James Leroy Wilson's blog

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Searching for the Holy Grail

Austin Bramwell has an article in the latest American Conservative called "Defining Conservatism Down." It is about how American conservatism, now in a position of strength, is losing ground intellectually in comparison to the Richard Weavers and Russell Kirks of half a century ago.

Although it is refreshing to not see them mentioned, it is also kind of strange to talk about conservatism's preeminence without mentioning the neo-conservatives and the anti-conservative policies of the Bush Administration. The real danger to the movement is not intellectual sloth so much as political opportunism.

What is American conservatism? A "set of doctrines," which are "limited government, anti-utopianism, free-market economics, patriotism, traditional morality and religion, federalism, anticommunism, and belief in "absolutes." Bush deserves an "F" on most of these.

(Why are these the conservative values? My guess is that the conservative response is because we Americans once had them, they worked, and they've been taken from us by illegitimate and dishonest means.)

Bramwell says that the "intellectual complacency" comes from the conservative belief that they have a Holy Grail - an argument that has vindicated conservatism and refuted liberalism once and for all - even though they themselves don't really know what it is. He says that libertarians try and fail at making this argument repeatedly. (He also assumes that libertarianism is part of the conservative movement, though it's more accurate to say that it has often been aligned with it.) It's a point well taken, but if libertarians can't find the Holy Grail with its own emphasis on consistency, then conservatives definitely won't find it, which Bramwell concedes. The way I see it, traditional morality ofteconflictsts with the free market, "absolutes" with federalism, patriotism with traditional religion, etc. And any argument that finally "settles it," once and for all, runs the risk of becoming utopian and ideological - and conservatism is anti-ideology.

One problem with the Holy Grail- for either libertarians or conservatives - is that to defeat liberal political and social doctrines, we have to know what they are and how to define them. Yes, I can create liberal straw men and knock them down, but I don't really know what "liberals" believe, in their own words. I don't know if they know what they believe.

A second problem always arises when trying to convince anyone of anything. There has to be both a moral and a utilitarian argument: "this is not only right, but it works." Yes, libertarians can make both arguments, but then the question of utilitarianism becomes not, will this work for society as a whole? but, will it work for me personally? And libertarians can not guarantee that anyone in particular, who is now heavily reliant on the State in some way, will be better off without the State's assistance. And since the vast majority of people are so reliant, the argument from utility seems prohibitive.

That leaves the moral argument, which can't just emerge from reason alone, but must inspire on an emotional and gut level. Which likely means it will affect people in different ways. Which suggests that no one "argument" will do it. Which means there is no Holy Grail.

No comments:

Post a Comment