The Hard Heart of Conservatism

"...If there were a king over us all again and he sought the counsel of a mage as in the days of old, and I was that mage, I would say to him: My lord, do nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way."
- the advice of Ged the Archmage to the future king Arren in Ursula K. LeGuin's The Farthest Shore
The great rhetorical Achilles' heel of conservative reasoning is that almost by definition it subscribes to the aphorism of some supposed sage, "If it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change."  By trivial example this can be shown an untenable philosophy if subscribed to as a Kantian imperative.  If I have by habit drunk a glass of red wine each night with dinner, there is still no harm in drinking a glass of white, or shocking all traditionalists whatsoever by sampling the hard cider, or even abstaining from alcohol altogether.  The conservative therefore who defends the current status quo, whatever it may be, finds himself faced with trying to explain away particular supposed injustices for which a progressive (no matter when or in what form the progress is advocated) purports to have a solution; the conservative who argues against measures already implemented in the name of progress finds himself arguing for a hypothetical - a tricky proposition at best - or else dismissed as nostalgic, no matter how accurate his analysis of the problems brought on by the newfangled ideas.

But despite the rhetorical difficulties, the wonder of the human condition is that life goes on: sometimes better, sometimes worse; sometimes with more variation and sometimes with less; sometimes with tragedy and sometimes with wonder.  All the brilliant policies of all the brilliant men brought together in all the superlative conferences and committees in the world (quite often, I must confess I find them, summing to far less than the total of the parts) have not managed to account for the mysterious ways in which humanity moves.  To take but one example, economists of great renown are reduced either to noting the obvious facts of life - that I can charge a higher price for Chinese silk than for American wool, or that a man who can write makes in general more than one who cannot - or to propounding the most absurd theories - as when they suggest a government with no actual money and a vast debt can improve a nation's status by borrowing still vaster sums of money.  (If by some miracle - which I doubt - that last is accurate, the absurdity of the theory is not reduced, but the absurdity of the world may be greater than we like to admit.)

All of the evidence suggests that we have very little idea what we are doing when we attempt to alter things, that it is easier to disrupt normal lives than to improve them intentionally, and that the most unfailing of natural laws, outside of the law of gravity, which attends human activity is the one of unintended consequences.  All of this I take as evidence supporting the presupposition of modern so-called conservative thought: that the government should do nothing that is not necessary.  The difficulty of course is that it is hard to tell what is necessary; it is harder still to restrain humanity from attempting much more.  Any fan of baseball recognizes the sinking feeling that arrives when you realize that some journeyman outfielder with half a bat is determined to swing for the bleachers rather than go through the trouble of working the count.  Of course he occasionally comes through, but most of the time - there's the dejected walk back to the dugout after the third strike, or the half-hearted jog down the first base line as the ball floats into the night sky for an easy fly ball out.

This is all to say that when I call myself a conservative I mean that I start with the self-evident proposition that the government does not in general know what it is doing or what the sum of the consequences will be; I draw the conclusion that it is best to restrict the government.  This results in the conservative saying to the anonymous man in pain, "I do not know what it is best to do for you; I certainly do not know whether what is good for you is also good for your friend down the street; therefore I refrain from issuing directives."  The liberal may or may not agree with the premise; however, he says, as allegedly FDR said, that doing anything about a problem is better than doing nothing; that it even makes more sense to try a bunch of things at once and hope some of them work.  The conservative restricts government because government is human and therefore fallible; the progressive tries to work through government because government has power and therefore the possibility - which most progressives see as a likelihood, if not an inherent tendency - to do good.

The conservative view then ends up seeming clearly the more cynical, the less (with apologies to Bush II) shallowly compassionate, the more, as I titled the post, apparently hard-hearted.  And yet, it is also more realistic: all of the programs and redistributions of empowered government have not ended poverty, or reduced familial traumas, and there is no evidence to suggest they ever will.

So we return to necessity.  (I am coining a word: I am a necessistist.)  What is necessary?  There we can begin a debate; but at the moment we do not have such a common starting point.  We have a progressive movement advocating the use of power "for good" and then the doing of anything that seems to be a good idea; and a reactionary conservatism, feeling itself under pressure, retreating even past its foundations to the (almost equally absurd) point of fighting to do an actual nothing.

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