What do we mean by conservatism? We do not mean, as the critics charge, an unreflecting culture of tradition. Conservatism, ever since Edmund Burke, has been a self-conscious effort of balance. Conservatives want to balance tradition, the accumulation of social custom, with an evolutionary process of righting wrongs and adapting to changing times. And conservatives also experience themselves in a partnership between the past and the future: “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are yet to be born.”1
Let us take three strands of conservatism and illuminate each one. First of all there is cultural conservatism, which finds its founding statement in Burke’s declaration that we, the generation of the living, have a contract both with our dead ancestors and with generations yet unborn. Then there is economic conservatism that begins with Adam Smith’s declaration of the Invisible Hand, that there is a natural cooperation between people that directs them into socially beneficial actions even when they are seeking their own self-interest. Then there is the political conservatism that begins with Montesquieu’s doctrine of the three branches of government and the separation of powers.
The cultural strain begins with Burke and his jeremiad against the mechanical culture of the Age of Reason, its reduction of everything to Newtonian mechanics and “sophisters, economists, and calculators,” and it continues with people like George Eliot, who argued for the dignity of ordinary people, from Adam Bede to Maggie Tulliver to Mary Garth and to Mirah Lapidoth. In our time we have Berger and Neuhaus arguing for the dignity of authentic self-governing mediating structures between the individual and the mega-structures of big government and big corporations. We have people like Lawrence Cahoone and his Civil Society: The Conservative Meaning of Liberal Politics working out the details of people living in dignity, equality and freedom. And there is Charles Taylor, a liberal Canadian philosopher, who makes a conservative case for a society that digests the modern ideas of freedom, equality, dignity, and expressive creativity into a blend that conservatives can live with.
But it is not just conservatives that have rebelled against the mechanical life. The Romantics rebelled famously against the sterility of reason.
After the Romantics the Young Hegelians developed the notion of the alienation of modern life and their rebellion thrives today in the expressionism, existentialism, and environmentalism of the present.
The economic strain that begins with Adam Smith and his Invisible Hand was expanded with Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage. Then in 1870 came the marginal revolution that unified the idea of exchange value and intrinsic value. Finally, Mises demonstrated the impossibility of economic calculation under socialism: without a market you cannot have prices, and without prices you cannot know the cost of anything; and Hayek showed the impossibility of bureaucratic centralism: the man in Washington cannot hope to out-think the millions of consumers and producers. The idea that only a wise ruler can negotiate the conflicts of a people is shown to be impossible. People do better negotiating with each other than through a political middle-man from the government.
But Adam Smith did not invent the idea of work as a calling that came before one’s own selfish needs. Max Weber started by tagging the Protestant Ethic that imformed the spirit of capitalism and then found that the whole urban western tradition haddeveloped a culture that created distance with kindred and trust with strangers, dissolving the ancient opposition between “us” and “them.” Then the Frankfurt School extended Heidegger’s concern about domination into a critique of instrumental reason that looked forward in Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action for a move away from system and reason and towards _________.
The political strain that begins with Montesquieu’s idea of the three branches of government, legislative, executive, and judicial was implemented with astonishing success by James Madison in the US Constitution. It remains unequaled in its approach to the political problem: how do you give government enough power to fight enemies, foreign and domestic, yet not too much power that it can oppress its legitimate opponents? Now Michael Novak has extended the separation of powers doctrine to society as a whole. Differentiating society into three sectors, economic, political, and moral/cultural, he proposes what I call a Greater Separation of Powers. In this view the separation of church and state, adumbrated in the First Amendment prohibition of an establishment of religion, is extended to the notion of a separation of power between the three sectors: separation of political and moral/cultural power and separation of economic and political power.
In this triple conservative vision lives a people independent and free with institutions that will protect freedom while encouraging social cooperation and punishing freeloading. With cultural conservatism people are socialized within moral/cultural associations such as churches and mutual-benefit associations. With economic conservatism people are economically socialized to work to benefit their fellows. In political conservatism people are socialized for and protected by a state that is limited in its power to the essential tasks where force is required. Now all we need is the implementation.
And that starts, after the horror of Obama, with persuading the American people to abandon the welfare state’s Battle of the Benefits, the reduction of social life to a scramble for loot, and transform America from its current shame as a robber band of Takers into a land that is first of all a society of Makers.
1Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, Collier, 1937, p. 232.
Government and the Technology of Power
If you scratch a social reformer, you will likely discover a plan for more government.
Business, Slavery, and Trust
Business is all about trust and relationship.
Freebooters and Freeloaders
The modern welfare state encourages freeloaders.
The Bonds of Faith
No society known to anthropology or history lacked religion.
A Critique of Social Mechanics
The problem with human society reduced to system.
From Multitude to Civil Society
The larger the government, the smaller the society.
The Answer is Civil Society
In between the separated powers.
The Greater Separation of Powers
If you want to limit power then you must limit power.
Conservatism Three by Three
Conservatism, political, economics, and cultural.
The Culture of Involvement
Imagining lives without the welfare state
The Poor Without the Welfare State
Can the poor thrive without the welfare state?
The Middle Class Without The Welfare State
How would the middle class live without all those middle-class entitlements?
The Real Meaning of Society
Broadening the horizon of cooperation in the last best hope of man on earth.
The incentive that impels a man to act is always some uneasiness...
But to make a man act [he must have]
the expectation that purposeful behavior has the power to remove
or at least to alleviate the felt uneasiness.
Ludwig von Mises, Human Action
But I saw a man yesterday who knows a fellow who had it from a chappie
that said that Urquhart had been dipping himself a bit recklessly off the deep end.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Strong Poison
At first, we thought [the power of the West] was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realized that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity.
David Aikman, Jesus in Beijing
[In the] higher Christian churches... they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a string of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect it every minute.
Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm
Civil Societya complex welter of intermediate institutions, including businesses, voluntary associations, educational institutions, clubs, unions, media, charities, and churchesbuilds, in turn, on the family, the primary instrument by which people are socialized into their culture and given the skills that allow them to live in broader society and through which the values and knowledge of that society are transmitted across the generations.
Francis Fukuyama, Trust
In England there were always two sharply opposed middle classes, the academic middle class and the commercial middle class. In the nineteenth century, the academic middle class won the battle for power and status... Then came the triumph of Margaret Thatcher... The academics lost their power and prestige and... have been gloomy ever since.
Freeman Dyson, The Scientist as Rebel
Conservatism is the philosophy of society. Its ethic is fraternity and its characteristic is authority the non-coercive social persuasion which operates in a family or a community. It says we should....
Danny Kruger, On Fraternity
What distinguishes true Conservatism from the rest, and from the Blair project, is the belief in more personal freedom and more market freedom, along with less state intervention... The true Third Way is the Holy Grail of Tory politics today - compassion and community without compulsion.
Minette Marrin, The Daily Telegraph
When we received Christ, Phil added, all of a sudden we now had a rule book to go by, and when we had problems the preacher was right there to give us the answers.
James M. Ault, Jr., Spirit and Flesh
I mean three systems in one: a predominantly market economy; a polity respectful of the rights of the individual to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by ideals of liberty and justice for all.
In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, an economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is plural and, in the largest sense, liberal.
Michael Novak, The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism
There was nothing new about the Frankish drive to the east... [let] us recall that the continuance of their rule depended upon regular, successful, predatory warfare.
Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion
We have met with families in which for weeks together, not an article of sustenance but potatoes had been used; yet for every child the hard-earned sum was provided to send them to school.
E. G. West, Education and the State