Why I am (Still) a Conservative (For Now)

by Kevin Munger on January 16, 2023

In celebration (?) of my book’s recent Kindle release, today’s post aims to make the connection between my interest in generational conflict and technological progress more explicit.

(In case anyone came here just to get mad about the title, let me emphasize that this is a follow-up to Why I am (Still) a Liberal (For Now). I am less invested in defending a single theoretical or political tradition than in re-evaluating these traditions—indeed, in re-evaluating everything—in light of contemporary technology, and especially media technology.)

The traditional justification for conservatism is based in epistemic humility: there is only so much knowledge that we can accumulate within our lifetimes—especially about life-changing events like marriage or raising a child—so we should defer to the condensed knowledge of the past, condensed in the form of traditions, norms and institutions. The challenge for any reasonable person is to evaluate the tradeoff between tradition and progress, and the conservative is simply someone who puts more weight on the former.

Another perspective on conservatism, located within liberalism, sees its task as securing the conditions necessary for liberal reason to function. Reason is a historically contingent possibility. Enough people need to be able to talk with each other—and specifically to write to and read each other—to enable the deliberation upon which liberal reason is premised. There is only so much social/economic/cultural change that can be accomplished in a short time without denaturing liberal reason, making it unable to contain any of the various flavors of illiberalism always threatening to emerge.

I know that “conservative” is a heavily-laden term in contemporary US politics. So I’ll try to destabilize knee-jerk reactions: with apologies to Big D, there are basically zero conservatives in mainstream media or politics today. Even more provocatively, from my perspective, the most conservative president in the past 50 years was Barack Obama. The Republicans weren’t genuine conservatives but a distinctly and contingently American confusion.

The 20th century—in particular, the spectre and then reality of Communism—produced a incoherent political coalition in the United States. The Buckleyian fusion of (white, Christian) social conservatism with free market ideologues was a strategically successful response to the politics of the Cold War and the social revolutions of the 1960-70s, but it has since collapsed under the weight of its internal contradictions. The dynamism of unfettered capitalism is (obviously! triumphantly!) incompatible with the social conservative desire for stability and cultural continuity.

Patrick Deneen’s revisionism is the politically expedient way forward. Deneen’s influential book Why Liberalism Failed (which Obama blurbed, positively!) is remarkably cynical: it reads like a standard socialist critique of the past century, except he’s replaced the word “capitalism” with the word “liberalism.”  I’m actually quite sympathetic to his program for reform—except that it’s only like a third of the battle. Without also doing something about capitalism and media technology, the unilateral localism advocated for by Deneen can be nothing more than what Flusser calls “a political consciousness vegetating in an artificially preserved republic.”

With that in mind, I’m going to argue in favor of technological moral panics.

The conservative cranks complaining about younger generations’ moral decay from new communication technology were always right.

The world they knew—what they held sacred—was genuinely threatened by new communication technology. The ways in which they and their peers had developed themselves as people, the virtues of character they prized, might not be possible in new generations developed through the use of different technologies.

This debate is literally as old as Western philosophy. In Plato’s Phaedra, Socrates says that writing sucks because it will produce forgetfulness in the minds of those who learn to use it, because they will not practice their memory.

On the one hand, Socrates was clearly right: the rise of written philosophy destroyed the intellectual world that came before it. On the other hand, we only know about any of this because of writing, it is impossible for us to imagine an alternative reality.

To put this another way: liberals tend to support community autonomy. It seems wrong for a colonizer or imperialist to impose their values, to deny a community the ability to define, organize and conduct itself in the way they want. New technology can have the same destabilizing effect as the destruction of local icons or the disruption of the local environment. The vibe of the Communists coming in and banning centuries-old religious practices is different than the vibe of industrial farm technology crashing the price of wheat and thus destroying small farming communities—but either way, the right of community self-determination has been lost.

So how do we reconcile this confusion?

The standard Western autonarrative is Whig history—in our context, this means liberal capitalist technologist history. The old guard was always wrong, defending their oppressive “culture” against the progress the young strive for. New technology has always been good or at least neutral in the long run, and in the short run has been invaluable in enabling the young to break the musty grip of their elders.

(The darker but distressingly plausible version of this view is that new technology is at this point inevitable. In the climate change analogy, the homeostatic function of the environment is able to absorb only so much human-driven change before the equilibrium breaks and a runaway feedback loop produces non-linear global warming. According to theorists like Lewis Mumford and Jacques Ellul, we are already well past that point. Today, technocapital acceleration is a natural law and that we can at best recognize and attempt to reconcile ourselves with this fact.)

This belief in Progress is historically unusual; the more common view has been metaphysical, transcendent, religious. There is a correct way to live. Maybe our society is currently living correctly, maybe we are trying to one day live correctly, maybe we once lived correctly and are aiming to return. Some such communities are isolationist, uninterested in how others live so long as they are not disturbed; others are aggressive, insistent on converting others. Either way, this position is extremely difficult to reconcile with technological progress, a powerful exogenous force that works from within. The Amish offer one response, intentionally adopting or rejecting technologies based on whether they will let them live the way they want to. Other entities like the CCP appeal to long-standing ethnic traditions and justify their rule through the ability to connect them with contemporary technology: ban video games, rehabilitate Confucianism. But for the United States, with no telos or religion other than Progress, this is not an option.

An alternative to Whig history is the relativist view that moral progress is an illusion. Each society has its own moral framework, and we have no transcendent position from which to adjudicate disputes. Indeed when we look cross-sectionally, the attempt by one community to declare its moral framework superior to another and to take actions to bring the other into moral rectitude usually precipitates atrocity. As I wrote in part 1 of the Still…For Now series, technological change threatens the foundation of literate/liberal culture, the bedrock of western society for the past few centuries. I make only the minimal defense of this culture: it’s my culture, and the culture of many currently living, and we have the same right of self-determination as any other culture.

So my contingent claim is that the only way to be a liberal in 2023 is to be a conservative. Without a stable media-technological environment, the mechanisms of deliberation, regulation and education cannot function.

But things may be worse still. Liberalism and my cherished literary culture aside, the fundamental reality of human nature is potentially at risk. I’m not going to argue for any particular technosocial sensorium as “natural,” as if there was an Eden from which we fell or a Utopia we could build. Any attempt to draw sharp lines in the development of the rate at which information can be sent is ahistorical and morally contingent. See Justin EH Smith’s book on the nature of the internet to disabuse yourself of some notion of a sharp break.

But I am going to argue that the human lifespan is a fundamental reality of human nature. Different aspects of human physiological maturation take between 12 and 30 years; our natural ideal lifespan appears to be right around 100.

Yes, we’ve made some progress in increasing these numbers for the median human. Pre-agricultural paradise and Malthusian agricultural hell aside, over the past few centuries we’ve roughly doubled the human lifespan conditional on reaching adulthood, and nearly doubled the length of time in which young people spend as “children.”

But the exponential growth of Moore’s law poses an obvious problem. Any process that can grow or adapt at merely linear speeds will be overwhelmed by any process that can sustain exponential growth.

And this is why generational analysis is so important today. In a large, complex and interconnected society like the modern United States, a huge percentage of our relevant knowledge of the world comes from media. Our experience can only grow in linear time, but new media technology gives us a higher density of information per second. Indeed, I believe that this is the primary parameter that drives the adoption of new media.

Humans are constantly learning about the world, but it’s much harder to learn how to learn. Knowing how to learn makes a parameter out of our responses to the stimuli we receive from the world. It makes sense that this process would slow down as we age.

Think about how you learned about gravity. Not 9.8 whatever, but the intuitive calculations your brain makes when it sees something falling. As a baby, you watched a bunch of things and determined how that process works: things fall. If you saw a balloon floating, you developed a more sophisticated things-fall theory; airplanes, another wrinkle. But if you saw, at age 2, a real-life UFO, one which could accelerate, slow down and then hit hypersonic speeds, this would merely be evidence for the still-developing theory of how things move. As adults, with fully formed theories of how things move, seeing this UFO would force us to either conclude that a) aliens are real or b) there was an error in our perception. From a Bayesian perspective, the latter is dramatically higher likelihood.

The problem is that the internet is aliens. The exponential growth in information production and circulation has overwhelmed the mature information-processing capacities of adults; the fully armed and operational internet is shaping, molding, creating younger generations. I’m searching for the right word. In Romance languages they say “formacion” to mean something like training and education, and this is what I mean to say. Media forms us, most fully when we are young.

In contrast, what many older Americans see and post on Facebook is literally nonsense. There are threads of failed communicative acts; people don’t understand the structure of the platform, why certain words appear in front of them or what happens when they press certain buttons. Anecdotes abound of older users creating a new account whenever they get logged out, or of posting private messages on public pages. Online political campaigning increasingly takes the form of defrauding older people, financially or otherwise.

During my lifetime, the internet has penetrated almost every society in the world and converted younger generations into fundamentally different people than their parents and especially grandparents. Maybe this represents progress, maybe this represents decline. I am again agnostic about which is the ideal technosocial environment. But it definitely represents a breakdown of cultural continuity, of the ability of community self-determination.

And I’ll say that from my perspective, the following exchange evoked nothing but disgust and despair.

When this happened, many “liberals” (here I mean “Democratic party hooligans”) exulted in the humiliation of their partisan opponents at the hands of the Conway’s 15 year-old daughter. This behavior was embarrassing, as was so much of that era, but this tweet exchange struck a deeper chord with me. The relationship between parents and children has been irrevocably changed — and not because we deliberated on the topic and democratically selected this change, no, because we were invaded by aliens.

So regardless of whether you buy my case for the value of liberalism — and then regardless of whether you accept my argument that genuine conservatism is an essential strategy for achieving liberalism in 2023 — I hope that you agree that the current rate of change is incompatible with human dignity.

We’ve gotta start somewhere. As I argued in a recent presentation at Notre Dame, the US should ban TikTok.

And…please buy my book — now on Kindle!



BenK 01.16.23 at 2:27 pm

Two comments:

You say ‘progress’ in extending the human lifespan. This is something to revisit. It is possible that extending isn’t progress, that lifespan is the wrong metric, etc. For individuals, maybe QALY is better; for communities, the impact of different life expectancy curves on the various kinds of members may be variable on a longer multigenerational timescale.
Locality in time, space, and several other dimensions need to be factored in; and this gets very complex very quickly.


TinnMannn 01.16.23 at 2:46 pm

Interesting thesis, but in regard to the detrimental effects of media, I would contend that the “alien” ability to provide massive amounts of information pales in comparison to humans’ inability to filter that information into true and false.


J, not that one 01.16.23 at 4:46 pm

The problem with this argument is that it’s not possible for a generation to control the formation of its children. Where does the argument stop? Should “we” allow people of other religions to teach “our” children? Should we consider some of our contemporaries to have been improperly educated, sufficiently so that we can’t see them as our equals? How does one establish that the rate of social change was perfect when one was born, and anything else is too rapid? How does one establish that things one doesn’t like are actually new, and that the problem is everybody else and not oneself? How does one establish that the problems one knows about personally are the ones that most affect other people?

Since it’s inarguable that most people in 2023 didn’t grow up in communities that self-determined the ways isolated communities are able to, this would seem to write most of them off.


oldster 01.16.23 at 5:44 pm

Euripides wrote about Phaedra in his play “Hippolytus.”
Plato wrote about Phaedrus (a bloke) in a dialogue of that title.


Starry Gordon 01.16.23 at 6:19 pm

Didn’t you just say “[T]he attempt by one community to declare its moral framework superior to another and to take actions to bring the other into moral rectitude usually precipitates atrocity”?


Elsbeth 01.16.23 at 6:35 pm

People said the same things about novels and about newspapers when they blew up. The tweet exchange is practically The Graduate. How can such an ahistorical argument be so confident that history is irrelevant, with something closer to evidence than feelings?


PatinIowa 01.16.23 at 7:04 pm

“The relationship between parents and children has been irrevocably changed — and not because we deliberated on the topic and democratically selected this change, no, because we were invaded by aliens.”

It would seem to me that built into human generations is a simple fact: human beings differentiate themselves from their parents and grandparents, often radically, and more quickly than we imagine. One example that doesn’t require electricity: the more education women get, the fewer children they have.

In that case, declining birthrates surely indicate a fundamental change in how parents regard their children, children their parents, and a whole host of other social and cultural norms. Now it’s not hard to find people who call themselves “conservative” in the US decrying women’s reluctance to bear more children or their desire to participate in public life as “incompatible with human dignity.” I’m not buying it. I do think it’s analogous to what’s going on in the post.

The grandchildren of our grandchildren will embarrass the hell out of their grandparents, evoking feelings of disgust and despair. I am more certain of this than I am of the continued existence of human beings as a species.

Same as it ever was.

Twitter sucks, to be sure. I’m more upset about the invention of the hydrogen bomb.


Tra James 01.16.23 at 7:11 pm

Do you believe new generations have any right to self-determination regarding their own culture?

You mentioned that the internet has converted younger generations of people into different people than their parents and grandparents and posit that this wasn’t a deliberate choice but one forced on us by the invading “alien” of the internet. I think that perspective gives very little weight to the choices younger generations have made about how they want to live their lives and engage with the technology available to them.

I hope that you agree that the current rate of change is incompatible with human dignity.

I disagree with such a blanket statement, the current rate of change is definitely incompatible with the rate of change expected by older generations but for younger people this is normal, it’s all they know. I can’t say one way or the other if this is good or bad but when I interact with my Gen Z family members or listen to my educator wife talk about the children she teaches I’m not left feeling despair about the future. Are they completely alien to me at times? Definitely. Do I think a lot of their interests are ridiculous? Yep. But once I stop trying to interpret their worldview through the prism of my own and just listen their humanity and dignity is plain to see. They’re different people than us but I don’t think they represent a “moral decay from new communication technology” just a moral change that seems to suit them just fine.

Lastly, the Conway family twitter exchange was definitely embarrassing but I don’t see how it represents a new, irrevocable change in the general parent/child relationship. It’s not like “Father struggles to control teenage daughter” is anything new in western society, the only difference here is that it was written on a public forum. From what I can remember of that period the Conways are a dysfunctional family, the fact they’d be dysfunctional on the internet as well shouldn’t really be taken as proof positive that the generational bonds that gird or culture have been lost forever.


Heshel 01.16.23 at 7:31 pm

I guess I’m not getting the disgust and despair feels with respect to the exchange between George Conway and his offspring. It looks like a parent and child negotiating boundaries out in public. Sometimes it can feel embarrassing to witness those kinds of exchanges, but they only evoke despair and disgust for me when the parent decides to end the negotiations with violence or withholding their affection–a strategy that probably transcends technological epochs.

How did the aliens irrevocably change the relationship between parent and minor child?


John Q 01.16.23 at 7:34 pm

This is very much the thesis of Future Shock. Although Toffler wrote lots of silly stuff, and is mostly forgotten these days, AFAICT, the Tofflers (Alvin and his wife Heidi) were interesting thinkers. They were early student radicals and spent five years as blue collar workers on assembly lines before becoming public intellectuals.

Of course, it’s fifty years since Future Shock came out. This suggests either that we can handle rapid change, or that the catastrophe has already happened.


Peter Dorman 01.16.23 at 8:47 pm

Does anyone beside me think the use of “technology” as a self-determining alien force is strange? Two things seem fairly clear to me: technology is plural (technologies), and the way they develop is strongly influenced by how societies are organized and what system of incentives prevails. The internet is the way it is because of attention capitalism. It could be different.

FWIW, I’ll append something I wrote in an unrelated context over 30 years ago:

“In recent centuries the pace of technological change has increased at an increasing rate. By the 1920’s it had become clear that a spate of new inventions and products—electricity, the telephone and radio, the automobile, new metal alloys, etc.—were transforming the lives of most citizens in the industrialized world in an unprecedented way. Without a doubt, many of these changes were positive and widely welcomed, but others were actually or potentially harmful. Under these circumstances an intellectual debate opened up concerning the social impact of new technology. (Because of the general popularity of these new technologies, the debate did not acquire a political dimension.) Critics pointed to the side effects of technology, with some claiming that the negative consequences might outweigh the positive ones. Perhaps the most influential early critic was Stuart Chase (1929), who proposed to construct a balance sheet for technology, with the hope that, by identifying the red entries, we might be able to offset them in some fashion. A more radical position was that of Jacques Ellul (1967), who argued that, properly understood, technology’s general effect was to debase culture and imprison the individual. Similar skepticism, though more muted and carefully worked through, was expressed by Siegfried Giedion (1948). Here the focus is on the impact of mass production techniques on product standards and content of human labor.

“These and other analyses of technology were often insightful, and they played a crucial role in opening up a new dimension of the human experience for research and debate. Nevertheless, there was an arbitrariness to their generalizing: for every sweeping judgement they enunciated it would be possible to find a host of counterexamples—technology that created jobs as well as eliminating them, making us safer as well as more at risk, promoting greater diversity in products as well as greater standardization. And it was never clear what practical politics followed from possible condemnations of technology; how would the genie be put back in the bottle?

“A transitional figure in the analysis of technology was Lewis Mumford (1934). Although he spoke broadly about “technics”, he distinguished between different eras in which technical innovations follow different principles and tend toward different outcomes. Optimistically, he forecast a coming age of “biotechnics”, in which ecological and public health principles would govern our material life and human well-being would flourish. Stripped of its formulaic stages-of-history telos, Mumford’s narrative raised the prospect of a choice of technical systems. Perhaps we might not want to wait for biotechnics to emerge on its own schedule. In that event we would need to distinguish concretely between different technologies, so that we could promote the life-affirming alternatives. The critical point is that serious thinking about technology begins only when distinctions are made and the effects of different technologies can be compared. Thus, a work like Wiener (1954) is a classic not only for the merits of its analysis, but also because it considered what was new and different about computers in contrast to other technologies.

“Today there is a thriving field of science and technology studies (STS). Its participants no longer issue general statements about the nature of Technology—they study technologies. They advise us on what we might expect from specific technological developments and why we might prefer one path of technical change to another. They also examine the social and historical forces that enable particular technologies to prevail over their competitors. STS is a legitimate field of study because it has a concrete subject matter, the various technologies that populate our built universe, and not the fuzzy Platonic entity, Technology. (Winner, 1988; MacKenzie and Wajcman, 1985)”

As a ps, I’ll add that there is also a problem with the epistemic humility formulation of conservatism in light of nonconvex cultural fitness landscapes and multiple evolutionary paths, but we’ll leave that aside for now….


Michael G 01.16.23 at 11:19 pm

What I read is an argument for Continuity through what you’re calling Conservatism. That you wish to maintain a baseline of understanding through generations that allow for the communication required for Liberal (or any) values to persist through time. With my friends, I jokingly refer to this as a “Common Basis of Reality”. It is the intellectual common ground required for discussion or argument. If you can’t agree on some low-level facts, then higher-level arguments are pointless.


Alex SL 01.16.23 at 11:41 pm

there are basically zero conservatives in mainstream media or politics today

I assume you are aware of the No True Scotsman fallacy?

Although one may immediately be drawn to a comparison with those who say they are communists but that basically nothing that happened between 1917 and 1990 was communism, the better analogy may be Sophisticated Theology. There is, for example, a Catholic apologist called Edward Feser who argues in exactly this manner. All the Christians, Muslims, or Jews, including most of their theologians, who believe that god is a very powerful person-being? Not True Theism at all. The only real understanding of Theism is represented by those 0.0001% of believers who are Classical Theologians. Therefore atheists who argue against the kind of god the other 99.99999% of religious people believe in are silly and can be dismissed out of hand.

Buckleyian fusion of (white, Christian) social conservatism with free market ideologues

While I appreciate somebody making clear for a change that they are specifically discussing the USA (that at least clarifies the odd claim that “liberals”, an ideology centred on individualism, seem most concerned about community autonomy, because the USA use that term differently than virtually all other countries), this general principle characterises conservatism in most, if not all, nations: they get the xenophobes to vote for them by stoking fear of immigrants and loss of majority privileges and then, once in power, asset-strip public utilities, cut everything except pensions, and lower taxes on the wealthy. Rinse and repeat. Worst case scenario for them is the rubes figuring out what is going on and switching to a more populist right-wing party who promises to actually be serious about the immigration issue while keeping public services intact, but usually mainstream conservatives have most of the media on their side, so that threat is reasonably manageable.

I am sorry, but that is what conservatism is today. Four or five intellectuals who may call themselves True Classical Conservatives are not going to stem that tide of hundreds of millions of voters, party members, journalists, think tankers, priests, and politicians worldwide.

I would, however, be more optimistic about the threat of runaway global warming and runaway technological progress.

If it was this easy to boil the planet to the point of no return through positive feedback loops, it would have happened at any time during the last one billions years when the earth warmed a few degrees, such as at the end of every glacial cycle the last two million years; but it didn’t. It is much more likely that we will warm the planet to the degree where technological civilisation collapses into a new dark age of at best 17th century technology and a few hundred million survivors, and then warming soon stops because only small amounts of CO2 will be added from that point on (and indeed reforestation of depopulated areas will sink a bit of carbon, hopefully counteracting at least the lag).

As for technological progress, the beginning of each accumulation curve looks a bit like an exponential growth curve, but at some point everything runs into diminishing returns and physical limits.


PatinIowa 01.16.23 at 11:50 pm

“But once I stop trying to interpret their worldview through the prism of my own and just listen their humanity and dignity is plain to see.”

Honestly, I don’t think there’s anything more to say. Cheers to Tra James at 8.


J-D 01.17.23 at 12:26 am

And I’ll say that from my perspective, the following exchange evoked nothing but disgust and despair.


I hope my being considerably your senior in years will excuse me for responding ‘You poor old fellow’.

Lastly, the Conway family twitter exchange was definitely embarrassing but I don’t see how it represents a new, irrevocable change in the general parent/child relationship. It’s not like “Father struggles to control teenage daughter” is anything new in western society, the only difference here is that it was written on a public forum. From what I can remember of that period the Conways are a dysfunctional family, the fact they’d be dysfunctional on the internet as well shouldn’t really be taken as proof positive that the generational bonds that gird or culture have been lost forever.

I can easily believe it was embarrassing for George Conway; I’m less sure it was embarrassing for Claudia Conway.

‘Father struggles to control teenage daughter’ is not a new story in western societies, and also not a new story in non-western societies. Some other stories which are not new: ‘Master struggles to control slave’; ‘Ruler struggles to control subject’; ‘Employer struggles to control employee’; ‘Husband struggles to control wife’. Tell me, whose side are you on?


Sophie Jane 01.17.23 at 8:09 am

I’ll just note that, for obvious reasons, traditions of resistance have been around for exactly as long as the traditions of domination this kind of conservatism likes to celebrate.


roger gathmann 01.17.23 at 8:16 am

If it is true that there are “basically zero conservatives in mainstream media or politics today”, I think that would count, in conservative terms, with its respect for tradition and norms, as a heavy minus on the conservative side, and a cause for a major rethink. Instead, unless I’m reading this wrongly, it is an alibi that allows one to define one’s own conservatism any way you want to and slip through real world applications of conservatism.
If I said “there are basically zero Stalinists in mainstream media or politics today”, and I was trying to claim some virtue in Stalinism, I might want to contemplate, first, why there are zero Stalinists in mainstream media or politics today. I would perhaps mention the gulag. And, for a conservative, I would perhaps mention race, gender, hierarchy and how it got that way, and consider that in the past conservative views about race and gender were: blacks should be slaves or second class citizens, women should have less rights than men, and what place they had in society should depend on men, homosexuality should be illegal, and white male privilege should be respected as the traditional and valid order that we change at our peril. Among other things. But if we are blithely going to jump over history and claim that we are all about tradition, we quickly get to – twitter conservatism.


1soru1 01.17.23 at 2:15 pm

@17 historically, what happened was very much that communists continued to call themselves communists. The term ‘Stalinist’ was originally mostly used by them to make the distinction between what they believed in and what the soviet union was doing.

The thing is, authoritarian or totalitarian communism use different rhetoric to the corresponding forms of nationalism, but they acted pretty similarly. And respectable radicals living in Hampstead might use rhetoric of the form ‘capitalism is doomed to collapse’, but hardly ever killed anyone. Maybe actions are more important than words?

I see the OP as making the point that there is recognizably conservative rhetoric; typically arguments of the form ‘this might turn out badly’. Obama-style progressive conservatism is based in the idea that things are (were?) currently improving steadily. so we should be worried about threats to that continued progress. Things might turn out badly,

The single biggest such threat is global warming. But there are others, and they can’t be dismissed as simply as saying ‘this is new, so will be present in the future. As we all know, the future will be better than today. Therefor this cannot be bad’.


Adam Roberts 01.17.23 at 2:38 pm

This old blog of mine was posted two years ago now, and quite a lot of it has been falsified (or problematised) by subsequent events, but it’s about what the OP is about.


Ray Vinmad 01.17.23 at 9:52 pm

I have children. I grew up without the internet. I didn’t even have a television until I was 16, though I watched television at other people’s houses. (I was obsessed with old movies, especially and would watch these with my friend’s mom after school.)

My children love the internet and also play games online. I don’t love how much they’re on the internet and I find the internet destructive to individuals and the social fabric in a variety of ways but it is analogous to automobiles –we lost many valuable aspects of life and we also gained harmful externalities but it isn’t possible to be part of this society and shun these aspects (unless you’re amish or something). This is how people travel & communicate now.

My children are not fundamentally different from us, their parents. They share our moral values, pretty much. We also taught them to be curious and inquisitive and critical. (Or at least I think we taught them this.) So if they disagree with us about important things, they know they must give us reasonable arguments if they want us to change our beliefs. Sometimes they do this successfully. Sometimes we change their ideas. We all understand each other, and when we don’t, we explain things sufficiently so that we do.

I was alarmed to find a trove of my oldest child’s youtube comments at first (under my gmail account!) but reading through these I was relieved to see that they were arguing with people, often fairly noxious people, in a reasonable and respectful way.

If ‘conservativism’ is described abstractly enough, I am a conservative and so are my children. Perhaps epistemic humility can be displayed in a willingness to listen to other people. My children get along well with people because they take a ‘live and let live’ and ‘to each their own’ attitude towards others. Except they are also acutely aware of the idea of mutual responsibility and the fact that they share the world with other people, that they exist in an interdependent web and they aren’t special because everyone is equal.

So they are suspicious of things that they see as harmful such as wealth acquisition, nationalism, militarism, and social, racial and gender hierarchies. I let my kids play shooter games online and when my child discovered people were actually permitted to own weapons like these, he was completely shocked and horrified. (We don’t watch TV much–maybe a result of my own childhood– so he hadn’t seen a lot of news up to that point and thought guns in superhero movies were purely fantasy.)

So I think we should not stretch the term ‘conservative’ so far as to become meaningless.

I don’t want to present too rosy a picture because there are of course many times when I have felt that my children were influenced by things I object to. And it’s very difficult to know what to do in those moments and some of the ways things are turning out are luck and not in my control. It’s difficult that there is this powerful cultural force pushing all if us, one that already has a lock on our psychology which AI will probably only make worse. But behind this instrument is capitalism and the profit motive. Though it would still be used for propaganda even if capitalism weren’t a factor we certainly already have our desires hijacked by the dictates of the market. While all this nefarious stuff is happening, we’re also being sold things. The instruments invading our privacy exist solely for that.

Just like with the intrusions in parenting, our only tools we probably have to deflect are the standard human capacities of empathy, reason, interpersonal connection and so forth. It doesn’t make sense to me to blame the process on specific political camps. As individuals, we have the same moral tasks of being good people we always had, the same types of responsibilities. It’s not necessarily easier or harder to be good now than it ever was.


Mike Furlan 01.17.23 at 10:52 pm

“The traditional justification for conservatism is based in epistemic humility”

Doesn’t sound very humble to me, but then you might want to argue that William F. Buckley Jr. was not really a conservative.

“The central question that emerges-and it is not
a parliamentary question or a question that is
answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the
rights of American citizens, born Equal-is whether
the White community in the South is entitled to take
such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically
and culturally, in areas in which it does not pre-
dominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes
-the White community is so entitled because, for
the time being, it is the advanced race . ”



politicalfootball 01.18.23 at 4:30 am

Contra Professor Munger, the kids are all right. Me, I worry about the Adults Nowadays.

Claudia Conway exposes her parents the way Martha Mitchell exposed her husband. It didn’t end well for Martha and one supposes it won’t for Claudia. But John Mitchell, Kellyanne Conway and George Conway are the actual problems. The media that gave us Martha and Claudia aren’t to blame.


TM 01.18.23 at 11:00 am

Alex 13: “It is much more likely that we will warm the planet to the degree where technological civilisation collapses into a new dark age of at best 17th century technology and a few hundred million survivors, and then warming soon stops because only small amounts of CO2 will be added from that point on (and indeed reforestation of depopulated areas will sink a bit of carbon, hopefully counteracting at least the lag).”

That’s the most heartwarmingly optimistic statement I’ve read all day. I agree regarding the reforestation, isn’t there a plausible theory that the Little Ice Age was caused by reforestation resulting from population collapse due to the Black death?


Jake Gibson 01.18.23 at 2:22 pm

I have to say that the idea that there is a “correct” way to live is deeply offensive. There should be an infinite number of “correct” ways to live.
And it is inevitable and “correct” that our children and grandchildren will live differently than we did.


J, not that one 01.18.23 at 6:43 pm

Burke is all very well and good, but it seems much simpler to define conservatism in the UK, a country with an established church, a continuing monarchy and aristocracy, and a handful of ancient universities with a number of very, very young universities, than in a US context where the dominant church, the dominant mode of elite socialization, and so on, shift from region to region and from time to time.

A “conservatism” that, say, declares every individual from one region is automatically more conservative than every individual from all the other regions (say, all Evangelical Southerners have an authentic Burkean culture and all others do not), is no different than declaring that the dominance of one race is “conservative,” and trying to combine it with a principled intellectual conservatism based on a myth that the US must have an establishment comparable to the French and English ones is a recipe for victimizing the rest of us in their crossfire.


bekabot 01.22.23 at 7:19 pm

Unlike some of the other contributors here, I see what you mean about the Conways — but the saying about apples and trees and how far the fruit falls and rolls is very old, and, what’s more, very conservative. As a reflexive liberal, I’d be the first to admit that the fact that it’s conservative doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

So, why blame the technology and not the people who are using it? Why castigate the tools and not their users? That’s the part I don’t get.


dneus 01.23.23 at 1:31 am

The claim that “the current rate of change is incompatible with human dignity” says more about the person making it than it does about moral reality. Which humans? What dignity? One hardly has to subscribe to doctrinaire Marxism to find this a perfect specimen of the worst sort of bourgeois pseudo-universalism.

I am, of course, sympathetic to the argument that liberalism requires self-defense in order to preserve the conditions for reasoned deliberation. And sure – an attitude of caution about social/cultural/technological change could fairly be defended on such grounds as a justifiable form of moderate conservatism. However, to argue against change simply because it is change, on no other grounds than that humans just can’t tolerate too much of it, is not conservatism but reaction plain and simple.

In the last analysis, either liberalism can reconcile itself with change, or it can’t. If you truly believe, with Deneen, that liberalism has failed, then by all means feel free to stand athwart history shouting “stop!” – but please don’t try to pretend that liberalism made you do it.


Alex 01.23.23 at 8:02 pm

People like Conway endlessly shove their barely- or non-consenting kids in front of the media for their own cynical goals – it’s been a clichéd political move all my life and it’s a horrible habit – so I have absolutely no problem with young Conway pushing back especially as all that happened to old Conway was embarrassment, a minor problem and one everyone has to endure now and again.

If the relationship, yadda yadda, had been irrevocably changed, it happened 50 or so years ago when the political consulting/public relations profession invented this trope, and it changed much for the worse. It is absolutely not limited to any one party.

Comments on this entry are closed.