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Wednesday, November 30, 2005

The Meaning of Conservatism 

This will either intrigue some TigerHawk readers or bore them to tears - I have no idea. I'd like to draw your attention to a site I rather enjoy: Right Reason. While I was still blogging I had no time to wade in with any regularity, but if you're looking for something a little more thought-provoking than the odd equine gaydar post or MoDope's scintillating speculations on why men are so intimidated by her towering intellect, Right Reason is a good place to start.

This week they are discussing the nature of conservatism. Roger Scruton has an interesting comment on the perils of overextending the free market model. This is my primary objection to Libertarianism, though I often test mildly Livid Terrier on online tests (to my eternal shame):

The free-market ideologues take one instance of spontaneous order, and erect it into a prescription for all the others. They ask us to believe that the free exchange of commodities is the model for all social interaction. But many of our most important forms of life involve withdrawing what we value from the market: sexual morality is an obvious instance, city planning another. (America has failed abysmally in both those respects, of course.)

Looked at from the anthropological point of view religion can be seen as an elaborate (and spontaneous) way in which communities remove what is most precious to them (i.e. all that concerns the creation and reproduction of community) from the erosion of the market. A cultural conservative, such as I am, supports that enterprise. I would put the point in terms that echo Burke and Chesterton: the free market provides the optimal solution to the competition among the living for scarce resources; but when applied to the goods in which the dead and the unborn have an interest (sex, for instance) it wastes what must be saved.

Chew on that for a while.

Scruton offers an intesting insight that seems to distinguish the difference the view most military people have of life from that of so many civilians, who see in the notion of duty or honor only a sort of hypnotized, 'support the dupes' mentality:

To describe an obligation as transcendent in my sense is not to endow it with some kind of oppressive force. On the contrary, it is to recognize the spontaneous disposition of people to acknowledge obligations that they never contracted. There are other words that might be used in this context: gratitude, piety, obedience -- all of them virtues, and all of them naturally offered to the thing we love.

What I try to make clear in my writings is that, while the left-liberal view of politics is founded in antagonism towards existing things and resentment at power in the hands of others, conservatism is founded in the love of existing things, imperfections included, and a willing acceptance of authority, provided it is not blatantly illegitimate. Hence there is nothing oppressive in the conservative attitude to authority.

It is part of the blindness of the left-wing worldview that it cannot perceive authority but only power. People who think of conservatism as oppressive and dictatorial have some deviant example in mind, such as fascism, or Tsarist autocracy. I would offer in the place of such examples the ordinary life of European and American communities as described by 19th century novelists. In those communities all kinds of people had authority -- teachers, pastors, judges, heads of local societies, and so on. But only some of them had power, and almost none of them were either able or willing to oppress their fellows.

I confess that I see much of modern American culture as reflexively anti-authoritarian. As a nation, we seem increasingly inclined to take the easy way out: self-righteously rejecting the notion of any limits on our actions or words (even self-imposed ones) as opposed to being thoughtfully independent or taking a principled stand against things which legitimately ought to be opposed. I truly believe this tendency explains the distressing and irresponsible behavior of our leaders on Capitol Hill.

How can we expect responsibility, much less accountability, from those who disrespect authority and acknowledge no duty to anything higher than their own selves?

9 Comments:

By Blogger cakreiz, at Wed Nov 30, 09:39:00 AM:

"I confess that I see much of modern American culture as reflexively anti-authoritarian." Hey, don't tell me what to think! Oops, that just slipped out.

Right on, Cassie.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Wed Nov 30, 10:28:00 AM:

Sorry dude - imposing my reich-wing, heteronormative world view on the odd unsuspecting Other seems to be second nature with me. But I suppose that's the inevitable consequence of decades of refusing to renounce my unearned race, class, and gender privileges...

Heh :D

Seriously, I should talk. I'm a lapsed 'Piskie (is that redundant?), a religion I often jokingly refer to as either a "wannabe Papist with authority problems" or "Catholic Lite - all of the ritual, none of the guilt". I've often suspected that the biggest thing that keeps me out of church of late is the same reflexive anti-authoritarianism I decry in others :)

Hypocrisy bites. Fortunately God has a sense of humor.  

By Blogger cakreiz, at Wed Nov 30, 11:22:00 AM:

I'm thinking that my Generation, the wonderously ungrateful Boomers, started the parade of rebellion, the end of which we have not yet seen. It leads to a sad and unproductive contrarianism for its own sake, and we're certainly mired in it today.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Wed Nov 30, 11:44:00 AM:

I think it started farther back than that. Kids always rebel, but if their parents have any sense they pull them back into line. I grew up during those times too and it seems the adults just were AWOL.

I blame Dr. Spock, the decline of spanking (something TigerHawk is still upset about ;), and a culture that somewhere along the line chose style over substance (i.e., they decided self-esteem was more important than genuine achievement).

Seriously (I'm being partly facetious) I think that after the horrors of WWII and Korea we experienced a period of affluence and then I think the grownups were just tired. A similar thing happened after WWI - there is an anomie that happens when people have seen too much horror. They lose faith in social institutions, and it doesn't happen when things are really tough.

It takes affluence or a period of peace to make the rot really set in - people say "I don't want to go there ever again." and you get these Beat Generation whack jobs who start in and it's like Chinese water torture. No social structure can withstand that sort of nonsense forever, but you can't choke it off either because it's not healthy.

Fortunately, history seems to operate like a pendulum. If we foul things up badly enough, circumstances will eventually remind us of why we had all these confining social institutions in the first place.

People never learn: that is the great enduring lesson of history...

But history operates much like a 2x4 upside the head if you ignore it long enough.  

By Blogger cakreiz, at Wed Nov 30, 12:40:00 PM:

My folks weren't burdened by the Spockian voyage- spanking was just a part of the deal. I agree with your analysis, including the likely swing back toward discipline. Antiauthoritarianism is so prevalent that we're unaware of it for the most part. The anti-hero, so in vogue in the late 60s, is now our cultural mainstay.  

By Blogger Lanky_Bastard, at Wed Nov 30, 05:43:00 PM:

With regards to congress, I think they're just respecting different authorities. There have been way way too many party-line votes to claim congressmen acknowledge no duty to anything higher than their own selves.

They've expanded government, passed the patriot act, and foisted decificts onto future generations. Those aren't the acts of anti-authoritarians. Besides, if they were really anti-authoritarian, they'd have passed something that Bush would have had cause to veto.

What they are is a pair of gangs. And you're either with them, or you're against them. They're only accountable to each other.  

By Blogger Cassandra, at Wed Nov 30, 07:34:00 PM:

I never thought of it that way. But is it authority Congress respects, or is it more of a quid pro quo situation where if they don't scratch each other's backs, they don't get their own scratched in return?

I'm asking, by the way.  

By Blogger Papa Ray, at Wed Nov 30, 08:45:00 PM:

"Any man who is under 30, and is not a liberal, has no heart; and any man who is over 30, and is not a conservative, has no brains."
-- Winston Churchill  

By Blogger Max Goss, at Tue Dec 06, 01:20:00 PM:

Hi Cassandra, I enjoyed your comments on Part I. Part II is now up if you'd like to take a look.  

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