Under The Sun

Wednesday, December 03, 2003


Conservative of what? I am emphatically not "Republican not conservative"; in fact, I would suggest that under Popshot's terms, the Republican Party is conservative not Republican. It has a Republican wing, of course, but such people tend toward independent, just as democratic Democrats (as opposed to the liberal elitists who prefer to do other people's thinking for them) tend toward independent. (Political parties are no exception to this rule: every ideological movement eventually falls prey to reification of the platform--the stance forgetting the reasons for the stance--which drives out anyone who can actually think.) And both groups of independents believe basically the same things: there's no difference in principle between libertarians and market socialists, just some differences in judgment. Calling such people Republicans is just as absurd as calling them Democrats.

But the real difference between the libertarians and the market socialists is precisely the difference between conservatives and liberals: the question their judgments diverge on is, Is our present society good enough? Liberals say no, we need change; conservatives say yes, stay the course. Those judgments--those definitions--don't change. What changes over historical time is "the course" we seek to hold or change.

Virginia Postrel said it best: the course the new conservatives seek to hold is that of dynamism, of change itself. We see a society that is able to adapt, and we want it to keep that ability. The present society we want to conserve is not "the United States circa 2003"; it's constitutional capitalism as a whole, where it may lead. Not that there are no possible bad outcomes; clearly things could go wrong. But we believe--we judge, on the basis of all the evidence available to us--that the best way to avoid future wrongness is the way we're using now. We believe that our current system, broadly construed, is and will remain an effective way to adapt to the future by weighing and balancing our diverse concerns.

"But--but--" sputter the liberals. There are so many things wrong with our current society! Yes--but we're working on them. And the current rate of progress is reasonably close to optimal, reasonably close to the proper balance between moral need and practical feasibility. Why do we think that?--because we think that constitutional capitalism is exactly the kind of process that is best equipped to find such a balance. By combining the economic and moral facts of life, constitutional capitalism is as close as we can come to a realistic model of how society actually works. Is it perfect?--of course not. But one of the ways in which it successfully models reality is that it has the ability to modify itself if the need is clear enough. The more insightful among us may correctly identify a need before it becomes "clear enough", but the Constitution is quite clear, and quite correct, about the proper reward for such insight: one vote plus the right to speak freely in order to persuade. That standard, that procedure, is not perfect. But it is better than any other ever devised, and we conservatives believe that it's good enough.

Postscript. One of the sub-headings of Jonah Goldberg's essay (linked from the Popshot piece) is "Maybe The Left Jumped The Shark?" That's exactly right. There was a time when liberalism, relative to its then-present, was the correct way to go: before government was constitutional, before markets were free. Then, radical changes were required for society to evolve: the Magna Carta, the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution. When that era of changes ended--when the foundation became firm--is an interesting historical question. (I would argue that it was when the Anglo-Dutch alliance thwarted the Spanish Armada, but a case could be made that it was the rise of labor unions in the 20th century.) But at some point the dynamistic balance was struck. And that was the point when liberalism as an overarcing philosophy (as opposed to liberalism as a position on specific political questions, like gay marriage) did indeed jump the shark.

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