“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
— -William Faulkner
A good political ideology must be concordant with human nature. Ideologies that are not, however inspiring they might sound, will inevitably lead to frustration and ultimately to disillusionment. I believe that conservatism is the political ideology that is the most consistent with human nature. And therefore, I am a conservative.
The fundamental premise, as I see it, of conservatism is original sin. Humans are flawed, fallible, limited creatures. For thinkers in the Christian tradition, original sin was a separation from God and an almost inexplicable drive to disobey his divine orders. For the secular, original sin can be understood as the belief that humans are compelled to imagine and create a moral order that they cannot possibly obey. Humans can imagine paradise, but they are condemned to dwell in the purgatory of earthly reality, bound inevitably by their biological natures. They can, for example, envisage a world of perfect cooperation, a world free from the strife of conflict and competition. But they can never instantiate it. Thus, original sin in this sense is a separation of humans from their moral ideal.
Humans have four chief limitations: They are tribal, local, competitive, and fallible. These traits lie like maggots in the fruit of humanistic idealism and preclude the creation of a progressive’s paradise. Communism, socialism, a world without tribes or irrational attachments — these are fantasies that will never come to pass. The conservative accepts this as the price of moral maturity and attempts to deal with humankind’s frailties and shortcomings without counseling despair but also without promoting utopian optimism.
Evidence suggests that humans largely evolved in small communities and cooperated in groups that often competed, sometimes mortally, against other groups. Because of this, they evolved tribal propensities. They care more about close kin and community members than about strangers. And they prefer ingroup to outgroup.
Consider the most obvious and powerful example. Humans have more potent bonds to immediate family members than they do to others. If you present a normal human with this choice: There are two buildings. In one, your daughter is playing. In the other, there are 200 children whom you don’t know. You have to blow up one building. Which do you blow? Most will not hesitate to kill the 200. The utilitarian might lament this, pointing out that this behavior does not conform to the principles of a perfectly rational moral system. Still, there is something laudable and awe-inspiring about this kind of preferential concern. But it is a limitation on a radical progressive vision of the world in which all “irrational” bonds are eradicated, and it presents a real obstacle to a meritocratic society guided by talent and the rule of law, not familial biases.
Conservatism responds to this reality not by decrying it, but by celebrating it within its appropriate domains. The nuclear family is the fundamental unit of Western Civilization. Parents are better at raising their own kids than are other people precisely because they have strong, “irrational” bonds to them. What strengthens the family strengthens society. However, the conservative also promotes strong norms against nepotism. Family bonds cannot interfere with the basic meritocratic arrangement of social institutions; otherwise, people will see the social hierarchy as unfair and corrupt.
Humans are also competitive. Many denigrate this proclivity, bewailing that humans are strongly motivated by the lure of tribal contests. Some even seek to eliminate it, disparaging dodge ball, football, and other team sports as unfortunate relics of a barbaric past. Even more so, they deplore it in the economy and in society more broadly. And they often talk of a time in the idyllic past in which competition and jealousy were almost nonexistent.
But the abhorrence of competition and the fantasy of a pacified past will no more eradicate competitiveness than will listening to John Lennon’s “Imagine” while reading Karl Marx’s “Das Kapital.” One cannot eliminate human competition without eliminating humanity altogether.
This is why conservatism praises markets. They channel human desires for status and resources into a kind of competition that has positive externalities. No other socioeconomic system is so capable of harnessing the power of human nature for the benefit of society as a whole. But it’s also why conservatism applauds religion and other narratives that soften the hard edges of the human spirit. It is true that humans will always compete, but such competition can be mitigated by compelling and unifying stories and ideologies. Christianity, for example, celebrates peacefulness and humility and praises the transcendent power of love.
And this is also why conservatism praises hierarchy. It disciplines the competitive spirit, teaches it to submit to those with more wisdom and skill. Without hierarchy, society would be an anarchy of ambition, each human against one another, trying desperately to win the spoils of wealth and power. With hierarchy, it can be an ordered system in which most jealousies are suppressed by reverence and a sense of fairness.
These limitations also lead conservatism to praise localism. Families, communities, and nations are what provide meaning to people; they guide them through a difficult and often disappointing life with a sense of connection to something greater than their own material existence. Many progressives appear to view such bonds as parochial and ruinous to a more cosmopolitan idea of humanity. And therefore, they often attack nationalism as barbaric, myopic, and inherently divisive, an arbitrary way to carve humanity into competing units. But conservatism views nationalism as a praiseworthy force that both constrains and expands natural tribal tendencies, creating a broadly shared identity that promotes cooperation and identity.
Perhaps most importantly, conservatism is skeptical of humankind’s most lauded, most celebrated, most unique power: Reason. It is not that reason is bad, evil, never-to-be-trusted, but it is that reason has the power to abstract from the world and to concoct entirely fantastical realities that disconcerts the conservative. Reason can posit a purple sun, red grass, a world without Franklin Roosevelt or Charlemagne.
Of course, this is great in one sense, because it gives reason its remarkable power to deduce, induce, abduce, and ferret out causes and effects. But it also means reason can ignore important realities. It can invent social systems that sound beautiful, but that ignore the constraints of nature.
The lovelier these social systems, the more desirous they become. And the more desirous, the more pain they justify inflicting. Ephemeral suffering is worth it, after all, if it leads to endless bliss. And thus reason can promote a hankering for a social world that cannot actually exist and can justify many atrocities in the name of the futile quest to create it. That butterflies must be broken on the wheel of progress is tragic but justifiable when the new world, the new man, the new social order shines so brightly compared to the old.
Conservatism does not necessarily stand athwart history yelling “stop,” but it does yell “slow down!” And it contends that reason should be tempered by the wisdom of tradition and prejudice.
We can think of culture as an evolved organism. It is not the result of one genius, not a fully formed Athena springing from Zeus’s head. Rather it, like an organism, is the result of many thousands of years of evolution. Today’s practices and norms have subtly changed — mutated — and spread from generation to generation. Bad practices and norms have been weeded out. And good ones have survived. Thus when reason says, “This tradition is preposterous. Let’s get rid of it,” conservatism urges caution. Perhaps the real wisdom of the tradition is simply lost to fallible reason.
Suppose, for example, that you want to cross a river. You are familiar with canoes, but you look at them and think, “I don’t want to be inside a shell. That is confining and uncomfortable. I want something flat.” Reason can imagine a flat floating device that takes you swiftly across the river without hiccup. Perhaps radical progressivism advises you to follow this suggestion. Conservatism however councils caution and prudence. All canoes have a shell. And people have been making canoes for a long time. It might be wise to assume that their shape is a response to a long period of experimentation with the water.
Consider another example: the formal wear of many authority figures. Judges preside over cases from a high bench with an intimidating robe. Such accoutrements are easy to mock. And, indeed, when I was younger, I was inclined to do just that. They just seem silly. But they also quite possibly create the appropriate reverence toward authority figures and ease the tricky dilemma of authority and obedience.
Most humans have no idea how the cultural traditions came to exist. Their logic and wisdom are hidden, as it were, behind a veneer of simplicity. They are taken for granted because each generation receives them from the last and is spared the impossible task of recreating society from scratch. They are thus easy to mock, to assail, but once they are destroyed, they are very hard to replace. Therefore, conservatism advices that humans begin with the assumption that they serve an important social function. This certainly doesn’t mean all criticism is verboten. But it does mean that humans should begin with respect and humility.
The same applies to prejudice. Unfortunately, in social psychology and in common discourse more broadly, prejudice has become a pejorative term, a term that denotes an irrational dislike of some group or another. But, understood more properly, a prejudice is simply an intuitive judgment about something that can be good, bad, or somewhere in between. We have, for example, a prejudice against open wounds. We find them disgusting, even emetic. On the other hand, we have a prejudice in favor of sunsets. We find them beautiful. Prejudice guides so much of our behavior that it’s hard to imagine our lives without it. A perfect reasoning creature without prejudice, would not only be limited, but also quickly dead. The world is simply too dangerous to navigate without prejudices, hunches, intuitions.
Many on the left ridicule prejudices and policy recommendations based on them. They view a deference to prejudice as an unthinking submission to the irrational, an abdication of the duty of every morally serious human to think rationally and justify his or her preferences using logic. The problem here is two-fold according to conservatism: (1) humans are often unaware of the wisdom of their own prejudices and (2) logic and reason can easily lead humans astray, causing them to prefer novel errors to wise prejudices. Prejudices hold society together. And like tradition, they deserve deference.
But not absolute deference, of course. In the case of, for example, long instilled prejudices against homosexual relationships, conservatives were wrong. Nevertheless, even when prejudices are wrong, society should at least heed them. Prohibitions against many sexual acts and behaviors are largely based on prejudice, and many are wise and prudent, even if reason has a difficult time explaining why. Those who seek to elevate reason at the expense of prejudice and tradition will ultimately elevate deceitful rationalizations and clever rhetoric more than they will elevate wisdom and truth.
It is often claimed that the conservative clings to idols of the path and pines for a paradise that never existed; but properly understood, conservatism is not opposed to change or progress. The conservative, in fact, is so astonished with Western Civilization, so amazed at the progress humans have made, that he or she wants carefully to preserve it, to protect it, and to pass it to another generation. The forebears of the West blessed modern humans with a world in which survival is virtually guaranteed, rights are expected and demanded, and wealth that would have made Louis XIV bitter with envy is simply taken for granted. The conservative wants to bequeath this wonderful state of affairs to the yet-to-be-born, with whom they have a sacred covenant, so that they too can enjoy the glory of the West.
Conservatism thus is ultimately an understanding that the past, the present, and the future are not entirely different but are somehow preserved in each other like the notes of a melody, each with an irreplaceable obligation to the whole.