TCS Daily


Conservatism's Journey Away From Me

By Kenneth Silber - January 7, 2004 12:00 AM

Several months ago, TCS developed a point-counterpoint format, which enables writers to respond to an article previously published on the site. Using this format, I now respond to Keith Burgess-Jackson's recent article "My Journey to Conservatism." My comments are in red, while Burgess-Jackson's text appears in the original black.

"A young person who's conservative has no heart; an old person who's liberal has no brain." Have you heard this saying? Yes. It's often attributed to Winston Churchill, although it appears he never actually said it. There are two ways it can be interpreted: as a statement of fact (about people's actual political trajectory) and as a judgment of value (about which trajectory is good). I read it as both. It says that as a matter of (natural) fact, there is a progression from liberalism to conservatism; and it adds (quickly) that this is good. The saying is both descriptive and prescriptive, like "S is lazy" and "T is a coward." It commends young liberals and old conservatives. It condemns young conservatives and old liberals.

In current political parlance, I am, roughly speaking, a conservative. However, it would be more accurate to say I'm a soft libertarian with neoconservative inclinations in foreign policy. A similar statement could have been made about my views 20 years ago, when I was 18. But enough about me. Conservatism itself has changed considerably over the past two decades, often not for the better, and many conservative arguments today strike me as dubious or fallacious. As I shall discuss, I think your essay, although interesting, reveals some of the weaknesses and contradictions of current conservative thought.

I used to be liberal. When I was, I thought conservatives were uncaring, unintelligent, irrational, and obstructionist. They seemed to resist every attempt to make the world a better place -- by my standards. They seemed stuck in the past, oblivious to changes that were taking place in technology, demographics, and world affairs. Didn't they see the threat to the environment posed by global warming? Didn't they see that their cramped understandings of marriage and family were doing real harm to people? Didn't they see that their opposition to redistributive taxation was perpetuating -- indeed, exacerbating -- poverty, sickness, and illiteracy? Didn't they see that in affairs of state, no less than in personal relationships, force never solves anything but only makes things worse?

Plotting My Trajectory

I know I held these views because I dutifully recorded them in my journal from the time I was twenty-one years old. My journal is a record of my intellectual and moral development (which is another reason for every young person to keep one). For more than five years (since 21 November 1998), I have been transcribing my handwritten journal entries to the computer in real time, twenty years after the fact. Today, for instance, I will transcribe the entry of 22 December 1983. I was a freshly minted lawyer (in Michigan) and had just completed my first semester of graduate study in philosophy at The University of Arizona. I was, to put it bluntly, full of myself. (Some say I still am.)

Reading my journal of twenty years ago is amusing as well as instructive, because I invariably hold the opposite of each view I held then. You "invariably" hold the opposite view? That's interesting. Could it be that you've traded in one rigid ideology for another? I was adamantly opposed to capital punishment, for example. Now, like John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant, I support it. I took the moral permissibility of abortion for granted, thinking that only a misogynist could oppose it. Now I am convinced of its immorality, having been persuaded by Don Marquis's brilliant essay, "Why Abortion Is Immoral," The Journal of Philosophy 86 (April 1989): 183-202. (Please write to me if you want a copy.) A full-blown discussion of abortion would be too lengthy in this context. But if you're asserting that any and all abortions, whatever the circumstances, are immoral, then I respectfully disagree. To quote your own statement made in a different context a few paragraphs hence: "There are cases, and there are cases."

I thought Ronald Reagan was a national embarrassment: a smiling, well-coiffed dolt. Now I consider him one of our greatest presidents and thank goodness for his strength, leadership, and vision. I defended redistributive taxation. Now I oppose anything more than a Nozickian minimal state. Wait a minute. Do conservatives today "oppose anything more than a Nozickian minimal state"? It's certainly not reflected in either the words or deeds of President George W. Bush or most congressional Republicans. Reagan was no Nozickian either. I happen to oppose a minimal state as too extreme (if it means absolutely no government social programs, for instance). But many conservatives today seem to have abandoned any interest in limiting government. Does that worry you? I shared the feminist belief that women are oppressed by men. Now I think men are just as oppressed as women, albeit in different ways. I also think that feminism has done real damage to women, despite its protestations to the contrary.

What changed? How did I go from left to right on the political spectrum? My critics (including several former friends from whom I've grown apart -- in some cases because of political differences) will say that I became meaner. I got mine, they will say, and closed the door behind me. I lost my compassion, my decency, my sense of fairness, my very humanity. I became a misanthrope. I smile at these insults, because I know I didn't get meaner. I got wiser. I grew up. They didn't. Maybe they will -- I hope they will -- but they haven't yet. The good news is that as long as one lives, one can be saved into conservatism. It is never too late to let the heart be ruled by the brain.

"Saved into conservatism"? Perhaps you're just trying to needle your non-conservative readers, but the phrase grates on me. I thought one of the virtues of conservatism is that it doesn't seek to "save" people through politics; that it avoids overblown promises and recognizes that politics is not the entirety of life.

Growing Wiser

What is wisdom, anyway, and why does it come with age? Wisdom is understanding and judgment rooted in experience. A wise person examines all aspects of a problem, not just one or some of them, before rendering a judgment. A wise person asks what effect welfare has on its recipients (besides providing for their material needs). Does it undermine their self-respect? Does it decrease their self-sufficiency? Does it destroy incentive? Does it, in the end, undermine or erode their personhood? A wise person thinks through the implications of a solution before offering or adopting it. For example, what effect will homosexual marriage have on childrearing and child development? What effect does living with homosexual parents have on one's character, sexuality, self-image, and values? These are not idle questions. They're real questions with real answers, even if the answers are (currently) unknown. And they're important questions, questions that bear on our communal life.

Wise people are discriminating. They appreciate that the moral life is complex and that details matter. To paraphrase Judith Jarvis Thomson, "There are cases and there are cases." A seemingly small difference between two cases can make a large moral difference; and, conversely, large differences sometimes make no moral difference at all. Wise people concern themselves with the unintended and unforeseen consequences of action as well as with those that are intended and foreseen. They attend to the realities of a situation and not just to ideals. They are oriented to particulars, not just to universals. They work from the ground up, as it were, not from the top down. They have the capacity for practical judgment -- what the Greeks called phronesis.

A wise person, in short, brings all relevant considerations to bear on a problem, assigns them their proper weight, and resolves it. Humbly. Your essay takes a tone of confident certitude. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it's not particularly humble. A wise person understands that even when one acts rightly, all things considered, important moral values may go by the board. This is cause for regret. Nobody, not even the great Socrates, is perfectly wise, but some people come nearer to it than others. We should all strive to be wiser.

Socrates. Phronesis. Your conservatism seems firmly grounded in Greek philosophy. That's no great surprise, given that you're a philosopher. But how large a role does such thinking play in current-day conservatism? A great deal of conservatism today seems to be rooted in religion, more than in any secular philosophy. That has always been the case to some degree, but I think religion became a more prominent and explicit aspect of conservatism during the 1990s (and remains so today). I am not opposed to religion as such, but seeing it become more dominant within conservatism disturbs me. It makes me wonder whether conservatism will retain, and appeal to, people who either are not religious or for whom politics and religion are basically separate spheres.

Young people, bless their idealistic hearts, have no experience. Actually, it's a mistake to say that they have no experience, for experience begins with birth (or before); but young people don't have as much experience as their elders. They are, to use the argot, experientially challenged. The world, to the young, came into existence with them and exists to be manipulated by them. What came before is to be questioned and, if found wanting (as it usually is), abolished. The world is to be built anew, from the ground up, using only our ideals and our technology. But when you support a minimal government -- radically smaller than the current government -- aren't you seeking to "build the world anew, from the ground up"? Aren't you putting a high degree of confidence in an ideal? Instead of punishing people, let's understand why they commit crimes and try to help them. They're victims of their environment, not malicious choosers. Instead of threatening other nations, let's build bridges. Let's tolerate the wonderful diversity of religions and ways of life. Let's stop thinking of our own way of life as superior to that of others. That creates resentment, animosity, and ultimately violence, which is the summum malum. If we talk, we won't fight.

With regard to wealth, why should some people have more of it than others? Let's take wealth from the haves and distribute it to the have-nots. There's plenty of wealth to go around, after all; it's just maldistributed. This goes not only for the citizens of this country but for people around the world. Americans consume and pollute too much. They -- we -- must cut back for the good of all.

And while we're at it, let's take wealth out of the political system. Everyone's voice should be heard, whether rich or poor. Why should a corporate executive have a greater say in policy matters than the person who cleans his or her office every evening? Law should equalize income and wealth, or at least move in that direction. It is obscene that some have so much while others have so little. How did we let things get this way? It is entirely up to us how wealth, status, privilege, and other social goods are distributed. A choice not to redistribute these goods is a choice to accept the existing (unjust) distribution.

Gaining Experience

Experience -- working, marrying, becoming a parent, buying a house, being a neighbor -- deepens and broadens understanding. The experienced person realizes that disparities in wealth are a by-product of a robust market-based economy that works to the benefit of all, including those in impoverished parts of the world. I think it's mostly true that a robust market-based economy works to the benefit of all. But it's not always and absolutely true. As you noted earlier, "There are cases, and there are cases." (Would there be an African AIDS initiative if the United States were a poor country? Foreign aid for the destitute presupposes affluence. Do critics of Western affluence want universal poverty?) The experienced person knows that corporations are not abstractions but legal embodiments ("corpus" = body) of human aspiration. Corporations (such as IBM, Halliburton, and Microsoft) are composed of people: shareholders such as you and me, employees, managers, officers. Corporations, whether big or small, are the engines of prosperity. Without them, our standard of living would be much lower than it is. This is not to say that corporations should be able to do as they please. That is anarchy, and conservatives are not anarchists. It is to say that there is nothing intrinsically immoral or suspect about corporations. They are individuals writ large.

The experienced person realizes that institutions such as marriage evolved for a reason, even if the reason is hard to articulate. Institutions represent tradeoffs and compromises among disparate values and interests. Sometimes these values and interests are difficult to discern, so defenders of tradition are easily put on the defensive by their critics. They are accused of being blind, biased, and obfuscatory. They are said to be "prejudiced" and "bigoted." Why, they cannot even articulate their opposition to such things as homosexual marriage or adoption! What ignoramuses! If you can't articulate the reason for something, it is said, you should cease believing and defending it.

This attitude toward belief -- that one should believe a proposition only if one has articulable reasons for it -- represents liberalism in the epistemic realm. The contrast is epistemic conservatism, which holds that belief -- in God, in the importance of marriage, in the value of tradition -- needs no defense. To a conservative, beliefs are presumed innocent until proven guilty. To a liberal, they are presumed guilty until proven innocent. The liberal epistemic standard begs the question against political conservatism, just as a conservative epistemic standard would beg the question against political liberalism. Conservatives must not fall for the liberal trick of making nonbelief the default position.

Earlier you advocated conservatism by writing "It is never too late to let the heart be ruled by the brain." Now, you seem to be dismissing the brain. Isn't it the brain, rather than the heart, that tries to have articulated reasons for belief? Isn't it important that exponents of a political philosophy try to have reasons and arguments, rather than just state their beliefs as dogma? Besides, liberals with unexamined beliefs and unsupported assumptions do not seem all that rare.

Respecting Tradition

Liberals deny even a weak presumption to traditional ways of life. Conservatives, in contrast, accord tradition a strong presumption, preferring to err on the side of caution rather than boldness. President Bush is moving quite boldly in the War on Terror. I am glad he is not "conservative" in the sense of being more cautious there. The conservative mantra is to move slowly. It is not, as liberals are fond of saying, to thwart change altogether. It is to slow the rate of change so that along the way we can see the unfolding effects of what we are doing. So, conservatives and liberals have the same goals, but one group wants to move more slowly? That is not an inspiring vision of conservatism. It is the caution of the wise and experienced, the caution that comes with age, the caution that acknowledges one's fallibility (moral as well as epistemic) and humility. If the effects of the change are not as expected (or hoped), we can make adjustments or reverse course. It will not be too late. Just as it would be unfair to say that liberals want change for change's sake, it is unfair to say that conservatives value tradition for tradition's sake. The difference is subtler than that. Liberals and conservatives have different temperaments, different attitudes toward risk. Actually, much current liberalism is about aversion to risk, in matters ranging from foreign policy to workplace rules to environmental regulation. Present-day conservatism, at its best, often involves accepting risks and putting risks in perspective.

This idea of temperament begins to get to the nub of it. Liberals are optimistic about human nature, whereas conservatives are pessimistic. Liberals assume that people are good until corrupted by society; conservatives know that they are bad and can be made decent (or at least law-abiding) by society. Liberals think that what needs explaining is why social projects fail. Conservatives think that what needs explaining is how they ever succeed, given human selfishness, ignorance, greed, envy, and vanity. Liberals view the state as a facilitator of good; conservatives view it as an engine of evil that must be carefully monitored and controlled. Doesn't advocacy of free markets require a degree of optimism about human nature? Isn't support for big government often driven by fears of what people will do without guidance and regulation? You cede far too much in presenting liberalism as the ideology of optimism and confidence.

Liberals think children should be given wide latitude to explore, experiment, and create. Conservatives know that children, for all their innocence and promise, are animals who require discipline, rules, and punishment. Liberals believe in the power of love. Conservatives believe in the power of tough love. Liberals think Bobby Knight is a bully. Conservatives know that in spite of his rough edges he is a shaper of character and a maker of men. The world needs more Bobby Knights, not fewer.

Many of the problems we see in the world today are the result of lax and irresponsible parenting. We Americans worship liberty, but fail to see that it goes hand in hand with responsibility. Animals are free, after all, but hardly responsible, which is why it makes no sense to blame them for what would, in the case of humans, be misbehavior. Humans must be both free and responsible, else they become mere animals. By not understanding (and therefore misrepresenting) the connection between liberty and responsibility, liberals dissolve the person and degrade the social environment. Each of us, the liberal thinks, is what we were made to be: by our parents, our teachers, our friends, our neighbors, our popular culture. The element of personal choice disappears from view, and with it the person. This is why liberal punishment, rationalized as rehabilitation, is disrespectful. Conservatives show respect for criminals by paying them back for their misdeeds -- in proportion to the gravity of those misdeeds.

As I've aged, I've come to appreciate the vastness, complexity, and intricate beauty of things. I've come to see the delicate evolved equilibria in human institutions. Just as it is unwise to disrupt a natural ecosystem, it is unwise to disrupt, disregard, or disrespect longstanding human practices. But sometimes it needs to be done. Wasn't it necessary to disrupt slavery? Should the longstanding practices of, say, Saudi Arabia be treated with unqualified respect? I've come to appreciate the other side of various issues. (There is always another side, although liberals seldom acknowledge as much.) I've come to appreciate and respect the wisdom of our forebears, from whom we inherited so much: everything from marriage to mechanisms of wealth transmission to free markets to individual rights to our rambunctious, expressive language. Conservatives don't live for the moment, as liberals do. They respect the past and care deeply about the future. The present, in their view, is merely a bridge (or contract) between the dead and the unborn. Conservatives love history; liberals love sociology. Conservatives are archaeologists; liberals are engineers.

The institutions that conservatives defend, or should defend, are often very dynamic ones. Capitalism involves wide-ranging, ongoing change. The U.S. military, when it takes action, often changes facts on the ground very rapidly. Conservatives may pride themselves on their caution, but caution alone is a poor basis for a political philosophy.

Cultivating Humility

History looms large in the conservative mind. Conservatives learn from history, which is a repository of both good and evil. Liberals, seeing only the evil, view the past with scorn -- as a record of mistakes, failures, and injustices. Liberals wish to replace the ugly, shameful past with a new regime of justice and love. (Think of the well-meaning but clueless hippies.) This is of course hubris, and it is dangerous. Please don't misunderstand: I'm glad that there are liberals. Young people should be liberal. Youth is a time of idealism, exploration, hope, and searching. These traits need to be cultivated if the emerging adult is to be an integrated whole rather than a personal fragment.

Fortunately, most young people survive the turbulence and naiveté of adolescence and gain the experience and judgment necessary to become proper conservatives. They begin to use their brains after relying for so long on their hearts. Because the natural movement is from liberalism to conservatism, I hold out hope for the salvation of my middle-aged but childish liberal friends. Long live conservatism! Which conservatism? There are many. And they can't all be right.

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