Thursday, June 2, 2016

Yes, What Is a Conservative?

In NRO today Rachel Lu has another of those articles on why conservatives can't make it anywhere in academia. A commenter, Craig Greenman, asks NRO people to define a conservative. He proposes two versions.
One way to define "conservative" seems to be to do, believe, and value what has been done in the past...

The second way to define "conservative" that I find in these pages is, "a classical liberal," that is, someone who has a vision of the world that's broadly speaking from 18th century Enlightenment values, with an interpretation of the economic thought of Adam Smith that focuses on free markets and trade, and free thought in general.
Notice that a Manifesto-believing Marxist is a conservative of the first type. No need to engage with non-Marxist ideas. Marxist economics is stuck forever in Smith and Ricardo, and cannot deal with the 1870 marginal revolution.

I would say that a conservative in the American sense is a Burkean, someone that is self-conscious about the fact of tradition. This is parodied in The Fiddler on the Roof in the song "Tradition." Eastern European Jews in the shtetl are represented as realizing that their orthodox Judaism actually is a "tradition" and not just the unconsciously accepted way of the ancestors and the truth of the Torah. Most of all, "Tradition" experiences that the young generation are breaking with tradition, and that is, almost, OK. A real traditional society just kicks out rebels like that.

In the old days, people just lived the way of the ancestors or the religion or way of life they were born into and never thought there was anything else. A peasant was a peasant, a lord was a lord. A slave was a slave.

But with the Enlightenment (at the latest) it became clear that there was a decision between something now defined as "tradition" and the innovation of the Enlightenment: principally Reason and Science. Should we stick with "what worked" or should we innovate -- or more exactly, allow innovation -- instead of stopping it as a dangerous upset of the immemorial order of things?

Notice that the idea that slavery might be a problem starts in the 18th century.

We tend to think of Edmund Burke as the "First Conservative" but Burke was a guy that supported Catholic emancipation in Ireland, that supported the independence of the British North American colonies, that ran a ten-year impeachment of Warren Hastings, the colonial governor of Bengal, for his looting and pillaging, that predicted that the French Revolution would end in the gallows. That is conservative?

If you look at the six types of conservatives proposed by Ken Blackwell, they are all self-conscious conservatives:
Social conservatives
Christian conservatives
Second Amendment conservatives
Economic conservatives
Philosophical conservatives
National Security conservatives
And then, I proposed back then in 2008, there are Palin conservatives. What do we call them? We know now. They are Trump supporters. You may ask: what is the common denominator? I will tell you. All these different kinds of conservatives are anathematized by liberals.

And how did all these conservatives become conservatives? I think the Reagan dictum applies. St. Ronnie said that he didn't leave the Democratic Party, the Democratic Party left him. That's the point. At one time, liberalism could countenance social conservatives that believed in marriage and family. Not any more. At one point you could argue political philosophy with liberals. Not any more. Etcetera.

So what is going on? I'm glad you asked, because that is why I came up with my reductive Three Peoples theory.

All the conservatives in the list above, and Edmund Burke and Uncle Tom Cobbley and all, are People of the Responsible Self. On the theory of Robert Bellah, conservatives are people that believe they are responsible for making their way in life, and that notion goes back to the birth of modern religion in the Axial Age.

Now liberals are People of the Creative Self. They believe in the religion of creativity, and the imperative of each person making a creative journey, rather than a responsible journey, out of life.

If we pick up Hegel here, as I interpret him following Alexandre Kojève in his Introduction to the Reading of Hegel, my Three Peoples theory can be compared to Hegel's three types of God. We start, as People of the Subordinate Self, with a real lord who is our Master (Herr), as we are his Slave (Knecht). Then, in the bourgeois era, the lord becomes an abstract lord, God. The bourgeoisie is still Slavish, but not to an actual physical Master: instead a Master who is in Heaven. Finally, man, as a person of the creative self, becomes himself a man-god, a creative artist remaking the world.

Unfortunately, our liberal friends have interpreted their role as People of the Creative Self as a warrant to gin up creative ideas about life, the universe and everything with which to rule the world, and I think that is a fundamental mistake. It is a mistake that drowned the 20th century world in blood, particularly in Russia and China.

The real culture of the creative person is the culture of the capitalist entrepreneur. He comes up with an idea, what Deirdre McCloskey calls a "betterment," that he hopes other people will want to buy. But he does not get to impose his idea on the world. He only offers it, and submits to the verdict of the trading system and the market. That is why McCloskey calls capitalism "trade-tested betterment." And it is, having bettered per capita income by 30 times over the past 200 years from $3 per day to $100-120 per day.

What is a conservative? I have an even better idea that the ideas above. He is a person who is not particularly interested in power. He is, in fact, prepared to submit his brilliant ideas to the verdict of other people. And that is the story of the last 200 years. The people that thrive are the people who can let go of the fantasy of power, the world designed and controlled by Me, people that can let go and let the world decide.

Because the first step towards wisdom is the recognition that life, the universe, and everything is not just about Me.

I emailed Craig Greenman about this blog post and he kindly responded to my post. His response is here.

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