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.


One comment on “Conservatism is Not a Disposition

  1. Quinne says:

    This is hardly an original observation, I’m sure, but Western conservatism is just Christianity without Jesus.

    As you said:

    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.

    Crazy, yes, because these belief systems impose things on the real world that aren’t true. Comforting things, and Christianity is the most successful of all because it’s the most comforting. Western conservatives are not all Christians, but the movement was built using Christian theology and eschatology as a scaffold until it could support itself with its own comforts; and for conservative Christians, the two reinforce one another.

    If you believe that Jesus is coming to judge the quick and the dead — and if you don’t believe the much harder things that Jesus said in his lighter mods, about charity and love — conservatism suddenly and readily makes sense. Why spend money to avert cataclysmic global warming? God will surely step in before anything happens to the good people. Why work to change structural inequalities in society? God doles out our lots in life, we were meant to be rich, the poor get stuff in heaven; insert vague concepts half-understood filtered down from Max Weber, and anyway we do our part by volunteering at the food banks once a month while preening about our sacrifices. Why try to understand the motivations behind anti-Americanism in the Muslim world? The Devil, ultimately, is responsible, and we should invade their countries, kill their leaders and convert them to Christianity.

    Now, I’m sort of using Jesus as a symbol here for the good parts of Christian thought, and this isn’t entirely fair. The fellow was actually kind of a mixed bag as we have his words. I’ve used some of the canonical examples in conversations with you before, but here’s another: Matthew 26:5-13 makes him sound less like the son of God than the bastard son of LeBron James’ Ego and Smugleaf; not only that, but it’s inspired two whole millennia and counting of faulty policy about poor people.

    Isn’t that, by itself, enough to make you seriously consider whether you want to call yourself a follower of Jesus, rather than simply someone who reads him and draws your own conclusions? Adding in his attitudes about slavery, women and race — acceptable at the time but ammunition for revanchist backward-looking conservatives for two thousand years — do you really want Jesus to come back as your judge? I think I’d prefer Elena Kagan or Victoria Kolakowski.

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