Thursday, April 11, 2013

Ten conservative insights

1. Conservatives are more inclined than progressives and radicals to find value in the present, in life as it is, with all its imperfections and injustices. Resentment, in particular, is to be avoided at all costs.

2. And you can't really value the present without valuing the past. A sense of history is all about seeing the past in its own terms, and not just as a source of debating points for current controversies.

3. Though non-conservatives often resist the idea, conservative modes of thinking are, in fact, universal, as human brains are structured in a conservative way. This was evident long before evolutionary biology and brain science spelled out the details. The narrator in Proust's great novel about time and memory, for instance, reflects on the way our concepts are formed in our early years and affect the way we perceive new things. His concept of a flower was based on the flowers he saw in childhood, and exotic forms encountered in later life – like orchids – were somehow not real flowers.

4. Conservatives give due recognition to the familial and social instincts upon which cohesive societies – and, indeed, the individual's sense of self – are built.

5. They also tend to place great importance on certain (unfashionable) character traits – like self-discipline and frugality, for instance.

6. Related to this, conservatives have a more sophisticated notion of freedom than leftists and libertarians. They know that a lightly regulated society which allows the individual to exercise personal judgement and discretion to a high degree will only function properly if individuals are generally honest and self-disciplined. Personal freedom has its roots in morality rather than in law or politics.

7. Society is organic. This is a metaphor often used by conservative social thinkers. The essential point behind it is that social life and cultures grow and develop over time according to their own imperatives and may be tended, as a plant or garden is tended, but not controlled.

8. Another angle on this, for those who are wary of metaphors, is that the world is more complicated than we think and our theories are always going to be unable to take full account of that complexity. If conservatives are seen to be averse to theorizing (about the moral, social and political realms), it is because they recognize that social reality inevitably transcends any models we might construct.

9. And, clearly, trying to implement or actively impose such models on the real world is asking for trouble. Unintended adverse consequences are guaranteed.

10. It is important to be sensitive not only to the ever-present possibility of unintended consequences but also to the contingencies of time and place. Caution and pragmatism tend to characterize conservative approaches to political action.