I read this short essay on the philosophy of conservatism in the April/May 2016 edition of Philosophy Now and found that I didn’t agree with it, and felt “negative emotions” towards some of it, so here I am going to try to analyze it and see why I have these emotions as well as what I agree with and disagree with. I thought I spotted straw-man and perhaps other fallacies. Let’s start from the beginning and see where we go.
First he asks what conservatism is and states that it is popularly thought of a “clinging to tradition and resisting change” which, he says has an element of truth. Conservatives, he says, do so, after Edmund Burke, out of the conviction that traditions have been proven over generations and that change is likely to be “ill-fated”. I find that I almost agree with this. I wouldn’t say that tradition has been proven if that implies that it is necessarily good because it is traditional. I think that tradition, like change, is neither good nor bad for society per se. However, tradition is deserving of our respect and should be trusted until we can see that it is “bad” or unhelpful. He also says that change is “typically ill-fated”. Isn’t that just an impression some have formed? Is there any rational basis in it?
But the above is a “feature” of conservatism, not its essence. The essence of conservatism is in reaction or response to progressism. This is a point I thought worth pursing. But instead of doing that he goes into what I think of as a straw-man argument that progressives view mankind as essentially good (or rational) and that mankind is on a trajectory towards perfection or utopia. He then refutes his straw-man with “What would constitute progress on an infinite line?” This may be a point worth considering, but I don’t accept the view that progressives see this utopian telos. He says progressives view government as a means of achieving this telos, adding “often by means of some presumed superior mode of social arrangement.” He then identifies “progressism” as the impulse behind the Enlightenment, Marxism, and other revolutionary movements, stating that conservatism acts in negation to that.
This is the point I where felt somewhat irritated. I’m not sure why, but it’s still irritating to me. Perhaps because he lumps the Enlightenment with Marxism and “other revolutionary movements” without clarification. I shouldn’t fault him here, he only has so much space to work with. This “lumping” puts anything aimed at improvement in one barrel. But let’s be charitable: there may be an logical underpinning among them.
Under the heading “Classical Conservatism” al-Gharbi says: “Given their rejection of political perfectionism, conservatives envision a much smaller role for the state.” While conservatives currently do enshrine small government, that does not follow from a rejection of perfectionism. One could say that since the arc of mankind is imperfect, the state needs to take a larger role. Either way, the next idea is that conservatives, as opposed to libertarians, emphasize community over the individual. The community, rather than the government, in a conservative society would provide the bedrock of social and political stability. Civil rights and liberties and private property are what is essential. The state should not advance ideals or political agenda. The purpose of the state is to enforce agreed upon rules, provide a forum for the solution of disputes, and protect communities from other countries. It seems to me that he is saying that the community would enforce rules within the community (that is, between individuals or between individuals and the community) and the state between communities. That seems like an idea that may have worked 100 years ago, but the state (and the world) is too large and diverse now.
Next he criticizes modern “conservatives” as not true conservatives because they don’t call for restraint and/or realism. Paleo-conservatives seem to believe that minorities have a duty to conform to the dominant society. Neo-conservatives seem to believe that it is the duty of governments to promote or advance and protect the values of the dominant culture. Here is a passage from the article describing the neo-cons: “These (the neo-con ideas of the purpose of government) include forcibly spreading liberalism around the world: destroying incompatible political economic systems and institutions: surveilling and disrupting internal dissent by means of pervasive law enforcement and security apparatuses; and by deploying oversimplified ‘good vs evil’ narratives that portray any skepticism of or resistance to their agenda as dangerously naive or even outright traitorous.”
Finally here is his description of the classical conservative’s utopia: “a legally pluralistic system which empowers groups of like-minded citizens to arrange themselves as they see fit — thus including radically different economic, legal and political processes within their domains — ensuring that all citizens can live in a society which reflects their own interests and values, rather than being forced into the secular zero-sum pluralist game over who gets to define the supposedly neutral position.” Visualize a country consisting of groups (communities) with “radically different legal and economic systems” with a government that ensures their autonomy, could it work? I am doubtful, especially given the interdependent nature of the modern world.