Letter from a Traditional Conservative


Devon, PA.  Upon reading an essay of Patrick Deneen’s, a close and dear relative recently wrote me, protesting the uselessness of the terms “liberal” and “conservative.”  They are simplifying terms, and inadequate to the complexity of American political questions.  One should judge each individual ”issue” on its own merits and not according to a schema.  I was quick to respond with a more thorough analysis of those terms than perhaps the occasion merited or than any poor relative of mine deserves.  Having labored away on either side of Sunday Mass, and anxious to let no thrifty labor fall fallow, I thought it might be appropriate to share my thoughts in the more formal context of FPR. 

 What follows may be, to some readers’ mind, the last thing a traditionalist conservative needs to hear: another theoretically conceived statement of principles.  I readily concede the world would be richer were I to plant a single carrot seed; at the same time, one is always grateful for the challenge of articulating in a rarefied form what it is one believes, and I am Scholastic enough to believe that the path to knowledge is paved with careful definitions.  And so:

 Well, you see it does matter to establish the meaning of those terms, because what most Americans lack is a sense of the range of available political visions and, consequently, they find themselves trapped is a vision that is not simply narrow but — I would argue — so narrow as to exclude the truth.

 You are right that most people do not know of what they speak when they deploy the two major terms of our political lexicon; as those terms are used, they have no permanent content, but rather serve as euphemisms for Republican or Democrat.  But a few things are worth establishing to correct this eviseration of meaning.

 Contemporary American-style conservatism and liberalism are merely two faces of that intelligible beast, (Eighteenth Century) Classical Liberalism.  Its vision says the substantive unit or entity in politics is strictly the individual, and the freedom of the individual is the primary good after which society and government seek.  Since, therefore, the term “society” indicates nothing more than a numerical aggregate of the individuals in a given area, then the only purpose of government must be to defend the potentially infinite number of “private” interests of these loosely gathered individual freedom-maximizers.

 American-style liberals and conservatives simply emphasize two distinct elements intrinsic to this vision: one insists that the “right” to unlimited wealth accumulation follows naturally from the freedom of the individual and that this right is only expressible if certain other freedoms are limited so that the literal place of the market can be stable and reliable (and therefore a relatively predictable place in which wealth — the value of a dollar — can be relied upon); the other insists that the individual’s freedom consists primarily in self-fashioning and that the self can only enjoy this free play — its individuality — if it can know that society is stable, ”equal,” and reliable enough that the products of the individual’s free play (the self made by the pure, autonomous will of the individual) will not have any material consequences.  The apparent differences in these positions arise specifically because their different advocates assume, but do not discuss, the first principle of individual equal freedom and attend only to particular questions in isolation from each other.  The advocate of “free markets” applies his first principle to certain questions and these prompt him to withhold its application in others; the same must be said for the “civil libertarian.”  Were either to apply his first principle in equal measure to everything, he would appear not merely as a libertarian but as a libertine anarchist — a libidinous monster convinced that the mad must be set free from the asylum, the murderer from his prison, and the self from the cage of society.

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