conservatism as the husbanding of legitimacy has them as well.
The definition implies, like “conservatism is resistance to change,” that conservatism takes different forms depending on circumstance. Conservatives defend an institution’s legitimacy, not the institution itself. Thus, different conservatives may uphold democracy or monarchy, the free market or the mixed economy, Catholicism or Protestantism. Just as two different men, one facing east and the other west, may both face Rome, so may two conservatives defend incompatible institutions and still both be conservatives.
It implies, like “conservatism is a temperament,” that conservatism is not an ideology”that is, it is not a system of ideas that allegedly go together in some logical or natural way. Conservatives pick up ideas as the occasion suits. They may espouse laissez-faire or dirigisme, royalism or republicanism, populism or elitism. They necessarily reject only those ideologies—e.g., anarchism—intrinsically hostile to legitimacy. But for that one constraint, conservatism is compatible with a wide variety of different ideologies.
It suggests, like “conservatism is respect for tradition,” that conservatives lack faith in human reason. Men do not decide to obey a given government after deliberating on the nature of the best regime. Nothing is less rational, for example, than the principle of hereditary monarchy, yet hereditary monarchy persists in some of the world’s most legitimate governments (the United Kingdom, for example, or Denmark). Likewise, nothing is less rational than that Americans are entitled to the land they stole from the Indians or the Mexicans or that their rulers should be chosen in accordance with procedures set forth in a document written over two centuries ago. In defending an institution’s legitimacy, conservatives appeal less to the head than to the heart and the belly. Sentiment, instinct and affection guaranty legitimacy, not reason.
Finally, the definition of conservatism as the cultivation of legitimacy has unique advantages.
It explains why, in times of crisis, it is more difficult to identify the “true” conservatives. Everyone will allow that Burke was a conservative, since he warded off the threat of revolution. Almost everyone will also allow that Calvin Coolidge was a conservative, since he kept a placid situation placid. By contrast, controversies will always rage over whether men such as the American founders, Abraham Lincoln or Franklin Roosevelt were truly conservative. These men inherited situations where legitimacy was in doubt and left situations where it was ensured. Yet they did so by crushing apparently valid challenges to their authority.
Take the vexatious case of Lincoln. He had no good options upon assuming the presidency. Refusing to contest secession would not have averted war, as nothing could be more inevitable than war between two great powers on the same continent. Foreign interference”again, inevitable”in such a war could have caused re-subjugation of the Anglo-Americans by Europeans. To be sure, Lincoln can be accused of introducing revolutionary principles into American government. (On the other hand, it is hard to see how Lincoln can be held responsible for the Fourteenth Amendment, which was not even proposed until after his death). Nothing short of a new national mythology could have justified the Civil War’s carnage. Lincoln preserved legitimate government in North America in the only way possible. For this reason, conservatives, too, may revere Lincoln.
It explains conservatives’ mythomania”that is, their tendency to make things up. Lincoln, to the extent that he can be seen as a conservative, exemplifies the conservative’s disregard for fact. “Mystic chords of memory,” “a new birth of freedom,” “the judgments of the Lord are righteous altogether”: these powerful though misleading utterances did as much to save the Union as Sherman’s armies. Edmund Burke was likewise an unscrupulous rhetorician. “The age of chivalry is gone,” “thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak,” “ten thousand swords leap[ing] from their scabbards”: each pleasing figure obscured the ugly realities of British and French history. Burke did not discover the image of the organic, moderate British constitution that we still celebrate today. He invented it.
It explains conservatives’ pragmatism and unconcern for justice or higher principle. Many who call themselves conservative experience it as terribly important to link conservatism to some such ennobling conceit as natural law theory or the aspirations of the Western philosophers. Even some of Edmund Burke’s admirers labor to obscure his genius by portraying him less as a conservative than a second-rate natural law theorist. Of course, every statesman and writer, Burke included, finds occasion every now and then to appeal to fundamental principles. That does not mean that he is absolutely committed to them. The conservative appeals to principle as convenience dictates. It does not disturb him in the meantime that the few may dominate the weak, that the poor may starve while the rich prosper or that the citizenry may indulge in the most appalling license. Conservatives uphold legitimacy whatever the human cost.
It explains why conservatives are as indispensable as they are repellant. It is widely acknowledged, even by conservatives’ opponents, that they function on the ship of state as necessary ballast. So long as injustice and vice persist, reformers of one sort of another will find reasons to challenge a given institution’s legitimacy. Conservatives have a well-grounded fear that little good will come from their efforts. Viewed historically, political legitimacy is precious to the point of being miraculous. (Indeed, the great francophone conservative Joseph de Maistre argued that it could only come from God.) That three hundred million Americans obey the same government without a second thought makes it possible for almost everyone to live a normal, decent life, perhaps even a great life for the talented few. Untune that string and discord then must follow. The most horrible places on earth”Iraq, Somalia, Chechnya”are also those where legitimacy is in doubt.
Finally, it provides a parsimonious account of the ideas and careers of those men who few would dispute were conservatives. Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Joseph de Maistre, Benjamin Disraeli, Clemens von Metternich, Calvin Coolidge: the defense and extension of legitimacy aptly characterizes the political careers of all these men. Burke and de Maistre in particular can be viewed as the West’s two great theorists of legitimacy (again, actual legitimacy, not the normative legitimacy of various natural law philosophers). Consider also the Shakespeare who wrote Ulysses’ panegyric to hierarchy in Troilus and Cressida. This one poem exemplifies all the qualities of political conservatism”the fear of disorder, the defense of the rulers’ right to rule, the usefulness of obedience, the sly rhetoric, the appearance of insincerity. The conservative must have a cruel streak. In his mind, it is cruelty that preserves the most humane outcomes.
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