The sleep of reason

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.


  1. Hi Eric, nice to see you’ve settled in here.

    I’m puzzled by your criticism of conservatism on the grounds (forgive my paraphrase if it distorts) that conservatism fails to derive its political practice”from a theory about the nature of good”. Does any political stripe suceed in doing that? Rawls and Nozick claim to do that, I don’t know there are many people who would claim that their efforts consitute a “derivation”. Alasdair MacIntyre calls the bluff on attempts to provide such justifications: if we accept his argument in “After Virtue” (a right rollicking good read of a political philosophy classic), then no such justification could be based on a universal foundation of reason (the late, great, Bernard Williams makes a similar argument).

  2. Which defence of classical liberalism/ libertarianism do you have in mind? Locke’s? Bentham’s? Rawls’? (I guess not) Nozick’s? All of them are philosophical heroes in some sense, but none of them succeed in really grounding in a conception of the good that can actually be applied to clean up the messy task of actually deciding on the construction of laws and political institutions. And if you can’t do that, then the complaint about conservative ad-hocery starts to look thin.

  3. I agree with the other commentator. Political institutions are adopted (or evolve) as a means to certain ends. They have to be judged by their empirical (historical) success; there is no way to prove what sorts of institutions will be effective using only a priori, rationalistic, means. So a theoretical deduction of political institutions from a theory of the good doesn’t make any sense, unless your theory of the good is something like the Koran, where Allah himself is telling you what institutions to adopt.

    “Conservatism is the politics of dread, of people who are god-fearing, change-fearing, and future-fearing.”

    I would disagree with this characterization too. All conservatives know change is going to occur, and many realize it can sometimes be for the better. Burke supported the American Revolution for example. Cons simply think change needs to be slow, and needs to preserve what is most important and effective in a country’s institutions. While Burke supported America, he opposed the French Revolution for just the reason that the radicals in France, unlike those in America, had no respect for any of the institutions in their society, or for any part of their political heritage.

    “Edmund Burke, for example, wasn’t a philosopher so much as he was a critical aphorist.”

    Well, that could be said of Nietzsche or Wittgenstein, but everybody recognizes them as philosophers.

    “The inability to frame a positive philosophy is a serious problem for both groups….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.”

    I don’t know, Marxism didn’t seem to moderate the emotions of those who came under its sway – quite the opposite, they were the most violent ideologues of the 20th century. Having a grand theory only pushed their enthusiasm to ever greater heights of delusion. Any theory can be turned into a faith and usually will be, and then rational debate is over. So I think you overstate the value of systematic theory when applied to politics. I’ll take the assortment of insights as history gives them over the rational delusions of Marx any day. Whether those insights turn out to be capable of systematic unity isn’t something that is gauranteed, and if they are not it is better to not force them into it.

  4. Interesting post and comments.
    Regarding our host’s contention that conservatism has no coherent theory, I have to disagree (I’m not a conservative, by the way).
    It seems to me that a loose Hayekian worldview is the basic conservative theory, even if many (most?) conservatives don’t know it.
    The essential elements of such a worldvire have been mentioned above: the necessity of actual real-world testing of institutions,
    the importance of implicit knowledge as opposed to the explicitly articulated knowledge of “intellectuals,” the necessity of accepting
    institutions that have worked in the past even if we don’t fully understand why they’ve worked, etc. The funny thing about this as a
    conservative theory is that it’s very evolution-based. It’s definitely not about creating a rationally derived society ab initio.
    Of course, the willingness to try new things is the source of all progress; the benefit of a libertarian order is that it allows people
    to try new things without imposing their experiments on others.

    A comment, Chris: We can’t exactly test institutions for their success or failure if we don’t agree about what constitutes success. This is one reason that
    systematic theory-building has been a constant over the millenia (at least since
    the Greeks): It recognizes that people have different values and so is explicit about the founding values of
    a political philosophy.
    So we need to test institutions in the real world, but there is this limit–disagreement about
    what constitutes success–on the usefulness of that.

  5. I think classical liberals and libertarians do in fact have an effective theory of the good that underpins their thinking. So do religious conservatives, but that’s a different case because their theory isn’t autonomous — you have to start by believing their religious particularism to subscribe to it.

    I don’t think it was the fact that that Marxism had a theory that pushed its adherent to greater heights of delusion, it was the content of the theory. Specifically it was the millenialism — the idea that the prospect of the perfected communist utopia in the future justified revolutionary terror in the present.

    The “loose Hayekian world-view” GA finds in conservatism is precisely what I’m identifying as an import from classical liberalism!

  6. I wouldn’t agree that “conservatism is an incoherent mishmash of emotional desires masquerading (not very convincingly) as a political philosophy.”

    For me, both conservatism and liberalism can be expressed in very compact philosophical form:

    For conservatives, the mission of government is to establish and maintain liberty.

    For liberals, the mission of government is to mitigate discomfort.

    These are the simplist and clearest expressions of both conservatism and liberalism.

    Most Americans tend toward one or the other of these philosphies, while simultaneously practicing compromise because some convergence of ideas is necessary in order to create rules.

    For me, I tend toward the conservative side. But if I was completely unyielding, then zero percent of my agenda would get accomplished. I think that’s the way it is for people on both sides.

    —Tom Nally, New Orleans

  7. I think you underestimate the strength of the connection between classical liberals and American conservatives (this doesn’t work in many other places.) The US currently has a pretty good approximation to a classically liberal society for quite some time. Conservatives want to keep things the way they are. Therefore, American conservatives want to preserve classical liberalism – or at least those aspects of it that we already have.

    While I’m somewhere between a libertarian and a conservative(*), there’s a huge matter of taste or attitude that divides us. You mention more than once conservatives’ lack of interest in or active distrust of theory, but you can’t seem to wrap your mind around the idea that *we really mean it.* We consider the act of generating “an entire philosophy of right action or right government” useless at best, and actively harmful (and I mean Robespierre, Stalin, Pol Pot level harmful) at worst. We have no admiration or envy for Marxist castles in the air, only pity and contempt.

    I think the difference between you and I is best described as “theoretician” versus “experimentalist.”

    While it is worth explicitly stating one’s values and goals, I personally do not believe that enough is known about psychology, economics, or a host of other fields for any more detailed first-principles theory to be useful. Only theory in the sense of noticing patterns in available historical data is useful.

    I think my values and goals are pretty similar to yours, but I don’t want to hear theory about why your ideas will work. I want case studies.

    And however convincing a case you make for a change, you’ll find me a very tough sell.

    You say
    “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…”
    And proud of it! “Standing athwart History shouting ‘Stop!'” and all that….

    When you live in one of the richest and freest societies in history, “We’ve got it good here, let’s not screw it up!!” strikes me as a rather sensible strategy. There are so many more ways to go wrong than to go right, to make things worse than to make them better. We may not live in utopia, but over the past couple of centuries, the utopian impulse has given humanity much to dread.

    If I’m a conservative it’s in an engineering sense:
    “If it aint broke, don’t fix it.”
    “Be very sure before you do anything you can’t undo.”
    “Don’t randomly futz with things you don’t fully understand.”
    “Make one change at a time.”

  8. I wouldn’t say Conservatism is entirely without a philosophy of Right action and government. Although many find her distasteful, I think one of the reasons why Ayn Rand is so popular amongst the right wing is because she was one of the first to elucidate such a philosophy in a way that conservatives could appreciate.

    Of course, she’s still highly contraversial. Some dislike her radical aethism, others find her dogmatic and still others think it’s just all so much unrealistic idealism.

  9. You’ll find that Greens, being very aware of natural systems, are neither left, nor right, but in front. As such, Green theory revolves around enhancing and internalizing the market so that values reflect actual worth. This is called geonomic theory by some. “Green taxes” by others. Think of dumping income taxes and sales taxes and replacing it with resource-extraction and monopoly grant fees that reflect the actual cost of an item. Many nobel laureate economists have endorsed the ideas of geonomics, and they’ve been in use elsewhere for quite some time to enhance development and increase innovation while preventing waste. Combined with a Tobin-tax, taxes on real production such as labor or sales taxes would be superfluous.

    Moreover, overturn both the valeo and santa clara decisions, and markets would be quite a bit more self-regulating than they already are, as corporations get so big and powerful now that they become the size of governments — but with limited democratic oversight or transparency.

  10. “Conservatism is the politics of dread, of people who are god-fearing, change-fearing, and future-fearing.”

    One could as easily caricature liberalism by saying that “Liberalism is the politics of naive optimism, of people who prefer the ‘new’ and supposedly ‘improved’–but unknown–thing, to the old, supposedly ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘out-of-date'”.

    A friend recently quoted someone as having written that the liberal sensibility consists in writing off established, tried-and-true things simply because they are “old-fashioned”.

    The reality is that there are many things in this world that we do for reasons that we have forgotten, and it is only when we try to radically alter them (in the name of “progress”) that we realize that there were good reasons all along for them.

    Felix Rohatyn–hardly a defender of the conservative order!–once said that “High finance is like sex: every generation thinks it’s discovered some new, exciting variations that its fuddy-duddy parents haven’t, only to discover that the reason people don’t do those things is that they’re unpleasant or painful or bad for your health.” This is, in fact, a central insight of conservatism: change for the sake of change is as bad–or worse–as stasis for the sake of stasis.

    Another conservative insight is that human nature is hard (perhaps impossible) to alter. This means that politics cannot–unfortunately for liberals–ever be the driving engine of history, since politics cannot change human nature: as nearly a century of holocausts by idealizers (and ideologues) of a malleable human nature have amply demonstrated.

    Gorbachev once observed that “The market is not an invention of capitalism: it is an invention of civilization.” Much the same could be said of conservatism: it is not a set of /a priori/ theories, but a largely descriptive, /a posteriori/ understanding of human nature. In this sense, I do agree that conservatism is somewhat lacking as a coherent, systematic political philosophy: but I’d hardly agree that this lack makes conservative insights inherently invalid or useless.

  11. David Hecht said:
    “…. A friend recently quoted someone as having written that the liberal sensibility consists in writing off established, tried-and-true things simply because they are “old-fashioned”.

    Heh, I see this attitude every day in the software biz :-)

  12. This post sounds identical to much of the leftist criticism of conservatives – it starts with the assumption that they must be wrong because they reject the notion that abstraction trumps reality.
    That’s not a fair representation of conservatism.

    To use an engineering metaphor, conservatives advocate using training data. In many areas of engineering, you need to handle situations that aren’t easy to model using the laws of physics. In those situations, the only available guides are patterns that have been identified through trial-and-error. For example, speech recognition software is trained ahead of time on the voice of a specific speaker or the sound of some specific words. The conservative recommendation of evolved institutions applies the same approach for organizing a society.

    In some sense, the problem with the search for a perfect “theory” is that those who are pressing for this goal are trying to solve a problem that has no solution. A political philosophy is essentially a decision procedure. It labels actions by a government right and wrong or good and bad. In a world without perfect information, there will always be some errors with any decision procedure. Much of the sophistry of those who pound their shoes on the table screaming about the lack of a good theory involves pointing at a false negatives (liberals/leftists prefer to argue that things they like are mislabeled as “bad”) or false positives (those with a religious dogma complain about things society permits that their dogma does not). The criteria for evaluating a decision procedure is the error rate – the absence of errors is impossible. Implying that designing a decision procedure around a new philosophical theory will eliminate all errors is clearly deceptive. In cases where no convenient model for the input to a decision procedure exists, the only way to get a handle on the error rate is through trial and error, feedback, and evolution.

    Conservatism is good engineering practice. Political philosophy based upon “theory” is wishful thinking.

  13. Eric –

    You’re right that American Conservatives, as opposed to libertarians, don’t really have a political theory that doesn’t require religious belief, and that “liberals” don’t really, either.

    In general, people don’t make political choices based on reasoned choices, they make them based on emotional responses to their conception of government. George Lakoff, the linguist, wrote “Moral Politics” describing how people’s metaphorical conception of “the nation as a family” and “government as the parents”, and their views of ideal family models, drives the large right-left split, and explains a number of otherwise incomprehensible alliances and collections of positions. I wrote a review of his book at – the overall framework of his analysis is sound, but I have some disagreements with the details, and when he moves from describing to prescribing.

  14. Eric:

    First i like your blog and like the new format.

    Second: I sympathize with your problems with conservatism. you are absolutley correct to say that it is an attitude not a theory. And I can understand why this might bother a person of your obvious intellectual capabilities. It bothered me for a long time.

    Eventually I came to see that the rejection of theory was not a bug it was a feature. Ralph Phelan and David Hecht have done a terrific job of setting forth my beliefs in this respect. (Thanks Guys).

    I will note that there will always be a tension between the conservative attitude and the fact that this Republic was dedicated to a proposition at the time of its conception. But that tension can be a source of creative energy for us and our decendants, which is good reason to be conservative towards it.

  15. CKS, there are some significant examples of big changes that worked out well–non-monarchial government and the abolition of slavery. I don’t know to what extent either was theory-driven, though I think emotional disgust had a lot to do with the abolition of slavery.

  16. Non-monarchical government provides an interesting test-case for whether retaining some of remnants of existing tradition is a good idea. In the U.S., after the American Revolution, the governmental structures weren’t designed abstractly. The division of power between the states and federal government took into account the status of the thirteen independent colonies. In England, there was a revolution in 1688, but the monarchy was restored eventually, with some of its authority limited. These two cases worked out much better than the end of monarchical government in the remainder of the major European powers. The French Revolution cast aside all previous political institutions, lead to Robespierre and the Terror, followed by Napoleon. Europe was plunged into war for a decade. Since then, France has had multiple constitutions, a restoration of the monarchy, and Napoleon II – none have lasted. In Central Europe, the Prussian monarch and the Hapsburgs were removed from their thrones after WWI. That didn’t work out so well. Neither did the Russian Revolution. A short-lived democracy preceeded 75 years of Communism. In all cases, governments that cut all ties with existing political institutions collapsed into tyranny, and the representative governments in England and the U.S., which accounted for previous political arrangements in a more comprehensive fashion, worked much better over a long period of time.

    These thumbnail sketches of history indicate that there’s great danger in radical change in society based on faith in abstractions. Its not clear what they say about small policy changes within existing political institutions. I don’t think that one can take the poor history of radical changes like the French Revolution and make a valid argument for opposing all change. It does speak for some caution, though.

  17. cks – the French revolution did not cast aside all previous institutions, nor did the end of the Hohenzollern monarchy in Germany. Particularly in France, many administrative structures remained – much of the French Republic’s bureaucracy was created in the late 1600s. So it seems that a drastic break with the legislative structures seems to be what’s indicative of trouble.

  18. One thing that certainly hasn’t been conserved is the meaning of “conservative”. Back in the days of Disreali, a conservative was the opposite of a Radical or Benthamite. To put it crudely, the Radicals and Benthamites wanted law to adapt to industry and for technological and industrial change to go forward unopposed, with very little environmental or safety standards or duties. Conservatives were largely agricultural (aristocratic) interests who wanted to preserve the environment that their business depended on and the tarifs that kept food prices high. Now, the more Radical and Benthamite (utilitarian) you are, and the more you favour unrestrained economic, industrial and technological change the more “conservative” you are.

  19. Facinating commentary. As far as I can tell, the ‘conservative’ portion of the conservative movement that you a strong dislike for, is that which contains a very strong traditionalist element. The truth is, as is evident in you very well written post, that conservatism has been constantly evolving over the past 40 years, moving ever more to the classical ‘liberal’ positions vacated by the left over that same period of time. This is obviously a political response to a vacuum that was created by the left, but it is real all the same. The simple fact that the conservative movement has been able to so adroitly shift it’s position in response to political and cultural factors is a positive development, since the left has vacated vacated all of the reasonable ground. The bottom line is that I think you have confused a political movement (conservatism in this case) with a philisophical movement (classical liberalism) which may be like comparing trains and airplanes. Political movements constantly shift for advantage, as they should, where philisophical ideas move much more slowly, if at all. In my opinion, Libertarianism is more of a philisophy than a political movement (in fact, one that sounds very much like classical liberalism in just about every particular). That one political movement has now moved into territory neglected by another strikes me as perfectly normal and desirable. In the American system of politics, a bi-partite system has, thus far, been the only way to gain sufficient concentration of political power to govern. I’m no saying that is ideal, it’s just a fact, thus far. Thus, as a practical matter, we are forced to decide among 2 parties which contend for political power. Parties and political movements are nothing more than vessels which for periods of time, contain philisophical attributes mixed in certain alloys, that produce election wins. These constantly shift, and I don’t think the American liberal or conservative movement will recognizable in there current form 20 years from now. The bottom line, is that this 2 party system produces very slow (in some cases, frustratingly slow) evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, changes. I think this is a good thing, for our political stability. But I could be wrong.

  20. So what we’re getting at here, is

    Plato = Liberals
    Aristotle = Conservatives


    Plato’s approach was to conceive ideal forms (If i am not mistaken) and Aristotle’s was to deduce ideals from the world itself.

    So it is not a mistake that Conservatives do not have a coherent political theory? Well, allow me to qualify; Conservatives do not have a preconceived ideal form of government, instead, they have principles which they act on and see how the world reacts. They try to derive their ideas from tradition as a guide and experiments as proof. Conservatism is precisely evolutionary; what is special about mankind is that his understanding of the world evolves over generations.

    Liberals tend toward a more inductive approach (I would say.) They develop theories about how things ought to be, and try to develop effective plans to make things that way. Liberalism can also be evolutionary, but for some reason leftism/socialism has completely enveloped most of liberal politics… leftism isn’t entirely illiberal, but socialism is too old to be liberal anymore. The new liberals are actually the liberitarians in my conception.

    Mostly, ‘Liberal’ politics nowadays is illiberal and not conservative. Its just politics. I think of ‘office politics’ and it makes me remember what politics is. Even conservative politics nowadays has this flavor.

    For instance, Marxism cannot be either liberal or conservative. It is not a new idea that is being inductively tested to see what its effects are. Nor is it a adaptation of an old system that is being modified by principles and new ideas. Its basically just politics. The fact that ‘conservative’ (Republican) politicians spend so much money is just an indication that they are nothing more than politicians. They just happen to support certain conservative ideas over liberal ones.

    Bush’s pre-emptive war in the middle east is decidedly liberal, because it is an inductive idea to democratize the middle east; as a different environs, the results would be unpredictable. Only the theory itself is based on successes; those of western democracies. (Also, Turkey does okay.)

    So, I think that liberalism’s tendancy to try to mitigate ills as a main drive is a result of the evolution of liberalism; the only thing that they have been able to consistantly base theory/ideas on and formulate plans on is the mitigation of ills. So socialism and marxism have the look of liberalism but only because they were originally created to mitigate ills.

    Likewise, stem cell research limitation is something that pretends to be conservative, but is not… the conservative reason to be anti-abortion is that history shows (to a conservative) the ills caused by it. Likewise, embryonic stem cell research is linked to abortion, so one might take that the conservative reaction is to be against it. However; I think the conservative position on this issue is to be against embryonic stem cell research only if it is used as a push to have more abortions. At least, that’s what I can figure. So people coming out against abortion is not unconservative; but coming out against stem cell research because it utilizes the byproducts of abortion is. The condition I stated above of course must be factored in.

    So conservatives desire to protect and maintain liberty does not come from a theory about liberty itself; most would be stretched to say as to why liberty, in the abstract, is the chief good; obviously liberty can promote good or evil! But it seems to conservatives that liberty, to attain and maintain, has been most beneficial.

    But these are just my opinions; take them or leave them as you wish.

  21. @River Cocytus/@EMF
    “Two errors: verb is conserve, ideology is conservativism.”

    Conservatives try to conserve the changes made by liberals that came before them?

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