Re: definition of conservatism

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From: Kragen Sitaker (
Date: Mon Dec 04 2000 - 01:38:35 PST

John Klassa writes:
> >>>>> On Tue, 28 Nov 2000, "Kragen" =3D=3D Kragen Sitaker wrote:
> Kragen> These beliefs are the foundation of conservatism; indeed,
> Kragen> conservatism divides humanity far more finely than mere
> Kragen> racism, asserting even that different families of people in
> Kragen> the same clan are hereditarily superior and inferior to one
> Kragen> another.
> *What*?! What's your definition of conservatism?

I'll quote Phil Agre; although it's the same definition I learned in my
sociology classes at UNM, I have Phil's posts in a more pastable form
than my textbooks:

        In reading the responses to my recent notes on political
        subjects, it has finally dawned on me that many people who
        regard themselves as conservatives don't know what
        conservativism is. Conservatives believe in objective truth,
        and there is an objective truth about what conservativism is.
        Ever since conservatism was given its definitive articulation
        by Edmund Burke, conservatives have worked to build a society
        of orders and classes, governed by a hereditary aristocracy, in
        which tradition and prejudice are good things and equality and
        innovation are bad things, in which the lower orders
        unquestioningly regard the judgements of authority and
        institutions as the absolute truth, and in which everyone
        presupposes that all oppression is the fault of the oppressed.
        That's what conservatism is, and what it has always been.

        None of this has ever been secret. You can read it in Burke,
        who was writing in reaction to the French revolution. If
        Burke's sentences are too long then you can read about him in
        Russell Kirk, who was one of the founders of modern
        conservatism in the United States. (See, for example, his
        exposition of Burke in chapter 2 of "The Conservative Mind".)
        The problem for the punditry, of course, is that Americans tend
        to be revolted when conservatism is defined in plain language.
        It sounds like the opposite of what the country stands for, as
        indeed it is. That's why it tends to be framed within the
        strong emotions and primitive thought-patterns of the pundits
        and their jargon.


The particular tenet of conservatism I was linking to racism was the
belief that all men are not created equal; rather, that great sons are
born to great fathers, and lesser sons are born to lesser fathers.
Think of Tolkien.

See e.g.,
wherein Burke, after attacking democracy, freedom of religion, freedom
of speech, and innovation, and praising hereditary succession and
reverence to antiquity, points out that the people are not competent to
judge their betters, such as their kings:

        The question of dethroning . . . will always be, as it has
        always been, an extraordinary question of state, and wholly out
        of the law . . . As it was not made for common abuses, so it is
        not to be agitated by common minds.

He points out that people who have not historically been free are not
suited to becoming free, and manages to point out in passing (as an
axiom, not a conclusion) that we ought to revere individual men
strictly on the basis of their descent and age, not on the basis of
their achievements:

        Always acting as if in the presence of canonized forefathers,
        the spirit of freedom, leading in itself to misrule and excess,
        is tempered with an awful gravity. This idea of a liberal
        descent inspires us with a sense of habitual native dignity
        which prevents that upstart insolence almost inevitably
        adhering to and disgracing those who are the first acquirers of
        any distinction. By this means our liberty becomes a noble
        freedom. It carries an imposing and majestic aspect. It has a
        pedigree and illustrating ancestors. It has its bearings and
        its ensigns armorial. It has its gallery of portraits, its
        monumental inscriptions, its records, evidences, and titles. We
        procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle
        upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men: on
        account of their age and on account of those from whom they are

(To be fair, he points out to his French correspondent that imagining
free ancestors (a "liberal descent") can be almost as good as having

He points out how much better the French would have had things if they
had restored their king after the revolution and created a state in
imitation of that of their ancestors:

        You would have rendered the cause of liberty venerable in the
        eyes of every worthy mind in every nation. . . . You would have
        had a free constitution, a potent monarchy, a disciplined army,
        a reformed and venerated clergy, a mitigated but spirited
        nobility to lead your virtue, not to overlay it; you would have
        had a liberal order of commons to emulate and to recruit that
        nobility; you would have had a protected, satisfied, laborious,
        and obedient people, taught to seek and to recognize the
        happiness that is to be found by virtue in all conditions; in
        which consists the true moral equality of mankind, and not in
        that monstrous fiction which, by inspiring false ideas and vain
        expectations into men destined to travel in the obscure walk of
        laborious life, serves only to aggravate and embitter that real
        inequality which it never can remove, and which the order of
        civil life establishes as much for the benefit of those whom it
        must leave in a humble state as those whom it is able to exalt
        to a condition more splendid, but not more happy.

See how wise Burke's "conservatism" is? If you can resign yourself to
your fate of being oppressed by the nobility, you'll be much happier
about inequality than if you believe some (unspecified) monstrous
fiction, and you'll be satisfied, laborious, and obedient, while you
emulate the nobility.

He points out that France's 1789 revolution and ruin was the
predictable consequence of the Third Estate being controlled by those
who had previously been oppressed, namely (believe it or not)
rank-and-file lawyers:

        Whenever the supreme authority is vested in a body so composed,
        it must evidently produce the consequences of supreme authority
        placed in the hands of men not taught habitually to respect
        themselves, who had no previous fortune in character at stake,
        who could not be expected to bear with moderation, or to
        conduct with discretion, a power which they themselves, more
        than any others, must be surprised to find in their hands. Who
        could flatter himself that these men, suddenly and, as it were,
        by enchantment snatched from the humblest rank of
        subordination, would not be intoxicated with their unprepared

Lawyers, especially common lawyers with poor clients, have always been
favorite targets of conservatives, because the courts have always been
the only effective weapon of the powerless and weak against their
oppressors. Burke goes on to castigate the character of this group of
people, a conservative tradition that continues to this day.

He explains that the British House of Commons is filled with the
nobility and the rich because of its policy of equality of opportunity
--- and, one assumes, the natural inferiority of the little people:

        We know that the British House of Commons, without shutting its
        doors to any merit in any class, is, by the sure operation of
        adequate causes, filled with everything illustrious in rank, in
        descent, in hereditary and in acquired opulence, in cultivated
        talents, in military, civil, naval, and politic distinction
        that the country can afford.

Burke has an explanation why some members of the French nobility ("men
of quality") sought revolution:

        Turbulent, discontented men of quality, in proportion as they
        are puffed up with personal pride and arrogance, generally
        despise their own order.

And he explains why social reform is ultimately futile:

        BELIEVE ME, SIR, those who attempt to level, never equalize. In
        all societies, consisting of various descriptions of citizens,
        some description must be uppermost. The levelers, therefore,
        only change and pervert the natural order of things; they load
        the edifice of society by setting up in the air what the
        solidity of the structure requires to be on the ground. The
        association of tailors and carpenters, of which the republic
        (of Paris, for instance) is composed, cannot be equal to the
        situation into which by the worst of usurpations- an usurpation
        on the prerogatives of nature- you attempt to force them.

And why democracy is doomed:

        The Chancellor of France, at the opening of the states, said,
        in a tone of oratorical flourish, that all occupations were
        honorable. If he meant only that no honest employment was
        disgraceful, he would not have gone beyond the truth. But in
        asserting that anything is honorable, we imply some distinction
        in its favor. The occupation of a hairdresser or of a working
        tallow-chandler cannot be a matter of honor to any person- to
        say nothing of a number of other more servile employments. Such
        descriptions of men ought not to suffer oppression from the
        state; but the state suffers oppression if such as they, either
        individually or collectively, are permitted to rule. In this
        you think you are combating prejudice, but you are at war with

He explains he's not opposed to equality of opportunity, though:

        You do not imagine that I wish to confine power, authority, and
        distinction to blood and names and titles. No, Sir. There is no
        qualification for government but virtue and wisdom, actual or
        presumptive. Wherever they are actually found, they have, in
        whatever state, condition, profession, or trade, the passport
        of Heaven to human place and honor. Woe to the country which
        would madly and impiously reject the service of the talents and
        virtues, civil, military, or religious, that are given to grace
        and to serve it, and would condemn to obscurity everything
        formed to diffuse luster and glory around a state. Woe to that
        country, too, that, passing into the opposite extreme,
        considers a low education, a mean contracted view of things, a
        sordid, mercenary occupation as a preferable title to command.

But he is careful to say he doesn't want too much of it:

        I do not hesitate to say that the road to eminence and power,
        from obscure condition, ought not to be made too easy, nor a
        thing too much of course. If rare merit be the rarest of all
        rare things, it ought to pass through some sort of probation.

And he really likes inheritance; we can tell which side of the
death-tax issue he'd be on:

        The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one
        of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to
        it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of
        society itself. It makes our weakness subservient to our
        virtue, it grafts benevolence even upon avarice. The possessors
        of family wealth, and of the distinction which attends
        hereditary possession (as most concerned in it), are the
        natural securities for this transmission. With us the House of
        Peers is formed upon this principle. It is wholly composed of
        hereditary property and hereditary distinction, and made,
        therefore, the third of the legislature and, in the last event,
        the sole judge of all property in all its subdivisions. The
        House of Commons, too, though not necessarily, yet in fact, is
        always so composed, in the far greater part. Let those large
        proprietors be what they will- and they have their chance of
        being amongst the best- they are, at the very worst, the
        ballast in the vessel of the commonwealth. For though
        hereditary wealth and the rank which goes with it are too much
        idolized by creeping sycophants and the blind, abject admirers
        of power, they are too rashly slighted in shallow speculations
        of the petulant, assuming, short-sighted coxcombs of
        philosophy. Some decent, regulated preeminence, some preference
        (not exclusive appropriation) given to birth is neither
        unnatural, nor unjust, nor impolitic.

> b : a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability,
> stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development
> to abrupt change

That's the philosophy Burke is outlining, but the integral part of that
philosophy that underlies racism --- that the respect due a man is a
function of his blood, except in unusual cases --- is not mentioned in
the definition.

<>       Kragen Sitaker     <>
Perilous to all of us are the devices of an art deeper than we possess
       -- Gandalf the White [J.R.R. Tolkien, "The Two Towers", Bk 3, Ch. XI]

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