Whatever Happened to Rational Conservatism?

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Caroline Hamilton, an Americanist, teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. Her most recently scholarly article was published by The Journal of American Studies in the Spring of 2010. She is writing a book about Alexander Hamilton.

In a July 14th article in The New York Times, “Anarchists and Tasseled Loafers,” Timothy Egan compared certain contemporary Republicans to anarchists.  Back in the anti-government heyday of Newt Gingrich, political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow made the same comparison.  Decades earlier, in 1908, G.K. Chesterton explored the relationship in The Man Who Was Thursday, writing:

The poor have always been rebels, but they have never been anarchists; they have more interest than anyone in their being some decent government.  The poor man really has a stake in the country.  The rich man hasn’t; he can always go away to New Guinea in a yacht.  The poor have sometimes objected to being governed badly; the rich have always objected to being governed at all.  Aristocrats were always anarchists, as you can see from the barons’ wars.

The first modern conservative (if that’s not an oxymoron) was Edmund Burke.  The 1982 edition of The Portable Conservative Reader, edited by Russell Kirk, starts with a chunk of readings from Burke.  Other anthologized writers include John Adams (Kirk’s own choice for the leading American conservative), Coleridge, T.S. Eliot, Cardinal Newman, C.S. Lewis, Henry and Brooks Adams (great-grandchild of John), George Santayana, Alexis de Tocqueville, Conrad, Kipling, and Kirk himself.  I would have expected to find Chesterton and Henry James, but they are missing.  Also significantly missing is Ayn Rand, the favorite writer of those politicians who call themselves conservatives today.

The anthology reveals a great deal about what we might call (although it seems redundant) “traditional conservatism.”  As the names of Newman, Lewis, and Eliot suggest, old-school conservatives espoused a high-church version of Christianity—Anglicanism/Episcopalianism and Catholicism.  Contemporary American “conservatives,” like Mike Huckabee (whose surname is a corruption of Huxtable), practice a low-church, evangelical, dogmatic version of Christianity.  Eliot and his allies refer to the intellectual work of Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Pierre Abelard, and other prominent, quarrelling theologians—figures whose famously hair-splitting debates American evangelicals are surely unfamiliar with.  Of course, some of these high-church conservatives were appallingly anti-Semitic, while fundamentalist conservatives strongly support Israel—but that support stems from various hopes and predictions about the preconditions for a second coming of Christ.

Another difference between traditional and contemporary conservatives is evident in their attitudes toward business.  As supporters and admirers of an aristocracy, whether landed or natural, traditional conservatives regarded “trade” with disdain.  Indeed, their critiques of industrialism and commerce influenced nineteenth-century socialist thinkers from William Morris to Karl Marx.  “The cash nexus is not the sole nexus of man with man,” declared the acidly conservative Thomas Carlyle.  “Conservative” American politicians today, however, regard the acquisition of wealth and the workings of private enterprise as embodying the noblest aspirations and highest achievements of humanity.

Like traditional conservatives, contemporary conservatives look to the past as a model and see the present as an unfortunate falling off from common decencies and past glories.  But as Palin and Bachmann have recently shown, these ostentatious patriots are barely on speaking terms with American history.  Like certain legislators in Texas, they imagine the past as a kind of Disneyland, with an idealized Small Town, a sanitized Frontier Land, a benignly paternalistic Plantation Land, and an immigrant-free Tomorrow Land, all speckled with statuary of the Founders kneeling in prayer.  It strains the imagination to envision Bachmann or Rick Perry curled up with Ron Chernow’s erudite biography of George Washington.

Although conservatism used to pride itself on its impressive intellectual tradition, anti-intellectualism has been common on the right since Nixon and Agnew.  Obama’s opponents often characterize him, contemptuously, as a “professor.”  Because it is a learned profession, the law is also attacked on the right, although Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Adams all studied law (Hamilton and Adams were practicing attorneys).  Home schooling and fundamentalist universities (Liberty, Regent) have further contributed to a carefully cultivated stance of dogmatic ignorance.

Although contemporary “conservatives” are radical populists, old-school conservatives were openly elitist.  The French Revolution was, for them, the great watershed of modernity.  After all, Burke jumpstarted modern conservatism with Reflections on the Revolution in France.  He and his political allies cherished tradition, history, hierarchy, ceremony, higher education, and high culture.  They predicted and denounced “mob rule” and “leveling.”  It was anarchy they feared, not a strong central government.  As Burke wrote in an essay on religion:


Society is indeed a contract…but the state ought not to be considered nothing better than a partnership agreement in a trade of pepper and coffee, calico or tobacco [i.e., business interests]… It is to be looked on with other reverence; because it is not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection (Conservative Reader, p. 34).

Reverence? Art? Science?  How many American “conservatives” today would agree with this passage (which goes on and on in the same vein)?

Contemporary conservatives do indeed have more in common with a particular branch of anarchism than they do with the conservatism of Kirk’s anthology.  Its lineage goes back to Max Stirner (1806-1856) and his American translator and follower, Benjamin Tucker.  It advocates a radical version of possessive individualism.  Stirner’s utopia is Hobbes’s dystopia.  The second section of Stirner’s book, Das Ich und Sein Eigentum (which I would translate as The Self and Its Property) is entitled “The Owner” and begins with an attack on liberalism.  Stirner would have opposed all social programs, all efforts to provide for the common good.  His diatribes about the sovereignty of the individual and the horrors of communism are the direct ancestor of Ayn Rand’s opinions. 

Rand Paul and his allies would find much to like about Stirner’s philosophy.  Yet Stirner can sound like a solipsist and a sociopath.  His book exposes how repugnant possessive individualism would be if followed to its logical conclusions.  If a Great White Shark could articulate its philosophy of life, it would sound like Stirner.

What we now see now on the political landscape are not conservatives, but free-market fundamentalists who combine a hostility to beneficent government with the religious beliefs of medieval peasants.  Conservatism has failed to conserve itself.  

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