Friday, June 20, 2008

Summarizing a Thread For You

Over at Crooked Timber, where comment threads are often lengthy and rewarding (imagine that), there's a post about defining conservatism. The post is triggered by a definition from Ross Douthat that I think is too vague to be of much use.

The commenters have fun with it, though, and make some good points along the way. The biggest problem, of course, is differentiating between some kind of baseline conservatism and "the contemporary American conservative temperament." One responder says, "Conservatism likes to think of itself as an anti-ideology, as reactive. It clearly is not."

Or, as another exchange went:
Liberals have a goal – maximize fairness and equity. Conservatives have no goal, that’s why it is so hard to define what the philosophy is about.


Conservatives have the goal of letting people set their own goals.
Again, the problem of contemporaneity raises its head, because as someone immediately points out, try telling that last definition to, say, gay people. The conflation of political conservatism with Christianity in this country makes discussions like this increasingly meaningless. Still, some try to get to the heart of the matter by looking at certain policies: would seem to me that a reasonably fair test of liberal versus conservative is to find two people who agree that segregation was wrong and then ask them if busing was wrong. I think most conservatives would answer that busing was wrong and most liberals that it was not.
Others take a more philosophical tack:
I think comfort with the justice of inequality is a primary feature of conservatives. There was a recent study that showed conservatives are happier because they don’t care as much about the world being unfair. This is not simple selfishness. Poor conservatives just don’t feel as much pain about being on the bad end of the stick and likewise rich conservatives don’t have a guilty conscience about their good fortune.
That's interesting from a psychological perspective. One commenter follows that by saying you could truncate it to "conservatives are happier because they don't care." That's funny. And sometimes true, I think. But pruning that last part is not just unfair, it eliminates the most telling component -- that one definition involves the acceptance that the world is inherently unfair, and always will be.

Of course, one smart participant says that it might be best to go straight to a heavyweight source, like Michael Oakeshott.

My favorite comment comes toward the end, though, from Will Roberts, a professor at McGill University in Montreal. This is great:
I think this effort at definition is futile (and not only because of all of the self-serving). “Conservatism” is NOT a political philosophy or a philosophy of life or anything coherent at all. Neither is liberalism in the contemporary American political sense of the term. Rather they are two loose and self-contradictory groupings of cultural and political affinities and tics. No set of core principles unites the white suburban soccer mom who listens to Dr. Laura, the Straussian political scientist who reads the Weekly Standard, the bottle-blond society matron with a tiny dog and John Birch sympathies, and the Wal-Mart manager with a big SUV, a golf-club membership, and a Wall Street Journal subscription. They might all vote Republican till they die, and they might all call themselves conservatives and be filled with disdain or hatred of liberals. There is no “philosophy” there, however. No unified outlook on life. Just a set of overlapping affective investments. Engage them in conversation and you’ll probably find radically different “sticking points,” places where they will not budge and will get increasingly irate if pushed.

Same goes for “liberals.”

I have no doubt that the affective constellation of conservatives is very different from that of liberals, and there have been efforts to characterize those differing constellations. But that is not the same as a definition of conservatism or liberalism. This is the realm of descriptive sociology, not political philosophy.


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