Monday, January 15, 2018

On conservatism

In A Conservative Manifesto, Holly A. Case laments the divergence between modern "conservatism" and the Peter Viereck's 1940 vision of conservatism, But—I'm a Conservative!. Case argues that Viereck espoused a "spiritual" vision of conservatism, as opposed to the crass materialism of the "conservatism" of the 1940s and 1950s. Case quotes Viereck's review of William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale to highlight the rupture:
Is it not humorless, or else blasphemous, for this eloquent advocate of Christianity, an unworldly and anti-economic religion, to enshrine jointly as equally sacrosanct: ‘Adam Smith and Ricardo, Jesus and St. Paul?' And why is this veritable Eagle Scout of moral sternness silent on the moral implications of McCarthyism in his own camp?
As quoted by Case, Viereck accused the "conservatives of the pocketbook" as divorcing property from moral responsibility and of suborning revolution instead of maintaining stability. If his chief complaint against Marxism had been against "its materialistic assault on all our non-economic values of the spirit," then how could he have seen the nascent conservatism of the 1950s — or what passes for "conservatism" in the first decades of the 21st century — as anything different?

But even Viereck's supposedly more "humanistic" conservatism is absurd and self-contradictory. His conservatism hinges on Law.
The conservative's principle of principles is the necessity and supremacy of Law and of absolute standards of conduct. I capitalize 'Law,' and I mean it. Suppose it were proved that the eternal absolutes do not really exist. Instinctively we should say: So much the worse for them. But now we must learn to say: So much the worse for existence! We have learned that from sad experience of centuries. Paradoxically, we have learned that man can only maintain his material existence by guiding it by the materially nonexistent: by the absolute moral laws of the spirit.
This old atheist's hackles rise when I hear the words, "So much the worse for existence!" For if these "eternal absolutes do not really exist," then they must come from human beings in historically contingent social, political, and economic circumstances. Specifically, those human beings who happen to have the power to enforce "eternal absolutes", and whose first concern must always be the preservation of their power at all costs. Like most self-described conservatives, Viereck suffers from a failure of the imagination. There is a vast middle ground between anarchism and mob rule on the one hand and eternal absolutes (that we must contingently imagine) on the other.

I would agree with Viereck that liberty is as much or more about discipline and restraint than it is about freedom. And I would also agree with Viereck that at least little-ell law is important to maintain discipline and restraint in a society. As an individual who depends on others for my very life, and whose lives depend on me, I want to know what other people believe I and they must and must not do (discipline) and what we may do (freedom). I want these norms to be about the same tomorrow as they are today. A body of little-ell laws, enforced by at least some violence, and subject to a deliberative process of change seems a workable way of establishing, maintaining, and, most importantly, legitimizing these norms. I can assent to the good laws not because they are Law, but because they are good. I can, in theory, tolerate the few bad laws knowing that they are susceptible to change. I do not need to believe the laws are or pretend to be "eternal absolutes"; I need to believe they are good enough for now, and can be made better.

There are excellent objective reasons why we should consider how we do things today one reasonable justification to do things the same way tomorrow, and to go beyond immediate expediency in our social institutions: bounded rationality and rational ignorance, the prisoner's dilemma, asymmetric and imperfect information, not to mention any number of cognitive biases and our abysmal lack of statistical intuition. As the saying goes, it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future*, so we have to rely — at least to some extent — on history and tradition.

*Misattributed to Yogi Berra.

But to say that law is useful is not to say that it is transcendent, even in our social imagination. The law is a tool, and however useful a tool, it is not an end in itself. When we allow law to become Law, when we think of the compromises and negotiations we have made to live together in a little more peace today than yesterday as some sort of eternal verities, we limit our legitimate growth as much as we prevent decay. Viereck is clear: "You weaken the magic of all good laws every time you break a bad one, every time you allow mob lynching of even the guiltiest criminal." What can Viereck mean but to condemn the hiding of Jews from the Nazis, the transportation of black slaves to Canada, and the execution of tyrants. The charge that Law itself is an end is nothing but a dishonest tactic to defend the privilege and power of self-appointed Lawgivers.


Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and I've been reminded of King's remarks from Letter from a Birmingham Jail rebuking "the white moderate, who is more devoted to 'order' than to justice." This is my overwhelming sense when I read conservatives such as Viereck, who talk about Law rather than Justice. If there's anything that I can even imagine as an eternal absolute, it is Justice, not Law. Justice is about more than rules, more than just discipline and restraint. Even the most unjust can be disciplined and — at least in some things — restrained. It is possible that discipline and restraint are necessary for Justice, but unlike Law, they cannot be sufficient. In endorsing mere Law, conservatives at best set themselves too low a bar, and at worst argue that the rules matter more than the justice they should serve.


  1. Larry, I have an off topic question, hope you don't mind.

    I have a question about capitalist reproduction that I am not quite understanding. Remember when you talked about how the relations in academia reproduce the relations in capitalism?

    In Atlas Drugged (the 99-percenter counterpoint to Atlas Shrugged), there is a scene in which various capitalists are made to stand trial at the People's Court for various economic crimes that they allegedly committed. An elite member of the academic PMC, an esteemed professor at an esteemed university, is also made to stand trial at the People's Court along with them.

    This professor's alleged crime is that he stole the work of his graduate student who had died in a car crash, and plagiarized it, then passed it off as his own book.

    Atlas Drugged's author, Stephen Goldstein, I think was making the point during the People's Court scene that the exploitation of this professor's graduate student and the plagiarism/theft of his work mirrors the capitalists' commission of various exploitative economic crimes against the workers, for which they too are on trial at the People's Court.

    So I just want to know whether I'm on base or off base. What I understand what you mean by "academia reproduces capitalism" is that it mirrors that exploitation in its own peculiar way according to the peculiarity of itself.

  2. While I certainly condemn plagiarism, mirroring is not reproduction. I mean reproduction in the ordinary sense: making sure that the capitalist system continues to function tomorrow, next year, twenty years from now, and when everyone now living has died.

    I also don't really look at capitalism as the perpetration of economic crimes. Crimes are deviations from local norms, and capitalists certainly do not deviate from local norms. Capitalists do what they are supposed to do — they obey local norms — and they do it for what actually is, from a specific perspective, the greater social good.

    A socialist society should not punish the capitalists. We should instead give them all medals and either recruit them into the civil service or afford them a comfortable retirement. For all their crimes, they did a great service to humanity.

    1. To be consistent, the above should read, "... for all their injustices..."


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