"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Sunday, May 09, 2010

What's exceptional about conservatism?

During the 2008 presidential campaign, I posted an essay called "Why I am a Conservative." Along with five or six other people, I found it quite relevant at the time. My reasons for calling myself a conservative remain the same, but I now doubt that they suffice. That's because it's beginning to seem that what mainstream American "conservatives" want to conserve amounts to little more than the rotten core of liberalism. That’s relevant to everybody now and for some time to come.
I am reacting in particular to an already much-discussed NRO essay by Rich Lowry and Ramesh Pannuru, published a few days ago and entitled "An Exceptional Debate: The Obama administration’s assault on American identity." To be sure, I agree with a good deal of what they wrote—mostly, the parts about the threat posed by the Obama Administration to what is distinctively American. But Paul Cella, editor of a blog I occasionally write for, has undertaken the first two parts of a four-part critique. I don't want to anticipate his overall argument, but I do agree with a good part of what he’s said so far. I want to explain here why all who want to preserve this republic—which is by no means everybody, whatever they may say—need to understand what is at stake.
This is not just one of those tiresome terminological tussles that only debaters enjoy. I am well aware that, for decades now, many American conservatives could rightly be called "liberals" in the old-fashioned sense of term: the sort of liberal who could say, with the late Senator Barry Goldwater, that "extremism in defense of liberty is no vice." In that sense, the deist revolutionary Thomas Paine was a liberal, but so was the theist, non-revolutionary Abraham Lincoln. He didn't seem that way to many at the time, of course. As a virtual dictator, at least in Southern eyes, he prosecuted a calamitous civil war that obliterated a beloved, established way of life in the South. And his purpose seemed conservative: to preserve the federal union of the states. One result of the war was that the phrase 'the United States' became a grammatical singular rather than a plural. In "liberal" terms, though, the utility of the reborn Union was its power to crush slavery, and thus to achieve something a bit closer to liberty for the oppressed. That was an advance of liberty which even today's "liberals" take for granted as a good. But a few decades later, another American president, William McKinley, exemplified liberalism in an less edifying sense: his laissez-faire economic policies ushered in the era of the Robber Barons and the trusts along with the exploitation of the poor, especially the waves of new European immigrants. Coming on the heels of the rather cynical “Reconstruction,” that sort of liberalism was highly selective, and was uncomfortably closer to what many in America today would call conservatism than to what is now called liberalism.
But when I speak of "the rotten core of liberalism," I do not refer to either Lincolnian nor McKinleyian liberalism. I speak of the chimera of "the open society," a term first coined by the utilitarian philosopher John Stuart Mill. The phrase became common currency among Western thinkers thanks to the philosopher of science Karl Popper, whose 1946 book The Open Society and its Enemies became a rallying point for classical-liberal thinkers against the blandishments of totalitarianism, especially during the Cold War with the Soviet Union and its Western fellow-travelers. There was considerable truth in Popper’s critique of the sort of “historicism” that motivated modern forms of totalitarianism. But like Mill’s liberalism, which suffered from the added disadvantage of an incalculable utility calculus, Popper’s was little more defensible philosophically than what it rejected.
At its core, their brand of liberalism—and its heir, that of Harvard’s John Rawls—maintained the pretense that the purpose of the state was not to embody any particular vision of the good for humanity, but merely to maintain the conditions under which individuals could pursue their own, several visions of the good without unduly interfering with each other. The purists of that blinkered vision are today called ‘libertarians,” but its appeal is by no means limited to them. It influences the thinking of many Americans who, like many of the tea-partyers, are more socially conservative than libertarians. Whether held explicitly or just bowed to implicitly, however, liberalism so understood is neither entirely coherent or entirely honest.
It is not entirely coherent because it cannot avoid propounding some vision of the good for humanity: in this case, the literal “autonomy” of the presumptively free individual. The word ‘autonomy’, as Kant recognized, comes from the Greek meaning “making oneself the law.” The idea is that the adult human individual, endowed with freedom of the will, can be truly self-legislating, and thus self-directing, according to self-evident principles of practical reasoning. Hence, the purpose of a polity should be ensure, by similarly objective reasoning, that the life-projects such individuals fashion can be pursued in peaceable, mutual cooperation. As has often been pointed out, that vision posits a good for humanity, and as such it is rather controversial in most of the world, at least outside the universities of the West. But as C.S. Lewis brilliantly showed in The Abolition of Man (written at the same time, and almost in the same place, as Popper’s book), the idea of the free, self-legislating individual is a chimera unless severely qualified. One can freely decide what’s worth pursuing only when one knows, through developed practical wisdom and other virtues, what is objectively valuable; and one can flourish only if one knows how objective values in tension can be ordered and balanced in the concrete conditions of life. That is the form of any real “pursuit of happiness.” But nobody can freely decide for themselves what is objectively valuable in itself. The only basis for such a “decision” would be subjective whims and preferences, which make the individual first the slave of his passions, and ultimately the slave of the passions of the stronger. An autonomy as radical as many of today’s so-called “liberal” advocates of an “open society” seem to want—e.g., advocates of abortion “rights” and of the “right” to same-sex “marriage”—is thus, and paradoxically, a radical enemy of authentic freedom. Perhaps that’s why people who call themselves liberals today tend to be authoritarian about everything except sex.
Now aside from the libertarians, hardly any so-called “conservatives” in America today subscribe to such radical autonomism. More generally, Paul Cella is right: America as a whole is not and never has been an “open society” in the sense in question. His argument is unassailable; read it. But neither Lowry and Ponnuru, nor other mainstream “conservative” and “neo-conservative” advocates for an open society, seem able to give an account of what a sustainably open society would have to be, if not a radical-autonomist society of the sort most Americans, and most conservatives, would abhor. And so a historically unrealistic and philosophically squishy “open society” forms no part of the “American exceptionalism” that conservatives supposedly want to defend from the social-democratic internationalism of the Obama Administration.
For the reasons already stated, today’s liberals, such as Obama and his supporters in our cultural and intellectual elites, are not fully honest about their radical autonomism. For they either can’t or won’t acknowledge its internal incoherence and its disastrous consequences, which we see all around us in the breakdown of the family and the erosion of individual liberty at the hands of the state. But conservatives aren’t being fully honest either. The conservative “movement” in America has long been an uneasy alliance of classical liberals and religious conservatives, and it has never tried to resolve that tension. It is united only in its opposition to what has come, since the New-Deal era, to be called liberalism. But without a way of at least addressing the tension creatively, conservatives are doomed to fighting a long retreat, a rear-guard action against liberalism that never really takes on that enemy at its core.
And that, in the last analysis, is why I’m uneasy about calling myself a conservative. Until conservatives can agree on the kind and meaning of the liberty that makes America exceptional, they won’t be able to agree on what’s worth conserving, and hence on an alternative to an ever-advancing but profoundly corrosive liberalism.
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