Published on January 5th, 20131
Conservatism is Sliding Off the Roof
The intelligent conservative endeavors to reconcile the claims of Permanence and the claims of Progression.
He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise.
The conservative, in short, favors reasoned and temperate progress; he is opposed to the cult of Progress, whose votaries believe that everything new necessarily is superior to everything old.
One of the ironies of conservatism is that despite its attachments to the past each generation must reinvent it over for a new time and circumstances. That challenge is becoming more intimidating in an age of wrenching transformation that has accelerated social change almost to a constant.
Many years ago I worked construction and one of my jobs was laying tar paper to prep for the roofers. On a steep, bare roof in the blazing sun it was impossible to hold your place. The only way to avoid sliding off and falling two stories onto a field of construction debris was to keep your feet constantly moving as though you were climbing.
There is an art to conservatism that resembles the effort to stay on that roof. In order to preserve the humanizing cultural and political traditions tempered by the ages we must be in constant motion. We must move to hold our place.
Faced with a dizzying pace of social and technological change the conservative movement has been gripped by a seizure of paranoia. Conservatism is not merely the eternal yin to our political yang. It had a discrete beginning as an intellectual alternative to the values of the French Revolution and it could very well have an end in an age of near-perpetual social disruption if we fail to adapt.
As we face a new year and a new era, conservatives should consider a few resolutions. These are some values we should rediscover:
1) Tradition, history, and culture still matter. The science around natural selection has taught us that nature generates an endless stream of innovations, almost all of which are disastrously ill-adapted. The same is true of politics.
Conservatives lean heavily on a tradition of tried success to temper the social ambitions of revolutionaries. We do not oppose change, but oppose rash, untested change. That’s why conservatives favor the relatively organic operations of markets under the rule of law over the innovations of clever bureaucrats.
2) Property is the foundation of liberty. The best economic policies are the ones that maximize an individual’s ability to make choices for themselves within an ordered community. Conservatives do this best when they remember that government is not the only force in society capable of impinging personal or economic freedoms.
3) Politics is a collective expression of personal moral values. It is possible to separate law from morality, but it’s not wise. Too often conservatives have narrowed morality to sexual practices and ignored wider values of community, compassion, and a shared sense of purpose. When we do this, we lose.
4) Prudence and humility. Man is not perfectible. Neither is society. We cannot live free in a culture that expects a central authority to solve every human problem. Our imagination should always be open to possibilities for improvement, but those proposals should be tempered by a respect for freedom and the wisdom of tradition.
These principles do not close us off to change, but open channels of careful, tested innovation that allow our culture and politics to evolve within a structure that protects basic human rights and liberties. These are the old lessons of the French Revolution passed down to us, as relevant as ever.
Beyond these basics, there are some elements of conservative thought that are due for reconsideration:
1) Things really do get better. Conservatives have been too pessimistic, particular with regard to Capitalism. We are not perfectible, but we are vastly more improvable than our forebears believed.
2) Human beings are in fact far more equal than we once assumed. It turns out that innate talent makes a far smaller contribution to success than we imagined. We should take a greater interest in building a culture that nurtures talent more broadly without regard to wealth or race.
3) Reason is at least as important as tradition. There may be nothing conservatives have misunderstood more over the centuries than science. We have feared it as a reckless force that experiments on societies as coldly as on lab rats. We have failed to recognize its potential for creating prosperity and fostering freedom. In particular we have failed to appreciate the ways in which evolutionary science dovetails with the conservative approach to change and innovation.
4) In cultural terms, organized religion is a spent force. This may be the single most upsetting and threatening reality conservatives must address. Religion in our age is not a vector for conservative values. Our “disorganized religion” is a revolutionary force that Burke would have feared. By embracing it, conservatives are feeding a political monster that is already destroying them. How conservatism survives in a world without organized religion is a serious conundrum with no easy answer.
5) White is not Right. Conservatism has its roots with Edmund Burke. Burke’s philosophy was not just white, not just Christian, not even merely British. It was intensely English. It took a lot of philosophical effort to stretch it out of an English context even to America or Europe. In an America that is no longer predominately European or Christian, we have a lot of work to do to identify a new conservative tradition independent of an Anglo cultural identity.
Too many conservatives, in confronting an era of perpetual change, have simply seized up. Faced with the challenge of adapting our traditions to an environment that we cannot seem to comprehend, we are screaming to turn back the clock. We may succeed, briefly, here and there, but in the long run this is a suicide strategy.
We need to have the courage to face our changing civilization with open eyes and intelligence. Traditional values retain a vital role in our future, but only if we can sensibly adapt them to new circumstances. Unless we can do this, we will find ourselves sliding off the cultural map into oblivion while America moves on, colder, less humane, and unmoored from the traditions that have stabilized her for centuries.
Chris Ladd is a Texan who is now living in the Chicago area. He is the founder of Building a Better GOP and has served for several years as a Republican Precinct Committeeman in DuPage County, IL, and was active in state and local Republican campaigns in Texas for many years. (Email: chrladd AT gmail DOT com)