Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Is There a Conservative Tradition in America?

Is there a conservative tradition in America?

That provocative question is the title of a recent article by Patrick Deneen, and for many readers his answer will be even more provocative: No, American conservatives are at best conservative liberals.

What could he mean by that? Aren't conservatives and liberals polar opposites? As Deneen explains, though, most of the central tenets of contemporary American conservatism, which he summarizes fairly and accurately in a five-point list, can be traced back to the principles of the liberal philosophical tradition, the tradition associated with the social contract theories of Hobbes and Locke. Between these two thinkers, Locke has been the more influential in American political thought--the Declaration of Independence even borrows some of his language--and it is his ideas which formed the basis of what is often called classical liberalism (to avoid confusion with progressive liberalism). Classical liberalism in the course of the 19th century developed into utilitarianism, and in the 20th century morphed into libertarianism. Classical liberalism certainly has not been as radical as progressive liberalism, and is therefore more conservative, but--and this is Deneen's main point--it has always remained a form of liberalism, and for that reason is not truly conservative.

Deneen has performed a great service by identifying the true origin of mainstream American conservatism. Unfortunately, Deneen is only able to outline the conflict between, on the one hand, liberalism and utilitarianism, and, on the other hand, a more traditional or "reactionary" conservatism that found its greatest modern exponent in the English-speaking world in the likes of Edmund Burke, but whose origins can be found in the natural law theories of Thomas Aquinas and Aristotle. (Deneen's outline approach is probably due to the fact that he wrote the article in the form of a talk he gave at an ISI event in Washington, DC, called "conservatism on tap"; I suspect he expanded on some of his points in greater detail in response to questions.)

There is much more to Deneen's article than this simple summary contains, especially his critique of the Straussians and of Glenn Beck's reading of American history--so read the whole article!--but it does have one flaw--though it should be made clear that this is a relatively minor (and perhaps unintentional) flaw in what is otherwise an excellent article, and is probably just a quibble over terminology.

This flaw is Deneen's use of the term "collectivism" to describe his own conservatism. A better word would be "communitarianism." Collectivism is usually used to describe 20th-century ideologies like Communism, Nazism, and fascism. Collectivism, given the right historical circumstances, is the end development of individualism, the final deconstruction of society from a local, hierarchic, and estate-based structure into a mere collection of atomized individuals. Collectivism takes atomized individuals and unifies them, but in a great mass that actually deprives them of their individuality. Collectivism, then, is the form of politics corresponding to mass society in its worst possible form. Collectivism, therefore, is rightfully rejected by conservatives of all stripes.

Where Deneen parts company with mainstream conservatives, though, is with his insistence that individualism is not the answer to America's problems.

Communitarianism, on the other hand, is the golden mean between individualism and collectivism. What distinguishes communitarianism is that it recognizes that the bonds that tie individuals together--religion, family, and local commitments--are good. People need limits, such as hierarchical structures and authority, in order to flourish as individuals, not lifestyle freedom.

Those readers interested in reading more about the internecine feuds among American conservatives, though hopefully in a more irenic tone than is normally heard in such arguments, might want to look at these two earlier posts on conservatives and libertarians.
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