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.