I am a conservative by temperament. The things I love are old and proven, while I am resolutely skeptical that anything new is as good as its boosters claim. When someone wants to change something, my first instinct is to see the flaws in what they propose. Most people who think they can improve society, especially through law and government, are egomaniacs and hucksters who should be resisted: this I believe, and it is a belief at least as much emotional as rational.
But I also know that this is insufficient either as a moral code or as a theory how government should work. And the flaws of conservatism as a theory have become more clear to me as I’ve read one of the most authoritative defenses of conservative thinking: Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.
Kirk starts his survey with the man most commonly credited with the creation of conservatism as a coherent political theory: Edmund Burke. One of the things Burke does is offer a defense of prejudice, meaning the default cultural assumptions of most men at any given time. He argues that prejudice is the distilled collective wisdom of the ages. It may be wrong, but it shouldn’t be assumed to be wrong. There are likely to be good historical reasons for man’s reflexive preferences and dislikes. Tradition is the inherited wisdom of the generations, not just a set of cultural habits.
My vigorous head-nodding stopped a few chapters later, however, when I reached Kirk’s overview of the thought of John Randolph and John Calhoun. Kirk begins this chapter on conservative thought in the antebellum south by asking us to put aside his subjects’ views on slavery. He then sympathetically reviews their arguments on states’ rights and the needs to protect the views and prerogatives of minorities. (It is important to note that they were arguing for the rights of a minority of white men in the south against the tyranny of the more numerous white men in the north.) In the abstract, these are good and useful arguments: a government that is mobilized by a statistical majority to oppress others is an immoral government, which is why the nation’s founders implemented so many checks on the majority.
But these arguments were not made in the abstract. They were made by men seeking to uphold slavery, and who (at least in the case of Calhoun) believed that institution was a positive good. Randolph and Calhoun were wrong, and their arguments are deeply tainted by their immorality and by the evil they were attempting to preserve. For my conservative readers who aren’t convinced, imagine reading a book on liberal thought that approvingly cites Stalin’s insights on eliminating inequality and building a socialist state, while trying to dismiss the Gulag and mass starvation of dissident populations as incidental to his brilliant thinking.
I’m not, by the way, trying to say that we have nothing to learn from men such as Randolph and Calhoun. In fact, we conservatives can probably learn more from them than we can from Burke, because reading Burke will largely leave us reassured in our beliefs. But if we can look at the arguments of a man like Calhoun, accept that they are, to some extent, our arguments, and see how they led him to support evil, then we can refine those arguments to avoid his fate, or at least be more wary about the dangers of our position. Celebrating tradition is often good, but the wisdom of our ancestors is indeed imperfect and carries within it the same sinfulness that taints every other aspect of life on earth.
Similarly, we conservatives should be wary when we hear our fellows decry the unique awfulness of modern culture, or describing the moment as uniquely threatening to religious belief, or writing off our entire government as a wicked brew of corruption and incompetence. It does not take a great deal of historical knowledge to unearth the cultural failings of past ages, or find times when it was much more dangerous to be a believer (even if it was other believers doing the persecuting in those days), or revisit the depths to which our government and others have sunk in the past.
Conservatism, by itself, offers the possibility of resisting novel forms of evil and stupidity, while accepting the preservation of evil and stupidity from our past. More is needed. If, like me, you wed your conservative temperament to Christian faith, then what is needed is the prayerful discernment to know what in modern life is truly wicked versus what is simply new and uncomfortable. It is worth remembering that God presides over the world today just as he did when the Romans were persecuting Christians, when Protestants and Catholics were massacring each other, and when much of historically Christian Europe was overrun by murderous neo-pagans who believed they were a master race. We have not, perhaps, made much as much moral progress over the centuries as some would like to think, but neither have we sunk to an unprecedented moral low point.
There is a famous principle of conservative thought known as Chesterton’s Fence. It is based on the following quote from G.K. Chesterton:
“In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”
This is a wise principle, but sometimes conservatives forget that the fence might be outdated, or might have been erected by evil men who wanted to stop travelers on the road and rob them. It is also worth remembering that, even though a fence is torn down wrongly, it can be rebuilt. It might not be the same as the old one, and us lovers of the past may miss that which is gone, but there is a joy in building something new and good as well. We should embrace that opportunity with the same fervor with which we protect the beloved treasures of the past.