When Mitt Romney last year described himself as “severely conservative,” he was perhaps marking the nadir in the decline of conservatism as a potent, coherent political philosophy. In common usage now “conservative” means little more than “very enthusiastically Republican.” Thus a “moderate” is a so-so Republican and a “liberal” is an enemy of the party.
That loss of meaning comes in large part from a change in circumstances that conservatives have been slow to acknowledge. After the Cold War the alignments that defined conservatism for generations are gone like smoke. The powerful philosophical foundations that lay beneath those assumptions have for the most part been pasted over by bumper stickers and weakened by angst.
Conservatism stands on pillars far deeper than Karl Marx or Adam Smith. If conservatives can rediscover those traditions and come to terms with an evolving world, they will have a vital role to play in building a post-Cold War order.
The roots of conservatism stretch back to ancient understandings of human nature expressed by Plato and the later philosophers of the Roman Republic. The American and French Revolutions inspired the first modern efforts to define conservatism in the English-speaking world, best articulated at the time by the British parliamentarian Edmund Burke. The philosophy was probably best defined for our time by Russell Kirk in the 1950’s.
Kirk helped found the National Review along with William F. Buckley. Through his influence on Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Kirk’s version of conservatism became the pole star of right wing politics in the late 20th Century.
In his 1953 book, The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot, Kirk summarized conservatism in six central tenets:
1) Belief in a transcendent order
2) Respect for the complexity of human existence
3) Civilized society requires orders and classes
4) Freedom and property are closely linked
5) Distrust of “sophisters, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs
6) Change is necessary, but it must proceed carefully, cautiously, and with an eye toward preserving core social institutions
Kirk believed that a natural order set in place by a transcendent power governs political life in much the same way that physics guides the stars. That natural order is imperfect and sometimes unfair, but it preserves us from the ravages of our animal instincts.
The more we try to distort natural inequalities or tear down traditional social roles with political or social schemes, the greater the risk of unleashing chaotic political forces that destroy freedom and property rights. That understanding, forged in the French Revolution, was reinforced with new vigor by the Russian experience.
This tradition of conservatism sees rights in a very different light from Liberals. Conservatives reject the notion of universal human rights. Rights in the Anglo-conservative philosophy are hereditary, rising from tradition and custom.
Rights are not merely personal; they are a bond that ties us to generations past and future. In this conception, rights are not merely what the state owes me, they are bonds that tie society together in a web of privileges and duties extending beyond my own lifetime.
Life, people, and societies, in this view, can be improved, but they cannot be perfected. Changes we pursue in order to improve the world will occasionally succeed, but the more boldly we tamper with the natural social order the greater the risk of unleashing horrors. Wise politics is always governed by an overriding respect for prudence, guided by the lessons of our ancestors. Conservatism places a greater emphasis on prudence than on progress.
Prior to the rise of Communism, conservatives had a very uneasy relationship to Capitalism. For Conservatives, a web of rights and duties governs moral behavior. Capitalism replaces those rights and duties with a profit ethic. It replaces values established by tradition or custom with values set by markets. Capitalism makes conservatives uneasy because it disrupts the natural order in ways far more powerful than any government.
Capitalism unleashes what Schumpeter described as “creative destruction.” Markets do not value social stability, organic change, traditional hierarchies, or religion. Capitalism unleashes permanent, accelerating cycles of socially disruptive change. Capitalism is not conservative.
To make matters worse, capitalism demands a central authority strong enough to provide needed infrastructure and manage the externalities that would otherwise blow free markets apart. Capitalism demands a governmental infrastructure that conservatives find threatening in order to perpetuate an economic system that destroys the traditional social order conservatives cherish.
In the 20th Century Conservatives found common cause with Capitalists in fighting to protect property rights against state ownership schemes. After the death of Communism, that very old tension between capitalism and conservatism is emerging with new force, but little coherence.
With the collapse of the their common Marxist enemy, conservatives and capitalists will find themselves increasingly at odds, creating strange tensions in the Republican Party. The confusing misalignment between conservatism and capitalism is best seen in the Neo-Confederate politics of the Tea Party, where the rhetorical affection for capitalism is offset by a confusing hostility to everything capitalism demands.
How do we enjoy the benefits of markets while preserving our finest traditions from the wrecking ball? How do we protect the weak, the old, the sick, the young – those who cannot produce market value, from a system incapable of granting them respect? By combining a respect for property rights with a passion for traditional order, conservatives could offer a vital guide through this dark forest.
Unfortunately, Conservatism is trapped in its own Cold War rhetoric, intellectually stunted and unable to reach deep to regain its footing on older foundations. Until conservatives shake loose from their increasingly embarrassing Communist ghost hunts and rediscover their roots, they will not be a factor in the wider efforts of our culture to build a more human Capitalism.