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Understanding Conservatism and Tradition

James Kalb

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An analysis of liberalism, libertarianism, and conservatism.

To understand conservatism we must understand how conservatives differ from leftists and libertarians.

Basic oppositions in politics usually have to do with fundamental issues of social organization. Will king or parliament be supreme? Pope or emperor? Local community, nation, or transnational bureaucracy? Such issues are as important for us now as they were for the Cavaliers and Roundheads. So a simple explanation for the big divisions in political thought today is that they have to do with differing ideas of how society should be organized. Each way of running things creates a party that favors it.

The main ways of organizing society today are bureaucracy, markets and tradition. They are very different from each other. Bureaucracy creates administrative structures that put things in order by deciding directly how they will be. Markets let order emerge out of men's dealings with each other under a regime of private property and free contract. The third possibility, tradition, accepts the arrangements that grow out of the attitudes, practices and beliefs that become authoritative over time in the life of a community. (Popular rule is also a way of deciding how things should be organized, but its effect is usually to decide which combination of the three ways mentioned should run things day to day.)

The three organizational principles don't exclude each other, and any modern society has to draw on all of them. Bureaucracy can't be avoided, attempts to do away with markets have failed catastrophically, and neither bureaucracy nor markets can exist without traditions that support and guide them. Indeed, bureaucracy and markets can themselves become traditions. Nonetheless, the three principles often collide. In family life, for example, traditional arrangements are often at odds with the principles of free contract or the welfare state. When such conflicts arise, one principle must be chosen over the others, and the one habitually put first determines political orientation.

So a basic distinction among leftists, libertarians and conservatives today is that leftists are the party of bureaucracy, libertarians of markets, and conservatives of tradition. The point is obvious in the case of libertarians, and almost equally so in the case of conservatives. While conservatives don't always say that tradition is their standard, attachment to heritage is what distinguishes them from others. Leftists are often reluctant to admit their attachment to bureaucracy, because it's a dirty word and because of their connections to anti-authoritarian movements, but their policies and programs put the matter beyond doubt. What is more basic to the leftist program today than PC, affirmative action and economic redistribution, and who can imagine those things without all-pervasive bureaucracy?

The three tendencies have fared very differently in the marketplace of ideas. One reason is that clear and simple views that seem to answer everything do better than complicated views that leave a lot obscure. As a result, the party of bureaucracy - the leftists - have usually found the going easiest. Bureaucracy is the obvious way to apply expert knowledge to social life and solve all possible problems. It fits easily into the technological outlook dominant today, so much so that those who favor it can't believe that any informed and well-meaning person could disagree with them. In addition, leftists heavily influence the schools and major media, so leftist attitudes, beliefs and authorities get widely propagated.

However, what sells is not always what's true. Experience and economic theory both demonstrate that central planning and control can't do what people expect of them. Libertarians and modern "classical liberals" have been able to debunk the claims of bureaucrats by demonstrating the necessity of markets for freedom, prosperity and other good things, sometimes dressing up their demonstrations with romantic images of opportunity, choice and economic creativity. While such people aren't as numerous as their opponents, they've established an intellectual presence and influence beyond their numbers. Their advantages have been the clarity, force and refinement of their arguments, and the obvious failures of bureaucratic management.

Conservatives have had a more difficult time of it, because they are concerned with things that are harder to present clearly than social engineering or markets. Leftists and libertarians attempt to grasp society as a whole by looking at it so to speak from without. Leftists want to establish social policies that promote equality, prosperity, security, and the like. Libertarians favor the arrangements that arise when individuals freely pursue their own goals through exchange. Both have a clear institutional point of view and set of standards from which to view society and argue their positions. Given any social practice they can say where it fits in and what standards should govern it by referring to their master principle. Those qualities give them an enormous advantage in debate.

Conservatives in contrast look at life in society from within. They are concerned with social practices more from the point of view of the practices themselves than from a unifying external perspective. Since they accept social practices on their own terms they find it natural for each major aspect of life to run on its own principles while recognizing and accommodating other spheres of activity. Conservatives therefore let family life, religion and politics be family life, religion and politics, each with its own intrinsic value and scope of action, rather than treating them all as instruments of some master principle like efficiency, social welfare, or the liberation of the individual. That is the reason, for example, that conservatives neither mistake religion for politics nor exclude it rigidly from public life.

The rejection of any simple principle for measuring everything saves conservatism from the radical elitism implicit in judging social institutions from above, and makes civic participation rather than theoretical correctness the basis of a good society. It is also the reason conservatives tend to accept inherited practices as they are, in accordance with their internal standards, rather than attempt to reform them in accordance with some external principle of universal applicability. They don't feel obliged, for example, to make all institutions democratic.

That lack of universal answers is unhelpful in debate. Conservatives are usually better at criticizing their opponents, usually on the grounds that their proposals are self-defeating and based on a false understanding of human life, than arguing a positive case. The basic problem they face, apart for the lack of a simple theory to explain everything, is that the habit of accepting tradition seems odd to people today. Why should we accept what's passed down? Most people today find it more rational to experiment, talk to an expert, or look things up on the Internet than simply do what's been done before. After all, we come later, so presumably we know more.

Conservatives used to be able to score points by appealing to continuity, loyalty and settled facts, but no longer. Continuity isn't a good argument when your opponent promises radical improvements, and loyalty is no argument at all when the past has been debunked and there's an unbreakable taboo against suggesting your opponent is disloyal. Besides, the attack on tradition is itself a settled fact, and it seems radical to oppose it. So conservatives today can't just say "this is how we do it and things haven't been going so badly." Like everyone else they have to be forward-looking and give reasons for their views.

Indeed, to the extent the traditions of modernity have become anti-traditional conservatives must become in a sense radical. Leftists who call conservatives "extremist" do so because they think they can make the accusation colorable. So conservatives can't stand pat. They must argue against the particular traditions of modernity in favor of the principle of tradition, and in favor of the older and more comprehensive standards and traditions that continue to sustain human life by making such things as family life and ordinary everyday honesty possible.

So what can be said in favor of the principle of tradition, of living with social practices as they are and working with them in the light of experience and tradition, in opposition to the modern practice of remodeling society on abstract standards of efficiency and equality? One answer is that markets and bureaucracies need tradition. To work at all well they require a whole complex of habits, attitudes and beliefs supported by things like family arrangements, religious commitments, and standards of respectable conduct. Such things do not themselves operate on market or bureaucratic principles. They grow up informally and in ways that can't be planned or controlled, through the growth of settled habits and attitudes among people who live together and deal with each other for a long time. They are thus essentially traditional.

That answer suggests a kind of minimalist conservatism often found among chastened leftists and libertarians who have read Oakeshott or Hayek. Leftist or liberal goals won't be achieved unless people have the understandings and habits - honesty, diligence, restraint, public spirit - that make it possible for bureaucracies, markets and institutions of self-government to work properly. Those understandings and habits can't be counted on unless they are part of a stable and authoritative tradition by which people live. So grown-up leftists and libertarians must favor whatever is needed to have a generally-accepted tradition that fosters such things.

But what is it that's needed? It is likely to be more than minimalist conservatives expect. An analogy to socialism and free markets may be helpful. When the socialists became convinced that markets were after all necessary they tried to invent a "social market" consistent with socialist ideals. It turned out to be impossible. If the principle of central control comes first, the market suffers severely. If the principle of contract sets the tone, socialism must be given up. While bureaucracy may be useful for particular goals, the failure of attempts to save socialism indicates that in a modern economy the market must take the overall lead. From an intellectual standpoint, at any rate, libertarianism has won its argument with the left.

A similar result seems certain in the case of an attempt to create a traditionalism that is a subordinate part of a fundamentally leftist or libertarian order. Leftism and libertarianism emphasize equality and satisfaction of individual goals within an orderly framework that facilitates such things. However, to accept tradition is to accept a great deal on trust, and so requires loyalty to something larger than the individual that can't be fully rationalized. That loyalty is not likely to last when subordinated to equality and self-interest. Things like patriotism and love of family are not matters of calculation or personal advantage. If genuine self-sacrifice is needed, as in wartime, can the need for an orderly framework to advance self-interest and promote equality be enough to motivate it? Can that need be enough to motivate even the public honesty and stable family life indispensable for a tolerable society?

It seems not. Tradition - the habit of loyalty toward one's society and its ways - is necessary to establish the overall order within which social institutions like markets and bureaucracies can function. It follows that it cannot be justified by reference to market or bureaucratic considerations, which are of necessity subordinate, but must be viewed as authoritative in its own right. Since society cannot be rationalized on clear simple principles, evolved social practices must be accepted to a large extent on their own terms.

But what personal reason do any of us have to treat tradition as authoritative? Is it only that we should do so as members of society because otherwise social order will be impossible? Or does tradition have internal qualities that make it reasonable to recognize its authority? And what about bad traditions? Surely loyalty shouldn't be blind!

The answer is found in the nature of human life. To accept tradition is to accept life on the whole as we find it. The alternative is to construct some new form of life based on supposed superior knowledge. However, life is too complex, subtle and all-embracing to be reconstructed in more than marginal ways. One might be able to invent a better mousetrap starting from scratch, or program a VCR simply by reading what the expert who wrote the manual has to say. More complicated things that can't be analyzed so clearly require acceptance of a particular culture and tradition. We learn such things by imitation, by doing, and by participation in the traditions that define them. Without tradition complex human activities could not exist at all. We can't engage in human speech, for example, without accepting and doing those things that constitute a particular language and so obediently accepting a particular tradition.

In the case of very high-order activities, like politics, religion and the conduct of life generally, individual inventiveness and expertise that is not integrated with the practice of the activity itself become wholly subsidiary. The statesman and saint are not those who have studied religions and political systems and become experts or those who claim to have mastered those things so they can do with them what they want. They are those who live the life of religion and of politics as they exist in a particular tradition supremely well. How could it be otherwise, when such activities are so complex and subtle that no one could hope to state all their principles, and so all-embracing that an external perspective is impossible? The so-called innovations of great men only fulfill what was there already. Washington and Lincoln acted out of loyalty to their country and wanted to maintain something good it had long possessed. Christ based his teaching on the Law and Prophets and aimed only to fulfill them. How do such men compare with men like Robespierre, Lenin and Hitler who rejected and destroyed societies they considered rotten in the name of a radical new order of their own invention?

Life depends on loyalty. To live as a human being is to accept and follow tradition. Without participation in the traditions that constitute our social world of shared habits, attitudes, beliefs and so on we would be like children fostered by wolves - dumb animals with no conception of who we are, and no goals other than immediate gratification of crude instinct. It is only because we take part in that world that we know who we are and what we want. To reject the authority of tradition is to leave that world and so become less than human.

As for bad traditions, we know they are bad through other traditions. Ultimate standards of goodness, beauty and truth are too basic to isolate and study from outside. Since our relationship to them is part of what makes us what we are, they are beyond the reach of the ideals of neutrality and impartial expertise that have led moderns to try to base everything on economics, social science and formal abstractions like equality. Without involvement in forms of life that embody ultimate standards, we can't know them.

The forms of life that embody the good, beautiful and true can't be our private creation. Our understanding of ultimate things inevitably reflects our experience and commitments. If the understanding is merely personal that is all it can reflect. To attain a tolerable degree of objectivity and reliability our ultimate standards must draw on the experience and commitments of others, and be integrated with an enduring way of life capable of accumulating lessons and reflecting them in its practices. In short, they must be part of a comprehensive tradition of life. Adherence to tradition is necessary to our ability to make sense of things by reference to ultimate standards on which reliance is justified. Loyalty to tradition is therefore - paradoxically - necessary to the reform of tradition.

The reliability of tradition enables us to view it as anchored in realities it does not exhaust. Just as bureaucracy must respect markets and markets tradition, we must understand tradition as oriented toward something beyond itself that is capable of guiding our actions because it is not a creation of our own will. It is from that orientation toward something transcendent that tradition draws its final authority. In the end, human society, as conservatives recognize, is always in some way religious. Human life can't be carried on in a world that does not make sense in some reliable way, and the world makes sense to us through traditions that point to something beyond themselves. It follows that tradition is the natural state of man, and at bottom he can never give it up.

But what - someone might ask - is the point of talking about tradition if we are always traditional in some sense, and if tradition explains even the modification and abandonment of tradition? The answer is that today the necessity of accepting tradition is in effect denied, and the denial distorts all our thought and action. The fight for tradition is not a matter of creating it or putting it on life support but of opposing the things that disrupt it, strengthening the things that support it, and providing ways for it to defend itself so it can grow back when it has been weakened. It is facilitating the natural functioning of human society.

The modern emphasis is too much on technology, on breaking things down to their simplest parts and reconstructing them in accordance with the human will. The problem with applying that approach to human life as a whole is that we can only make sense of our actions by reference to standards and realities we don't create. The direct application of will to social reality through bureaucracy must accept the setting created by the unplanned aggregation of individual wills through the market, and the latter must in turn accept a larger setting, the human world created by the aggregation of human perceptions, experiences and habits through tradition.

Modern political life rebels at such necessities. As an example, "affirmative action" demands the forcible eradication of the practical consequences of traditionally-recognized distinctions among human beings. The only differences allowed to matter are those based on economic function or bureaucratically-determined status. Age, sex, religion, family ties and culture are to be made irrelevant to social status and life chances no matter what the social, moral or economic cost. That demand is based on the view that particularities such as culture - the habits, attitudes, assumed standards, presumptions, ties, loyalties and collective memories one acquires by growing up in a particular setting - shouldn't matter at all, and if they do matter they should be forced as a practical matter not to matter.

Such a demand involves a denial of the legitimacy of tradition as such. It asserts that the world must be what we force it to be, not what it turns out to be as a result of the ways of life people develop. "Celebrating cultural diversity" is really celebrating the practical abolition of culture and its replacement by bureaucratic uniformity. All cultures are to be equal, which means they are all to be made irrelevant to everything that matters except as bureaucratic classifications intended to counteract the real effects of cultural differences.

Such efforts and the attitudes behind them are ignorant and anti-human, and their consequences are displayed in the degraded state of American culture and politics. Abolishing the significance of culture is not liberating, it makes men brutish and is inconsistent with a tolerable society. A renewed appreciation of the role of tradition and limits of abstract principle is required so that bureaucracy, markets, politics and all other spheres of activity can take their place in a stable overall way of life that accepts the whole of human reality. It is for that renewed appreciation that conservatism today must stand.

James Kalb edits "James Kalb Publications: Exploring politics, culture, and tradition"t; website (link closed).

Read this article on the website (link closed). Reprinted with permission of the author.

Posted: 1/17/04



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