Why is conservatism worth trying to understand?
For several reasons. First, conservatism is a genuine political force in many elections; many of the arguments that follow play a real role in many people’s thinking about politics, especially on certain issues. So too legislators and judges are always sensitive to the disruption of institutions and established expectations that can be effected by new laws and new interpretations of law. So it is worth understanding, even if only to be able to argue effectively against it.
Second, conservatism is often given a pretty short shrift in political philosophy, in the sense that is rarely engaged with seriously. For example, many lecturers in political philosophy courses don’t deal with it at all (yep, guilty as charged); and there is no entry on it in either the –otherwise excellent – Stanford Encyclopaedia of Philosophy or the Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy. Conservatism flies under the philosophical radar, and that’s an interesting fact in itself.
Third, while conservatism isn’t philosophically popular, communitarianism is. Like communitarianism, conservatism deals in tradition, practice, social identity, story and forms of life. But conservatism, it seems to me, is what communitarianism looks like when you’re not surveying it from the outside looking in, as if at an object in a museum, but when you’re on the inside, living it, breathing it and keeping it alive. And that is an important perspective to illuminate in political theory.
Fourth, conservatism isn’t just one particular standpoint; it brings together an array of arguments and beliefs, and it is possible to think that some, but not others, are sound. So a counter-argument to or rejection of one of the arguments offered below does not necessarily imply the defeat or irrelevance of any of the others.
A couple of preliminaries: First, from the outset I’m not dealing with the religious aspect of conservatism, though of course religion can form a major aspect of the institutions, practices and traditions that I go on to talk about. But it is the commitment to tradition and institution per se that is the focus here; and not on the role of religion (which can, of course, be as reformist as conservative).
Second, I have scant credentials as a conservative myself; I am by temper more Thomas Paine than Edmund Burke; more Amartya Sen than Roger Scruton. But I have sympathies with many of the conservative arguments that follow, even if I rarely find them decisive. My purpose here, in any case, is not to critique these arguments, but to set them forward as sensibly and reasonably as I can. Doubtless though, the arguments I tend to glean from the conservative canon are the ones I think are worth bothering with, so I make no claims of comprehensiveness. And do keep in mind that I’m not at all engaging with counterarguments here. Even though I think several of the points below are correct so far as they go, they are still vulnerable to powerful countervailing considerations.
Third, the main literary resource for what follows is Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism (but as I think there are a multitude of arguments by and for conservatism, I have used the plural ‘conservatisms’ in my title). Edmund Burke plays a role too, of course, and I incorporate some communitarian points in what follows. But some of the following arguments are rarely made very explicit, and others are just more or less common-sense arguments for caution in policy-change from political theory generally. Finally, some (such as the brief discussion on adaptive preferences below) are probably more a product of my own thought than settled conservative doctrine.
Without further ado, eight arguments for conservatism in politics.
1. Conservatism as upholding established expectations
The most obvious point comes in first. People plan their lives and fashion their actions and choices to their expectations – especially their expectations about government policy and law. This is particularly true of long-term projects involving prudence, productivity and investment. Because such long-term planning is important for individuals, and very often desirable from a social and economic point of view, it is important to try to disrupt those expectations as little as possible. (Of course, this is not to say that no new policy is possible, and businesses have been known to try cleaving to expectations in the hope that they will then be substantiated by policy.) Disrupting expectations unsettles people’s current projects, renders pointless many actions they have taken on the basis of those expectations, and chills their enthusiasm for future long-term projects that may be similarly disrupted. In sum, ‘suddenly’ is a bad word in politics.
Expectations are also important in the context of adaptive preferences. Adaptive preferences occur when people constrain their preferences to the reality of their situation; we learn to stop wishing (really wishing, that is; fantasizing is probably fine) to be a prince, queen, rockstar, supermodel or dictator-for-life. While adaptive preferences have come under some fire in recent times, the thought that the best route to happiness and independence is to fashion your desires to no more than you can potentially achieve is an ancient and perennial one, and runs from the Stoics and Epicureans to John Stuart Mill (as I argue in the AJPAE 2010, if you’re interested in the ideas mentioned here). Happiness resides in enjoying the journey and taking pride in your decisions, not in making the world your oyster. If this is right, and adaptive preferences are indeed a key way for humans to pursue their own happiness, then establishing firm expectations for a citizenry, and then upholding those expectations against disruption and upheaval, is arguably a legitimate task for the state.
2. Conservatism as prizing what is going right
One might think that this too is an obvious enough point. Every society does at least some things right, and it is not an automatic feature of any given group of people that it gets those things (even very basic things) right. For example, if a society looks after its member’s rights adequately, tolerates minorities, or has peaceable relations with its neighbours, then those are features of its existence that are valuable. As such, they must be known and prized; without such a reckoning, ideas for reform or even revolution are reckless. In pursuing some other reform, we may in fact undermine the much more crucial and fundamental goods our society is providing.
Now I said above that one would think that this point is obvious enough – it is little more than the sensible advice that we should not throw the baby out with the bathwater. Understanding and appreciating what a society does right is at least as important as grasping its shortcomings. But it seems to me this point is not as widely appreciated as one might think. ‘Critique’ seems to occupy a privileged place in political and philosophical discourse; it is as if the person who judges their political environment as faulty has somehow achieved something important and remarkable as compared with the person who thinks things are going okay. But much as everyone may love to style themselves a Socratic gadfly, stinging people out of their dogmatic slumbers, the fact is that prioritizing self-critique over self-praise risks making the best the enemy of the good.
Here’s an example: a recent survey in my country, Australia, found that a little over 10% of the population harbour racist views. Which is more significant? That more than 10% of people in a society are racist, or that almost 90% are not? The conservative will worry that the blazing headlines saying ‘Australia is racist!’ misplace the achievement of a society that is reaching towards 90% non-racism (and, all the more, that such headlines give solace and support to the 10%, who are given the misleading impression they are part of a silent majority, rather than an embarrassing few).
Of course, an important factor in making these sorts of appraisals will be what the person thinks is likely to happen in the absence of society in general, and this society in particular. If outside of society, and in other different societies, people are very likely to (say) respect others’ rights, work productively, trust and be trusted, be peaceful and rational in their dealings with others, and not be racist and sexist, then if a society has (to some significant extent) all these features, then they cannot really be viewed as achievements of the society in question. If, on the other hand, the natural state of humans when bundled together in high numbers with scarce resources is not to display these felicitous qualities, then the society would indeed have features that are to be treasured and nurtured. So whether we cleave to a Lockean or Hobbesian state of nature, whether we believe in the noble savage or the Lord of the Flies, determines the touchstone we apply to our own society and its achievements.
Thus, taking again the racism survey as an example, if most societies in the contemporary context are, say, 2% racist and 98% non-racist, then it is not an achievement – it is in fact an embarrassment – to be on 10/90%. If the entire society were to be remodelled, then this would be one feature of the society we would be happy to consign to the dustbin of history. Conversely though, if the proportion elsewhere is more like 30/70% (this is the figure the survey’s authors put on comparative studies on racism in Europe, for example), then it is something to be treasured and celebrated that a society would be pushing toward 90%.
3. Conservatism as the salience of the status quo
One reason for leaving policy or a law as it lies is quite simple: to avoid the enormous social waste on squabbling, lobbying and politicking about where the boundary should be redrawn (and then redrawn again in the next election). There are all sorts of different political theories that make all sorts of different recommendations on any given policy issue. When there is genuine division within a community over the proper placement of a policy or tax, it can sometimes seem common-sense (except in cases of obvious injustice and manifest disutility) to simply leave it where it lies. The initial policy may have been arbitrary, but it can seem a more ‘neutral’, and so acceptable, position than re-figuring the policy in the favour of one side or other of the political divide.
An example where almost everyone will agree there is at least something to be said for this policy is, I think, is in the context of national boundaries. National boundaries are often poorly drawn on a variety of dimensions (especially when they are remnants of colonialist ventures, such as in Africa or the Subcontinent). But it can seem much sounder policy not to even open the question of how they could be better drawn, with all of the fractious and divisive emotions – and the ever-present threat of devastating internecine violence and ethnic cleansing – that will erupt as soon as the question is thrown open to dispute.
4. Conservatism as the social fabric determining the law
Moving into more controversial terrain, the thought here is that the law as written in statutes and legal constitutions is not enough to understand the law as it is enacted in practice. Judges and juries, and the community as a whole, interpret the law from their own lived experience of a form of life, their understanding of the history of the community, and their stance on what is and what is not appropriate behaviour. What counts as breach of contract, negligence, trespass, and harm are informed and shaped by the community stance and its history, just as much as what counts as giving offence, indecency, nuisance, and blasphemy. The social meaning given to all of these normative concepts is filled out by the community’s shared morality. Parliaments may pass whatever legislation they care to – but it will always be obeyed, interpreted and applied in a way that accords with community feelings about appropriate behaviour. And if it cannot be interpreted in that way, then the law will fail, one way or another. One cannot impose on a community laws that do not comport with its understandings about what is right and wrong, fit and unfit, and helpful and harmful to the society. The written law is simply not determinate or powerful enough to impose itself against the moral fabric.
One can see elements of this wisdom in, for example, UN ‘community-based’ efforts to increase women’s rights. The received wisdom is now that one must use the people (including men), roles, institutions and traditions in the community in order to effect meaningful change. The point is to empower the elements within the society that wish to elevate women’s standing, and to persuade and educate the other elements, rather than to rest one’s case on state or international law, which cannot be effective without change in community mindsets.
5. Conservatism as the social fabric that holds the society together.
The argument here is that the fact that a society’s people are bound by legality is not enough to have a functioning, secure society, capable of sustaining itself against threats, pressures and the ravages of time. A society in the full sense of the world requires a level of shared values, shared ideas about justice and desert, and perhaps even about politeness, recognition, neighbourliness, respect, offensiveness, toleration, selfishness, treatment of children, marriage and courting, bribery and nepotism, and so on. These shared ideas are what make social life run smoothly, with less enmity and clashes between factions. A society abiding by the law only through the threat of the law’s force, and not a commitment to the values at work in those laws and to the legitimacy of the reigning legal authority, is no society at all. Likewise a ‘society’ where each part believes the other to be acting wrongfully and offensively, violating their proper rights, unable to be trusted in business, politics, religion or friendship, and awaiting only a growth in raw power to seize control of the state is no society at all. It is at best an unstable modus vivendi; at worst a bastard patchwork of disparate parts waiting only a flashpoint to spark the fires of hatred. Mere law and its force, in sum, do not constitute and cannot sustain a community; at least some level of shared moral perspective is required.
5a. Conservatism as Moralism
Because law is not enough to hold a society together in peace and mutual tolerance, there is a strong reason for law and political institutions being used to promote – or at least to facilitate –virtue. Law and institutions should be moralistic on this account; they should be shaped so that they help create virtuous persons. Institutions dealing with children are crucial in this regard; the next generation needs to be socialized into the sense of justice and respect for others that are required for the society (and the law in that society) to survive and flourish.
One particular aspect of this line of thought is to consider, when faced with a policy, not the question, ‘What good will this law create?’ but rather, ‘How will this law shift people’s motivations? What relationships will this law motivate and make possible? Will this law encourage people to be good, hardworking and trustworthy (say), or the reverse?’
6. Conservatism as the wisdom of practice, not ideas
Perhaps the most interesting contribution of conservatism, from a political-philosophic perspective, is the idea that wisdom can be found in action and practice that is not visible (and, perhaps, cannot even be made visible) by theory, discourse, or written law. The thought here is that sometimes people manage to work out solutions to problems without any over-arching policy discussion, theorizing, or determined implementation. Over time, people’s actions that were initially, perhaps, disruptive of others’ projects come to be integrated into the local way of life; implicitly and with no top-down ordering, people manage to get along, and work out ways of getting things done with others and alongside others.
A popular example might be the development of the common law. A more concrete example (and one with which I am more familiar) is in property arrangements, where local groups can over time develop highly sophisticated systems for managing commons and open-pool resources that are often disrupted (with bad results for both the local communities and the environment) when central governments try to take over running such resources with their rules, police and top-down policy. On this footing, too much theorizing, justifying and rationalizing over politics can be a very bad thing; it can struggle to notice, understand or bring to light the vast complexities of social relations that have been workably harmonized by - on the one hand - practice, trial-and-error and perhaps an instinctual, decentralized sense of justice and non-interference, and - on the other - by spontaneous, unplanned action. Unable to comprehend such myriad and involute complexities and relations, and their fittingness for local circumstances, political theory tramples straight over them. It derives its policy from a logical application of a laughably tiny handful of moral axioms, and is perplexed when its legal instantiation falters or elicits disastrous consequences.
Sometimes too, a decent result can arise from a balance of two separate powers, either of which on its own would be harmful. In such a case, ‘reform’ (and so constraint) of one side can be catastrophic, as it hands victory to the opposing force.
The image of society as an organism is often put forward by conservatives, but perhaps a better figure is one of ecology. In many respects, a human society behaves a lot like an ecosystem, with thousands of tiny inter-connections and relations, and a balance of powers creating equilibrium. (In this respect, it is worth noting that Aldo Leopold, the father of modern conservationism, argued for respect for ecologies by analogy to the features they shared with societies. Despotism and instrumental control, Leopold argued, are wrong and unworkable for the same reason in application to the environment as they are in application to human communities.) In ecology, policy-makers are now largely aware how difficult it is to do ‘just one thing’. Making one change in a complex and chaotic environment might achieve the desired end, but it may do so at the cost of disrupting countless other crucial symbioses, equilibriums and food chains. Just as in an ecosystem, in society one law that is intended to have a single, simple, determinate benefit can wind up shifting motivations, payoffs, balance-of-powers and myriad other factors to create serious problems elsewhere. Aid economies are a startling and pressing example of this point.
Ultimately – and it is a challenge to a very basic tenet of much political philosophy – the worry is that political theory is just too darn uncomplicated, too reductive and simplistic, to make sense of the historic and lived reality of the gloriously messy and complicated human animal and the types of social interactions they can construct.
7. Conservatism as patriotism
Conservatism supports the creation of a community to which a person can feel they belong, and which shapes what they understand as their identity. One cannot understand the ‘I’ a given person conceives without reference to the society in which they form (and see themselves as forming) one proper part. Equally, the society is a means allowing members to express their shared identity. Its laws, shared practices and institutions announce the presence of the member’s identity in the community to itself and the world.
This type of community acquires loyalty and patriotic feeling, which is a key fillip to moral action regarding one’s neighbours and compatriots (though, of course, moral action towards foreigners is a separate question). Self-love is expanded out by this feeling of community, as members increasingly identify with their compatriots, and – indeed – with their community as a whole, taking pride in its successes and feeling harms against it as harms against their own persons. In this way the member starts to consider and care for those practices and institutions that preserve and empower the life of the society. A healthy community is a viable entity; it contains resources, traditions, powers, practices and processes that ensure its preservation over time, and it is these that are the focus of the patriot’s care. (Of course, not everything that falls under the banner of ‘patriotism’ counts here. For example, as well as having the type of patriotism valued by the conservative, in my country of Australia there is also a rival brand of ‘patriotism’ that, so far as I can perceive, celebrates quasi-lawless, quasi-violent, anti-authoritarianism. It goes without saying that this is almost opposite to the type of committed loyalty envisaged by the conservative.)
8. Conservatism as tradition
There are a variety of ways of formulating the idea of tradition. Indeed, ‘tradition’ may be difficult to fully capture in words because there is a sense in which it transcends thought and language. One way is in terms of (what Macintyre calls) the internal goods of a practice. Communities over time develop practices that have their own internal pleasures, joys and standards, and have their own types of excellences to be pursued. Chess, sports, dances, intellectual pursuits, music, art and even politics itself can all offer profound gifts to those who become part of these traditions. On this footing, the valuable and attractive parts of a tradition are the internal pleasures and excellences that it affords those within it, who are thus motivated to protect it as a valuable and worthwhile form of life.
Another (sometimes inter-related) way of speaking of tradition focuses on the importance of the past practices that have a long local history. A child is born into such practices, coming to play a role perceived as being time-honoured, incorporating them to a past-but-still-living community and its way of being, and giving them a way of carrying on the journey and projects of their ancestors. Unlike a (Macintyrean) practice, there may be no internal goods in the sense of excellences and standards in these activities. In this case the history alone makes the activity worthwhile and meaningful – the history alone is what makes the act transcend its own limitations and become part of a story that began long before the actor was alive, and will continue long after the actor is dead. To take part in that story by carrying on the community's traditions, is to take part in the larger journey and form of life.
* * *
Those are, as I see it, the premier eight reasons for being conservative. (Recall again that we have not considered objections or countervailing arguments, so nothing said here is intended to be taken as proven or decisive, though I hope that I have managed to suggest there is some wisdom and sense, at least, in each of the arguments.)
In the next few weeks, I hope to consider a few topics from the standpoint of conservatism, including gay marriage and immigration.