Andrew Sullivan writes. “When you see an unexpected and sharply upward trend in inequality and want to accelerate it some more, you have ceased to be a conservative.”
As Sullivan goes on to confess, there was a time when he himself saw such an inequality trend, and cheered it on. He now wants to say this was ‘complacency’. But I don’t think he would go so far as to say that he has only in the recent past converted to conservatism, having only since 2007 or so shed a view that previously disqualified him from holding that position. So why should Erick Erickson, say, be disqualified from being a conservative?
I found my copy of Rossiter, finally. (It was hiding under a comic book on my shelf!) Per that post, I’m going to try to find a few choice passages to illustrate his nice style. But for now I’ll quote a plain vanilla bit for the sake of its sheer typicality in any discussion of conservatism. Rossiter does the necessary: list, in a rough and ready way, the things conservatives basically believe. Near the top of the list:
Obviously I could have gotten this out of Kirk, or Buckley, or Burke. No one doubts these are the hallmarks of conservative thought, for as long as there has been such a thing. (I just don’t know which one of my comic books my copies of Kirk and Burke are lurking under at present.)
The natural inequality of men in most qualities of mind, body, and spirit.
The superiority of liberty to equality in the hierarchy of human values and social purposes.
The inevitability and necessity of social classes, and consequent folly and futility of most attempts at leveling.
The need for a ruling and serving aristocracy.
The fallibility and potential tyranny of majority rule. (65)
If you believe such things, there’s no reason why a sudden increase in inequality need trouble you, or seem like something politicians should try to do something about. Sullivan will, of course, want to see the rest of Rossiter’s list and on it he will find many items he will say are the true, conservative basis for his current concerns about inequality (no doubt starting with that crucial ‘an aristocracy that serves’ clause in what I quoted above.)
And he will not be disappointed. But that is not to the point. The point is: a high degree of indifference to, or at least complacency about, inequality is a hallmark of conservative thought, going back at least to Burke. Those conservatives who are annoyed that Sullivan is saying they aren’t true conservatives are right: they’re conservatives. If it turns out that being indifferent to, or complacent about, severe inequality is a mistake, then what follows is not that it isn’t conservative, after all, to be indifferent to inequality, but that conservatism has a strong tendency to be mistaken when it comes to issues of equality/inequality.
This is sort of what Sullivan himself says, but in an unhelpfully ideology-insulating way. “Enoch Powell, a very high Tory, once said that every political career ends in failure, because the problems that they have solved will have inevitably ceded by then to new ones, and new exigencies and new times.” But this is a perverse way of immunizing true conservatism against criticism that it goes wrong: namely, making over the inevitability of erroneousness as the hallmark of a higher infallibility. Even when you are wrong, in the end, you are right, in the end, because you said you were going to be wrong, in the end. (I’ll leave you to think through this High Tory formulation of the liar’s paradox.) In practical terms, the sensible thing is to say is just that a lot of the time true conservatives are going to go badly wrong, not because they betray conservatism, but because they don’t. This is a better way to warn against the limits of ideological thinking. The point of emphasizing these limits is, after all, to lessen, not exacerbate ‘if I can only find the true philosophy I’ll be safe for sure!’-style hubris. (It says something, I think, that conservatives often do treat ‘what’s the most authentically conservative thing to do?’ as a proxy for ‘what’s the best thing to do?’ whereas liberals don’t treat ‘what’s the most authentically liberal thing to do?’ as a proxy for ‘what’s the best thing to do?’)
That said: Sullivan is, of course, quite right to be doing his best to craft some version of conservatism that can deal with the world we live in. He sees, correctly, that Romney and National Review and movement conservatives have nothing to say that isn’t, on the most generous construal, preposterously past its sell-by date. But, since what is blinding them to reality is a set of strongly-held, conservative beliefs, it hardly follows that they are any less true conservatives than Sullivan himself. They just show us true conservatism gone wrong. Sullivan wants to find true conservatism going right.
Conservatives pride themselves on the prudential looseness and practical flexibility with which they weave together the sorts of beliefs that end up on these inevitable lists of things conservatives believe. As I said, there are things on Rossiter’s list that Sullivan is sure to point to as evidence that conservatives should care about inequality - at least in a situation like the one we are in today. “Dignity, authority, legitimacy, justice, constitutionalism, hierarchy, the recognition of limits - the marks of good government.” Sullivan will say that conservatives should see how extreme inequality undermines these values, in the present social and political circumstances. As a liberal, I’m hardly going to disagree. But, for a conservative, this point should cut both ways. The fact that conservatism is such a stew of ingredients, and no strict recipe about how to combine them, means that conservatism can truly make for terrible stew. The flexibility that assures Sullivan there must be some way that true conservatism can go right is a feature that also guarantees that true conservatism can go badly wrong. At the very least, it guarantees that there are a lot of things that can hardly be ruled out, in principle, as truly conservative.
Erick Erickson holds conservative views that are worse than the conservative views that Andrew Sullivan holds. In a sense, this makes Erickson a worse conservative. But it does not make him a less authentic one.
The moral of the story: if you get too caught up trying to assess political philosophies along an axis of authenticity, as it seems to me Sullivan tends to, you muck up your handling of a basic dilemma that really shouldn’t be much of one. Here’s how it goes.
On the one hand, it’s bad practice to immunize your political philosophy from criticism/refutation by always saying ‘of course true communism/conservatism/liberalism/progressivism has never been tried!’ On the other hand, it’s pointless to abstain from making improvements to your philosophy, just so it can stand trial for past mistakes.
Obviously the solution is to do ideal philosophy, but not in a way that is untethered from a realistic sense of how things actually go - have gone - in practice. We are all interested in conservatism and liberalism not just in heaven but also on earth. Authenticity - true conservatism! - equivocates between ‘most ideal’ and ‘most real’, in a confusing way, at precisely the point when we should be keeping these separate. The conservatism we want is the best one, whether or not it has been, to date, ‘real’ (i.e. pursuing a successful career in politics). The conservatisms we have gotten, to date, have been ‘real’ enough, whether or not they have been for the best.
Authenticity is a jealous God, as philosophical Gods tend to go. It does not insist on monism, but has a Hegelian tendency in that direction. Conservatives like Sullvan try to finesse this awkwardness - conservatism is not supposed to be so abstract and severe - by playing up how theirs is a philosophy of personal virtue, which gets us back to solid ground. But I don’t buy it. Hence, I thought about titling this post ‘The Jurgen of Authenticity’. But that might have been a bit la-dee-da.
In the end, I’m very glad I didn’t title the post “The Jurgen of Authenticity”. That would have been a serious mistake.
“Now ONE, or the monad,” says Jurgen, “is the principle and the end of all: it reveals the sublime knot which binds together the chain of causes: it is the symbol of identity, of equality, of existence, of conservation, and of general harmony.” And Jurgen emphasized these characteristics vigorously. “In brief, ONE is a symbol of the union of things: it introduces that generating virtue which is the cause of all combinations: and consequently ONE is a good principle.”
“Ah, ah!” said Queen Dolores, “I heartily admire a good principle. But what has become of your concrete example?”
“It is ready for you, madame: there is but ONE Jurgen.”
“Oh, I assure you, I am not yet convinced of that. Still, the audacity of your example will help me to remember ONE, whether or not you prove to be really unique.”