Monday, August 6, 2007

Conservatism: Libertarian means, traditionalist ends?

According to Donald Devine, lecturer at the Federalist Leadership Institute seminar I attended a while back, that's the definition of American conservatism. The free market is the best but by no means the only way of achieving the ends tradition sets for us.

Why should tradition set our collective ends, or have any say at all over the goals we as a society choose to pursue? Why can't we just dream up an end -- say, the abolishment of poverty -- and then use the power of the state to achieve that end?

Conservatism's reliance on tradition represents a rejection of what Hayek called "constructivist social rationalism." Modern liberals believe -- in a way classical liberals did not -- that society cannot only articulate its own goals, but effectively pursue those goals through legislation. To rationalists of this stripe, the "city of God" is attainable here on earth, if only the right legislators with the right ideas are given the power to pass the right laws.

Although constructivism is now rampant, it is not a modern ideology. Arguably, Plato was its first and most vociferous exponent. According to the constructivist, the authority of the state can abolish poverty (or poetry, as Plato preferred) and bring about social harmony. It can achieve the ideal -- the right, the true, the good -- here and now.

How does the conservative's acceptance of tradition as a source of ends repudiate constructivism? After all, whether they admit it or not, many of the ideals liberals espouse are ends conservatives would affirm themselves, e.g. ending poverty, religious coexistence, and ensuring the benefits and burdens of living in a society are distributed fairly. What differentiates the conservative's acceptance of these ideas?

There is nothing new about the desire to live in a tolerant, prosperous society. This desire is not something liberals discovered on their own, to be gradually introduced to the rest of us uneducated troglidytes when we are ready for it.

Nor, however, are the goals of mutual toleration, justice, and freedom innately pursued. In our society, these are traditional goals. But societies like ours, that value these goals, are historically uncommon. There is nothing inevitable about the fact that you have come to value toleration, justice, and freedom. You value them precisely because you were lucky enough to be born into a society that valued them first.

While constructivism may accept traditionalist goals and ideas, it cannot accept them because they are traditional. It must accept them because they are rational. This means: because unencumbered, detached reason has formulated them, and given them its authoritative stamp of approval. However, as both Nietzsche and Hayek well knew, there is no such source of authority. The idea that we can reason best by abstracting away from our cultural surroundings, from our upbringing, from tradition itself -- this is a Platonic sham.

Epistemologically, the abstraction process -- deluding ourselves into thinking we have sanctified ourselves of any vestige of prejudice or cultural conditioning -- only leads to a distortion of our ideas. Morally and politically, it leads to policies that may work well in theory, but have disastrous results when applied to the "real world."

"Ecce homo," says Nietzsche's saint, painting himself on the wall. That is man, the way man ought to be. But not everyone can be a saint, and not only because for most attaining sainthood would require them to completely demolish their current identity. It would be a bad thing for all of us to suddenly ditch our current lives for the life of St. Francis of Assisi. Or the life of Jesus Christ, for that matter.

Some must stay behind, if only to grow the food for which the rest of us will beg. And if many of us did suddenly decide to make the switch to sainthood, those remaining behind -- standing athwart history, yelling "Stop!" like William Buckley -- could have no more accurate label than "conservative."

Fortunately, most of us will not whittle down our current identities and choose to start from scratch as saints. When it comes to the preservation and maintenance of our identities, we are all conservatives.
The constructivist's repudiation of tradition leads to a distortion of conception. Policy-wise, the measures constructivists adopt to achieve their ends will suffer a similar theoretical bias. Imaginging themselves to be formulating their goals for the first time, they will ignore what has worked relatively well in the past in favor of social engineering more suited to the abstract, detached nature of their supremely rationalist ends.

Policy failure can easily be explained away -- "Well, at least we did something," will be the familiar refrain, just before another, newer policy is proposed. In repudiating the idea of traditionalist ends, the constructivist repudiates every traditional solution, and must always be on the hunt for the next social science "breakthrough" to supply the latest fix to age-old problems.

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