This is my contribution to ISI’s symposium, Conservatism: What’s Wrong with it and How Can We Make it Right?

In one sense, there is nothing wrong with conservatism. The principles remain; reality has not changed. The problem lies in the fact that what passes for conservatism today is not conservative at all or at best a shadowy and distorted version of the real thing. The so-called conservatism promoted by Fox News and Rush Limbaugh is (when a coherent thread presents itself) a fairly standard litany of pro-growth, pro-war individualism, that claims to despise “Big Government” while championing the upward mobility of the most talented and energetic. These ideas, and the policies they spawn, are not conservative.

Our cultural standard-bearers chafe against the notion of limits. We are told that freedom and limits are incompatible, and that freedom is only real if limits are ignored. We are told by advertisers that our limitless appetites are normal and their satisfaction is an indicator of our success. Appetites, however, are boundless and some might recall that the virtue of self-control has, in earlier times, been deemed an important feature of a well-formed character. Self-control and limitlessness do not readily mix.

We are told that the solution to our economic woes is growth. We need steady and sustained growth in order to ensure that our standard of living continues to improve indefinitely. No one seems interested in asking whether infinite growth is even possible. No one seems inclined to ask whether our standard of living is sufficient or even sustainable.

Americans have always been a restless people. We believe that to be in motion is the key to productivity, and productivity is an indicator of worth. The idea of upward mobility is especially attractive to those who find themselves twice blessed with both talent and opportunity. To improve one’s position, to continue to steadily mount the ladder of success, one must relocate or at least be ready to do so. Any commitment to a particular place or a particular community must come in a distant second behind the ambition to succeed. The notion that a person might forgo opportunities in order to stay rooted, in order to stay home, smacks of parochialism, shiftlessness, and misplaced priorities.

Mobility is encouraged by (and in turn helps cultivate) a conception of the human person as primarily an individual and only accidentally a member of a community, a parish, or even a family. On the surface, this conception of the person would seem to carve out the maximal space for individual freedom, for if all of my relationships are purely elective and transient, then I am much freer than if at least some of my relationships are natural, durable, and bring with them obligations.

Ironically, this conception of the autonomous individual helps to facilitate the growth of the centralized state. Robert Nisbet, in his classic work The Quest for Community, argues that as intermediate institutions eroded under pressure from both the state and changing social patterns, the natural longing for community remained as a constant feature of the human constitution. While virtually all means of satisfying that longing were breaking up, the monolithic state emerged as the one enduring institution. People naturally began looking to the state to fulfill their desire for community and as a result the state enjoyed a burst of energy that only aided in the centralization of its power. In short, the atomized individual, far from being a means to maximizing freedom, was and is instrumental in the growth and empowerment of the centralized state.

So, too, the idol of perpetual economic growth. Where the role of the government in the economy is generally accepted as necessary and good and where the lines between Washington and Wall Street are increasingly blurred, the inevitable outcome is the concentration of both economic and political power. Is anyone still naïve or blind enough to deny the incestuous relationship between Big Business and Big Government? In fact, both helped to create the other and both need each other to exist. Many “conservatives” rail against Big Government, but this is only part of a complex problem. Through regulatory capture, tax “incentives”, and the specter of too big to fail, Big Business continues to exercise power far beyond what is legitimate or safe. To ignore this is to ignore a crucial aspect of the problem of concentration and, incidentally, to prevent an effective reduction in the scope and power of Big Government.

The “conservative” penchant for elective wars plays readily into the hand of Big Government, for war has always served to concentrate power. Thus, when law-makers and Presidents champion intervention (which is to say, war) in troubled areas around the world, they are, for all their self-satisfied idealism, participating in a charade: in the name of universal democracy, or the cessation of tyranny, or individual freedom, they are working to expand the scope and power of the central government.

Thus, the ideas of mainstream “conservatives,” far from inhibiting the centralization and growth of power, actually facilitate it. Big Government is not going away because virtually everything politicians do helps promote it. At the same time, the mores that animate most Americans—individualism, mobility, and a suspicion of limits—contribute to the same end.

Our Role Model Shouldn’t be Faust

So what can be done? First it should be clear that the term “conservative” has been hijacked. We should either work hard for its recovery or abandon it altogether. But regardless of whether or not the term, itself, is salvageable in our current cultural and political climate, the family of concepts toward which any legitimate conservatism points remains intact. We need merely to reacquaint ourselves with these concepts that have been so badly neglected.

Conservatism is about concrete realities and not about abstract ideals. The cosmopolitan ideal whereby we come to think that being a citizen of the world is preferable to being a citizen of a particular place is an error rooted in an abstraction. We too often prefer perfect imagined places to the real, though imperfect, places we inhabit. Yet it is, at least in part, our love for a particular place that makes it lovely. And love for a particular place is only possible when we commit ourselves to living in that place in the company of its people. To live a life of perpetual possibility is to live a life without the reality of love. Because we are embodied creatures, our love is properly conceived in terms of particular places and people. To claim to love the whole world but to lack commitment to a particular place is a false and bloodless version of love, for love must be rooted in particular places and people and only makes sense in light of these basic and concrete commitments.

Discussion of particular places leads us to consider the issue of human scale. There is a scale suited to human flourishing and to exceed that scale is to undermine the possibility of human happiness. Yet, we live in a world where bigger is considered better and things of modest scale are seen as backward, stunted, or inadequate. We admire large buildings, large institutions, large corporations, mega-churches, multi-million dollar budgets, and those who preside over them. However, we too often fail to ask a simple, though indispensable, question: what is the optimal scale? In lieu of this, we automatically think that if big is good, bigger must be better, and continually expanding must be best. Once we begin asking questions about quality rather than simple thinking in terms of quantity, the problem of thinking merely in terms of quantity becomes painfully obvious.

Talk of human scale highlights the issue of limits. In a world where limits are seen as an affront, a willingness to accept limits seems to represent a retreat from the freedom of unfettered autonomy. Yet, most humans throughout history have been aware of and willing to submit to social, natural, and divine limits. We are bound by conventions that provide meaning and context to particular human communities. We are bound by norms rooted in nature that inform us, if we pay attention, to ways that humans can flourish in an uncertain world. We are bound by commands of God who is the ultimate source of all good things.

When we properly conceive of place and limits, our understanding of liberty will be constituted in a way that is both sustainable and liberating. While the autonomous individual seeks absolute freedom but unwittingly promotes the growth of the centralized state, a person deeply committed to a particular place and willing to acknowledge the many ways humans are limited, will, ironically find that liberty emerges in the wake of these commitments. A liberty worthy of human beings is one where individuals act freely in pursuit of goods that can only be realized in the context of a healthy, human-scaled community. In other words, only when human lives are oriented to local communities can a sustainable and rich conception of liberty be secured.

To pay lip service to liberty but to denigrate particular places and to shun limits is to undermine the possibility of liberty itself. Only when those claiming to be conservative re-commit themselves to their places and willingly submit to the limits that are proper to human beings will their pursuit of liberty have a chance of lasting success.

Published with permission of The Intercollegiate Studies Institute. See the rest of the symposium here.

22 COMMENTS

  1. It seems to me that one sure sign of a debased society, a society abstracted and divorced from the realities of work (I would have liked to see more on that topic) and local communities, is the emergence of a social identity, a sort of informal (at least in this country) party, called “conservative.” Anyone who does real, wholesome and useful work, and works to maintain and improve a real place is both conservative and progressive. Politically, it’s widely recognized that the more local the effort–the closer, that is, to the realities of daily lives of citizens– the less such labels matter. (Didn’t the term first emerge as a political type with the rise of the modern centralized state? And isn’t the identification with a mythical ideological communities as misplaced as identification with a centralized government?) Great thinkers like Ruskin and Wendell Berry defy such categorization. So do Jesus and Plato. Reality does not admit these false distinctions of persons. To promote them as meaningful and useful identities and choose one party over the other is as misguided as separating, and choosing between, our children and their grandparents, isn’t it?

    In any case, one very wholesome (literally) conservative value is the cohesion and integrity of the social fabric. Banding together under a “conservative” banner to crusade against the “liberal” or “progressive” opposition (yes, I know, they do it too) seems to me not a very conservative act, but rather the contrary. Maybe that’s part of what’s wrong with “conservatism.”

  2. Nicely done. It’s encouraging to find more essays supporting a reasonable standard of living as opposed to the higher one that has been our motto for so long.
    The difficulty with reform lies in the concept of limits. To many people, the word smacks of restraints, or worse, regulation. Who defines the limits? Will the limits, once defined, be imposed? Here at this junction is where the political fires burn and all are subjected to name-calling and accusation and break-down.
    I believe that we need to look deeply into how the laws and processes of capitalist theory have shaped the outcome of our cultural and social development. We are all aware of the virtues of Free Market Capitalism but is it a perfect system? Is it without flaws or dangers?

  3. A secular conservative ideology is hard pressed to respond to the needs of people who are attracted to the state religion and are capable of saying things like, “government is the only thing that we have in common.”

    But what about some practical economic reforms that have an indirect impact on how people think about time and money? For example, were we to abolish the Federal Reserve, perhaps it would bring is to a more sober manner of thinking and planning about our futures, on an individual and familial level, rather than having everything hinge on cheap money.

  4. “Conservatism is about concrete realities and not about abstract ideals. The cosmopolitan ideal whereby we come to think that being a citizen of the world is preferable to being a citizen of a particular place is an error rooted in an abstraction”

    an interestingly different neurological perspective of this that might interest: “The Dopaminergic Mind in Human Evolution and History” by F Previc, contends the modern hyper-stressful, hyper-competitive environment elevates dopamine levels, dopamine associated with abstract thinking, grandiosity, addiction (& denial), & orientation to distant space & time, all at the sacrifice of the local and specific. I think it would be fair to say the dominant political left & right suffer from this equally but manifest in superficially different ways. The book makes some suggestions for reducing dopamine levels, basically in line with human scale thinking, but expects it will take generations.

    Thought might interest anyway.

  5. I resonate with almost everything here, but as usual I struggle with the anti-nomadic bias that comes through in much of this sort of localism to which I am otherwise drawn. I can see the importance of “particular place”, but must it be limited to one place only? As a lifelong nomad who has always had a looser sense of “home” than most people, I must question whether it is necessary to have one geographic home to the exclusion of all others in order to have commitments to places and relationships. I have lived in – and loved – many places, all of which are indelibly a part of me, and I value the friendships that have formed in these varied locales. And I would also point out that upward mobility can be just as much a temptation in a geographically sedentary life as in a transitory one. In fact, I find that moving can be a kind of painful but needed pruning back of creeping material accumulation.

    • Julia,
      Great question. Perhaps it is possible to conceive of “belonging” and “home” in different ways. This would be worth fleshing out.
      Question to others: does anyone else think Julia is on to something? Or is this just the wishful thinking of a nomad?

      Mark

      • I submit that we must accept the realities of life today — and to some degree of all times — and its diverse callings vis-a-vis work, social obligation and habitation. If the danger of nomadism is in being debased from the land community, as Wendell Berry calls it, the typical sedentary modern urbanite is no less debased from the land and long-standing and strong affections and mutuality. He or she is certainly likely also to be debased from work traditions. Nevertheless, we should remember the medieval mason’s work, devoted though it was to buildings of permanence, compelled him to a peripatetic life of relocating to wherever the work was. So it would be foolish to condemn nomadic lives categorically. That said, every individual life, including that of the absolute provincial who never leaves a particular place, is imperfect and should recognize its imperfection. Nomadism comes with dangers and shortcomings as well as advantages and virtues, and the nomad would be wise to be mindful of those–as well as the virtues and advantages of his or her provincial counterpart. Each ultimately depends on the other, abstract and complex though our interdependence is today more than ever. But out of sight out of mind, the saying goes: if the most sedentary of us, those rooted in the land and the work of its cultivation, is the producer of food on which we all rely, modern nomad and modern urbanite alike must struggle to be cognizant of that. (The libertarian forgets such interdependence.) Such is the imperfection of life for nearly all of us today. “Love is the bond of perfection,” John Winthrop said. Perfection is found only in our valuing of such bonds of material interdependence, the basis of all human valuation…affection — we may even call it love, for short — and love is possible for the imperfect nomad and the imperfect provincial alike.

  6. Just a quick thought on “nomadism”. Is it possible that it’s something akin to celibacy, that is, some are indeed called to it, but for the vast majority of us, marriage is the overwhelming pattern?

    As I said, just a quick thought!

  7. If I may be permitted, two words, not oft employed by self-professed ‘conservatives’ these days,
    trenchant
    and
    mordant.
    And, for good measure,
    apropos.

  8. I do agree with Julia, I like the general localist tone that comes out of FPR, but I also feel it needs to allow for those who may, or must, or even feel called to, move. I like Mark’s suggestion of belonging and home being different. I grew up in Cleveland suburbia, with no family farm or distinct small town or anything particular about that place to keep me, other than of course my family (yes, that’s a biggie; I know). I now live in the desert Southwest, and feel like I belong here much more than I ever did in Cleveland. I love this place and the people here. I am not a nomad in Julia’s sense, but there is occasionally a thread in FPR writings that hints I should feel guilty for leaving the place of my birth. I do not. The events that brought me here weave the miraculous into my life, and I know this is where I belong. I would leave the same open for Julia–after all, “Foxes have holes and birds their nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”

  9. Wallace Stegner wrote a well-known essay called “A Sense of Place.” He also wrote “A Letter to Wendell Berry'” in which he praised that writer’s loyalty to land. In another context Stegner posited two American personalities: the Boomers and the Stickers. The Boomers moved in, exploited the land, made their money and left. The Stickers moved in, husbanded the land and stayed.
    Yet his 1979 novel “Recapitualtion” addressed this very topic of finding fulfillment by moving on as opposed to staying in place. My reading of the book was that Stegner himself was conflicted and found no easy personal answer.

  10. I think I understand what she means. I guess I’d start by saying that some people consume places the way other people consume things, trying in vain to fill a bottomless hole. That’s how I understand Stegner’s boomers.

    So I think one of Julia’s points is that we can be a boomer localist, we can be rooted in a place but that will not by itself save us from being in thrall to an insatiable appetite.

    And then at one time a proper relationship with place necessarily included knowing when to leave, being connected enough and observant enough to recognize the time when one more step would be the difference between bent or dead grass. In that sense I can hold the idea of a sticker nomad, which, I think, she is.

    You could spend a long time talking about this one. I think Kaplan had some interesting insights in his books; there’s a vein of long standing antagonism between pastoralists and farmers, and ambivalence from nation states. It was a big change, going from the King of the Franks to the King of France. But the conversation ought to be in the evening when we are drinking something other than coffee.

    • I believe it’s in “Sex, Economy, Community and Freedom” that Wendell Berry picks up the boomers and stickers theme and makes a point of saying that it’s more of a mindset than a literal description of types of people in relation to place. (The theme is also central to his 2012 Jefferson lecture, “It All Turns on Affection.”) “Boomer” isn’t synonymous with “nomad.” Many a boomer has stayed in the same town his whole life; New York’s full of them, a good many with careers on one street: Wall Street. The distinction is in the motive: to make a killing in one venture and then move on to the next. Conversely a sticker might move around, but would still be a sticker by virtue of her habit of cultivating friends and neighbors and the place wherever she finds herself, though her stay be temporary. I’m an urbanite, not a farmer, but recognize agriculture as foundational to society, and so also see the virtue of a life cultivating the land even if one moves between different plots or regions. It’s a question of living in selfishness or charity.

      But all that said, we can’t study this entirely from the standpoint of the individual; there’s a bigger problem having to do with the organization of society. A sticker needs something to stick TO, even if it’s only temporarily. If no one belongs, in any strong and meaningful way, to a community larger than the nuclear family — if that — then what becomes of the social fabric, the polis, civitas? How do we govern our lives in relation to our neighbors, as members of society? What of our duties and obligations to others? How is citizenship possible? It’s the problem of civilization. It’s one thing for people to move between communities. It’s another when everyone moves so much that there are no true local communities, no poleis, and so no possibility for wholesome political life or authentic political economy. We need to look at this not only in terms of boomer and sticker persons but boomer and sticker communities, one ruled by the ethos of each for himself, the other by the law of true civilization: all for one and one for all.

  11. Thanks to all who have responded to my previous comment. I have read Wendell Berry’s essay in which he talks about “boomers” and “stickers” (I thought that was his coinage, but was he riffing on Stegner?), and that general theme has also been my one major sticking point (no pun intended) with Berry. One of the problems I see with the boomer/sticker dichotomy is that it categorizes all transient people as post-industrial pioneer types, which ignores the fact that there were non-exploitative nomadic communities before there was domestication (that is, hunting and gathering preceded agriculture). So I agree with those here who have denied a respective equivalency between boomers/stickers (in the sense of being exploitative or not) on the one hand and nomads/sedentaries on the other, and I thank them for recognizing that distinction.

    I would even go so far as to point out that it was in fact domestication that was the original catalyst for all this upward mobility, but maybe that’s pressing the issue more than necessary. To return to our present context, farmers are essentially the closest thing we have to the origins of our sustenance (and to our collective innocence, you might say) in this present post-industrial society. In that sense I have a deep respect for those who commit to one place out of commitment to those origins. And so I also agree with Tim’s point about there being shortcomings as well as virtues in both nomadic and sedentary ways of living. He sums up the key distinction well when he says, “It’s a question of living in selfishness or charity.”

  12. Conservatism as presented here by Mark Mitchell sounds good, with a few quibbles. It is not, as Mark highlights, what is advocated under the label “conservative” in current political discourse. Its my mother’s kind of conservatism, a life-long Republican who’s grandfather was a member of the United Mine Workers of America, who refused to call Barry Goldwater a conservative. If we need to have constant growth, we will eventually find we have run out of water, land, or some other essential, and we will all die. Somehow, somewhere, we need to stabilize.

    We are told that freedom and limits are incompatible, and that freedom is only real if limits are ignored.

    Being of a libertarian bent politically, I think we need to distinguish between objective limits and culturally imposed limits. The principal, your right to swing your fist ends where the next person’s nose begins is an objective limit. Eating pork is a sin, is a culturally imposed limit, even if those who teach it sincerely believe it came from God. Those who don’t work will not eat is an objective limit, which our culture and economy disguises to the point that some can ignore it, in one way or another, but its still true of the community as a whole.

    As to place and nomadism, I see no reason a married couple can’t be nomadic together. I can think of places in Ohio, West Virginia, Wisconsin, New York, and Maryland where I would feel very much at home. It is true I can’t really remain rooted in all those places. I’ve tried to stay rooted in 2 or 3, and it doesn’t work, life goes on without me in my absence for all those who are still there. So its good to have one place. If that place doesn’t work out, its good to have back-up. And its good to be able to go over the river and through the woods to another place that is at least familiar and welcoming.

  13. Berry (“It All Turns on Affection”): “By economic proxies thoughtlessly given, by thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased, now we all are boomers.”

  14. Well done. You hit a bunch of nails right on the head.

    This may seem like a quibble, but in Goethe’s play, Faust bargained his soul not for worldly gain or a political agenda as the mainstream right seems want to do today but rather for a single moment that he wished would last forever. This lead him on through all kinds of woe and in the end was saved by that same sense of reaching for the mysteries of life that caused him to make the pact in the first place, for that final moment when the pact was fulfilled was not when Faust conquered the world, but when Faust conquered the vast territories within himself. Goethe’s play is deep and provocative in a way that few others are.

    So maybe Faust should not be our role model but the character in Goethe’s tale at least is a more heroic one than any of our national-level politicians these days, it seems.

  15. It is a farce to believe that a nation’s swooning embrace of the so-called “service economy” could ever long preserve any authentically productive “conservative values”.

    Now, to be a “conservative”, one is branded as part of a claque of whining malcontents who would not know the inside of a conservative ethos if it whacked them up side the head.The claim is not far off the mark.

    The current debate is couched in apology, literally smothered in it. Conservatism’s most simple virtue is that it has as its inspiration, the verdicts of history. This current generation seems to treat any historical reflection as a bad case of poison ivy….hence the continuing rash.

    One should treat any discussions of “conservative values” in the context of this society of debauchees as one might treat a bunch of drunks, setting a shed on fire while calling the fire department in jest.

    One has to have a firm idea of what one is conserving if one is to be a conservative. The strivers at the helm nowadays fall way short of this mark.

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