The trouble with US conservatism

In many such contexts, ‘American’ can be replaced with ‘modern’ without much detriment to the meaning. That takes American conservatism out of its parochial confines and makes it worth pondering wherever we live.

Harry Jaffa

Any such reflection should start from the discipline many Anglophone conservatives hold in low esteem: philosophy. These congenital empiricists are making a mistake, for any polity is a physical embodiment of a metaphysical fact.

The organic states of Christendom derived their legitimacy from dynastic succession going back so far that we might as well assume it comes from God. (I owe this thought to Joseph de Maistre).

The metaphysical premise of the post-Christian political state is easier to make out. After all, it’s usually laid down on paper in the founding constitutional documents. Rejecting the legitimacy that comes from the patina of age, modern states have to seek it in a set of principles, usually traceable back to the Enlightenment.

The purveyors of the civilisational shift from one to the other dealt in stolen goods. The Enlighteners pilfered Christian furniture from its ancestral home and tried to furnish their own house with it.

Thus Christian freedom derived from free will became political liberty derived from some mysterious ‘consent of the governed’. Christian equality of all before God became egalitarian levelling of all before the state. Christian charity was perverted into a provider state.

And the doctrine of natural law, evolving from the pre-Socratics to Aquinas via Aristotle, was turned into the mythical notion of natural political rights arbitrarily derived from fashionable secular theories.

All of this comes across in the Declaration of Independence, making a political case for independence from England on the basis of “Laws of Nature”. That was an Enlightenment fallacy served neat.

Regardless of what Locke and Paine had to say on the subject, “separate and equal station” for countries can’t be derived from ‘Laws of Nature’. There is no law of nature that says a colony is entitled to independence from the metropolis. There exists, however, a modern tendency to pass aspirations as rights.

A “separate and equal station”, desirable though it may be to some, can only be achieved either by agreement or by force. No group has equality built into its reclaimable biological make-up. Portraying independence as a right that somehow supersedes the law was modern demagoguery at its most soaring.

Add to this other larcenous Enlightenment fallacies, such as all men being “created equal”, and you begin to understand the problem facing those Americans who are intuitively inclined towards conservatism.

The problem is basic: conservatism is at odds with the country’s founding documents, especially the Declaration. Yet repudiating them is impossible for American conservatives, who’d otherwise find it hard to explain what it is they are trying to conserve.

Some, such as Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall and Frank Meyer, realised this, which made them pessimistic, not to say despondent. Yet some others, such as Harry Jaffa, tried to shoehorn conservatism into the Declaration – only to find that a Size 7 shoe will never fit a Size 11 foot.

These thoughts crossed my mind the other day, when a good friend sent me an article by a young scholar from The Claremont Institute. This think tank, inspired by Jaffa’s thought, defines its mission as restoring “the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.”

Its secondary, if unstated, objective is to reconcile those principles, as laid down in the Declaration of Independence, with conservatism, and that’s where the problem starts.

I must admit to a soft spot for Harry Jaffa, something I always have for men with a talent for spiffy epigrams. One such damaged Barry Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, when Jaffa was his speech writer.

“Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” said Harry through Barry. “Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” I remember American lefties still squirming about this adage 10 years later, but in 1964 they rallied the electorate by portraying Goldwater as an unapologetic extremist.

Another memorable aphorism by Harry Jaffa was: “We were baptised in the Jordan, not in the fiery brook.” That was a bilingual reference to the materialist philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach, acknowledged by Marx as a source of his inspiration.

Jaffa brought his sharp mind to bear on the impossible task of somehow finding a conservative kernel in the shell of natural rights, as expounded by Leo Strauss. Strauss was a major influence on that romantic strain of American conservatism, most of which eventually gravitated towards neoconservatism.

The young Claremont scholar tries to dance around the obstacles, but he lacks Jaffa’s agility of foot. For example, he correctly states that the USA was constituted as a republic, not a democracy, and, unlike so many of his compatriots, he does know the difference.

But he ignores the dynamics. For a republic constituted on the principle of natural rights and expressly devoted to the advancement of the common man (“created equal”) will ineluctably degenerate into a democracy-run-riot – this, regardless of the founder’s original intent.

Many of them, John Adams specifically, were horrified when observing the chicken hatched by the egg they had laid. In 1806 Adams wrote, “I once thought our Constitution was a quasi or mixed government, but they had made it… a democracy.”

This, by his correct if belated judgment, had a disastrous effect not only on America but on the whole world. In 1811 Adams rued: “Did not the American Revolution produce the French Revolution? And did not the French Revolution produce all the calamities and desolation of the human race?”

I sympathise with the young author’s predicament. He rummages through the Enlightenment haystack hoping to find the needle of conservatism. But the search is in vain: the needle is simply not there.

He stubbornly repeats Lockean ideas about consent and social compact, but they are not so much unconservative as anti-conservative. Rousseau put them into his Du contrat social, and nobody has ever accused him of conservatism.

I have many problems with those seminal concepts, too many to discuss here. I’ll just mention one: it’s unclear how that consent can be withdrawn or that social contract revoked.

For example, less than three per cent of the American population voted to ratify the Constitution in 1788. Did they thereby issue consent and enter into a contract on behalf of the remaining 97 per cent and also every subsequent generation?

Much of Locke’s thinking was self-contradictory. For example, protection of property rights was the cornerstone of his political philosophy. Yet at the same time he insisted that representation was the sole legitimising factor of taxation (that came across as “No taxation without representation” during the Revolution).

The two notions are in conflict. For by transferring all sovereignty to a representative body, the people will eventually make its power absolute. When unchecked, this power extends to confiscating as much of personal income as the representatives see fit – in effect trampling over property rights so cherished by Locke and the Founders.

The young Claremont scholar didn’t solve those problems because they are unsolvable. It’s impossible to swear by “the principles of the American Founding” and be a political conservative at the same time. That’s like a dipsomaniac preaching teetotalism.

4 thoughts on “The trouble with US conservatism”

  1. “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice,” . . . “Moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.”

    Normally only the part of “extremism in defense of” is only spoken “moderation and pursuit of” not included. “extremism in defense” of taken by itself might have made Barry look somewhat suspect but when you take the entire quotation it makes him look rather good.

  2. That “separate and equal station” was fine for the colonists separating from Britain, but not for the South trying to separate from over-reaching federalism.

  3. The Enlightenment of the 18th Century seems to me to be a consequence of the Humanism of the 16th Century. Locke and Paine were the children of Montaigne and Machiavelli. I’d be interested in reading your thoughts on the destruction of Mediaeval culture by the Humanists.

    1. I actually wrote about this at length in my book How the West Was Lost. I argued thet the three major stages of that demise were Renaissance humanism, the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

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