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I take conservatism to be an appreciation and defense of what has been proven to work, and which benefits society and the individual in a balance.
If that seems overly-broad, let me provide an example. Morality is effective in curbing largely destructive impulses and reactions, therefore morality is worth defending in principle, with some room for debate on many fronts. Not all morality is the same, and it is not always helpful in the particulars. But to hold that morality is not a necessary part of society is anti-conservative in my view, as morality is the most tested method for a society to control its own behavior with respect for the society and the individual in balance.
Libertarianism is a radical extreme that places no value on society as a body, and progressivism is a radical extreme that places no value on the individual. Conservatism is the compromise position arrived at through experience, and stored in our cultural traditions as the wisdom of the ages. To a secular conservative, the Bible is one of many instruments to this end. Just because there is a religious proscription against adultery doesn’t mean that only religious people can defend a belief that adultery is harmful to individuals and society. Likewise with other religious proscriptions.
Religion is, of course, a large component of the conservative movement, but philosophically it is not a necessary component of a thoroughly conservative position. Not even for marriage. I view the partnership between religion and conservatism as a co-development from a common origin. Shared predicates yield shared conclusions, and therefore common interest. Where religion ascribes things to God, secular conservatism agrees to the extent that it is destructive of society and the individual for mankind to mess with certain things. Progressivism on the other hand is the confidence that a small group of people in the present know better than (on the one hand) everybody else across time, and better than (on the Other hand) God in His infinite wisdom. Secular conservatism and religion get along just fine as defenders of our culture.
I see value in describing much of libertarianism as allied with progressivism, because conservatism is where the middle is, and to pull us off that mark either this way or that is just as destructive. If a movement seeks to abolish our traditions as proven over time, it is not conservatism. Progressivism and libertarianism get along just fine as disruptors of our culture.
There is already a philosophical position consistent with conservatism which enshrines human rights and the liberty of the individual: it is called conservatism.
Now, not every tradition is valuable, and a slavish devotion to traditions which are not good is not conservatism; that’s mechanism, on the process level. Radical opposition to a flawed and failing government is not anti-conservative, but radical opposition to the institutions of our culture, most definitely is.
For example, you could argue that big spending by government is now a tradition and that it is therefore conservative to defend it and radical to oppose it, but this is wrong for a number of reasons. First, it may be a tradition, but empirically it has not been proven to be a useful one. Some spending is necessary, some spending is excessive — making judgements is important, and at any rate, even if all projects were equally worthy, the sheer sum of spending which displaces other worthy but non-government projects must be taken into account and weighed for relative merit. Big spending is anti-conservative because it is destructive.
Second, the dependencies come to play in that objects and policies are not the only subjects to be appreciated and defended. The decision to spend less is no less valuable than the process by which we arrive at that decision, and its implications. If we feel that the accumulated wisdom vouchsafed in our culture is probably more valuable as a guide for society (in the aggregate) than the intellect spawned in a few brilliant fellows, then a process which lends itself to operation gently over time by many rather than abruptly, once, by the few is an inherently conservative method of arriving at conclusions. Big spending is anti-conservative because it operates through an anti-conservative process.
As the free market is operated gently by many, and government spending is operated forcefully by few, any problem not specifically recommended for government remedy is probably better handled outside of government. So no matter how “traditional” big spending may have become, it is not conservative in itself, and it is not conservative to defend it merely because it is the status quo.
Marriage pre-dates any law. It simply is, and it is between one man and one woman. This may sound circular, or like a “no true Scot” defense, but I assert it as a foundational fact. Marriage is not produced by law any more than our rights are. Marriage is enshrined and defended by law in our culture, and if the law should fall, marriage would remain, just as our rights do. The law does not trump marriage.
This should not be too alarming; conservatism is a platform, a set of positions. Some planks rest upon others and not all must be as heavily pedigreed. I hold that marriage is a foundational plank in the conservative platform. I hold that marriage is an emergent cultural defense against various destructive impulses and reactions, including those of jealous males, engineering females, and hostile out-group sentiment. Good manners are a defense against some offenses which can become lethal, and marriage is a defense against outrage.
Humans are sexual beings (as our grade-schoolers are reminded every minute by government busybodies), and many of our impulses and reactions are not rational in the way we would like, no matter how logical they may be from a chromosome’s point of view. As manners are typically maintained by society itself, morality is often maintained by religion as a specific example of a philosophy operating in context.
As the male-female pairing is not up for debate in conservatism (I challenge you to convince me that it is not what has been proven to work), so the societal adaptation which defends it is a necessary component of conservatism. I realize that many “conservatives” disagree with this, but they are mistaken about either their conservatism or their conclusions.Published in