A CONSERVATIVE HOPE
By David Horowitz
A little more than a year after the collapse of Communism, the Heritage Foundation organized a series of lectures on conservative ideas. One of the topics was “Are We Conservatives?” a fact that already tells us something about the subject itself. One could no more imagine posing the question “Are we progressives?” to a comparable gathering of the Left, than one could ask a group of citizens “Are We Americans?” To raise these issues in such contexts would be to question an identity and the foundations of a faith.
The very ability to ask the question “Are We Conservatives?” tells us first of all that conservatism is not an ideology in the sense that liberalism, or the various forms of radicalism are. Conservatism is not an “identity politics,” addressed before all else to the issue of what kind of people embrace it. It is not a politics whose primary concern is to place its adherents in the camp of moral humanity and thus to confer on them the stamp of History’s approval. Because conservatism is not a philosophy that seeks to enlist its adherents in an historical vanguard, it does not have a “party line.” It is possible for conservatives to question most positions held by other conservatives, including, evidently, the notion that they are conservatives at all, without risking ex-communication, expulsion from the community, or even a raised eyebrow. Of course this latitude has limits. No one would regard as conservative, for example, someone who embraced the leveling aspirations of contemporary liberalism or the utopian agendas of the socialist Left. Within such limits, however, the liberality of conservatism (or at least American conservatism) is a generally under-appreciated fact.
Although it is not an ideological faith, American conservatism is grounded in philosophical convictions (and, among conservatisms, is unique in this respect). It begins as an attitude, and only later becomes a stance, doing so from considerations that are ultimately pragmatic. (In this regard, it is consonant with what is traditionally understood as the conservative temper.) This is not to deny that conservatives themselves often claim religious principles as the ultimate basis for their convictions. But it is not any religious commitment that makes them conservatives. There are radicals and liberals who have similar commitments and make similar claims.
To say that conservative attitudes derive from pragmatic considerations is to state an obvious but important fact: What makes conservative principles “conservative” is that they are rooted in an attitude about the past rather than in expectations of the future. It is this pragmatic foundation of conservatism that explains why it can be the common ground of such diverse viewpoints. Conservatives today operate from what are often profoundly different philosophical assumptions and entertain quite divergent expectations of what the future might be. It is, in fact, this indeterminacy about the future that is the crucial element that distinguishes conservatism from its ideological opponents.
Indeterminacy about the future does not mean that conservatives are indifferent to possible social outcomes. They would of course like to see a future that is relatively more benevolent and measurably more humane. But they can only endorse those principles, traditions and institutions that may serve as prudential guides through passages that are uncertain, and despite consequences that are unintended. Conservatives do not pretend to be able to shape the social future; they do not offer plans designed to induce human beings to act in ways that are dramatically different from how human beings have acted in the past.
The “first principles” of conservatism are propositions about the existing social contract, about human nature in a social context. They are propositions about limits, and the imposition of limits, and what they both make possible. It is this practicality, this attention to experience and to workable arrangements, that explains why conservatism can be liberal and tolerant towards its opponents in ways that progressives cannot.
In contrast to the conservative outlook, liberal and radical ideologies are about desired—and therefore determinate—futures. The first principles of the Left are the principles of politically constructing a “better world.” Such a future must be consciously designed by enlightened intelligence. It is thus an essential characteristic of progressivism that it proposes a sharp break with the experience of the past; that its visions entail a rejection of existing social contracts.
Throughout the modern era, progressives have proposed a contract which guarantees that all of society’s members will be made equal in their economic and social conditions—or, at the very least, in their starting points. Futures based on this contract are designated, by progressives, “socially just.” Liberals and radicals differ among themselves about the degree of equality that might be achieved in the name of social justice, or the means acceptable for arriving at such a state. (The concession that liberals make when they refer to “leveling the playing field,” as opposed to leveling the players, results from their recognition of previous progressive failures). But the differences between liberals and radicals are confined to differences of degree in the results desired, and then to the means by which these results may be obtained. The agenda of “social justice” and of using the state to enforce desired outcomes, remains the same. It is this shared utopian agenda, that makes it appropriate to refer to both liberalism and radicalism as ideologies of the Left.
Since ideologies of the Left derive from commitments to an imagined future, to question them is to provoke a moral rather than an empirical response: Are you for or against the future equality of human beings? To demur from a commitment to the progressive viewpoint is thus not a failure to assess the relevant data, but an unwillingness to embrace the liberated future. It is to will the imperfections of the present order. In the current political cant of the Left, it is to be “racist, sexist, classist,” a defender of the oppressive status quo.
That is why not only radicals, but even those who call themselves liberals, are instinctively intolerant towards the conservative opposition. For progressives, the future is not a maze of human uncertainties and unintended consequences. It is a moral choice. To achieve the socially just future requires only that enough people decide to will it. Consequently, it is perfectly consistent for progressives to consider themselves morally and intellectually enlightened, while dismissing their opponents as immoral, ignorant, or (not infrequently) insane.
While the politics of the Left is derived from assumptions about the future, its partisans are also careful to construct a view of history that validates their claims. At the outset of the cold war, the sociologist T.H. Marshall delivered a famous lecture on the “development of citizenship” in the West. In it, he distinguished between the civil, political and social dimensions of citizenship, identifying each of the last three centuries as a stage in their progress. The revolutions of the 18th Century institutionalized civil rights of free speech and religion, and a government of laws. The 19th Century extended the rights of suffrage and the political base of freedom, establishing the equality of individuals as participants in the political process that guaranteed their civil rights. The 20th Century—then at its mid-point—was witnessing a revolution that would extend citizenship rights to the social and economic realms, by recognizing entitlements to education, health-care, material well-being, and security, as basic human rights.
It should be obvious that this third sphere of citizenship rights embraces the prescriptions of socialism, and that
On the other hand, while opposing the destructive chimera of socialist justice conservatives should not indulge a utopianism of their own. The conservative vision does not exclude compromise; nor should it condemn every attempt, however moderate, to square the circle of political liberty and social welfare. Conservatism does not require that all aspects of the Welfare State be rejected in favor of free market principles. After all, conservatives are (or should be) the first to recognize the intractable nature of the human condition. The perfectly free society is as untenable as the perfectly just society, and for the same reason. We would have to rip out our all too human hearts in order to achieve it. Some economic re-distribution may be compassionate and necessary, even though (as Hayek has shown) it can never be “just.”
In short, within conservatism there is room for a “liberal” argument as to how far we need to go in following the logic of liberty and how widely we can extend the social safety net, or best shape the contours of a welfare-intending state. But for conservatives, it is the limits of such endeavors that must be recognized at the outset; the bankruptcy and menace of the socialist paradigm that must be understood.
The Hayekian paradox—the point from which contemporary conservatism begins—is, of course, only a reformulation of an understanding shared by the architects of the American founding. Thus the incompatibility of liberty with any plan to eliminate inequality and difference is the essential argument Publius makes in Federalist #10. Nor is it an accident, as Marxists like to say, that Publius describes the constitutional arrangement as a design to thwart the projects of the Left—“a rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project.”
It is in the constitutional founding that American conservatism finds its true philosophical ground. American conservatives define themselves first of all as conservers of the constitutional framework; the philosophy of that framework informs their outlook. This philosophy itself originates in a conservative appreciation of limits as the foundation of rights, a system of ordered constraints as the basis of freedom (“That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men.”). In the constitutional philosophy, the possibilities of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are attainable only through a framework of neutral restraints -- in economics, the discipline of the market; in politics, popular consent and the rule of law.
This is the formula of liberal conservatism: The individual constrained by a government of laws; government limited by negative liberties and the consent of the governed. It is the formula of the constitutional founding. It is the wisdom reaffirmed by the castrophes of the Left—of those who rejected this framework as a bourgeois concept and a mask for privilege—from the Jacobin Terror to the 20th Century gulags that Marxists built.
The post-Communist Left also understands the significance of the Constitution as a bulwark of conservative principles and freedoms. In his book, Constitutional Faith, radical law professor Sanford Levinson poses the question of whether progressives can even participate in the social contract, whether they could “sign” the Constitution today in good faith. In order to justify a half-hearted “yes,” Levinson depreciates the Constitution as a crystallization of durable truths. The “anti-foundationalist” philosophy of Richard Rorty provides Levinson with an epistemological vantage. In Levinson’s view, the constitutional framework is merely a “discourse,” a “linguistic system” in which virtually any social agenda can be expressed: “It is less a series of propositional utterances than a commitment to taking political conversation seriously” -- a conversation, however, in which anything can be said.
Far from exhibiting an attitude that is eccentric or extreme, Levinson merely expresses the nihilistic temper of the contemporary Left. Thus, in The Future of Liberal Revolution, Yale law professor Bruce Ackerman proposes a way of reading the Constitution so that a redistributionist agenda -- one of the “wicked projects” that Madison’s Republic was designed to prevent -- can be incorporated into its text. Extending this logic, law professor Mark Tushnet of
Finding a radical flexibility in the constitutional text is the precondition for securing the Left’s endorsement of its contract, because the Constitution was clearly written as a conservative foundation—property as the basis of liberty; the autonomy of the individual and private enterprise defended against the claims of the state.
Those who are well off. [argues Levinson] might well be...appreciative of the Constitution’s protection of so-called ‘negative’ liberties, that is rights against oppressive state interference in one’s everyday life....But what reason do persons mired in poverty have to be wildly appreciative of negative rights when what they seek are affirmative protections such as food, shelter, and clothing?...Might he or she...declare that a Constitution lacking a strongly affirmative Bill of Rights is not worth signing, whatever its other strengths might be?
Thus the outlook of post-Communist progressives defines itself in denial of precisely the lesson that 20th Century revolutions teach—that economic redistribution and affirmative rights, which form the basis of the socialist project, are inherently anti-democratic and lead to the destruction of prosperity and justice and liberty -- for all.
For the conservative, the Constitution is not a convenient discourse, but a repository of pragmatic and durable truths about liberty and prosperity in a social order. No one reading the argument of the Federalist Papers, which is an argument about the lessons of history can fail to understand this. The truths embodied in the principles of the Constitution were validated for the founders by the experience of previously existing states. They have been confirmed in our lifetimes by the end-results of the two-hundred year war of the Left against the philosophical and political framework of “bourgeois” freedoms—against the idea of negative liberties and the practice of limited government; and by the Left’s establishment of societies based on its own radical principles of positive freedoms, which include affirmative “rights” to food, shelter, clothing, employment, and equality; and by the catastrophes they created.
In a famous afterword to The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek explained why he was not a conservative in the European sense. “Conservatism, proper,” he wrote, “is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change.” It therefore can not “offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving.” And that is a problem, given the dynamism of capitalist society, the openness of the American polity, and the ascendance of radical ideology over the last half century.
While American radicals may have failed in their efforts to expropriate the means of material production, they have succeeded in appropriating enough of the means of cultural production to proclaim themselves “liberals” and to make the label stick. So ingrained have the premises of the Left become in the new liberal template, that conservatives now may be said to constitute a “counter-culture” in the American framework. And that is another reason why conservatives must not think only in “conservative” terms in confronting the challenges before them. They must think of themselves as heirs to Locke and Burke and Madison, who faced a similar challenge from the Left of their time. Conservatives are the reformers demanding a universalist standard of one right, one law, one nation for all; they are the champions of tolerance, the opponents of group privilege, and of communal division; they are the proponents of a common ground that is color-blind, gender-equitable and ethnically inclusive—a government of laws that is neutral between its citizens, and limited in scope; they are the defenders of the free market against the destructive claims of the socialist agenda; and they are the conservers of the constitutional covenant against the forces of modern tyranny and the guardian state.
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