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Conservatism, Briefly Defined Described

Several days ago I wrote about the Ahmari-French argument, which might better be termed the liberal-postliberal argument (meaning classical liberalism, not the current party label), and which is currently happening on the right. See this post. I don't entirely agree with either side, and am not much interested in participating in the argument, so will not bother trying to articulate my view.

It's been something like forty years now since I somewhat reluctantly admitted that I had become, for lack of a better word, a conservative. But I've always maintained a certain distance from the conservative movement, and had only limited interest in the never-ending debate about What It Means To Be A Conservative.

Conservatism, as Russell Kirk said, is the negation of ideology. Or it ought to be. Accordingly, it resists definition. A decade or so ago I had an unpleasant argument with a traditionalist Catholic who had, in my opinion, taken Thomistic (or just scholastic?) logic where it doesn't readily go, and insisted (triumphantly) that because conservatism could not be defined precisely it must not exist. Cf. jazz, I thought; I can't remember whether I said it or not. That something cannot be defined in a complete and unambiguous way does not mean that we cannot speak of it.

The following note is from Kevin Williamson's entry in the Ahmari-French controversy. Both French and Williamson write for National Review and are in rough agreement on the question at hand. But this struck me as a fundamental truth that transcends that question:

Conservatives have always been, and will always be, at a disadvantage against the utopians of the Left and the utopians of the Right in that conservatives believe that it very often is the case that there is nothing to be done, or not much to be done, that most problems are to be managed rather than solved, that we should aim at mitigation rather than transformation, that we are better positioned to assuage than to conquer, that things are what they are and must be dealt which on that basis.

A few (?) months ago someone complained that I had "gotten so reactionary." Well, I may or may not be fairly described as reactionary, but if I am I have not gotten that way anytime recently. I've held pretty much the same basic political views since that transition forty years ago. Williamson expresses very well the foundation on which those views rest. I would add that "conservative" is descriptive, not prescriptive. The list of specific policies that it requires or rejects as being intrinsically good or bad is fairly short. 

I sometimes think conservatives are in a situation something like that of Cordelia in King Lear. Her father is enraged by the modesty of her profession of love and duty toward him. The extravagant promises of Goneril and Regan are much more pleasing, so naturally he thinks better of them--for a while.

Of course conservative hopes can sometimes be overly modest, willing to tolerate evils that could be ameliorated (though probably not obliterated). A perfect balance between the impulse to preserve and the impulse to improve would be...perfect. And is unlikely.


Some people say "conservativism" instead of "conservatism." I've always thought it sounded cumbersome and a little silly, like Peter Schickele's "musicalologist." But a few days ago I read someone's case for it as being more correct. "Liberal" is made into the noun "liberalism," not "liberism." "Conservative" therefore should become concrete in something called "conservativism."

This is going to bother me for the rest of my life.


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I don't like Williamson much but the quote is a good one. A long time ago someone at Touchstone wrote that the debate between liberals and conservatives is like a fight between two dogs, roughly equal, but one of which is tied to a post. The latter is the conservative, who is (or should be) bound to the "permanent things," and thus at something of a disadvantage, at least rhetorically speaking.

What complicates this, to my mind at least, regarding the mainstream American conservative movement is that it has been affected (I almost wrote "infected") by a fiscal libertarianism that simply cannot be squared with what Williamson describes. Most mainstream conservatives do not see this disconnect, however, which I guess is one of the things that makes them "mainstream" conservatives.

Since Kirk died in '94 American conservatism hasn't really had a prominent mediating, meliorating voice that could serve as a corrective to that, a place that Roger Scruton holds in the UK (American conservatives would greatly benefit by reading more of him). Tucker Carlson is starting to emerge as that sort of voice, albeit on a more popular level, but it's too early to tell if he'll have any deep or long-term influence.

(I remember telling Rod Dreher once that even if all Crunchy Cons did was to get more conservatives to read Kirk and Berry he should consider it a success.)

I find Williamson a *very* mixed bag, but he is very sharp and usually worth reading.

When we talk about libertarian economics etc. as an aspect of conservativsm, we're talking about the "fusionism" that pretty much defined most of American conservatism for so long. There seems to be a growing consensus that that's finished. Well, no, maybe "consensus" is the wrong word. There's definitely a growing rejection of it, anyway. I'm sure you're familiar with that debate, probably more so than I am, but for the benefit of anyone reading this who isn't, here's a recent and prominent instance:


"But even during the Cold War, this conservatism too often tracked the same lodestar liberalism did—namely, individual autonomy. The fetishizing of autonomy paradoxically yielded the very tyranny that consensus conservatives claim most to detest."

Tucker Carlson being a TV personality, I haven't actually heard him, but from what Dreher and others have been saying he certainly seems to be saying some things that really need to be said.

While on the macro level criticism of fusionism is growing, I don't really see much critique of the underlying "lodestar" of individual autonomy, though, which is a problem.

In the political arena, no. Practically none. Almost nobody wants to face the scaling back of personal freedom that would be involved in a move toward more fundamental values. I'm not sure if Ahrami and his supporters make that part of their approach to politics.

Your last line is hilarious, though I sincerely hope you end up being not too bothered by it.

Only when I read or write the word "conservatism." :-/

May it happen rarely :)

Tucker Carlson? He may have been some sort of serious thinker at one time, but now it appears that he has morphed into a Trump apologist, ala Sean Hannity.

"saying some things that really need to be said" and "serious thinker" are not at all the same thing. They may not even overlap.

As for conservativism being more correct, that might be so if we insisted on that ki d of parallel construction on a regular basis, but we don't. The first example that springs to mind is the wide variety of suffixes we attach to the names of states to signify their inhabitants.


It's not that it's incorrect that bothers me, but that it chops off the word, leaving the root as a non-word "conservat". All those words that jam something onto "holic" bother me in the same way, but worse. But I can easily avoid using them.

I'm trying to think of another word where a word is turned into an "ism" noun that doesn't use the whole word. Spiritualism. Despotism. Communism. I guess Thomism qualifies--it's not Thomasism.

What about "feminism"?

Yes indeed. Excellent example. And a word I use or encounter fairly often. That there are others makes me feel slightly better.

people actually do write 'Thomasian'

I always write conservativism

Noble soul!

I'm sorry, but conservativism is hell to type, especially on a phone.


It's also hard to say. I'm afraid that if I were in a position where I had to use it in public it would come out "conservativivism".

Distributism . Some argue it should be Distributivism.

Yes, I've seen that. In that case either seems ok. "Distribute" + "ism" says it well enough. But "distributive" as in "distributive justice" is reasonable, too.

Though it sounds kind of awkward.

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