Magazine article The American Conservative

The Right to Remain Silent

Magazine article The American Conservative

The Right to Remain Silent

Article excerpt

Conservatives don't need a movement-and the best have no use for one.

THAT CONSERVATISM is in crisis is widely acknowledged. Some say that the movement has forsaken its principles; others that it has been corrupted by power, still others call for ideological renovation. All share the conviction that the crisis calls for a high-minded conversation as to the meaning of conservatism. To the contrary, in my view, the answer to the crisis f there is a crisis-lies in ending that conversation altogether.

Until recently, few thought of conservatism as a worthy subject of inquiry. Most simply accepted the lexical understanding of conservatism as resistance to change. Only with the founding of that set of bureaucracies and sources of funding that became known as "conservative" did the debate as to the meaning of conservatism begin. Since then, nearly every treatment of conservatism has aimed at convincing, galvanizing, or scandalizing a movement authence.

Apparent exceptions only prove the rule. Michael Oakeshott, for example, characterized conservatism as a mere disposition - a theory that negates the very possibility of a conservative "movement" But Oakeshott wrote precisely in reaction to the more ideological understandings of conservatism like those the movement was beginning to develop in America. The conservative movement continues to pay lip service to Oakeshott, but his theory of conservatism, if accepted, would fatally undermine the rationale for having a movement in the first place. The practical, "cash value" of every other theory of conservatism is that the movement should pursue this or that set of goals and not others.

In short, conservatism is not a philosophy or approach to political affairs that inspires the set of institutions known as the conservative movement Rather, the conservative movement is a set of institutions that inspires the ideology known as conservatism. In the absence of a movement, the felt need to develop a coherent understanding of conservatism would evaporate.

Of course, the movement is not going anywhere and debates as to the meaning of conservatism will continue. Suppose, however, one agrees with this or that position closely associated with the movement. Does it follow that one should engage in movement-building activities? No. Non-movement conservatives have arguably done more to advance conservative ideas and without the burden of fitting them into an ideological system or wondering how they may affect their standing within an ideological movement.

A non-movement conservative by definition has no meaningful affiliation with movement conservative institutions. He may not even care whether others call him a "conservative." (Indeed, movement conservatives may be quick to denounce him.) But that needn't limit his influence. On the contrary, consider the impact of these notable non-movement conservatives going back to the era of the movement's founding.

Joseph Schumpeter. Austrian by birth, Schumpeter wrote his famous Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy while a professor at Harvard. It stands out as the greatest (if also the most elliptical) defense of capitalist, European civilization ever penned. Movement conservatives often take credit for the (partial) triumph of free-market ideas, but Schumpeter did more than anyone to persuade American leaders to preserve the capitalist system (to say nothing of the sort of semi-feudal, mixed constitution that he favored).

Jane Jacobs. When Jacobs wrote Death and Life of Great American Cities, urban planners, flush with federal dollars and enamored of modernist designs, were obliterating old neighborhoods in favor of thruways and high-rise apartment complexes. They never bothered to study how communities actually work. Jacobs did. The unplanned order of old buildings, mixed uses, and formal conventions, Jacobs argued, protects people from danger and makes decent Uves for them possible. Urban renewal, by contrast, was immiserating its intended beneficiaries by depriving them of the organic features of real neighborhoods. …

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