I’m reading Robert Nisbet, Conservatism: Dream and Reality [amazon]. It’s a pretty ok little intro, suitable for undergrads; but kinda pricey for what it – a slim paperback, several years old (though I guess there’s a new edition.) Anyway, here’s a passage that raised my eyebrow:
Two other developments, also fortuitous, gave substantial aid to the burgeoning conservative cause [in the US in the 50’s]. I refer to the resurrections of Alexis de Tocqueville and Edmund Burke throughout the decade. Both had languished in this country prior to the Second World War. In seven years of a better than average undergraduate and graduate education at Berkeley in the 1930’s, I never once heard Tocqueville referred to and Burke was limited to something called the ‘organic school’. But this changed remarkably beginning in the late 40’s. A new edition by Knopf of Democracy in America came out in 1945, and its attraction was immediate. Paperback editions and printings of this book and also of The Old Regime and the French Revolution were legion by the end of the 1950’s. ‘As Tocqueville says’ came to rival ‘as Marx says’ in faculty clubs. Perdictably, the political left tried to appropriate Tocqueville, finding some kind of Baconian cryptogram no doubt, but Tocqueville’s proper linkage to conservatism was nevertheless fully recognized in the 1950’s.
Burke’s resurrection was less notable and widely feld perhaps but it was impressive. he became known, chiefly through Kirk’s Conservative Mind, as the founder, the Karl Marx, of Western conservatism, and even his Reflections on the Revolution in France, once almost abhorred in American academic and intellectual communities, became the object of a considerable number of printings. The 20-year project of his Collected Letters by the University of Chicago Press began in the 1950’s. An impressive number of anthologies, textbook paperback printings, and scholarly commentaries changed Burke’s once lack-luster status in America. (p. 98-99)
Is this plausible? (Never mind about the gratuitous cryptogram snark – which, by the by, is out of character with the tone of the rest of the book.) Was Tocqueville really an invisible nobody until recently? And was Burke truly revived in the academy with Kirk’s instrumental assistance? (My distinct impression has always been that Tocqueville has been, and remains, a perennial hero on all sides; and that Kirk’s influence within the academy – as opposed to outside it, in conservative little magazines and thinktanks and such – has been relatively marginal. I wouldn’t have credited him with starting a Burke boom in academe.)
While I’m at it, another question: conservatives have traditionally gotten good rhetorical mileage by casting their liberal or progressive opponents as sinister, bloodless brainiacs – Burke’s “sophisters, economists and calculators”; or as sinister, bloody Jacobins. Well, anyway, one of the thoughts that popped into my head, reading Nisbet’s bit on the French Revolution, is that the elements of the upheaval he catalogues divide pretty neatly into two piles: crazy ‘wipe the slate clean and start over’ schemes; stuff that looks, in retrospect, pretty mild. Or at least right. Mild humor results from last minute baiting and switching of these piles. I started a sentence about how Jacobin governors concluded that ‘the traditional kinship structure’ was ‘against nature and contrary to reason’, expecting to end it by hearing about some hare-brained, hair-raising, short-lived scheme to steal kids from parents and raise them in panopticons, with nothing to read but Emile. But it turned out that what was enacted were: civil marriages, divorce laws, repeal of laws of primogeniture, and abolition of parental authority over sons when they reach adulthood. (I think even Rick Santorum would be ok with some of that.)
Making a connection of sorts: it seems to be somewhat common wisdom – even among Democrats – that, at least in the recent past, the Democrats really were in the hubristic habit of thinking that dumb ‘wipe the slate clean’ social engineering schemes were not, in fact, really dumb – in the sense of doomed to be clubbed to death by the law of unintended consequences, upon first contact with actually existing actual social reality. Real live Democrats, with actual grips on real levers of political power, really did get their poor dear Harvard boutique liberal pointy-heads up in the clouds, and they weren’t coming back unless dragged kicking and screaming.
I said I had a question, didn’t I? Well, then: what are the best, i.e. clearest, most graphic, examples of this sort of problem? Doomed social engineering schemes, the fault of fool Democrats. Failed public housing projects? School busing? Momentous Supreme Court decisions? (Court decisions are sort of poor candidates, formally, but some will say that this is precisely what makes them such disastrous social policy mandates.) What are the clearest cases of foolish failures to look up from the neat, tidy, academically lovable blueprints for the one minute it would take to appreciate how many subtle cobwebs of local and intermediate social adaptation and efficiency must be swept away by this peremptory realignment imposed from on high? I am – you aren’t surprised – inclined to think that, for the most part, Republicans have managed to stick Democrats with a frame that is, at best, two hundred years out of date. Democrats are not always on the verge of blurting out some radical Benthamite felicific calculus, to be enacted as legislation. Democrats don’t really go in for ‘wipe the slate clean’ proposals, in a big way. If only because, in the last 25 years, they have slowly wheeled into position as conservators of the New Deal legacy. (If you pine for wiped slates, Democratic domestic policy must seem dull indeed. What you want is: Republican foreign policy. If you want someone virginally untouched by Hayekian wisdom, touch a lapsed libertarian. Jim Henley can put you in touch.) But I do grant that one reason the two-hundred year old frame can at least seem to fit is because, a generation ago, it fitted a bit less badly than it does today. (Hell, Nixon imposed wage-price controls. Can you imagine what the Democrats must have been up to, if the Republicans were turning socialist? Here’s an interesting fact, regarding the announcement of imposed controls in ‘72: “President Nixon expressed grave concern that if he gave his speech during prime time on Sunday, he would preempt the tremendously popular television series Bonanza, thus potentially alienating those addicted to the adventures of the Cartwright family on the Ponderosa ranch.” The past is a weird country. And the speech was a hit, apparently. Everyone thought the government setting prices sounded great. “And the Dow Jones Industrial Average registered a 32.9-point gain – the largest one-day increase up to then.” Go figure.) So I’m curious: when was the last time that the Democrats proposed something so ambitiously unworkable that it was right and proper to come all Burkean correct on them? I need a history lesson.
I don’t doubt Republicans can come up with lots of things – Hillarycare! (No, bad example. Try again.) I’m curious what Democrats can come up with. I guess, in a general sort of way, I’m trying to figure out what would be a good way to gauge – and talk about – general social mood, regarding the prospect of social engineering. What makes folks think the government can do everything, then turn around and decide it can’t do anything?