Tuesday, January 2, 2007

Conservatism in America

On Saturday I appear before the ASPLP at AALS. This is Washington - acronyms substitute for ordinary language. What's most interesting is the topic - Conservatism in America. This will be a bit of a departure for ASPLP, given that it tends to be dominated by liberal thinkers. Then again, it's a departure perhaps only inasmuch as the Association will be recognizing conservatism as a topic worthy of discussion, not one that must be taken too seriously as a competing worldview. It will be more a frog to be dissected than a waistcoat to be tried on.

In any event, my response paper is entitled: "Conservatism in America?" In keeping with my longstanding belief that the response to most lecture invitations should be to raise questions about the very topic under consideration, I raise the question as to whether there has been a significant conservative tradition in America. A few snippets from my paper:

According to the well-known analysis of America by Louis Hartz, there has only been one philosophical tradition in America – liberalism. Assuming for the moment that Hartz’s analysis is largely correct, then it is reasonable to ask whether there has in fact ever been a conservative tradition in America. In an era that widely recognizes the ascendancy of conservative politics in America, this question will perhaps surprise many. However, based upon the historical and theoretical understanding of conservatism as a form of traditionalism, it can be plausibly argued that what passes for conservatism in America is simply one version of the predominant political philosophy of liberalism. If so, then it could be argued that, Q.E.D., there is no appreciable or significant conservative tradition in America.

Baldly stated, liberalism as a political philosophy is definitionally anti-conservative. Liberalism begins with an assumption that human societies are formed by individuals wholly upon the basis of rational calculation. Governments and societies arise as a result of rational consent, not a combination of nature, culture and history. Liberalism views society as voluntarist, and hence regards with suspicion any claims to political legitimacy based upon tradition, religion, hierarchy, or custom. Liberalism’s earliest articulation – Locke’s Second Treatise of Government – is a tract that justifies revolution against illegitimate political authority and goes so far as to raise questions about the authority of parents over children. Liberalism, it could be argued, at base seeks to eliminate arbitrariness as a constitutive feature of human life, both politically and personally. Its stance toward “reality” is often one of opposition, a keen sensitivity to injustice and even outrage, and seeks at nearly every turn to remake reality into one that is humanly constructed – hence, at base, an artifice. Conservatism, by contrast, understands that certain fundamental aspects of life are given, and counsels a degree of submission, resignation, at times lamentation, and at others, good cheer.

Furthermore, liberalism has been historically aligned with the development of free market economics, and as such, places a premium upon individual liberty, “creative destruction”, economic freedom, “private vice” or self-interest, consumption (as opposed to conservation), and values dynamism and change as opposed to the antique and increasingly antiquated virtues of temperance, austerity and frugality. A conservative assessment would identify the consequences of unfettered free markets as destabilizing of communities, as undermining the necessary virtues for living well, as unleashing avarice and envy, as encouraging a form of life that is exploitative and destructive toward nature, as engendering massive quantities of waste and frivolous innovation, as orienting human life toward crass materialism, as destructive of authority and authoritive claims, and so on. All of these consequences are anathema to a conservative worldview.

Lastly, conservatism has been mistrustful of centralized State power at the expense of local and plural forms of self-governance. Conservatism is sympathetic with the approach of “subsidiarity,” in which localities are assumed to be best able to address political issues and challenges unless it is concluded that they are ill-equipped, and hence that a next higher level of authority must be consulted. Certainly in regard to its mistrust of central state power, conservatism is closest in alignment with traditional liberalism – or, so it would seem. However, while liberalism is rightly viewed as a political philosophy that seeks to eliminate illegitimate state power, it is a political philosophy that has the practical effect of massively expanding what it regards as legitimate centralized state power. This aspect of liberalism was present already in the work of John Locke, who, when writing of “executive prerogative,” argued that expansive and extensive intrusions of executive power were justified if the consequences were deemed good.

While many arguments might be had over what constitute “good” consequences, certainly the extension of individual rights, the defeat of arbitrary or traditional forms of authority, and the expansion of free market economics are several goals that liberalism has embraced and advanced. As such, liberalism has often proven hostile to local forms of governance that minimize or obstruct these various goals, and extensive centralized State power has been brought to bear to overturn those non-liberal, “traditionalist” ways of life. Akin to other modern ideologies, liberalism has at points demonstrated impatience with “reality” and intervened forcefully to remake the world in its own image. This has been true not only domestically – where, over the course of the national history of the United States, the central government has accumulated more regulatory and administrative authority over regions and localities in every era – but can arguably be said to apply with some frequency in international relations as well. Domestically, the defense of civil rights is an exemplary instance; integration in the form of forced bussing, more problematically so; the universalization of abortion rights continues to agitate the land and may reveal the political limits of liberal ideology. Internationally, liberalism has at times proven to be paternalistic through intervention in backward civilizations with the benign intent of bringing them up to date.

Liberalism has often proven to be supportive of both diplomatic, economic and even military efforts to expand the purview of liberal goals, oftimes under the rubric of liberating unfree people or encouraging greater economic development through the spread of free markets abroad. The current war in Iraq, aimed at bringing “democracy” and “freedom” to the native population, is only the latest in a series of American efforts to pursue its “manifest destiny” or “make the world safe for democracy.” The effort to disentangle international “realism” from this underlying liberal idealism in fact proves exceedingly difficult. Thus, throughout American history seemingly “conservative” realism in international relations has often been as deeply liberal as its more idealist counterpart, differing only in means but not ends.

American conservatism is often invoked in defense of classical liberal beliefs - individual liberty, free markets, and rights. As a species of liberalism American conservatism might be understood not be be conservative at all, or barely. Nevertheless, American conservatism understands itself to differ from some kind of non-conservative counterpart. It is not inaccurate to suggest that what is being described is a difference between liberalisms, and in particular, “classical” liberalism as drawn from the philosophy of John Locke, on the one hand, and “progressive” liberalism as it was further developed in the thought of, among others, J.S. Mill, Rousseau, Kant and, later, Rawls and Habermas. The debate is between species of liberalism, or even, as framed by Leo Strauss, the “waves” of modernity. The “first wave” of modernity, or liberal theory as developed by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke, if not conservative, nevertheless shares certain features in common with a conservative worldview. Human beings possess a fundamental nature that is unalterable. Governments are instituted under the assumption that “men are not angels” nor can be rendered perfect. In contrast to the second and third “waves” of modern liberalism, “first wave” liberalism rejects moral progress as a justifiable aim of human life. It is suspicious of government efforts to effect such moral progress. As such, it is not a conservative political philosophy – it still rests upon a theory of rights, a justification of revolution, and an embrace of free market economics – but it retains some kinship with an overarching conservative disposition and worldview. “First wave” liberalism is a distant cousin of “conservatism” – related, if not too closely – and within the context of the liberal American polity, passes for conservatism. It may be the only conservatism possible in a liberal regime, but if so, can only be problematically conservative. Whether there is a conservative tradition in America, therefore, remains an open and debatable question.

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