How does a Conservative differ from a Radical? Part 3 (Instinctual Worldviews)
Updated: Sep 1
Within the human species are two seemingly contradictory natural impulses: the desire to change and the desire to keep things as they are. While these competing impulses are easily observable in mundane, everyday life they also provide much of the impetuous for complex political worldviews. And nowhere is this more easily observed than in the conservative and the radical.
Conservatives are concerned we will not recognize the good things we have and, in taking them for granted, lose them. As the philosopher Sir Roger Scruton put it, “conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.” Conversely, radicalism also begins with a perfectly respectable sentiment: the concern we will accept things as they are and, in so doing, will not take action to change what we should. Inverting Scruton’s summary, we could also say that all mature people agree bad things are not easily destroyed and multiply when we don’t tend to them.
Both sentiments are reasonable, and both are quite natural.
But that is not the same as saying both are equally good or equally problematic. If all we mean by conservative is a resistance to change, one could make an argument that both sentiments can lead to equally destructive folly (indeed, the economist F. A. Hayek used this definition of conservatism to make that exact argument in his famous essay Why I Am Not a Conservative.) Certainly, there are times change is justifiable and desirable—something we’ll explore in Part 4—but for our purposes here, we’re interested in whether these natural sentiments—these gut impulses of a desire to change and a resistance to change—are equally problematic in our political endeavors.
And to that question I am firmly on the side that says we are almost always better off tapping into our impulse to keep things as they are than to embrace calls for change. As Abraham Lincoln both asked and answered in his Cooper Union Address: “What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?” The conservative believes that the “default” position ought always to be the tried and true over the latest innovations of the radical.
“Joining a radical movement when one is young is very much like falling in love when one is young,” wrote Irving Kristol. “The girl may turn out to be rotten, but the experience of love is so valuable it can never be entirely undone by the ultimate disenchantment.” This was hardly theoretical for Kristol for he describes his own political journey as winding from “youthful socialism, through a long period of ever more skeptical and self-critical liberalism, to something that became known as ‘neoconservatism’”.
The passions of youth can easily give way to overly optimistic, idealistic, or even utopian political persuasions. This would at least partially explain why the more radical elements of political parties—whether they’re libertarian free-market purists like Ron Paul or social democrats like Bernie Sanders—enjoy a disproportional support among the young. I don’t mean to imply that all political movements that are disproportionally represented by the young are immaturely wrong—only that movements that possess more passion, zeal, and novelty are more likely to attract the young than movements that are restrained, contemplative, and not given to lofty promises. After all, the very nature of youth is given to passion, zeal, and innovation over the old and “boring”.
To be fair, justification for joining any form of radicalism is rarely—if ever—couched in terms of how very much not boring it’s going to be. That sentiment may be undergirding things, but the justification is expressed in moral, utilitarian, or pragmatic terms. We are told we simply cannot wait for alternatives or compromising efforts, that the situation is so unfair, or apocalyptic, or dire that time is of the essence and we cannot stop to question whether alternative views should be consulted, or whether possible trade-offs should be considered, or whether there are unintended consequences, or whether caution would be prudent. I can’t help but think this is the kind of attitude Edmund Burke had in mind when he wrote of moderation being a virtue, “not only amiable but powerful. It is a disposing, arranging, conciliating, cementing virtue…to dare to be fearful when all about you are full of presumption and confidence.”
It is a great irony that those among us who have the most time ahead of them—the young—are most easily caught up in radical notions that there is simply no time left to wait. Let me pause here again and say that this does not mean there aren’t genuine causes that demand immediate action or that complacency is combated with certain degree of urgency. It may even be true that these natural impulses have a certain evolutionary advantage in keeping the species prone to adaptation and innovation. But it does not follow we must or even should ignore the impact of these natural tendencies. It doesn’t mean we ought not to seek to understand how they ought to be applied or how they may work against our deeper interests.
In Yuval Levin’s book The Great Debate he argues that Edmund Burke was deeply troubled by these natural impulses:
“Men are by nature drawn to novelty and excitement, Burke worries, and only by being stirred by the beauty of the given can they see its advantages and so be appropriately skeptical and cautious about overturning it. The old and tried model will not always work, of course, but when it fails, societies would be wise to fix it by gradually building on what does work about it rather than by starting fresh with an untried idea…It is human nature to lose sight of the value of what we possess and be taken instead with the potential of what we imagine possible.”
To meet the challenge of the natural impulse to change, Burke would have us cultivate our impulse to stay the course.
“Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change,” wrote F. A. Hayek in his essay Why I Am Not a Conservative. Hayek was objecting to the mere gut reaction to simply oppose change while simultaneously acknowledging its potential merits. Juxtaposed with our natural cravings for the new and exciting is our natural discomfort with change. In its base form, this is little better than a curmudgeonly stubborn attitude about keeping things as they are. But this natural tendency can be cultivated to grow into gratitude and cautious contemplation.
Irving Kristol observed that the nature of a free society with a thriving middle class often brought out a certain conservative impulse against radicalism:
“Property-owning democracy tends to breed its own antibodies. These antibodies immunize it, in large degree, against the lunacies of its intellectuals and artist. The common people in such a democracy are not uncommonly wise, but their experience tends to make them uncommonly sensible. They learn their economics by taking out a mortgage, they learn their politics by watching the local school board in action, and they learn the impossibility of ‘social engineering’ by trying to raise their children to be decent human beings.”
One might be tempted to conclude that the property-owning middle class can “afford” to be “conservative” because they are happily—perhaps selfishly—safe and secured in their ideal situation. But the poor, disenfranchised, and marginalized are left to fight the injustices of “the system”. Indeed, radicals are often motivated by calls of alleviating the suffering of the poor and impoverished (much to the chagrin of the poor and impoverished). As Kristol observed of the poor: “[They] never make revolutions. They are made by professors and students and intellectuals in the name of the poor.”
Kristol’s observation warrants dwelling on a bit longer. Radical politicians like Bernie Sanders have been able to ignite a powerful following that most political leaders could only dream of. Many a Democrat has “felt the Bern” with promises of canceling all student debt, radically expanding entitlement programs, and housing, medicare, and childcare for all. It’s no small wonder someone promising his supporters debt cancelation and free this, free that would be “popular”.
But is that all there is to it? Is the promise of free stuff what drove multitudes out to Sander’s campaign events? Was the prospect of having one’s debt canceled truly what led Sander’s supporters to go beyond loyalty to something that looked a lot more like—how did Kristol say it?—falling in love when one is young? That notion is absurd on its face. What we witnessed in Sander’s groundswell of support was not greedy or desperate people hoping he’d make good on those promises so that they could get on in life. No, what we saw was something with all the irrationality, and passion, and emotional volatility, and inability to accept rejection or “settle” for someone else that we might expect from young, star-crossed lovers.
The power of radicalism is that it taps into our romantic passions. Bernie supporters may have been excited about what a Sanders administration might mean for their financial wellbeing, but they were positively giddy about what it might mean for “the poor” or “the homeless” or “the 99%”. It was never about the money; it was about the idea of righting some perceived injustice. Bernie was leading a movement that was going to bring about the sort of world his supporters believed in their hearts was truly best. And that pull to join such a movement can be insatiable.
“It is not poverty that induces the masses to support totalitarian parties,” wrote Russell Kirk, “but the longing for certitude and membership.” What gives radicals like Sanders power is not the desperately poor demanding justice but those alienated from membership with those who fight for “justice”. This doesn’t mean that justice isn’t worth pursuing—far from it—but that we should be mindful of our own natural impulses to blindly seek out the radical solution. When radicals make promises that speak to our heart’s desire to belong we should be—how did Burke put it?—"fearful when all about you are full of presumption and confidence.”
But let’s not overcorrect in our efforts to avoid the pitfalls of radicalism. A misplaced crusade for justice is no worse than a failure to fight for justice. It’s not enough to simply recognize our natural impulses and try to reign them in if we haven’t a clue what direction we should be going in the first place. If true conservatism is something more than merely opposing change for the sake of “conserving”, then what and when and how do we change? That is where we’ll pick things up in Part 4.