Conservatism is Not a Disposition

Or, at least, it’s not JUST a disposition.

There are conservatives like David Frum and Andrew Sullivan.  Although different in outlook (Frum is also more “demographically” conservative), the two are conservative thinkers trying to rethink and reframe conservative ideas differently than your more-standard “I’m-no-racist-but” and “omg-tyranny” and “the-gays-want-to-do-WHAT” varieties of conservatism.  To that end, I’m all for it, I guess.

But then you run into things like Alex Knepper’s recent piece in Frumforum.  It’s not a bad piece; it identifies a lot of the things I’m more or less inclined to agree with.  But it also contains a part that has become something of a mantra among this sort of conservatives; it’s a quotation that anyone who has been following this strand of conservative thinking should recognize immediately:

Conservatism proper is a disposition. It’s a tradition that runs through Socrates, Thomas Hobbes, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Friedrich Hayek, Russell Kirk, Michael Oakeshott, and Thomas Sowell. These men disagree on as much as they agree on, but there’s a common current that runs through their thought: it is skeptical, wary of claims to alter or improve the human condition, and […] offers us a vision, not a program.

I’m fine with conservatism proper seeking to cultivate this disposition.  It’s a good disposition!  But I think a few points are in order.  First, I strive towards skeptical and wary approaches to claims that the human condition might be conditioned or altered.  I believe, to borrow from LeGuin, that the revolution will happen only when we come to it “with empty hands.”  The problem with the revolution, of course, is that hardly anyone has empty hands.  Tendencies in the monkey-brain towards greed and pettiness are powerful, and the human desire to return injustices done to them by paying injustice on others, rather than righting injustices done with newer, fuller justice: that tendency is tragic.

But that tendency is not ultimate; human beings have come to believe a great many crazy things over the centuries.  Some believed in Zeus; others believed in Marxism.  Some believed in Hayek and ended up in Mark Levin; I happen to believe that Jesus Christ will come again to judge the quick and the dead.  THESE ARE CRAZY THINGS TO BELIEVE.  And yet people have believed them so deeply that they have done radical things, both for good and for evil; I see no reason to assume that shaping a new discursive framework couldn’t counteract some of the worst monkey-brain tendencies.

That I am skeptical this can be done in my lifetime, however, does not make me a conservative.  That I have this disposition and am still not conservative seems to be a perfectly appropriate point to raise.  Socrates is one of my intellectual heroes; I do not think we can call him “conservative,” and then put him on a list from Ancient Greece to Thomas Sowell as if this idea has developed in perfect strain from one to the other.  I think modern-day liberals, living as we are in a state largely built on the domestic successes of the liberal governments of the 1940s and 1960s, would do well to reconsider Edmund Burke; his constant assertion that society should develop organically and slowly should give liberals a powerful dispositionally conservative response to defend and maintain the liberal successes that so many Tea Partiers of today wish to unravel.  And all I can say about Thomas Sowell is, well, Thomas Sowell recently compared Barack Obama to Hitler because of the BP escrow fund.

Whatever conservatism is, it’s got to be more than a disposition.  And it’s got to do better than simply claiming a bunch of philosophers as its lineage without any serious interaction with their thought.