Conservatism: Take 3.0

After reading Mr. Marsh’s characteristically fist-thumping reply to my last Torch article, I couldn’t help wondering if he’d given my argument more than a cursory glance. He has misunderstood me so consistently that, in his rendering, I come off as some kind of crazed theocrat.

So I’d like to offer a few clarifications.

For those just arriving on the scene, that much-maligned article of mine argues that conservatism has definite content because it springs from a definite tradition. Conservatives ‘think their own particular system works best at achieving certain ends…historically defined and upheld by their culture.’ These ends, I maintain, are the ‘content of conservatism’. Mr. Marsh, by contrast, has vociferously urged that conservatism has no fixed content. Instead, it hinges on a pragmatic ideological pluralism which allows conservatives of different stripes to unify, keeps them relevant, and ‘ensures’ that conservative ideas ‘work’ in the real world.

With amusing fervor, Mr. Marsh has hammered my Scrutonian take on conservatism into several ridiculous postures which I have never assumed and never will. According to him, stating that conservatives value their own cultures and political traditions makes ‘patriotism a question of partisan loyalty’. But as all students of formal logic will recognise, there’s a difference between the alarming claim ‘all patriots are conservatives’ and the observation that conservatism is patriotic. Of course conservatives don’t have a monopoly on patriotism. Many Democrats and Labour Party members ardently love their countries, political institutions, and cultural heritage. But Mr. Marsh and I weren’t debating the content of left- and right-wing philosophies; we were debating the content of conservatism—specifically, whether or not it has any. And, in this context, I was isolating something without which conservatism would not be conservative: a settled affection for the traditions and institutions of one’s nation. Not all patriots are conservative, but all conservatives are, to some extent, patriotic.

More unfairly, Mr. Marsh concludes that I believe ‘policies can only be effective when in the service of [my] ideals.’ But I said nothing to suggest such a ludicrous opinion. I merely observed that a pragmatic conservative on the hunt for effective policy must define what it means to be effective—and that doing so requires some recourse to values. Effectiveness means nothing unless one knows what one wishes to effect. Workability is a similarly empty term. How can I claim a policy works without also explaining what it works at? A car works when it drives; a refrigerator works when it keeps things cool; likewise, a policy works when it furthers some end, defined by some philosophy. But the philosophy behind Mr. Marsh’s pragmatism remains elusive, waffling between Thatcherism and the ideals of David Cameron. As far as I can tell, Mr. Marsh has yet again evaded my simple request: define workability, please.

I would never accuse Mr. Marsh of ‘a slavish and unprincipled dedication to power’—simply of forgetting that every policy implies a scale of values, and that these values derive from somewhere, whether traditionalism, classical liberalism, or modern progressivism. I like to think I’m also a ‘pluralist’ of sorts, someone who believes that conservatives of different stripes may productively band together (think, for example, of American fusionists, libertarians, NeoCons, and NatCons). But that fact doesn’t negate the core content of conservatism, which persists through centuries, adapting its policy preferences to ensure that the same free and historic way of life persists amidst shifting circumstances. If Mr. Marsh doesn’t like my version of this core content, he’ll have to produce his own. And, as I’ve shown, effectiveness and workability aren’t enough.

In this context, I should remark that I greatly enjoyed Mr. Vitali’s learned and thoughtful contribution to our discussion. He rightly observes that conservatism ‘has a variety of convictions that bear a familial resemblance, but which have varied with temporal (and indeed geographical) circumstance’, and that ‘what conservative means…at a given time…depends on the questions and dilemmas at hand’. I couldn’t agree more. Reagan-era conservatism looks shoddy and old-fashioned in the twenty-first century precisely because it is. New times call for new policies.

But while conservative policies vary, conservative principles don’t. Like Mr. Vitali, I believe that conservatism cannot be ‘simply a pragmatic approach to change’, and that today’s conservatism suffers from a worrying ‘intellectual hollowness’. And I maintain that this hollowness calls for a return to fixed conservative ideals: the rule of law and separation of powers achieved through our political institutions, and the free way of life embodied in American and British culture.

Mr. Vitali wittily suggests that my definition of conservatism excludes too many people: British coffee-drinkers, for instance, or those who wish to alter judicial review, or secular conservatives. But I defend my definition nonetheless. As an American who sojourned in England for nine months, I’m confident that a good British conservative will defend tea-drinking till he’s blue in the face, even as he sips his Americano. More seriously, though, my definition doesn’t exclude non-Christians or those wishing to improve the judicial system. Secular conservatives acknowledge with gratitude that the institutions they so admire sprang from a predominantly Christian society. And the judicial example only illustrates a point from my last article: that sometimes our traditions don’t embody our values (in this case, the separation of powers, a long-standing conservative commitment) and must therefore change in the name of conservatism.

Because conservatism must adapt, it requires prudence: the ability to apply abstract principles to concrete needs. To take some American examples, this means transforming traditional ideals such as free enterprise and rugged individualism into school choice, low taxes, low regulations, and Ron DeSantis’s COVID-policy. Conservatism isn’t a set of policy preferences but a way of looking at policy, attempting to preserve good and worthwhile traditions in novel circumstances. And so I still maintain that conservatism has fixed content and changes over time precisely because these central principles demand different policies for different eras.

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