POLITICAL EDUCATION, CONSERVATIVE ANALYSIS
POLITICS, SOCIETY, & THE SOVEREIGN STATE
Website of Dr. Almon Leroy Way, Jr.
TRADITIONAL AMERICAN CONSERVATISM -- QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
This is a summary of common questions and objections regarding Conservatism. The Conservatism discussed is traditionalist
American Conservatism. Other varieties are touched on in section 6.
1 - GENERAL PRINCIPLES
1.1 What is distinctive about Conservatism as a political view?
1.2 Why is tradition a source of greater wisdom?
1.3 What's the difference between following tradition and refusing to think?
1.4 Why isn't it better to reason things out from the beginning?
1.5 Why can't tradition be an accumulation of ignorance, error, and vice as easily
as of wisdom?
1.6 How can anyone know his own tradition is the right one?
1.7 What about truth?
1.8 There are conflicting traditions even within a single society. Which gets treated
2 - TRADITION AND CHANGE
2.1 Why not just accept change?
2.2 Isn't Conservatism simply another way of saying that people who currently
have wealth and power should keep it?
2.3 Wouldn't we still have slavery if Conservatives had always been running the
3 - SOCIAL AND CULTURAL ISSUES
3.1 What are family values and what is so great about them?
3.2 Why can't Conservatives just accept that people's personal values differ?
3.3 Why do Conservatives always want to force their values on everybody else?
3.4 What role do Conservatives think government should play in enforcing moral
3.5 Aren't Conservatives racist sexist homophobes?
3.6 What happens to feminists, homosexuals, racial minorities, and others
marginalized in a Conservative society?
3.7 What about freedom?
3.8 And justice?
4 - ECONOMIC ISSUES
4.1 Why do Conservatives say they favor virtue and community but favor
4.2 Why don't Conservatives care about what happens to the poor, weak,
discouraged, and outcast?
4.3 Shouldn't the government do something for people for whom the usual support
4.4 What about welfare for the middle classes?
4.5 If conserving is a good thing, why isn't ecology a conservative issue?
5 CONSERVATISM IN AN AGE OF ESTABLISHED LIBERALISM
5.1 Why do Conservatives talk as if the sky is about to fall and all good things are
in the past?
5.2 Isn't Conservatism essentially nostalgia for a past that never was and can't be
5.3 What's all this stuff about community and tradition when the groups that matter
these days are based on interests and perspectives, rather than on traditions?
5.4 Why are most people seriously involved in studying and dealing with social
5.5 How can tradition do anything but endorse the way things happen to be?
5.6 Shouldn't Conservatives favor things that are as well-established as the
welfare state and steady expansion of the scope of the civil rights laws?
5.7 I was raised a Liberal. Doesn't that mean that, to be Conservative, I should
stay true to Liberalism?
6 THE CONSERVATIVE RAINBOW
6.1 How do Libertarians differ from Conservatives?
6.2 What are mainstream Conservatives?
6.3 What are Neoconservatives?
6.4 What are Paleoconservatives?
6.5 What are Paleolibertarians?
6.6 What are Frankfurt School Neopaleoconservatives?
6.7 Where do the pro-life movement and Religious Right fit into all this?
6.8 What are the differences between American Conservatism and the
Conservatism of other countries?
6.9 What do all these things called "Conservatism" have in common?
1 - GENERAL PRINCIPLES
1.1 WHAT IS DISTINCTIVE ABOUT CONSERVATISM AS A POLITICAL VIEW?
Its emphasis on tradition as a source of wisdom that goes beyond what can be demonstrated or even explicitly stated.
1.2 WHY IS TRADITION A SOURCE OF GREATER WISDOM?
It is a network of commonly accepted attitudes, beliefs and practices that evolves through strengthening of things that work and
rejection of things that lead to conflict and failure. It therefore comprises a collection of habits that have proved useful in a huge
variety of practical affairs, and a comprehensive and generally coherent point of view that reflects very extensive experience and
thought. Through it we know subtle and fundamental features of the world that would otherwise escape us, and our understanding
of those things takes on concrete and usable form.
The usual alternative to reliance on tradition is reliance on theory. Taking theory literally can be costly because it achieves clarity by
ignoring things that are difficult to articulate. Such things can be important; the reason politics and morals are learned mostly by
experience and imitation is that most of what we need to know about them consists in habits, attitudes and implicit presumptions that
we couldn't begin to put into words. There is no means other than tradition to accumulate, conserve and hand on such things.
Other considerations also support the wisdom of relying on tradition, if not specifically the wisdom of tradition itself. For example,
tradition typically exists as the common property of a community whose members are raised in it. Accordingly, it normally unites more
than divides, and is far more likely than theory to facilitate free and cooperative life in common.
1.3 WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN FOLLOWING TRADITION AND REFUSING TO THINK?
Conservatives do not reject thought but are skeptical of its autonomy. They believe that tradition guides and corrects thought, and
so brings it closer to truth, which has no special connection with any private view.
Truth is not altogether out of reach, but our access to it is incomplete and often indirect. Since it can not be reduced wholly to our
possession, Conservatives are willing to accept it in whatever form it is available to us. In particular, they recognize the need to rely
on the unarticulated truth implicit in inherited attitudes and practices. Today this aspect of our connection to truth is underestimated,
and Conservatives hope to think better and know more truly by re-emphasizing it.
1.4 WHY ISN'T IT BETTER TO REASON THINGS OUT FROM THE BEGINNING?
Our knowledge of things like politics and morality is partial and attained slowly and with difficulty. We can't evaluate political ideas
without accepting far more beliefs, presumptions and attitudes than we could possibly judge critically. The effects of political
proposals are difficult to predict, and as the proposals become more ambitious their effects become incalculable. Accordingly, the
most reasonable approach to politics is normally to take the existing system of society as a given that can't be changed wholesale
and try to ensure that any changes cohere with the principles and practices that make the existing system work as well as it does.
1.5 WHY CAN'T TRADITION BE AN ACCUMULATION OF IGNORANCE, ERROR, AND VICE AS
EASILY AS OF WISDOM?
Since tradition is a human thing, it may reflect human vices as well as virtues. The same, of course, is true of relying on autonomous
reason. In this century, anti-traditional theories supported by intelligent men for reasons thought noble have repeatedly led to the
murder of millions of innocents.
The issue, therefore, is not whether tradition is perfect but its appropriate place in human life. To the extent our most consistent aim
is toward what is good, and we err more through ignorance, oversight and conflicting impulse than through coherent and settled evil,
tradition will benefit us by linking our thoughts and actions to a steady and comprehensive system in which they can correct each
other. It will secure and refine our acquisitions while hampering antisocial impulses. To the extent we consistently aim at what is evil,
then tradition can not help us much, but neither can anything else short of divine intervention.
1.6 THERE ARE LOTS OF CONFLICTING TRADITIONS. HOW CAN ANYONE KNOW HIS OWN IS THE
Comprehensive certainty is hard to come by. Our own tradition (like our own reasoning) might lead us astray, where another's would
not. However, such concerns can not justify rejecting our own tradition, unless we have a method transcending it for determining
when that has happened, and, in most situations, we do not. If experience has led us astray, it will most likely be further experience
that sets us right. The same is true of tradition, which is social experience.
Putting issues of truth aside, the various parts of a particular tradition are adjusted to each other in a way that makes it difficult to
abandon one part and substitute something from another tradition. A French cook will have trouble if he has to rely on Chinese
ingredients and utensils. Issues of coherence and practicality accordingly make it likely that we will do better developing the
tradition to which we are accustomed than attempting to adopt large parts of a different one.
1.7 BUT WHAT ABOUT TRUTH?
Most Conservatives are confident comprehensive objective truth exists, but not in the form of a set of propositions with a single
meaning equally demonstrable to all. The world is too big for us to grasp as a whole in a clear systematic way. We apprehend truth
largely through tradition and in a way that cannot be fully articulated. Even if some truths can be known with certainty through
reason or revelation, their social acceptance and their interpretation and application depend on tradition.
1.8 THERE ARE CONFLICTING TRADITIONS EVEN WITHIN A SINGLE SOCIETY. WHICH GETS
TREATED AS "OURS?"
The question is less serious than it appears, since it cannot be discussed without assuming a community of discourse and, therefore,
an authoritative tradition. Any collectivity that deliberates and acts has a tradition -- a set of commonly-held habits, attitudes, beliefs,
and memories that is reasonably coherent over time -- that enables it to do so. A society consists of those who, at least in general,
accept the authority of a common tradition. "Our" tradition is therefore the tradition that has guided and motivated the collective
action of the society to which we belong and give our loyalty, and within which the relevant discussion is going forward.
It is worth noting that no society is perfectly unified; each has elites and subordinate societies with their own traditions and spheres
of action. A society may also harbor resident aliens and dissident or criminal groups. Which groups are treated as subordinate
societies legitimately belonging to the larger one and which are treated as resident aliens, criminals, or foreign oppressors is itself
determined by the traditions that define the society as a whole and make it what it is.
2 - TRADITION AND CHANGE
2.1 SOCIETY HAS ALWAYS CHANGED FOR THE BETTER IN SOME WAYS AND FOR THE WORST IN
OTHERS. WHY NOT
NOT ACCEPT CHANGE, ESPECIALLY IF EVERYTHING IS SO COMPLICATED
AND HARD TO FIGURE OUT?
Changes have always involved resistance as well as acceptance. Those that have to make their way over opposition will presumably
be better than those that are accepted without serious questioning.
In addition, Conservatism is not rejection of all change as such, but of intentional change of a peculiarly sweeping sort characteristic
of the period beginning with the French Revolution and guided by Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment philosophies such as
Liberalism and Marxism. It is recognition that the world is not our creation, and that there are permanent things that we must simply
accept. For example, the family as an institution has changed from time to time in conjunction with other social changes. However, the
current Left/Liberal demand that all definite institutional structure for the family be abolished as an infringement of individual
autonomy (typically phrased as a demand for the elimination of sex roles and heterosexism and the protection of children's rights) is
different in kind from anything in the past, and Conservatives believe it must be fought.
2.2 ISN'T CONSERVATISM SIMPLY ANOTHER WAY OF SAYING THAT PEOPLE WHO CURRENTLY
HAVE WEALTH AND
POWER SHOULD KEEP IT?
Every political view promotes the particular advantage of some people. If political views are to be treated as rationalizations of the
interests of existing or would-be elites, then that treatment should apply equally to Conservatism and all other views. On the other
hand, if arguments that particular political views advance the public good are to be taken seriously, then the arguments for
Conservatism should be considered on their merits.
It's worth noting that contemporary Liberalism furthers the interests of the powerful social classes that support it, and that
movements aiming at social justice typically become intensely elitist because, the more comprehensive and abstract a political
principle, the smaller the group that can be relied on to understand and apply it correctly.
2.3 WOULDN'T WE STILL HAVE SLAVERY IF CONSERVATIVES HAD ALWAYS BEEN RUNNING THE
Experience suggests otherwise. Slavery disappeared in Western and Central Europe long ago without need for self-conscious
attempts at social reconstruction. It lasted much longer in the new and less Conservative societies Europeans founded in America.
While Conservatism, as such, doesn't guarantee there will be no oppression, neither do attempts at autonomous rational thought.
It has been under radical and not conservative regimes that brutal forced labor and other gross forms of oppression have made a
comeback in recent times. That is no paradox. Radicalism is far more compatible than Conservatism with tyrannical institutions
because, by overemphasizing the role of theory in politics, it destroys reciprocity and mutual accommodation between rulers and
In addition, Conservatism is not self-contained; its recognition of existing practice as a standard does not mean denial that there
is any other standard. It recognizes that moral habits evolve with experience and changing circumstances, that social arrangements
that come to be too much at odds with the moral feelings of a people change or disappear, and that there are transcendent
standards as well as those that exist as part of the institutions of a particular people. It recognizes that there can be improvements
as well as corruptions.
Conservatism arose, not from a desire to freeze everything exactly as it is, but from recognition of the necessity of continuity, the
difficulty of forcing society into a preconceived pattern, and the importance of things, such as mutual personal obligation and
standards of right and wrong not reducible to power and desire, for which ideologies of the Left have trouble finding a place.
Those recognitions make Conservatives more reliable opponents of tyranny than Progressives.
3 - SOCIAL AND CULTURAL ISSUES
3.1 WHAT ARE FAMILY VALUES AND WHAT IS SO GREAT ABOUT THEM?
They are habits and attitudes that maintain a society in which people's most basic loyalties, and the relationships upon which they
rely most fundamentally, are relationships to particular persons rather than to the state.
Family values are basic to moral life because it is primarily in relationships with particular persons that are taken with the utmost
seriousness that we find the degree of concrete knowledge and mutual responsibility that is necessary for our obligations to others
to become realities for us. In addition, the knowledge and habits necessary for the good life mostly have to do with the day-to-day
activities of ordinary men. Such things lose coherence if everyday personal relations are unstable and unreliable, as they will be if
law, habits and attitudes do not support stable and functional family life.
To the extent the necessity of practical reliance on particular persons is viewed as something oppressive and unequal that the state
should remedy, family values are rejected. Conservatives oppose that rejection.
3.2 WHY CAN'T CONSERVATIVES JUST ACCEPT THAT PEOPLE'S PERSONAL VALUES DIFFER?
Liberals, Conservatives, and others all recognize limits on the degree to which differing personal values can be accommodated. Such
limits often arise because personal values can be realized only by establishing particular sorts of relations with other people, and no
society can favor all relationships equally. No society, for example, can favor equally a woman who primarily wants to have a career
and one who primarily wants to be a mother and homemaker. If public attitudes presume that it is the man who is primarily
responsible for family support, they favor the latter at the expense of the former; if not, they do the reverse.
3.3 WHY DO CONSERVATIVES ALWAYS WANT TO FORCE THEIR VALUES ON EVERYBODY ELSE?
Conservatives aren't different from other people in that regard. Anyone with a notion of how society should work will believe that
other people should follow the program he favors. For example, if Liberal Jack thinks the government should be responsible for the
well-being of children and wants to support the arrangement through a tax system that sends people to jail who don't comply, and
Conservative Jill thinks there should be family responsibility supported by a system of sex roles enforced by informal social
sanctions, each will want what the public schools teach to be consistent with his program.
Both will object to a school textbook entitled Heather Has Two Mommies Who Get Away with Paying No Taxes Because They
Accept Payment Only in Cash. Liberal Jack will object to the book Heather's Mommy Stays Home and Her Daddy Goes to
the Office, while Conservative Jill will object to other well-known texts. Even Libertarian Jerry might have some problems with
Heather and Her Whole Family Organize to Fight for Daycare and against Welfare Reductions. There is no obvious reason
to consider any of the three more tolerant than the others.
At present, the issue of social tolerance comes up most often in connection with sexual morality.
3.4 WHAT ROLE DO CONSERVATIVES THINK GOVERNMENT SHOULD PLAY IN ENFORCING
Since Conservatives believe moral values should be determined more by the traditions and feelings of the people than by theory
and formal decisions, they typically prefer to rely on informal social sanctions rather than enforcement by government. Nonetheless,
they believe that government should recognize the moral values on which society relies and should be run on the assumption that
they are good things that should not be undercut. Thus, Conservatives oppose public school curricula that depict such values as
optional and programs that fund their rejection, for example by subsidizing unwed parents or artists who intend their works to
outrage accepted morality. They believe the state should support fundamental moral institutions like the family, and oppose
legislation that forbids discrimination on moral grounds. How much more the government can or should do to promote morality is
a matter of experience and circumstance. In this connection, as in others, Conservatives typically do not have high expectations for
what government can achieve.
3.5 AREN'T CONSERVATIVES RACIST SEXIST HOMOPHOBES?
That depends on what those words mean. They are often used very broadly.
"Racist" -- Conservatives consider community loyalty important. The communities people grow up in generally have some
connection to ethnicity. That's no accident, because ethnicity is what develops when people live together with a common way of
life for a long time. Accordingly, Conservatives think some degree of ethnic loyalty and separateness is OK. Ethnicity is not the
same thing as "race" as a biological category; on the other hand, the two are difficult to disentangle because both arise out of
shared history and common descent.
"Sexist" -- All known societies have engaged in sex-role stereotyping, with men undertaking more responsibility for public affairs
and women for home, family, and childcare. There are obvious benefits to such stereotypes, since they make it far more likely that
individual men and women will complement each other and form stable and functional unions for the rearing of children. Also,
some degree of differentiation seems to fit the presocial tendencies of men and women better than unisex would. Conservatives
see no reason to give up those benefits, especially in view of the evident bad consequences of the weakening of stereotypical
obligations between the sexes in recent decades.
"Homophobes" -- Finally, sex-role stereotyping implies a tendency to reject patterns of impulse, attitude, and conduct that don't
fit the stereotypes, deviant patterns such as homosexuality.
3.6 WHAT HAPPENS TO FEMINISTS, HOMOSEXUALS, RACIAL MINORITIES, AND OTHERS
MARGINALIZED IN A
The same as happens in a society based on the Liberal conception of inclusiveness to religious and social Conservatives and to
ethnics who consider their ethnicity important. They find themselves in a social order they may not like, one dominated by people
who may look down on them and in which it may be difficult for the Conservatives to live as they prefer.
In both kinds of society, people on the outs may be able to persuade others to their way of thinking, to practice the way of life
they prefer among themselves, or to break off from the larger society and establish their own communities. Such possibilities are,
in general, more realistic in a Conservative society that emphasizes local control, federalism, and minimal bureaucracy than in a
society that demands egalitarian social justice and therefore tries to establish a universal homogeneous social order. For example,
ethnic minorities in a Conservative society may well be able to thrive or, at least, maintain themselves through some combination
of adaptation and niche-finding, while in, an "inclusive" society, they will find themselves on the receiving end of policies
designed to eliminate the public importance of their (and every other) ethnic culture.
One important question is whether alienation from the social order will be more common in a Conservative or a Liberal society. It
seems that it will be more common in a social order based on universal implementation of a bureaucracy's conception of social
justice than in one that accepts the moral feelings and loyalties that arise over time within particular communities. So it seems
likely that a Liberal society will have more citizens than a Conservative society who feel that their deepest values and loyalties
are peripheral to the concerns of the institutions that dominate their lives, and so feel marginalized.
3.7 WHAT ABOUT FREEDOM?
Conservatives are strong supporters of social institutions that realize and protect freedom, but believe such institutions attain
their full value as part of a larger whole. Freedom is fully realized only when we are held responsible for the choices we make,
and it is most valuable in a setting in which things can readily be chosen that add up to a good life. Accordingly, Conservatives
reject perspectives that view freedom as an absolute, and recognize that the institutions through which freedom is realized must
respect other goods without which freedom would not be worth having.
In addition, Conservatives believe there is a close connection between freedom and participation in public affairs. Since how we
live affects others, freedom includes taking part in making society what it is. Accordingly, the Conservative principles of
federalism, local rule, and private property help realize freedom by devolving power into many hands and making widespread
participation in running society a reality. Respect for tradition, the "democracy of the dead," has the same effect.
3.8 WHAT ABOUT JUSTICE?
Justice between man and man is respect for concrete obligations and individual responsibility. Conservatives take both very
Social justice is the ordering of social life toward the good for man. Social injustice is systematic destruction of the conditions
for existence of that good. Because the good for man can not be fully known, because it includes respect for each of us as a moral
agent, and because human affairs are infinitely complex, social justice can never be fully achieved, nor achieved at all through
imposition of a preconceived overall design on society. Attempts to do the latter have led to horrendous crimes including, in
several modern instances, the murder of millions of innocents. Since social justice must evolve rather than be constructed, its
furtherance requires acceptance of the authority of tradition.The two cannot be separated.
Social justice is sometimes thought to mean promotion of equality through comprehensive government action. That view can not
be correct, since men differ and what is just for them must, therefore, also differ. In addition, the goods which that view is
concerned to divide equally -- wealth, power, and the like -- do not appear to be the ultimate human goods and, therefore, can not
appropriately be considered the ultimate concerns of justice. Finally, a system guided by such a conception must defeat its own
purpose because it puts enormous and uncontrollable power in the hands of those who control the government; possession of
such power, of course, makes them radically unequal to those they rule.
4 - ECONOMIC ISSUES
4.1 WHY DO CONSERVATIVES SAY THEY FAVOR VIRTUE AND COMMUNITY BUT, IN FACT, FAVOR
LAISSEZ-FAIRE CAPITALISM? DOESN'T LAISSEZ-FAIRE CAPITALISM
Conservatives typically are not fans of pure laissez-faire, although they view economic liberty as one of the traditional liberties of
the American people that has served that people well. Many are skeptical of free trade and most favor restraints on immigration for
the sake of permitting the existence and development of a reasonably coherent national community. Nor do they oppose in principle
the regulation or suppression of businesses that adversely affect the moral order of society, businesses such as prostitution,
pornography, and the sale of certain drugs.
Conservatives strongly favor free markets when the alternative is to expand bureaucracy to implement Liberal goals, a process that
clearly has the effect of damaging virtue and community. Also, they tend to prefer self-organization to central control because they
believe that overall administration of social life is impossible. They recognize that, like tradition, the market reflects men's infinitely
various and often unconscious and inarticulate goals and perceptions far better than any bureaucratic process could.
In any event, it's not clear that laissez-faire Capitalism need undermine moral community. "Laissez-faire Capitalism" has to do with
limitations on what the government does and only indirectly with the nature of society as a whole. While social statistics are only
a crude measure of the state of community and morality, it is noteworthy that, in England, crime and illegitimacy rates fell by about
half from the middle to the end of the 19th century, the heyday of untrammelled Capitalism, and that the rejection of laissez-faire has,
in fact, been accompanied by increasing social atomization.
4.2 WHY DON'T CONSERVATIVES CARE ABOUT WHAT HAPPENS TO THE POOR, WEAK,
DISCOURAGED, AND OUTCAST?
Conservatives do care about what happens to such people. That's why they oppose government programs that multiply the poor,
weak, discouraged, and outcast by undermining and disrupting the network of habits and social relations that enable people to
carry on their lives without depending on government bureaucracy.
Moral community declines when people rely on government to solve their problems, rather than on themselves and those they live
with. It is the weak who suffer most from the resulting moral chaos. Those who think that interventionist Liberalism means that the
weak face fewer problems should consider the effects on women, children, and blacks of trends of the past 40 years. That period has
featured large increases in social welfare expenditures, as well as increased crime, reduced educational achievement, family instability,
and an end to progress in reducing poverty.
4.3 WHAT ABOUT PEOPLE FOR WHOM THE USUAL SUPPORT NETWORKS DON'T WORK?
SHOULDN'T THE GOVERNMENT DO SOMETHING FOR THEM?
The fundamental question is whether government should have ultimate responsibility for individual material well-being. Conservatives
believe that it should not; giving it that responsibility means despotism, since material well-being is a result of a complex of things that,
in the end, extends to the whole of life, and responsibility for each individual case requires detailed control of the whole.
Government responsibility for specific cases also means that what happens to people, and therefore what they do, is the business of no
one in particular; if there's a serious problem, the government will take care of it. Such an outlook destroys social ties and promotes
antisocial behavior. If government does things that weaken self-reliance and the moral bonds that give rise to community, and that can
not be made to work without an elaborate system of compulsion, in the long run, it will increase suffering and degradation.
Conservatives are therefore suspicious of social welfare programs, especially attempts at categorical solutions. Suspicion has rational
limits. Some government social welfare measures (free clinics for mothers and children or local systems of support for deserving people)
may well increase social welfare even, in the long term. However, because of the obscurity of the issue, the difficulty in a mass
democracy of limiting the expansion of government benefit programs, and the value of widespread participation in public life, the best
resolution is likely to be keeping central government involvement strictly limited, and letting individuals, associations, and localities
support voluntarily the institutions and programs they think socially beneficial.
4.4 WHAT ABOUT WELFARE FOR THE MIDDLE CLASSES, WELFARE POLICIES LIKE SOCIAL
SECURITY, MEDICARE, THE HOME MORTGAGE INTEREST INCOME TAX
DEDUCTION. AND SO
The most consistently laissez-faire Liberal Conservatives want to get rid of all of them. Social security and Medicare, they say, are
financially unsound, and are socially harmful because they lead people capable of saving for their own retirement and supporting
their own parents to rely on the government instead. They could better be replaced by private savings, prefunded medical insurance,
greater emphasis on intergenerational obligations within families, and other arrangements that would evolve if the government
presence were reduced or eliminated.
Other contemporary Conservatives distinguish these middle-class benefits from welfare by the element of reciprocity; people get
Social Security and Medicare only if they have already given a great deal to society, and, in the case of the mortgage interest tax
deduction, the "benefit" consists only in the right to keep more of one's earnings. Still other present-day Conservatives try to split
the difference somehow. As a practical matter, the reluctance of many Conservatives to disturb these arrangements is likely
motivated in part by the electoral power of their supporters.
4.5 IF CONSERVING IS A GOOD THING, WHY ISN'T ECOLOGY A CONSERVATIVE CAUSE?
Conservatism is concerned more with relations among men than those between man and nature, so ecology is not one of its
defining issues. There is, however, nothing in Conservatism intrinsically at odds with ecological concerns. Some Conservatives
and Conservative schools of thought take such issues very seriously; others less so. There are, of course, Conservative grounds
for criticizing or rejecting particular aspects of the existing environmental movement, such as overemphasis on central controls.
5 - CONSERVATISM IN AN AGE OF ESTABLISHED LIBERALISM
5.1 WHY DO CONSERVATIVES TALK AS IF THE SKY IS ABOUT TO FALL AND ALL GOOD THINGS
ARE IN THE PAST? PEOPLE HAVE BEEN BEMOANING THE PRESENT FOR
A LONG TIME, BUT
THINGS DON'T SEEM SO BAD TODAY.
Conservatives don't predict more disasters than do Liberals, just different disasters. Like other people, they see both hopeful and
hazardous trends in the current situation. Post-Communist societies display the disastrous social consequences of energetic
attempts to implement post-Enlightenment radicalism. Less energetic attempts, such as modern American Statist Liberalism, do not
lead to similar effects as quickly. Nonetheless, social trends toward breakdown of affiliations among individuals, centralization of
political power in irresponsible elites, irreconcilable social conflicts, and increasing stupidity, brutality and triviality in daily life
suggest that those consequences are coming just the same. Why not worry about them?
5.2 ISN'T CONSERVATISM ESSENTIALLY NOSTALGIA FOR A PAST THAT NEVER WAS AND CAN'T
In substance, the objection is that the goals of Conservatism are neither serious nor achievable. That objection fails, if, in the end,
Conservatives are likely to get what they want.
Conservatism involves recognition that moral community is required for the coherence of individual and social life, and that a
reasonably coherent way of life is a practical necessity. Current trends toward radical individualism, egalitarianism, and hedonism
destroy the possibility of moral community. Conservatives are, therefore, confident that, in some fashion, existing trends will be
reversed and, in important respects, the moral and social future will resemble the past more than the present. In particular, the
future will see less emphasis on individual autonomy and more on moral tradition and essentialist ties.
The timing and form of the necessary reversal is, of course, uncertain. It plainly can't be achieved through administrative techniques,
the method most readily accepted as serious and realistic today. So, Conservatives' main political proposal is that aspects of the
modern state that oppose the reversal be trimmed or abandoned. Those who consider modern trends beneficial and irreversible,
therefore, accuse Conservatives of simple obstructionism. In contrast, those who see that current trends lead to catastrophe and
that a reversal must take place expect that, if Conservatives aren't successful now, their goals will be achieved eventually, but very
likely with more conflict and destruction along the way.
5.3 WHAT'S ALL THIS STUFF ABOUT COMMUNITY AND TRADITION? THE GROUPS THAT MATTER
THESE DAYS ARE GROUPS LIKE THE YUPPIES, GAYS, AND SENIOR CITIZENS,
PEOPLE JOIN AS INDIVIDUALS AND ARE
BASED ON INTERESTS AND PERSPECTIVES, RATHER
THAN ON TRADITION.
Can this be true in rgw long run? When times are good, people imagine that they can define themselves as they choose, but a
society will not long exist if the only thing its members have in common is a commitment to self-definition. The necessity for
something beyond that becomes clearest when the times require sacrifice. Membership in a group with an identity developed and
inculcated through tradition becomes far more relevant then than career path, life-style option, or stage of life. One of William
Jefferson Clinton's problem as President of the United States was that people saw him as a yuppie who wouldn't die for anything;
at some point that kind of problem becomes decisive.
5.4 IF CONSERVATISM IS SO GREAT, WHY ARE MOST PEOPLE SERIOUSLY INVOLVRD IN
STUDYING AND DEALING WITH SOCIAL ISSUES LIBERALS?
Conservatives believe it is impossible to define and control the considerations relevant to social life accurately enough to make a
technological approach to society possible. Accordingly, they reject efforts to divide human affairs into compartments to be dealt
with by experts as part of an overall plan for promoting comprehensive goals like equality and prosperity. Academic and other
policy experts are defined as Liberals by their participation in such efforts. It would be surprising if they did not prefer perspectives
that give free rein to them, such as welfare-state Liberalism, over perspectives that are suspicious of them.
5.5 HOW CAN TRADITION DO ANYTHING BUT ENDORSE THE WAY THINGS HAPPEN TO BE --
WHICH, AT PRESENT, MEANS ESTABLISHED LIBERALISM?
If traditionalism were a formal rule it could, of course, tell us very little; the current state of a tradition is simply the current practices,
attitudes, beliefs, and so on of the community whose tradition it is. The point of tradition, however, is that formal rules are inadequate.
Tradition is not self-contained, and not all parts of it are equally authoritative. It is a way of grasping things that are neither knowable
apart from it nor merely traditional. One who accepts a religious tradition, for example, owes his ultimate allegiance not to the tradition
but to God, who is known through the tradition. It is allegiance to something that exceeds and motivates the tradition that makes it
possible to distinguish what is authentic and living in the tradition from nonessentials and corruptions.
5.6 SHOULDN'T MODERN CONSERVATIVES AT LEAST FAVOR THINGS THAT ARE
WELL-ESTABLISHED, SUCH AS THE WELFARE STATE AND STEADY EXPANSION
SCOPE OF THE CIVIL RIGHTS LAWS?
Yes, to the extent they are consistent with the older and more fundamental parts of our social arrangements, such as family, community,
and traditional moral standards, and contribute to the over-all functioning of the whole. Unfortunately, the things mentioned fail on both
points. Existing welfare and civil rights measures make sense only as part of a comprehensive centrally managed system that is adverse
to the connections among men that make community possible, and is designed to reorder society as a whole through bureaucratic
decree. It is very difficult for Conservatives to accept anything like such a system.
5.7 I WAS RAISED A LIBERAL. DOESN'T THAT MEAN I SHOULD STAY TRUE TO LIBERALISM?
How can you feel bound to a viewpoint that does not value loyalty and can, therefore, survive only if it is fundamentally not accepted
by most people? For someone raised a Liberal, the Conservative approach would be to look for guidance to the things on which the
people with whom he grew up actually relied for coherence and stability, including the traditions of the larger community upon which
their way of life depended. Those things will always include fundamental illiberal elements that enabled the community to function as
6 - THE CONSERVATIVE RAINBOW
6.1 HOW DO LIBERTARIANS DIFFER FROM CONSERVATIVES?
In general, Libertarians emphasize limited government more than do Conservatives and believe the sole legitimate purpose of
government is the protection of property rights against force and fraud. Thus, they usually consider legal restrictions on such things
as immigration, drug use, and prostitution to be illegitimate violations of personal liberty. Many but not all Libertarians hold a position
that might be described as economically Right (anti-Socialist) and culturally Left (opposed to what are called cultural repressiveness,
racism, sexism, homophobia, and so on), and tend to attribute to state intervention the survival of things the cultural Left dislikes.
Speaking more abstractly, the Libertarian perspective assigns to the market the position Conservatives assign to tradition as the great
accumulator and integrator of the implicit knowledge of society. Some writers, such as F. A. Hayek, attempt to bridge the two
perspectives on that issue. In addition, Libertarians tend to believe in strict methodological individualism and absolute and universally
valid human rights, while Conservatives are less likely to have the former commitment and tend to understand rights by reference to
the forms they take in particular societies.
6.2 WHAT ARE MAINSTREAM CONSERVATIVES?
People who mix the traditionalist Conservatism outlined in this document with varying proportions ofLibertarianism and Liberalism.
Any Conservative who gets elected or otherwise hits the mass market (e.g., Rush Limbaugh) is likely to be a mainstream Conservative.
Mainstream Conservatives often speak the language of Liberalism, especially classical Liberalism. Their appeal is nonetheless
Conservative; typically, they reject more highly developed forms of Liberalism in favor of earlier forms that retain more traces of
6.3 WHAT ARE NEOCONSERVATIVES?
A group of Conservatives, most of whom were Liberals until Leftwing radicalism went mass-market in the 1960s. Their positions
continue to evolve; some still have positions consistent with New Deal Liberalism, while others have moved on to a more full-blown
Conservatism. Many of them have been associated with the magazines, Commentary and The Public Interest, and a
neopapalist contingent (now at odds with many other Neoconservatives over the relation between religion and politics) is
associated with the magazine, First Things. Their influence has been out of proportion to their numbers, in part, because they
include a number of well-known Northeastern and West Coast journalists and academics and, in part, because, having once been
Liberals, they still can speak the language and retain a certain credibility in Establishment circles.
6.4 WHAT ARE PALEOCONSERVATIVES?
Another group of Conservatives, most of whom were never Liberals and live someplace other than the Northeastern megalopolis or
California. The most prominent paleo publications are Chronicles and Modern Age. They arose as a self-conscious
group in opposition to Neoconservatives, after the success of the Neos in establishing themselves within the Reagan administration,
and especially after the Neos helped defeat the nomination of Paleo Mel Bradford as head of the National Endowment for the
Humanities in favor of one of their own, Bill Bennett. The views set forth in this document are consistent with those of most
Paleoconservatives as well as many Neoconservatives.
6.5 WHAT ARE PALEOLIBERTARIANS?
A group of Libertarians, notably Llewellyn Rockwell and the late Murray Rothbard, who reject mainstream Libertarianism as
culturally libertine and often squishy-soft on big government and, on most issues, share common ground with paleoconservatives.
Their center on the web is Mises.org, and a sampling of their views expressed in popular form can be found at LewRockwell.com
6.6 WHAT ARE FRANKFORT SCHOOL NEOPALEOCONSERVATIVES?
A group (so named for the first time in this document) that has come by way of Frankfurt School cultural criticism to a position
reminiscent of Paleoconservatism emphasizing federalism, rejection of the therapeutic managerial state, and (most recently) liturgy.
Their publication is Telos, which now includes Paleocon Paul Gottfried on its editorial board and publishes Chronicles
editor Thomas Fleming as well as writers such as Alain de Benoist, associated with the European New Right. (It has also published
the author of this document.)
6.7 WHERE DO THE PRO-LIFE MOVEMENT AND THE RELIGIOUS RIGHT FIT INTO ALL THIS?
Like Conservatism, both movements reject hedonism and radical individual autonomy and emphasize the authority of traditionally
based institutions in opposition to that of the modern managerial state. Their general goals can usually be supported on
Conservative principles, but they tend to base their claims on principles of natural law or revelation that are sometimes handled in
an antitraditional way. As popular movements in an antitraditional public order, they often adopt non-Conservative styles of
reasoning and rhetoric. Thus, these movements have strong Conservative elements, but are not purely Conservative. It should be
noted, however, that pure Conservatism is rare or nonexistent and may not even be coherent; the point of Conservatism is always
some good other than maintenance of tradition as such.
6.8 WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENCES BETWEEN AMERICAN CONSERVATISM AND THE
CONSERVATISM OF OTHER COUNTRIES?
They correspond to the differences in political tradition. In general, Conservatism in America has a much stronger
Capitalist/Libertarian and populist streak than in other countries. European Conservatism once emphasized support for throne,
altar, and sword as hierarchical bearers of authoritative traditions. In America, those hierarchies never existed, and, especially in
recent years Conservatism has emphasized opposition to new antitraditional hierarchies of formal expertise and bureaucratic
position. These differences seem to be declining as other countries become more like America and as many American
Conservatives become more alienated from their country's actual way of life and system of government.
6.9 WHAT DO ALL THESE THINGS CALLED "CONSERVATISM" HAVE IN COMMON?
Each rejects, through an appeal to something traditionally valued, the Liberal tendency to treat individual impulse and desire as
the final authorities. Differences in the preferred point of reference give rise to different forms of Conservatism. Those who appeal
to the independent and responsible individual become Libertarian Conservatives, while those who appeal to a traditional culture
or to God become traditionalist or religious Conservatives. Depending on circumstances, the alliance among different forms of
Conservatism may be closer or more tenuous. In America today, Libertarian, traditionalist, and religious Conservatives find
common ground in favoring federalism and constitutionally limited government and opposing the managerial welfare state.
Jim Kalb welcomes readers' comments and suggestions for additional questions about Conservatism. Comments and suggestions
should be sent to Jim Kalb by email (email@example.com) or by participation in the discussion on the Internet discussion board
Pro et Contra.
Return to Top of Page
Return to Beginning of
LECTURES IN POLITICAL SCIENCE, PHILOSOPHY, & HISTORY
Return to POLITICAL EDUCATION Homepage