Respect My Authority! (click here for second opinion)
Eric Tung • Tradition should trump pure reason
For too long, conservatism has been wrongly associated with the ideology of stagnation. Conservatism is anathema to progress, many say; its philosophy rests on resisting change, embracing reactionary ideas of ruling aristocracies or monarchies. And of course, there is the claim that conservatives are a crowd of bowtie-wearing preppies who could not care less about the poor and underprivileged. Good and bad stereotypes exist for all political categories, many times clouding the genuine essence of a political strain of thought. More maligned than any other political disposition, conservatism has fallen prey to profound misunderstanding.
So what is really at the heart of conservatism? Why do I consider myself a conservative? The answers to these questions extend far beyond current political debates in the media. The positions that I take on issues of gay-marriage, the War in Iraq, terrorism and taxes do not define my conservatism. Rather, my conservatism comes from a fundamental belief in the dignity of man and the importance of strong communities. Cultures and civilizations have thrived when these two beliefs are understood and promoted — they make up the very fabric of all cohesive societies.
One might be confused as to how such broad aspirations for mankind that most, if not all, people strive for, can come to define my conservatism. The implications that these beliefs have are vast when it comes to the relationships of government to community, government to man, and man to his community. Beliefs in man’s responsibility and in the importance of social structures like the family assume a political nature, as one must determine how the government should act to secure these goods. When there are trends threatening the very things that bind people together and affirm what it means to be human, these societal trends need to be stemmed or reversed.
Rationalism in Politics
The Age of Reason of the 17th and 18th centuries has had a lasting effect on how we think about politics in the modern era. Excessive rationalism, the belief that man can come up with a comprehensive plan for societal ills, has caused destruction of unthinkable scale in the Communist and Fascist regimes of the recent past. 20th century political scientist and philosopher Michael Oakeshott rails on the hubris of the “enlightened” man who thinks he can devise a political system from scratch that would benefit all. This kind of figure, spawned by Enlightenment philosophers, refuses to acknowledge working institutions and customs that come to define our relations in society. He has discarded tradition as something stagnant and stifling in favor of a rationally conceived notion of the good.
This trend of uprooting the underpinnings of society began with Descartes and his Meditations. Casting everything into doubt, including our senses, Descartes advocates that man start from the ground up and use reason to formulate his entire philosophy. This unhealthy strain of rational egoism and the irrational desire for certainty can be found later in Benthamite utilitarianism and Rousseau’s radical notion of “natural rights.” Utilitarianism and Rousseau’s conception of the “general will” reduce man to mere means of benefiting the state or common good. Conservatism rejects this violation of human dignity because human beings are ends in and of themselves.
All of these philosophies reject the importance of tradition as a source of guidance for man with limited reason. Their approach is extremely naïve and overlooks how the continuity of history and wisdom passed down through the ages comes to weave the delicate fabric of society into which everyone is born. Tradition is something that has been shaped over time, giving an individual a sense of identity and a sense of how he should interact with the world around him. It is collective wisdom that has been hammered out by rejecting practices that have failed and inculcating accepted values into the human consciousness that have worked. Conservatism is recognition of the limits of rationality and the acknowledgment that tradition is a nuanced way to meet the needs of culture and people. In this sense, traditions undergo change because circumstances and people change.
Because of the gradual nature of human evolution, this collective wisdom of the species undergoes a slow process of development. Conservatism, in general, rejects radical change that threatens to uproot the commonalities that bind us together and the foundations that allow us to make sense of the world. The French Revolution, the severe undermining of the family unit in Maoist China, and the 60’s and 70’s era of “free love” in America are all examples of drastic developments leading to disaster. That is not to say that all traditions are desirable. Some traditions can feed impulses that call for radicalism or are distortions of the human personality. However on the whole, a society with individuals who practice a healthy and cognizant respect for tradition is much more desirable than a society in which tradition is ignored.
Because it limits the scope of appropriate change, respect for tradition acts as a restraint to government. Furthermore, respect for tradition, which does not seek to conform all of society to a strict set of beliefs, allows diversity to flourish. People in their respective localities are allowed to express values they hold dear when the scope of the state is kept at a minimum. This is why the conservative notion of federalism is so important; it recognizes that peoples of different cultures and areas will hold different kinds of traditions. A conservative allows members of a community to shape the values they come to share. Because he respects tradition, a conservative refuses to dictate ideology through the mechanisms of bureacracy, and in doing so, strengthens the community.
How is that minimal government can contribute to stronger communities? One example is found in the conservative fight to minimize the role of the federal government in taking care of the welfare of its citizens. This may seem contradictory to my notions of community and respect for human dignity. Having the responsibility of welfare rest with an impersonal entity like the state, however, erodes an individual’s feeling of personal obligation to those who were born in “at-risk”communities or with less material wealth. After all, the government will take care of these problems. Encouraging the belief that the state is responsible to help you in your indigence and hardship results in big problems. The notion of personal responsibility is undermined because people begin to undervalue the dignified idea of bearing the fruits of one’s labors. People have less of an incentive to better their situation when there is a governmental safety net. As a result of an expansion of social services, what we have today is a welfare system that distorts incentives for people to enter the workforce. There are countless cases where people choose not to work because the personal cost of doing so is not worth forgoing the aid they receive from the government.
Arguing that the government should cut-back or reform its social services does not imply that conservatives do not care about the poor and underprivileged. For conservatives, promoting the welfare of society does not mean giving hand-outs to those in need. A system of accountability should be set up: a welfare system, for example, that encourages people to enter the workforce. In the end, conservatives worry more about the dignity of the individual than his material situation. That is why Marxist ultra-Left ideology, calling for economic leveling, is so repugnant to conservatives, aside from its impracticality. There is more to life than material well-being. Conservatism is often difficult to defend because it concerns itself with ideas that aren’t readily concrete. Voltaire and Descartes empowered man by telling him that human reason can solve all problems, but conservatism embraces the mysterious and uncertain. It places faith in tradition, relying on an invisible force that serves to guide society in the realm of culture. Tradition may be intangible, but it has a very real effect on communities and societies at large. When the importance of tradition is ignored, people are left adrift and the only alternative is usurpation of society by the state.
Eric Tung is a sophomore in Branford College.
Yes, I admit it. I proudly confess my membership in the vast, right-wing conspiracy. I may not smoke a cigar, have a rich father, or love football. And based on where I’ve lived, I could just as easily be your average Russian communist-sympathizer or Jewish New York liberal. But instead, I spend my time wondering where my tax money goes and questioning our nation’s administration of justice. Come November, I’m going to vote for Bush. Here’s why.
Most liberals will argue that vanity, greed, aggression, envy, and most any human vice are actually not endemic to the human condition, but accidental deficiencies which we can eradicate by just trying harder. This kind of utopian thinking means a few things: 1) that human nature is at any moment a product of mere circumstance, 2) that we can derive social institutions by a pragmatic paradigm developed by reasoning from the given social circumstances of a narrow time frame, isolated from the rest of history, and 3) that politics is mutable and subject to radical change with every technological, scientific, or economic advancement.
In other words, liberals say that there is no inherent value to tradition, that we are products of the chance happenings of every moment, that today’s set of truths is utterly detached from the truths that people accepted a year, a lifetime, or even a century ago.
As a conservative, I violently disagree with this dynamic view of human nature. To take the conservative stance is to understand that in the face of changing circumstances, the basic principles of the human condition actually remain unchanged. We are still the same basic human beings we have been for all of history. To wax literary, a fundamental set of themes, tropes and metaphors persist throughout all of our great stories and narratives.
So who are we as humans? We are competitive for resources; we desire responsibility for the choices we make and the paths we pursue. We are social beings who seek to share ourselves with others. We empathize with those less fortunate and feel a sense of obligation to help because we can identify our own potential for failure in others’ misfortunes. We recognize our civic obligations to the society in which we have chosen to live and pledge our loyalty. We feel an inherent sense of revulsion to the perpetration of injustice, seeking retribution and protection from people with misdirected ways of relating to their fellow social actors. We care about the family as the bedrock of society and as the institution through which our future generations learn morals and values. Finally, we are imperfect actors in the world. Conflict is inevitable, and we must learn to face it in constructive ways rather than convincing ourselves that it can be eliminated.
If you believe that human nature is universal and unchanging , you must endorse a system of law that allows humans to act within the parameters of such a nature. This means that within the scope of the behavior you can control, you should be responsible for your successes and also for your failures; the government should not be there to prop you up and give you incentives to fail. If freedom is fully realized only when we hold people responsible for the choices they make, then we must reduce the scope of government control over people’s choices so that they will have greater incentive to make beneficial ones. Finally, conservatism means we must value tradition as a society-ordering heuristic which has worked for people across generations, and will likely continue to work today. In spite of individual differences, traditional institutions like families, customs, and national loyalties continue to organize society well, which is why they persist in every world culture.
So how do all these abstract beliefs play out in how I vote? I support political measures to conserve and promote human nature in favor of those that seek to eradicate the individual by devolving his moral responsibility to the realm of the state. This means I advocate a free market, because much like tradition, the market reflects men’s infinitely various and often unconscious goals and perceptions far better than any bureaucratic process of arbitrary regulation. But freedom is not a good in and of itself, because the institutions through which freedom is realized must respect other goods without which that freedom would not be worth having – loyalty, charity, community, social obligation, justice. A robust view of freedom means active participation in shaping society, since how we live has indelible effects on others. As such, the principles of conservative politics—private property, local rule, the prevalence of private charities, a competitive economy—help fulfill freedom by devolving power into many hands and facilitating broad participation in achieving social goals.
Because man is a social being, he seeks to join his life with another’s and extend beyond himself by raising children. As a conservative, I believe that family is critically important. It is the primary source of learning values, raising loyal citizens, and providing children with a way of relating to others so that they can go on to live happy, fulfilling lives.
Policy should strengthen the family so that every child is taught fundamental morals and values in a loving, stable home. In contrast, no-fault divorce sanctions the unilateral destruction of a family based on the mother or father’s personal discomfort, and allows one person to destroy the stability of a child’s home based on impatience. It promotes a wrongful view of family as something predicated on love (for as long as that fleeting feeling manages to stick around) but not commitment, formal vows but no real notion of unconditional loyalty.
This view of family also calls into question the value of marriage. If divorce is as easy as a unilateral decision, then marriage is no longer very risky. So instead, we have people who constantly seek to trade up their partnerships for something better and are unable to commit wholly to a single person. Society should be ordered to promote healthy families; we must develop a shame culture against the abandonment of family loyalties, and a prohibition on unilateral divorce. If we fail to do so, we submit the family to decay and subvert the most basic values on which our existence is predicated.
Because politics tells an integrated, not a disjointed, story, conservatism entails seeing the ties between certain concrete government sanctions and their larger ramifications on social norms. For example, supporting abortion is a statement that unwanted children don’t matter, and, even worse, that we can choose to end a potential human life based on a selfish feeling of inconvenience. And (you knew this was coming) as for the gay marriage debate, I sympathize with a view of marriage that allows committed, monogamous people to come together and raise healthy children. But the terms of marriage in our country need to be redefined to address the sanctity of vows, the exclusivity and fidelity inherent in a marriage contract, and the concern for children as a product of the individual union. We must first and foremost decide on a positive vision of marriage, and only then begin to think about whom to admit or exclude from that vision.
Though a complicated political and life philosophy cannot be summarized in a short newspaper article, that’s at least a brief introduction. For me, the thing that makes conservatism most meaningful is that politics is a lesson in how people ought to live, and when done properly, it helps them live well. Thus, conservatism is not merely an abstract theory, but a way of life. For instance, I want to be a good mother, and find myself attracted to conservative family values. I believe that history exhibits consistent patterns, and find that conservative traditions tell me an effective way of realizing those patterns. And across all of my experience, I seek to live well, and look to conservative ethics for a vision in which people will flourish most fully within the scope of their humanity.
Diana Feygin is a sophomore in Branford College.