20th century, Bill Clinton, Cambodia, Canada, Communism, conservatism, Edmund Burke, French Revolution, Front Porch Republic, Jane Jacobs, Margaret Thatcher, Martin Luther King Jr., Mike Harris, natural environment, Pol Pot, pragmatism, Rod Dreher, Ronald Reagan, United States
Note (12 Jul 2022): This post, written in 2010, contains a quote from Martin Luther King Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. In that quote is a six-letter derogatory term for black people, which has become much more taboo since I wrote the post. I include this note so that the term’s appearance in the King quote does not hit readers as a surprise.
A flip side of the previous post: while I am not a right-winger and would never want to be called one, I have far less antipathy to the term “conservative,” and sometimes even describe myself that way. For at least to some extent, I see myself as a conservative in the literal sense of that word.
Literal conservatism is a view I have found increasingly appealing after the radical political transformations of the ’80s and (in the US) the ’00s – this not despite, but because of, my left-wing convictions on many particular issues. The literal meaning of the word “conservative” should be fairly obvious: it is about conserving, preserving, existing states of affairs. That’s what it would have meant in the time of Edmund Burke, considered the father of modern conservatism. The problem with the word is that in the ensuing two centuries, the world has changed drastically in ways that Burke would have wished it hadn’t. And that means that if one wants the kind of society that Burke tended to advocate – especially if one wishes “small government” – one will need to change society in quite drastic ways from what it has become. Which, in turn, means not being conservative – not in the literal sense of the world.
Such attempts at drastic change were at the centre of right-wing so-called “conservative” politics in the 1980s. The charge was led most famously by Ronald Reagan in the US and Margaret Thatcher in the UK, but continued around the world by figures from Brian Mulroney in Canada to Rajiv Gandhi in India and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore. Government programs on which many had come to depend were slashed ruthlessly in the name of tax cuts; longstanding regulations on large corporations were eliminated, giving them free rein to change the fabric of society more drastically. In many cases, especially Reagan’s and Thatcher’s, this policy was even accompanied by interventionist foreign wars.
In my home province of Ontario, the most drastic, radical and far-reaching changes in generations were wrought by a government that called itself conservative, under Premier Mike Harris. Harris eliminated the county level of government, and merged most local municipalities into much larger bodies, some larger than many other provinces. No longer would there be levels of government small and close to people’s local concerns, to Burke’s “little platoons” that hold civil society together; instead, every level of government would be a distant bureaucracy. But it was all done in the name of “small government” – for it was cheaper, it would allow for large tax cuts. Similarly, Harris proposed an environmental program called “Lands for Life,” which would eliminate all Crown (government-owned) land – reserving a greater amount of land for conservation than had ever been reserved in the province before, but opening up all the rest of it to mining and logging interests. A drastic and radical rationalization and scaling back of government – nothing conservative about this. (Some conservatives, like Rod Dreher and the crew of Front Porch Republic, understand this a lot better than others.)
I see nothing wrong with describing such radical changes as “right-wing” – but it rankles me to hear them described as “conservative,” for they conserve nothing. (Attempts to defend contemporary right-wing parties as genuinely conservative tend to be unconvincing bouts of special pleading, like Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru’s attempt to say that American conservatives “conserve the pillars of American exceptionalism.” As well say that Communist revolutionaries were conserving the pillars of Marxism. Conserving an ideal isn’t conservative; the whole point of Burkean conservatism was that you were conserving a social and natural order, against ideals.) Rather, for the most part, the most literally conservative political faction in my lifetime has been the left, or at least what is generally considered the left in most countries. Bill Clinton was a deeply conservative president; despite having two terms and eight years, he is remembered (sex scandals aside) for stewardship and competent management, not for any bold new policy initiatives. In Canada, the socialist New Democratic Party has made its main raison d’être the preservation of the social programs like universal health care which it helped create and at which “conservative” governments slowly chip away.
More generally, there is something very conservative about environmentalism, these days usually the province of the left. Environmentalism is about keeping the natural world the way it is, conserving it. It is a measure of the word’s drastic semantic drift that the word “conservative” now usually refers to a political position almost opposite from “conservationist.”
So to be literally conservative today means something very different from what it meant in Burke’s time; it may well mean supporting the things that Burke opposed, because they are now part of our social fabric. But so far I’ve just been talking about the word. What are the reasons behind a literal conservatism?
To my mind, the biggest and most important reason is a pragmatism based on historical experience: revolutions screw things up. I’ve suggested the idea before: Drastic attempts at social change cause great misery in the short term, and don’t necessarily make things much better in the long term. Burke made his name opposing the French Revolution – an opposition that would look prescient as the revolution degenerated into the Terror. The Terror would only be magnified, tragically, by the great Communist revolutions of the 20th century, and the millions who died therein. And the point of all that destruction was radical social transformation. Visiting Cambodia two years ago, I was haunted by the words Pol Pot used to justify the brutal treatment of his entire population, the evacuation of the cities, the deliberate mass killing of intellectuals: “if the result of so many sacrifices was that the capitalists remain in control, what was the point of the revolution?” What, indeed?
Two hundred years later, one can look back on the French Revolution and ask what its point was. Compare France today to Britain, to Germany, even to Spain, let alone to Canada or Australia: in the end, did the Revolution and Terror leave it with significantly more liberty, equality or fraternity than those neighbours that did not revolt? Canada in many ways seems to be a state that embodies literal conservatism: the independence that the United States obtained in a bloody revolution, Canada got slowly over decisions made across hundreds of years. The process still isn’t entirely complete, as last year’s political crisis showed, but the system works well enough for now. We’re not in a hurry.
On a smaller scale I see the reasons for literal conservatism embodied in the likes of Jane Jacobs’s urban criticism – also taken up most passionately by left-wingers. For Jacobs, cities as they are are the product of many people’s small decisions working together over generations, and generally these products work. They work significantly better than the grand plans of city governments, like automobile expressways and Pruitt-Igoe.
This isn’t to say literal conservatism is the answer to all our political problems. There are cases where it seems to work poorly indeed. Perhaps the strongest case against literal conservatism was made by Martin Luther King in his Letter from Birmingham Jail (quoted at length because it’s so eloquent):
Perhaps it is easy for those who have never felt the stinging dark of segregation to say, “Wait.” But when you have seen vicious mobs lynch your mothers and fathers at will and drown your sisters and brothers at whim; when you have seen hate-filled policemen curse, kick and even kill your black brothers and sisters; when you see the vast majority of your twenty million Negro brothers smothering in an airtight cage of poverty in the midst of an affluent society; when you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children, and see ominous clouds of inferiority beginning to form in her little mental sky, and see her beginning to distort her personality by developing an unconscious bitterness toward white people; when you have to concoct an answer for a five-year-old son who is asking: “Daddy, why do white people treat colored people so mean?”; when you take a cross-county drive and find it necessary to sleep night after night in the uncomfortable corners of your automobile because no motel will accept you; when you are humiliated day in and day out by nagging signs reading “white” and “colored”; when your first name becomes “nigger,” your middle name becomes “boy” (however old you are) and your last name becomes “John,” and your wife and mother are never given the respected title “Mrs.”; when you are harried by day and haunted by night by the fact that you are a Negro, living constantly at tiptoe stance, never quite knowing what to expect next, and are plagued with inner fears and outer resentments; when you no forever fighting a degenerating sense of “nobodiness” then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair. I hope, sirs, you can understand our legitimate and unavoidable impatience.
Sometimes, it would seem, radical change does need to come quickly. But it seems to me that the situtations calling for such changes are relatively rare – and a conservative worthy of the name will not engage in them over a matter as relatively trifling as lower taxes.