I’ve had a copy of David Frum’s Dead Right sitting on my coffee table for months. I didn’t buy it, it was landed on my by an old friend who persists in imagining that I’m interested in reading conservative political theory. In fact, it’s been years since I found conservative theorizing other than wearily predictable. and it would have been a lot more years if I hadn’t been unaccountably late in grasping Russell Kirk’s argument for the organic wisdom of institutions.
John Holbo’s smackdown gives form to all the inchoate reasons I didn’t want to face Frum’s book. Holbo, by his own account, goes looking for a unifying philosophy of conservative thought and finds only an attitude, an aesthetic, a hankering for people and situations to possess certain qualities without a logically or ethically coherent theory of why those qualities would be desirable. Holbo makes much of Frum’s yearning that people should be tough, self-reliant, and self-disciplined and Frum’s apparent willingness that the order of society should punish slackness, even if that is not necessarily the most economically efficient way to arrange things.
Holbo admits that he is loading onto Frum views that Frum would probably deny. But his argument that those views are logical extensions of positions Frum and other conservatives do hold seems basically fair, and so does his charge that Frum-like conservatism is an incoherent mishmash of emotional desires masquerading (not very convincingly) as a political philosophy.
What I am left wondering is why Holbo expected conservatives to have an actual theory in the first place. Or whether he actually expected it at all — his purported surprise and disappointment smells a bit disingenuous to me, a bit like a rhetorical flourish we’re not really expected to believe. Did he really give no thought beforehand to the implication of the label that conservatives use for themselves?
The word conservative is an adjectival noun formed from the verb ‘to conservate’ — to keep something from decaying, to hold it static, to preserve it. Almost all of the core attitudes of conservatism unfold from that definition. Almost all of conservatism is a set of rationalizations for a gut-level inclination to see any sort of change as a threat. Conservatism is the politics of dread, of people who are god-fearing, change-fearing, and
I say ‘almost all’ because, by historical accident, conservatism has got itself tangled up with impulses of a very different kind — specifically classical-liberal and libertarian ones. Many people who describe themselves as conservatives are in fact nothing of the kind — they are in bed with conservatism only out of a shared loathing of the Marxist/socialist left. The alliance depends on a sort of folie a deux — conservatives fooling themselves that free markets tend to freeze existing power relationships in place, and classical-liberals fooling themselves that freedom can be reconciled with the love of hierarchy and punishment wired into the conservative hindbrain.
The parts of ‘conservative’ theory that actually deserve to be called theory are usually classical-liberal or libertarian intrusions. Nor is this anything new; before being shotgun-wedded to classical liberalism by the threat of Marxism around the beginning of the 20th century, conservatives imported their theory from Aquinas or Plato or Calvin.
In fact, when you get down to trying, it is remarkably hard to name anybody who has done a systematic job of deriving conservative politics from a theory about the nature of good. Especially since the Enlightenment, conservative thinkers have tended to be critics rather than theory-builders, and in fact have tended to distrust theory. Edmund Burke, for example, wasn’t a philosopher so much as he was a critical aphorist. In our own day, Willam F. Buckley has been a similar exemplar of the conservative public intellectual — witty
and devastatingly accurate about the failures and hypocrisies of his opponents, but neither capable of nor interested in producing an entire philosophy of right action or right government.
Russell Kirk is interesting precisely because he bucked this trend to some extent. His idea that the forms of institutions embody an unconscious wisdom about what tends to produce good outcomes is that rarest of things, an argument for conservatism that is not circularly bound to conservative, authoritarian, or religious assumptions.
It’s not enough, though. It isn’t sufficient to justify all the normative things Frum and mainstream conservatives want; you can’t get opposition to cloning stem cells out of it, for example. Nor does it stand comparison with the elaborate theoretical edifices produced bythe Left. The core assumptions of Marxist theory were false-to-fact and its results horrible, but there was a sort of system and logic in between that conservative thinking never really had.
Left-liberals have no room for glee or schadenfreude at conservative expense, though; their position is no better. Having been shown the hard way that Hayek was right and there is no alternative to the market, modern left-liberalism too is essentially a bunch of sentiments and attitudes rather than a philosophy. The practical politics of the left has become little more than a defensive huddle around welfare-state institutions everybody knows are headed for insolvency and collapse, and left attitudes increasingly amount to little more than being against whatever they think conservatives are for.
The inability to frame a positive philosophy is a serious problem for both groups. It reduces their politics to a series of gut rumbles and their conversation to increasingly enraged screaming straight from the hypothalamus (vide Michael Moore and Ann Coulter). A rational debate is hard to have when there isn’t any theory to frame and moderate emotional fixations. Or, as Goethe put it, the sleep of reason begets monsters.