Andrew Sullivan is my blogfather; it was reading his original blog back in early February of 2002 that prompted me to start Shot In The Dark.
I stopped reading Sully about the time that Gay Marriage became the Most Important Issue Ever to him.
But a decidedly non-conservative friend of mine sent me this piece, in which Sullivan asks conservatives which of (what he deems, largely correctly I think, to be) the ten overarching first principles of conservatism to which they adhere.
He follows the piece with a poll asking for people to check off which of the principles they adhere to. Of course, that’s way too simplistic – the deeper answers are much more interesting, I think.
So let’s try it both ways. I took the poll. And I’m going to try to go for the real answers, too:
SULLIVAN: The conservative believes that there exists an enduring moral order. That order is made for man, and man is made for it: human nature is a constant, and moral truths are permanent. … A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.
- MB: I don’t know how a conservative can claim to be a conservative without believing this in some sense. This presupposes that a society “governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor” would be a small-l liberal democracy, of course; I can’t quite pin the concepts of “enduring moral order” with benevolent dictatorship, for example, together.
SULLIVAN: The conservative adheres to custom, convention, and continuity. … Conservatives are champions of custom, convention, and continuity because they prefer the devil they know to the devil they don’t know.
- MB: Personally? No. I’m not. In terms of a conservative society? I think there’s something to this. But if you know me, you know that beyond my religious beliefs and my conviction that the Bears are the greatest football team every to walk the planet, that’s totally not me.
SULLIVAN: Conservatives believe in what may be called the principle of prescription. Conservatives sense that modern people are dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, able to see farther than their ancestors only because of the great stature of those who have preceded us in time. Therefore conservatives very often emphasize the importance of prescription—that is, of things established by immemorial usage, so that the mind of man runneth not to the contrary. There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity—including rights to property, often. … The individual is foolish, but the species is wise, Burke declared. In politics we do well to abide by precedent and precept and even prejudice, for the great mysterious incorporation of the human race has acquired a prescriptive wisdom far greater than any man’s petty private rationality.
- MB: I agree, to a point. But if one follows that to its logical conclusion, the next Thomas Jefferson or James Madison – and it seems reasonable that the human race hasn’t spent all of its eternal ration of genius – is pretty well hosed, right?
SULLIVAN: Conservatives are guided by their principle of prudence. … Any public measure ought to be judged by its probable long-run consequences, not merely by temporary advantage or popularity. Liberals and radicals, the conservative says, are imprudent: for they dash at their objectives without giving much heed to the risk of new abuses worse than the evils they hope to sweep away. …
- MB: This is absolutely true, to the point of stereotype. The true conservative is ever mindful that unintended consequences bedevil all “top-down” attempts to perfect this world.
SULLIVAN: The only true forms of equality are equality at the Last Judgment and equality before a just court of law; all other attempts at levelling must lead, at best, to social stagnation.
- MB: This, again, is absolutely true. Humans must be equal in the eyes of the law (not just courts, but in legislation – but that’s one of the courts’ legitimate jobs); all attempts to make individuals equal to each other in terms of merit and potential by legal or social fiat is madness.
SULLIVAN: Human nature suffers irremediably from certain grave faults, the conservatives know. Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created. … All that we reasonably can expect is a tolerably ordered, just, and free society, in which some evils, maladjustments, and suffering will continue to lurk. … The ideologues who promise the perfection of man and society have converted a great part of the twentieth-century world into a terrestrial hell.
- MB: I’m not sure how anyone can read any history and disagree with this.
SULLIVAN: Conservatives are persuaded that freedom and property are closely linked. Separate property from private possession, and Leviathan becomes master of all.
- MB: Someone tell Cy Thao. This is an absolute. Property makes liberty tenable.
SULLIVAN: Conservatives uphold voluntary community, quite as they oppose involuntary collectivism. … In a genuine community, the decisions most directly affecting the lives of citizens are made locally and voluntarily. … If, then, in the name of an abstract Democracy, the functions of community are transferred to distant political direction—why, real government by the consent of the governed gives way to a standardizing process hostile to freedom and human dignity.
- MB: To a liberal, “it takes a village to raise a child” – a noxiously-authoritarian ideal. To a conservative, society is “a free association of equals” – the very basis of a liberal (small-l) democracy.
SULLIVAN: The conservative perceives the need for prudent restraints upon power and upon human passions. … It is characteristic of the radical that he thinks of power as a force for good—so long as the power falls into his hands. … A just government maintains a healthy tension between the claims of authority and the claims of liberty.
- MB: This one got me thinking; “Tension” is a good word. Authoritarian absolutism is anathema to most of us; libertarian absolutism is naive at best. I pull hard to the libertarian side (you can take guy out of the Party, but you can’t take…), but the need for prudent, reasonable authority creates a conflict. And that conflict is an inherently good thing, and it is best that it remain constant; if we “settle” the question, one way or the other, it’ll be a bad thing. The resolution should not be the goal; the argument should be eternal.
SULLIVAN: Permanence and change must be recognized and reconciled in a vigorous society. The conservative is not opposed to social improvement, although he doubts whether there is any such force as a mystical Progress, with a Roman P, at work in the world. … He thinks that the liberal and the radical, blind to the just claims of Permanence, would endanger the heritage bequeathed to us, in an endeavor to hurry us into some dubious Terrestrial Paradise.
- MB: It’s one of the great themes of the past 100 years. And again, the conflict between the two should be the goal. I think to most real conservatives it is; “conservatives” who don’t recognize change render their beliefs irrelevant, eventually – but permanence, especially in things like moral order, is what makes progress humanly tenable.
So I think I’ve got eight complete agreements, a “mostly” and a “continuity for ye, but not for me”.
So leave a comment, already.