What is a conservative?

what_is_a_conservativeAs we launch into a new year, it makes sense to orient ourselves. Even if the numbers on the page are meaningless as I believe they are, any time there’s a social shift, it makes sense to stop, look at reality around you, and figure out where you are and where you want to go.

We might ask ourselves, “Why are we conservatives?” or even more clearly, wonder what a conservative is. Those of us on the right dedicate a lot of time to being conservative, but often forget to ask ourselves what we stand for. Many of us are simply refugees from liberalism and the deranged modern world. But how do we know it’s wrong?

You will hear a number of theories of what a conservative is. On the television, they will tell you that conservatism is about rugged individualism, sound economic policy and “freedom.” If you dig deeper, you will get introduced to fiscal conservatism, with Mills and Locke, which is a utilitarian “happiness maximizing” calculus based on economic liberty.

If you approach it from an academic standpoint, you will get introduced to thinkers like Russell Kirk and H.L. Mencken. Kirk writes that conservatism is not an ideology, but a body of sentiments based on “the permanent things.” Mencken spoke of a contrast between functional man and the qualities that “make our fellows love us.”

T.S. Eliot also opined for the “permanent things.” Others, like Richard M. Weaver, saw conservatism as a “communitarian” force that preserved important habits for the protection and betterment of the community. If you go far down the line, you’ll get to Ayn Rand’s Social Darwinism, or the religious order of the Traditionalists.

Which is it? The surprising answer is that it’s all of these, as they are related to such a degree they are inextricable from one another. The notion known as conservatism is built so that each of its parts support all of the others, like a balance in four dimensions. It is prismatic, in that recurring concepts appear in different places and take on new meanings.

If we look at the ideas above, we’ll see that conservatism unites them all. The origins of the word “conservative” are in the Latin verb “conservare,” which means to keep, preserve, [and/or] maintain. This leads us to an understanding of conservatism as method.

However, that tells only part of the story. Any method without a goal becomes that goal, and conservation becomes a goal in itself in order to preserve that which works in the past. Not just what functions to a bare minimum, but that which is an optimum. This is how culture grows: we each pass on the “best practices” methods we learn for doing things.

This applies more to the right way to cook, to fight, to love and to learn than it does to simple stuff like how to fold your shirts. True, folding shirts is in there also, but it’s not the core of it. The essence of what is conserved are the things that make life better, so much so that their loss would be a tragedy.

In this sense, conservatism reflects the scientific method. History is a laboratory, and experience is research. We keep what works, throw out the rest, and then refine those working methods. Over time, we develop working methods that impress us with their near-transcendent ability to make life better. We preserve and nurture those with tradition.

The notion of conservatism being about end results, and not our feelings or social perceptions on the path to those results, is called consequentialism. However, another view of conservatism emphasizes not the end result, but the thought process that selecting end results forces upon us.

In order to compare results of past actions to find which actions we’d like to repeat in order to get those desired results, we need to know what our overall goal is. This in turn requires we know values not just for ourselves, but for civilization at large. This brings us to “the good, the beautiful and the true,” a triad expressed long ago by Plato.

From this point of view, it’s too simple to say that conservatism is about end results or preserving the past. The goal instead is to achieve the maximum quality of experience, so that life is at its most intense, so that in turn we experience it as something positive and do not treat it as a life sentence to endure.

Interestingly, this interlocks with the “sentiment” described by many of the thinkers above. It is not difficult to calculate output and to think in square, discrete, isolated and “rational” terms. Conservatism is a rebellion against this rationality. We do not want to remove factors from life and think only in terms of commerce, production and what “ought” to be. We want to view life as an experience with the possibility of transcendent joy.

This is the opposite of the utilitarian calculus used by most modern liberal states. For them, what is important is maximizing the happiness of as many people as possible. Conservatism recognizes that happiness is not sold by the pound. It is qualitatively different between people, and not all can perceive it with equal acuity.

In turn this leads us back to Plato. Through his study of cause and effect, Plato illustrated that nothing in life has a cause in itself, but is part of a larger pattern. Thus what we see as the material world is a manifestation of something greater which often resembles thought, and which seems to enjoy optimums more than utilitarian.

From this perspective, the point of conservatism is to understand the informational order of the universe. In this view, the cosmos has patterns of its own organization, and by choosing which one we want, we can improve not only quantity but quality of life. We can reach a state of mind close to the universe itself, whether we call it a god or nature.

This perspective on conservatism unites all the others. We measure consequences to find the best; our goal is transcendent beauty, truth and goodness because that is how we assess “best”; our sentiment and aesthetics guides us more than our Excel spreadsheets; and finally, we implement this with “positive” methods that reward the good, and punish the bad.

Many thinkers are starting to refer to this viewpoint as “organic.” It requires no ideology, and no government, but comes about naturally from the experience of life, in facing adversity and conquering it, and discovering meaning in seeing ourselves struggle and realizing that we want more than just subsistence. We want beauty and adventure, glory and pride, kindness and truth, and finding the “good” — the best quality — in all things, so that life is holy to us. The order that determines what is good is not in us, but in the informational order of the cosmos itself.

Ordinary citizens see only these methods and often have no idea of the reasons why they exist. Like children, we should always want to know the reasons why. This gives us a firm understanding of our belief, so we can explain it and pass it along so that future generations may enjoy the highest quality of life experience. We do this because we love life, and want to increase the beauty forevermore.

Happy New Year.

18 Comments

  1. NotTheDude says:

    I think we need to remind ourselves that we can be overall nihilists and yet find eternal good in life. I don’t think we can deny that life is meaningless up against the Cosmos, but this illness of brutal ‘ I hate anything that hinders my life and the freedom of others’ is becoming so dug in that we think conservation is fascist and have started to resign ourselves to the fact that our foes will inheriat our societies.

    1. “I hate anything that hinders my life”

      Liberalism in a nutshell. By its implication, there cannot be any causes outside the individual desire and there can’t be any reason these are more important.

      Obviously, this is insane and arrogant human hubris.

  2. Jane says:

    Did H L Mencken ever describe himself as a “conservative”? He clearly was nothing of the sort as any glance through his wonderful quotes listed here can see http://www.watchfuleye.com/mencken.html

    The first thing to understand about the idea of conservatism is that it is about drawing a line around some values that you want to preserve. Then you try to defend them against the erosion and attacks from outside. The result is that your line is pushed back and you make a retreat until all hope is lost of keeping what you may vaguely remember conservatives used to stand for.

    Generally, these values are described as “traditional”. Of course it would be contradictory if conservatives were about preserving something new and novel. However it is entirely possible to defend any “traditional” values that are worthwhile (many are not worthwhile) by a non-conservative tactic of attack and expansion. This should also include evolving into something better than before.

    I am sure H L Mencken would be entirely in agreement with me on that. We are not conservatives.

    1. gg says:

      There many more options on the table than fixed stagnant forms. There is: intuition. Having intuition one can perceive answers before questions are asked and dangers before the ordinary senses have chance to detect them. strength in spirit. Having strength in spirit one can take shapes and forms as they are needed.

      1. crow says:

        Being real is something worth preserving.
        Being able to detect reality is, too.
        Being able to honestly and directly interact with reality is definitely worth preserving, or perhaps re-discovering, after the fact.

        1. gg says:

          definitely it is worth it. discovering reality is like an event unto itself. there is what leads up to it, the moment the totality of it strikes in the moment, how one reacts to this, and the unfolding of events afterwards.

          i can picture us humans being satellites orbiting a planet of reality whether we like it or not. we can disorient ourselves from this and choose to fixate on miniature man made orbits without regard for the greater body we orbit or we can choose to orient ourselves and our miniature orbits to the greater gravitation field and make the most of it.

          1. gg says:

            to elaborate: many people wish to free themselves of this perceived huge burden and become their own planet. people who know better see this reality as a gift and are grateful for its existence which can be used to guide their own.

    2. 1349 says:

      a non-conservative tactic of attack and expansion

      These can’t be called non-conservative.
      The bearded guys that finished Rome were conservatives.

      Then you try to defend them against the erosion and attacks from outside. The result is that your line is pushed back and you make a retreat until all hope is lost of keeping what you may vaguely remember conservatives used to stand for.

      If a method leads to an inevitable loss, can it be of use to a good conservative? =)

  3. lisacolorado says:

    I want to come around to a positive expression of conservatism but it won’t be easy because there have been so many years of it being reactionary against liberalism. Also it has gotten muddied up, probably deliberately.

    conservatism-liberalism
    republican-democrat
    ? vs. progressive
    capitalist-socialist

    I don’t even like those last two categories because the terminology is owned and trademarked by socialism.

    Just finished reading Rules for Radicals and am now doing my Scorpionic thing of trying to inject debilitating venom into it, though I may die in the process. And I learned that conservatives fighting against those who fancy themselves as progressive only help the progs define themselves and be proud of themselves. Meanwhile their artificial methods are growing.

    Conservatism is much more positive and needs to not concentrate on destroying an enemy on its own battlefield. They’re deranged and if they can’t fight anyone else they’ll fight each other.

    Meanwhile we need to build our own strength back. But it can’t be with moral proscriptions as it was before, because in Alinsky’s rule book it says, “make the enemy live up to their own rules.” We don’t need a set of rules. Our truest values are those we act on readily.

    Bill Whittle in his YouTube video says that we must divest ourselves of all that tax and spend urgency the government is all about–just give them their stupid money and let’s put our positive energy into better and more worthy things. That goes along with what is written in this blog.

    1. Conservatism is much more positive and needs to not concentrate on destroying an enemy on its own battlefield.

      There’s a lot of sensibility in this. Our goal is to create; their goal is to enforce.

  4. Meow Mix says:

    Sorry Brett, but I’m gonna have to disagree with you on this one. As a big European philosophy nut I’ve always been bothered by political labels in USA. The core of American conservativism is actually classical liberalism. Locke, Rosseau, the Founding Fathers, and to some degree, Hobbes, form the bedrock of the American ‘right’. The classical libs believed that the individual is prior to society, whereas conservatives (in the European sense) hold that the opposite is true: the individual is an emergent product of a pre-existing social structure, language, community, class, genetic line, etc. A big problem that divides American and European conservatives is precisely this issue.

    American conservatives are only ‘conservatives’ and ‘rightwing’ in the sense that their views slant more to the right than the modern liberals/progressives. Whereas the American conservatives/classical liberals have a big emphasis on spontaneous social order and negative liberties, the modern liberals/progressives/Democrats have an emphasis on positive liberties (welfare, etc) and social engineering. I know Kirk and others have tried to bridge the gap between American cons and European cons by trying to play up concepts like traditionalism and links to Burke (mind you, Burke himself was also a classical liberal), but I think most Europeans would disregard American conservatives as authentically rightwing. A lot of the names you mentioned as well, such as Ayn Rand, strike me more as extreme classical liberals/neo-liberals rather than rightwing.

    However, from another angle I can see what you are doing here. Obviously, if classical libs are more rightwing than the modern libs and everyone in the US labels them conservative or rightwing then its okay to use this factor as a means of slowly transitioning the American right further to the right.

    1. The classical libs believed that the individual is prior to society, whereas conservatives (in the European sense) hold that the opposite is true: the individual is an emergent product of a pre-existing social structure, language, community, class, genetic line, etc.

      I think this is how all conservatives think. The Americans designed their system on the supposition that the age of kings was ending, and that new governments would be liberal, and thus there were pains taken to restrain liberalism in the new government, hence the “checks and balances” of the Constitution. What makes the USA unique is how it accepted a liberal precept and modified it so that some form of conservatism could exist.

  5. Zarathustra Lives says:

    Just when I think I like you, you become a zealot. We don’t know what is optimum until after we experiment with new things: all new knowledge hitherto has been a nonconformity. Culture grows not by simply relaying best practices of past optimums, but by knitting new sweaters out of old yarn to fit the new generation. If methods make life better, they will never pass away and could only be refined, especially by the most defamatory experiments of our lesser nature. I yet yearn for the best.

    1. Jacob says:

      Your premise is mistaken, your worldview has already assumed the correctness of progressivism and dismisses any other possibilities.

      “If methods make life better, they will never pass away and could only be refined” – to the contrary, things tend to pass away. By “makes life better” I assume you are referring to technological progress, and if recent history shows for anything technology does not make life better or worse in its own right, but is only a tool. Right now it is a tool used for the harm of nature the production of what are rightly referred to as “useless people” who serve no goal but to consume everything in a Zombie-like fashion to server their extremely short-termist, selfish, hedonistic ends.

  6. crow says:

    What is a conservative? Damned if I know. But if it isn’t liberal, it can’t be all bad.
    Conservatism seems to be a vehicle that has some form of braking system designed into it. Whereas liberalism doesn’t.
    If all you want is the exhilaration of speed, then who needs brakes anyway?
    On the other hand, if not being dead is a factor, then brakes seem like a useful thing.

  7. lisacolorado says:

    Yesterday I caught a little bit of the Bill Moyers show on PBS. He was interviewing Junot Diaz who is a liberal writer and professor who has a lot of access to college students’ holey minds. But I found him worth listening to. He was talking about the Republican party in the last election as “old think.” He especially pointed to some video of Bill O’Reilly on election night. The Left leapfrogged over the right, he said. True, I think, but not everything he said was a 100% accurate view. It reminded me that people just don’t know everything.

    Diaz said that he wouldn’t mind a real conservative element in the government. He just despises the neocons. I was interested in that because I have said i wouldn’t mind the Democratic party if they were the kind of people who feel American and love America. I despise the internationalistic America-haters.

    So it’s good to find out what conservatism is, and to know it’s not a label but is a kind of filter through which ideas could be figured out.

  8. Owl says:

    If America suddenly went the same direction as Argentina, would it be better to be a doctor or a lawyer?

    Why?

    1. Owl, as cheesy as this may sound, it’s true: in the end, you have to do what *you* like to do. This is not to suggest you be egotistical or selfish — simply that someone free and able to contribute to the social order in a manner they desire will be both successful themselves and create success around them.

      With that said, doctors (general practitioners especially) will easily find employment in the near future. Even if medical schools and the job market are overfilled, it simply means a bit more of a wait — you’ll still eventually land a position, unlike many other fad industries, as medicine never goes out of style.

      Other promising jobs include engineer and farmer.

      Best wishes!

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