Is Dubyuh a Conservative? Consider this: WSJ Op/Ed
The Burke Habit
Prudence, skepticism and "unbought grace."
BY JEFFREY HART
Tuesday, December 27, 2005 12:01 a.m. EST
In "The Conservative Mind" (1953), a founding document of the American conservative movement, Russell Kirk assembled an array of major thinkers beginning with Edmund Burke and made a major statement. He proved that conservative thought in America existed, and even that such thought was highly intelligent--a demonstration very much needed at the time.
Today we are in a very different and more complicated situation. Nevertheless, a synthesis is possible, based on what American conservatism has achieved and left unachieved since Kirk's volume. Any political position is only as important as the thought by which it is derived; the political philosopher presiding will be Burke, but a Burke interpreted for a new constitutional republic and for modern life. Here, then, is my assessment of the ideas held in balance in the American Conservative Mind today.
Hard utopianism. During the 20th century, socialism and communism tried to effect versions of their Perfect Man in the Perfect Society. But as Pascal had written, "Man is neither angel nor brute, and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the brute." In abstract theory was born the Gulag. One of conservatism's most noble enterprises from its beginning was its informed anti-communism.
Soft utopianism. Both hard and soft utopianism ignore flawed human nature. Soft utopianism believes in benevolent illusions, most abstractly stated in the proposition that all goals are reconcilable, as in such dreams as the Family of Man, World Peace, multiculturalism, pacifism and Wilsonian global democracy. To all of these the Conservative Mind objects. Men do not all desire the same things: Domination is a powerful desire. The phrase about the lion lying down with the lamb is commonly quoted; but Isaiah knew his vision of peace would take divine intervention, not at all to be counted on. Without such intervention, the lion dines well.
The nation. Soft utopianism speaks of the "nation-state" as if it were a passing nuisance. But the Conservative Mind knows that there must be much that is valid in the idea of the nation, because nations are rooted in history. Arising out of tribes, ancient cosmological empires, theocracies, city-states, imperial systems and feudal organization, we now have the nation. Imperfect as the nation may be, it alone--as far as we know--can protect many of the basic elements of civilized existence.
It follows that national defense remains a necessity, threatened almost always by "lie-down-with-the-lambism," as well as by recurrent, and more obviously hostile, hard utopianisms. In the earliest narratives of the West, both the Greek "Iliad" and the Hebrew Pentateuch, wars are central. Soft utopianism often has encouraged more frequent wars, as it is irresistibly tempting to the lion's claws and teeth. The Conservative Mind, most of the time, has shown a healthy resistance to utopianism and its various informing ideologies. Ideology is always wrong because it edits reality and paralyzes thought.
Constitutional government. Depending on English tradition and classical theory, the Founders designed a government by the "deliberate sense" of the people. The "sense" originated with the people, but it was made "deliberate" by the delaying institutions built into the constitutional structure. This system aims at government not by majorities alone but by stable consensus, because under the Constitution major changes almost always require a consensus that lasts over a considerable period of time. Though the Supreme Court stands as constitutional arbiter, it is not a legislature. The correct workings of the system depend upon mutual restraint among the branches. And the court, which is the weakest of the three, should behave with due modesty toward the legislature. The legislature is the closest to "We the people," the basis of legitimacy in a free society. Legislation is more easily revised or repealed than a court ruling, and therefore judicial restraint is necessary.
Free-market economics. American conservatism emerged during a period when socialism in various forms had become a tacit orthodoxy. The thought of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises and Milton Friedman informed its understanding of economic questions. At length, the free market triumphed through much of the world, and today there are very few socialists in major university economics departments, an almost total transformation since 1953. But the utopian temptation can turn such free-market thought into a utopianism of its own--that is, free markets to be effected even while excluding every other value and purpose . . .
. . . such as Beauty, broadly defined. The desire for Beauty may be natural to human beings, like other natural desires. It appeared early, in prehistoric cave murals. In literature (for example, Dante) and in other forms of representation--painting, sculpture, music, architecture--Heaven is always beautiful, Hell ugly. Plato taught that the love of Beauty led to the Good. Among the needs of civilization is what Burke called the "unbought grace of life."
The word "unbought" should be pondered. Beauty has been clamorously present in the American Conservative Mind through its almost total absence. The tradition of regard for woodland and wildlife was present from the beginnings of the nation and continued through conservative exemplars such as the Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who established the National Parks. Embarrassingly for conservatives (at least one hopes it is embarrassing), stewardship of the environment is now left mostly to liberal Democrats.
Not all ideas and initiatives by liberals are bad ones. Burke's unbought beauties are part of civilized life, and therefore ought to occupy much of the Conservative Mind. The absence of this consideration remains a mark of yahooism and is prominent in Republicanism today. As if by an intrinsic law, when the free market becomes a kind of utopianism it maximizes ordinary human imperfection--here, greed, short views and the resulting barbarism.
Religion. Religion is an integral part of the distinctive identity of Western civilization. But this recognition is only manifest in traditional forms of religion--repeat, traditional, or intellectually and institutionally developed, not dependent upon spasms of emotion. This meant religion in its magisterial forms.
What the time calls for is a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum, established as history, and interpreted through Greek philosophy. The representation of this metaphysics through language and ritual took 10 centuries to perfect. The dome of the sacred, however, has been shattered. The act of reconstruction will require a large effort of intellect, which is never populist and certainly not grounded on emotion, an unreliable guide. Religion not based on a structure of thought always exhibits wild inspired swings and fades in a generation or two.
Abortion. This has been a focus of conservative, and national, attention since Roe v. Wade. Yet abortion as an issue, its availability indeed as a widespread demand, did not arrive from nowhere. Burke had a sense of the great power and complexity of forces driving important social processes and changes. Nevertheless, most conservatives defend the "right to life," even of a single-cell embryo, and call for a total ban on abortion. To put it flatly, this is not going to happen. Too many powerful social forces are aligned against it, and it is therefore a utopian notion.
Roe relocated decision-making about abortion from state governments to the individual woman, and was thus a libertarian, not a liberal, ruling. Planned Parenthood v. Casey supported Roe, but gave it a social dimension, making the woman's choice a derivative of the women's revolution. This has been the result of many accumulating social facts, and its results already have been largely assimilated. Roe reflected, and reflects, a relentlessly changing social actuality. Simply to pull an abstract "right to life" out of the Declaration of Independence is not conservative but Jacobinical. To be sure, the Roe decision was certainly an example of judicial overreach. Combined with Casey, however, it did address the reality of the American social process.
Wilsonianism. The Republican Party now presents itself as the party of Hard Wilsonianism, which is no more plausible than the original Soft Wilsonianism, which balkanized Central Europe with dire consequences. No one has ever thought Wilsonianism to be conservative, ignoring as it does the intractability of culture and people's high valuation of a modus vivendi. Wilsonianism derives from Locke and Rousseau in their belief in the fundamental goodness of mankind and hence in a convergence of interests.
George W. Bush has firmly situated himself in this tradition, as in his 2003 pronouncement, "The human heart desires the same good things everywhere on earth." Welcome to Iraq. Whereas realism counsels great prudence in complex cultural situations, Wilsonianism rushes optimistically ahead. Not every country is Denmark. The fighting in Iraq has gone on for more than two years, and the ultimate result of "democratization" in that fractured nation remains very much in doubt, as does the long-range influence of the Iraq invasion on conditions in the Middle East as a whole. In general, Wilsonianism is a snare and a delusion as a guide to policy, and far from conservative.
The Republican Party. Conservatives assume that the Republican Party is by and large conservative. But this party has stood for many and various things in its history. The most recent change occurred in 1964, when its center of gravity shifted to the South and the Sunbelt, now the solid base of "Republicanism." The consequences of that profound shift are evident, especially with respect to prudence, education, intellect and high culture. It is an example of Machiavelli's observation that institutions can retain the same outward name and aspect while transforming their substance entirely.
The Conservative Mind is a work in progress. Its deviations and lunges to ideology and utopianism have been self-corrected by prudence, reserved judgment as an operative principle, a healthy practical skepticism and the requirement of historical knowledge as a guide to prudent policy. Without a deep knowledge of history, policy analysis is feckless.
And it follows that the teachings of books that have lasted--the Western tradition--are essential to the Conservative Mind, these books lasting because of their agreements, disagreements and creative resolutions. It is not enough for conservatives to repeat formulae or party-line positions. The mind must possess the process that leads to conservative decisions. As a guide, the books, and the results of experience, may be the more difficult way--much more difficult in a given moment than pre-cooked dogma, which is always irresistible to the uneducated. Learning guards against having to reinvent the wheel in political theory from one generation to the next.
For the things of this world, the philosophy of William James, so distinctively American, might be the best guide, a philosophy always open to experience and judging by experience within given conditions--the experience pleasurable or, more often, painful, but utopia always a distant and destructive mirage. Administrations come and go, but the Conservative Mind--this constellation of ideas--is a permanent achievement and assesses them all.
Mr. Hart, professor of English emeritus at Dartmouth, is author of "The American Conservative Mind Today" (ISI, 2005). This is the last in an occasional series.