Classical Conservatism as a Resource

I was first exposed to classical conservative thought in graduate school when I took a class on Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France. The fact that we devoted an entire semester to that one 18th Century work gave me lots of time to contemplate the significant difference between the views expressed in it and the conservatism popular from the 80’s to now. In a way, learning about Burke, and particularly learning about the classical liberal thought of the American and French revolutions through Burke’s eyes, was my first glimpse into another mode of thought, and in fact a way of being, that I have continued to find compelling, and that I have come back to throughout my life. 

The American and French Revolution were radical events. Indeed from Burke’s perspective they clearly contained strong currents of extremism, particularly the French revolution. They represented a profound break from tradition and they promoted experimental, materialistic, often anti-religious and definitely this-worldly ways of thinking and living. They represented values I could readily endorse, such as human equality (in the abstract at least–the unfolding of that equality is still ongoing). But they also represented values that I found objectionable, particularly their emphasis on individual self-interest as a one-size-fits-all motivation for action in the marketplace and beyond. Most of all, the diminishment of religious faith in the wake of these Enlightenment revolutions gave me pause, because I tended to agree with Burke that people benefited deeply from the guiding thread of a living religion in their lives. 

The classical conservative knows that the benefits of religion included personal and social stability, realistic self-worth, love of others, a sense of responsibility, and the humbling knowledge that there is something greater than oneself. If we could only hang on to the latter truth, we would be spared a lot of self-inflicted grief. 

In what follows, my Burkean tendency will come out repeatedly along with other currents of thought, such as Jacques Ellul’s critique of the technological society and Wendell Berry’s case for smaller scale agriculture and local values. But here I would like to lay out briefly more of the core tenets of classical conservatism that I find compelling and that I would love to see return to the stage not simply of US conservative thought but of political thought generally. 

Classical conservatism is a way of thinking more than it is a set of “once and for all time” principles. It’s a way of thinking that’s cautious, and it involves an explanation for why we ought to be wary when we think about changing something at the societal level. It does not, however, defend standing still or going backwards toward some supposedly ideal and better time. Reactionaries wanted to return to absolute monarchy during Burke’s time; Burke himself wanted to adapt the English constitution to the popular, more democratic currents of his time, but without losing what was most beneficial about the English monarchy. The classical conservative tends to resonate with the sentiment “don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.” This is why the French deposing and then killing their king was so frightening to Burke. 

When we decide that we know absolutely what’s best and what’s rational, and we call all previous ways of living completely foolish, when we propose to change everything all of a sudden to something much more “rational,” the classical conservative senses that we are, like Icharus in the famous Greek myth, flying too high, and raises questions. First, he asks “what does ‘rational’ really mean?” If a society has managed to survive for centuries with a monarch, for instance, then one ought to ask before completely erasing the monarchy, “what functions did monarchy serve?” Many such functions are not as clearly seen by reason as they are felt and lived. 

There are many reasons for wanting to abolish monarchy. Perhaps monarchy served to perpetuate inequality, and we’ve decided that we want less of that. Perhaps monarchy served to keep wealth concentrated, and we want less of that. But perhaps, also, monarchy served to keep the people unified. Maybe monarchy allowed people to focus more on their family, community and livelihoods and less on politics. Maybe it also created a situation in which the leaders had good incentives not to behave irresponsibly because they knew that their behavior set the tone for everyone else. But if society just gets rid of monarchy, spectacularly by killing the monarch, then perhaps they create a situation where both the bad and the good effects of doing so could be erased. And, as a matter of fact, they might create a situation where the bad things don’t get any better and the good things don’t readily materialize. 

Classical conservatives tend to ask “what’s the worst case scenario?” They are skeptical about humanity’s ability to drastically improve themselves, and so they’re also skeptical about the latest scheme for changing the world. 

This general classical conservative way of thinking is not simply applicable to the example of monarchy. It could apply equally well to any proposal for a drastic shift in the way government or society operates. During the 1980’s and 90’s, US conservatives (whom I will call here “right liberals” because they were classical liberals from the right wing) proposed some fairly drastic changes to reverse the drastic changes we’d gone through coming out of the Great Depression and WWII. Hence they proposed a second culture-shattering shift in one century. Not only did they want to reverse the welfare state, but they wanted to push forward into a rationalistic free-market way of thinking that optimistically claimed that market incentives could cure all problems. Not only would unleashing rational self-interest make everyone economically better off but a similar way of thinking would solve political, social and even environmental problems better than previous attempts involving government regulation.

In the political arena, right liberals argued that all regulations regarding political donations ought to be removed, which meant that large businesses would have more influence over time on our political system. The answer to anyone’s concerns sounded good–with full transparency, each voter could make up her mind about who to support. In the “free marketplace of ideas,” if she didn’t like where the candidates’ funds were coming from, she could vote for the other candidate. That might work if all voters were highly informed rational actors, but as we know, the result of the disproportionate influence of money on our politicians has been, as it is now fondly referred to, “the swamp.” That’s because, as a classical conservative knows, if you give donors an inch, they’ll take a mile, and also, most people are not terribly rational.

In the social arena, right liberals tended to argue in a someone illiberal direction on some social issues, such as abortion, gay marriage, affirmative action, and drug legalization. They could sense that society was changing rapidly and that the older ideals of the solid heterosexual family, monogamous marriage for life, Anglo-Saxon dominance of the culture and economy, and obedient youth, were being embraced by fewer and fewer Americans. They sounded a bit like classical conservatives in this regard, and there is some similarity in their way of thinking, but only so much. The US conservative tended to greatly idealize the family, to campaign for what had never been a fully realized ideal, and wanted to “turn back the clock” to some time in the past when that ideal supposedly held. Because of that, they were more like reactionaries. But the fact that they could sense social/cultural disruption didn’t mean that they understood why it was happening. The very thinking involved in the ideological and economic currents of US conservatism created the conditions in which all sorts of traditional institutions were upended, for better or worse.

Right liberalism is built on an ideology that emphasizes the individual as the main unit/actor upon which the political order is built. It’s that individual’s rights that are important. The economy thrives to the extent that individuals act upon their self interest in the workplace, in business, and in buying. The right liberal economy is based squarely on individual choice–but also on the ever-increasing stimulation of individual wants. But here’s the rub: why wouldn’t people who are told that their individual rights and self-defined interests are paramount, that American freedom equals access to abundant goods at low prices, also want to break loose from someone else’s ideal of what the family ought to be? 

This observation demonstrates the classical conservative worry of “unintended consequences.” Usually unintended consequences are quite predictable in hindsight, but unless we really try, we never seem to glimpse them ahead of time. 

I would argue that some of the unintended consequences of the right liberal free market and individual self-interest ideology were better than the intended consequences. The intended consequences were far too materialistic for my tastes, and my distaste of the relentless pursuit of “mammon” in our society is a classical conservative predilection. Burke thought not so highly of people who thought more of making money than of their familial or social duties. Rights separated from duties created in his view a selfish and rapacious society that would be inhospitable to strong families and communities. 

The unintended consequences free market/individual self-interest ideology, such as increasing acceptance of what would have before been labeled beyond the social pale, such as gay marriage, acceptance of transexual rights, and before those, full equality for minorities and women, were in my view better results. They are imperfect movements because so often they begin and end with the demand to engage in the same type of selfish, liberal activities the “mainstream” have long enjoyed. But acceptance of the individual’s alternative way of life as a right is perhaps the first step on the trail of full acceptance of our fellow man as an equal child of God, and as such it perhaps points us in the direction of a fuller Christian community. 

Abortion is a special problematic area. I am in the camp of those who believe that abortion does end a life. I suspect that everyone knows this at some level. But I see abortion in the backdrop of the same liberal individualistic way of thinking already alluded to, and also in the backdrop of the materialism, the standard of individual freedom, and the values of economic self interest fostered most ardently by right liberals but almost as ardently anymore by left liberals, otherwise known as progressives. You cannot have the complete individual autonomy promoted by revolutionary liberalism and not suffer the consequences, which include abortion and every other technology that harms and/or kills life. If we can’t achieve enough self control to effectively leverage our technology for human ends rather than it dominating us, then abortions will continue to be one grave concern among many, which include all the means of war, disease that could be prevented or cured but isn’t, malnutrition and starvation, abuse and neglect, and the environmental threats that can lead to all of the above. Liberals of all stripes need to own up to their own responsibility for the social plagues they hate and blame on others. 

We currently have particularly ardent right liberals willing to sit down in a big box store (or even shoot someone)  in protest because they believe their full individual autonomy is threatened by mask mandates. They love their commercial freedom even if it may lead to someone else’s death. They have effectively declared the freedom to possibly kill others just so they won’t have to have their mouths covered. The father of classical liberalism, John Locke, thought that we might have to take up arms if we saw many signs of tyranny, such as confiscatory taxation or misuse of troops. Now some are threatened by being asked in a store to wear something over their mouths. The rights of the consumer trump even the rights of the business owner. At the same time as they go ballistic about masks (but not shoes or shirts, apparently), these commercial rights advocates are likely to insist that women who want abortions should not be free to do so. But faced with this strangely both trivial and deadly anti-mask hypocrisy, why should women thinking of getting an abortion listen? 

Classical conservatism has a concept, “the social fabric,” which argues that we are all woven together, including the dead (their legacy), the living, and those yet to be born. If one person pulls off in the direction of their self-interested purely individual rights, so will others. If the social fabric is not to be frayed, we have to have enough societal cohesion based on mutual self-control, regard and care so that people do not feel like pulling so far away. The anti-mask protester and the pro-choice advocate share a mutual desire to pull away, to not be encumbered by anyone else’s concerns, cares, wishes or desires, to be completely autonomous. But with that complete autonomy, as Burke alluded, comes loneliness and a brittle vulnerability. 

Abortion also is part and parcel of all the ways in which we use the technology developed by our commercial endeavors to do whatever we can. As reading Jacques Ellul taught me, in the “technological society,” if people can do something with the technology they develop, they inevitably will, regardless of whether it’s morally good, bad, or ambiguous. What we cannot seem to do in the society created by Enlightenment liberal ideology that worships “technique” is ask: how do we want to live? To do so would be to ask what we really value–and more importantly, to ask ourselves to act on what we say we value, to become more human, to care more about the people around us, to make sure they don’t get into a situation where an abortion, or some other less than optimal choice like drug use or violence seems necessary, and to make sure that even if they do, they will be loved and cared for by the community because they are one of our own. We surely do not live in that world, and I blame pervasive liberal ideology and right liberalism in particular for making that the case.

Classical conservatives value people above ideas. They do not advocate pushing people to change beyond what they are capable of at any point in time. That’s not the same as saying they should not be pushed to change at all. Burke was a  member of the Whig party in England, and as such, he was an advocate for the change that happened during England’s Glorious Revolution, a change that led away from absolute monarchy to parliamentary supremacy. He saw such changes, including increasing political and legal rights and slowly expanding the franchise, as moves to fulfill the potential inherent in the English constitution. But he knew these changes were possible because the social and commercial development of the English people at his time had laid the groundwork for them. What he opposed, and what he saw happen during the French Revolution, is abstract ideas radically different from precedent forcibly imposed on a population generally not ready for them. When a minority of people in a society have a grand scheme for change and are willing to use force if necessary to get that scheme accomplished, they are making the extremist move of hurting people in order to help them, or as Rousseau famously stated, forcing them to be free. 

Because classical conservatives tip the balance in favor of the welfare of actual people over hypothetical ideal people–the real dead (that is, their legacy), living, and those yet to be born–they advocate for incrementalism. Incremental change is change that is itself changeable and reversible. Instead of imposing a blueprint, classical conservatives take a small scale experimental model for change. If a smaller change doesn’t work, it is to be examined and changed again. There should always be an exit strategy, a way of moving back to a position that did work. This way of dealing with necessary changes comes from a place of humility, rather than the typical “we’ve got it all figured out” mentality. The classical conservative way of thinking subsequently rejects universalism when it comes to change. It’s willing to admit that what works in one place may not work in another, because the conditions are different and/or the people aren’t ready for it. This is not the same thing as “moral relativism.” Instead, it’s an acknowledgment of the reality “on the ground,” and also the fact that there are multiple ways to obtain goods, all of which can prove their utility in the places they’re tried.

I think we are now seeing the effects of a radical, universalistic “blueprint” mode of thinking. The universalistic “blueprint” mode was behind the Russian Bolshevik and the Chinese Maoist communist revolutions. These revolutions branched off from the same Enlightenment tree as liberalism. It may seem strange to link two such seemingly different political ideas, but the right liberal ideology is a branch of the same tree. It insists that marketplace thinking works equally well for all people in all times and places, and even works best to organize people and solve problems in areas previously deemed beyond the market, such as schools, churches, family and community life. 

Scholars call this expanded market ideology “neoliberalism” these days. We see it in the insistence, for instance, that farmers need to “get big or get out,” and that if it is no longer economically feasible to run their family farm and pass it down to their kids, they should simply “retool” and join another sector of the economy. We see it also in Christian churches that engage in marketing strategies to raise funds in their “capital campaigns” and engage in what is synonymous with advertising techniques to attract people into the pews. We see it in education when parents and teachers alike generally agree that kids reading history, literature and making art and music are largely a waste of their time because these modes of learning don’t help them get jobs. But yet, we complain about the decline in active and informed citizenship and aesthetic tastes, don’t we? Neoliberal logic has invaded our family life as we decide to move away from family and friends in pursuit of career, or break up in divorce because one or the other partner didn’t fulfill our economic and status dreams. Classical conservatives understand that there is no one magic-bullet answer to all problems in all spheres of life; their way of thinking is in this regard diametrically opposed to the conservatism now in vogue in the United States.

Ask yourself, do you really want to be a part of an ideology whose consequences are the breakup of community, culture, family and citizenship? Do you really want to identify rights with consumer freedom and materialism? Does believing in God really go along well with an ardent faith in the power of a particular economic theory and technology to solve all our problems? If these questions make you uneasy, then you’re in the right place and there is more to come.


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