Dilemmas of Conservatism

By Muller, Jerry Z. | The Public Interest, Spring 2000 | Go to article overview

Dilemmas of Conservatism


Muller, Jerry Z., The Public Interest


IN an election year, some outcomes are unpredictable, but one is inevitable: Conservatives will fight among themselves. They will accuse one another of having abandoned conservative ideals, admonish each other for having mistaken the essence of conservatism, and abjure their erstwhile fellows for having sold out principle for expediency. Such struggles are not the product of a temporary historical juncture--they are built into the very structure of conservatism, and perhaps American conservatism more than any other.

Conservatism and orthodoxy

What commonly goes by the name "conservatism" in the contemporary United States is an alliance of those who hold two sorts of worldviews which are quite distinct, and which inevitably come into tension from time to time. When vatism is defined (as it was by Russell Kirk) by the assumption "that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society," the conceptual waters are muddied in a way that may be politically expedient but is intellectually obfuscating. For the notion that human institutions should reflect some transcendent order is shared by a variety of nonconservative religious ideologies and was contested by some of the most significant and influential conservative thinkers, beginning with David Hume. Kirk's definition might better be called "orthodox"--a term that suggests adherence to the true faith. Peter Berger once distinguished "conservatives by faith" from "conservatives by lack of faith," which corresponds to the distinction between orthodoxy and c onservatism suggested here.

The orthodox theoretician defends existing institutions and practices because they are metaphysically true. (The truth proclaimed may be based on particular revelation or on natural laws purportedly accessible to all rational men.) In contrast, the conservative theoretician defends existing institutions above all because they are thought to have worked rather well. For the conservative, the historical survival of an institution or practice--be it marriage, monarchy, or the market--creates a prima facie case that it has served some human need or some useful function. In addition, conservatives tend to be acutely sensitive to the costs of radical change. Elimination or radical reconstruction of existing institutions may lead to harmful, unintended consequences, conservatives argue, because social practices are interlinked, such that eliminating one will have unanticipated negative effects on others.

Such negative consequences, conservatives typically argue, occur because reformers are unaware of the latent functions of existing practices and institutions. Reformers are insufficiently cognizant, it is said, of the contribution of the practice they wish to alter to the functioning of the larger social system of which it is a part. That contribution may be unintended by those engaged in the practice, and most importantly, its function may be unrecognized, or recognized only retrospectively, once the reform of the practice has brought about negative unintended consequences. The expansion of public welfare provisions in the Great Society programs of the 1960s, for example, may have sapped the strength of black churches, which once fulfilled important social functions, however imperfectly; and the weakening of such churches may have deprived lower-class blacks of an important source of moral influence.

Those unfamiliar with conservatism sometimes wonder how contemporary American conservatives can hold in high regard Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France--a work that defends monarchy, aristocracy, and an established church--when their country has none of these institutions. The answer is that Burke provided arguments and modes of analysis that can be applied to very different institutional settings. Burke linked the three most common arrows in the quiver of conservative argument--the unanticipated negative consequences of reform, the importance of latent functions, and the interdependence of social elements--when he wrote:

The science of constructing a commonwealth, or renovating it, or reforming it, is, like every experimental science, not to be taught a priori. …

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