How does a Conservative differ from a Radical? Part 4 (When Is Change Needed?)
Updated: Jun 27
“Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things,” wrote T. S. Eliot. Since Eliot is often revered as one of the great conservative minds of the twentieth century, it is doubtful he was suggesting here that conservatism is tomfoolery. By implication, if conservatism is too often conservation of the “wrong things” there must still be “right things” worth conserving (or, as Eliot called them, “permanent things”). The first task of the conservative then is not to conserve but to set about identifying those permanent things.
But what of the things that are not worth conserving? Is it possible the radical—in their unceasing quest for revolution—might actually land upon some of those “wrong things” not worth conserving? Conservatives are often criticized of resisting change out of complacency or selfishness or—worse of all—a desire to set the clocks back to some fictitious utopic nostalgia that was never quite as perfect as they seem to have imagined it was nor as capable of reproduction as they believe. In fact, reformation and conservation are closely linked, and sometimes change is necessary to prevent radical change down the road.
“Early reformations are amicable arrangements with a friend in power; late reformations are made under a state of inflammation,” wrote Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. As the title implies, Burke was reflecting on the advents of the French Revolution and how the unwillingness of the French monarch to adopt reforms in the early days of the crisis led to widespread revolt and the monarch’s downfall.
“In that state of things the people behold in government nothing that is respectable,” Burke continues, “They see the abuse and they will see nothing more. They fall into the temper of a furious populace provoked at the disorder of a house of ill-fame; they never attempt to correct or regulate; they go to work by the shortest way: to abate the nuisance, they pull down the house.” The Father of Conservatism was cautioning that an unyielding resistance to change leads, not to conservation, but to chaos. There is a certain window of opportunity to enact thoughtful reformations amicable to a conservative impulse, and the skillful statesman will carefully gauge the populace to determine how much reform is needed to prevent static inaction from shifting to radical revolution.
But let’s take things a step further: sometimes change is warranted not to preserve an institution but to alter its course or—in some extreme cases such as the institution of slavery—to abolish it entirely. If moral decay rots the soul of a nation, if an ever-expanding government erodes the liberties of the people, if a new law is passed that is an offense to common decency and sensibility, if prosperity leads to decadence, complacency, and alienation, the conservative impulse isn’t to simply keep these things as they are but to set things on a better course. Change may be necessary to reverse the decay, limit the government, rescind the law, and find new paths for bolstering vital institutions and communities.
In the tumultuous culture wars of the 1960s conservatives began to recognize the need to change the direction the nation was heading. Philosopher Frank Meyer observed of the era that conservatives “…cannot uncritically follow tradition, for the tradition presented to us is rapidly becoming—thanks to the prevailing intellectual climate, thanks to the schools, thanks to the outpourings of all the agencies that mold opinion and belief—the tradition of a positivism scornful of truth and virtue, the tradition of the collective, the tradition of the untrammeled state.”
“Natural conservatism is a legitimate human characteristic, and in settled times it is conducive to good,” Meyer continues. As we explored in Part 3, the conservative’s viewpoint is often aided by our natural impulse to stick with the devil we know. But “when a revolutionary force shatters the unity and balance of civilization—then conservatism must be of another sort if it is to fulfill its responsibility. It is not and cannot be limited to that uncritical acceptance, that uncomplicated reverence, which is the essence of natural conservatism.”
Journalist M. Stanton Evans remarked that when conservatives say they want to conserve they “…generally have some particular value in mind and must oppose any particular status quo which denies it.” Here again we might invoke Eliot’s permanent things. If conservatism recognizes the value of conserving some things, the conservative must demand change when those things are replaced by cheap knockoffs or threatened by a warped tradition.
“Our Patience Will Achieve More Than Our Force”
Now, it is true that conservatives have long resisted notions that the human species is capable of completely understanding and documenting the full scope of those permanent things. But we take courage in the long tradition of our culture and civilization—not the “short” tradition of the latest political ideology or social movement in vogue—guiding us along the sure path of Providence. (Exactly how the mechanism of Providence works is a subject for another series). As Meyer put it, “What the conservative is committed to conserve is not simply whatever happen to be the established conditions of a few years or a few decades, but the consensus of his civilization, of his country, as that consensus over centuries has reflected truth derived from the very constitution of being.”
From time to time certain ideas or institutions or opposing forces may trounce the cultural status quo and, while conservatives—generally speaking—oppose cultural status quo trouncings, they are also cognizant sometimes the trouncing leads to cultural flourishing. This can be thought of as a sort of cultural evolution: the vast majority of mutations are inauspicious or even deadly but, every once in a great while, they lead to an actual advancement. “The granddaddy of all countercultures…was early Christianity itself,” points out Irving Kristol. Though not a Christian himself, Kristol nonetheless recognized the value and importance of Christianity on Western civilization and accounted for it as one of those permanent things meant to be preserved.
From a certain perspective then, the conservative shares the radical’s outlook of out with the old, in with the new or desire to allow ideas to battle it out with one another so that the best ideas may replace the rest. But conservatives differ in drawing upon a much larger supply of trail-and-error that stretches over millennia and a far deeper well of ideas that allow our ancestors to join the debate. The radical is interested in the ideas of the future replacing the ideas of the past. The conservative sees no reason to discount the accumulated wisdom of the past or to take for granted that our ancestors may have been closer to those permanent things than we are. The conservative is far more patient than the radical. As Burke rightly put it, “Our patience will achieve more than our force.”
Back to Burke
Since we’ve worked our way back to Burke, let’s examine another important distinction to make when judging whether change is warranted. As Burke notes—again, with the bloody and chaotic French Revolution in view—it’s not simply enough to establish when change is warranted. We must also take care to understand what we mean by change:
“I knew that there is a manifest marked distinction, which ill men, with ill designs, or weak men incapable of any design, will constantly be confounding, that is, a marked distinction between Change and Reformation. The former alters the substance of the objects themselves; and gets rid of all their essential good, as well as of all the accidental evil annexed to them. Change is novelty; and whether it is to operate any one of the effects of reformation at all, or whether it may not contradict the very principle upon which reformation is desired, cannot be certainly known beforehand. Reform is, not a change in the substance, or in the primary modification of the object, but a direct application of a remedy to the grievance complained of. So far as that is removed, all is sure. It stops there; and if it fails, the substance which underwent the operation, at the very worst, is but where it was.”
Perhaps here we can see clearest the difference between the conservative and radical’s notion of change. The conservative’s idea of change is something done to strengthen the integrity of a structure. The radical’s idea of change is to tear the structure down. The conservative looks at a broken culture or corrupted institutions and seeks first to mend what’s broken and restore virtue and honor. The radical simply kills the patient.
Certainly, there are instances where a structure should be torn down (once again, the institution of slavery springs to mind). But the conservative’s prejudice is bent towards keeping in place the structures that have existed for generations as they represent our generational “group effort” at doing life together. Historical knowledge and an abundance of patience will guide the conservative in what structures may be worth tearing down. “Duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time, and who place all their hopes in discovery,” wrote Burke. The radical is either unwilling or unable to appreciate the input of those who have come before and presume any change to be an “improvement”.
It is true that prior generations had certain blind spots for what might be universally recognized as wrongheaded or evil today. All generations, to one extent or another, see clearly the defects of others while remaining ignorant of their own shortcomings. Does this mean that the presence of defects—once they are made known to the present generation—are justification enough for radical change?
Thomas Sowell noted that conservatism “treats defects as inevitable, and therefore not in themselves reason for change, unless their magnitudes merit the inevitable costs entailed by change.” If one enters marriage truly expecting their spouse to be perfect, they may divorce may the first sign of a deficiency. Prudence would have us deal with things as they are and not as they ought to be else we risk tearing down what might otherwise be something beautiful out of the misguided notion that we can’t abide any defects.
This does not mean the conservative is complacent. It does, however, speak to the underlying assumption baked into the notion that change is justified the moment we encounter a defect: namely, the unproven idea that defects can be rid through change. The conservative is skeptical—even hostile—to this idea and believes most changes only result in swapping out one defect for another.
This idea can be seen clearly in how one views the American system of self-government. “The founders thought that self-government was a chancy and demanding enterprise and that successful government in a republic was a most difficult business,” wrote Irving Kristol. Here Kristol was acknowledging the Founders’ “conservative” view of self-governance. He then contrasts it with the predominant “radical” view of today: “We, in contrast, believe that republican self-government is an easy affair, that it need only be instituted for it to work on its own, and that when such government falters it must be a consequence of personal incompetence or malfeasance by elected officials.” Certainly, there is room for improvement and discontent with our system of government. But when every election is a harsh rebuke of the previous election (both comprised of the same electorate) what’s broken isn’t the “system” but our worldview.
Edmund Burke beautifully summarized a better attitude than the typical call for radical change in the face of societal defects:
“A man full of warm speculative benevolence may wish his society otherwise constituted than how he finds it; but a good patriot, and a true politician, always considers how he shall make the most of the existing materials of his country. A disposition to preserve, and an ability to improve, taken together, would be my standard of a statesman. Every thing else is vulgar in the conception, perilous in the execution.”
While Burke’s wisdom is highly regarded by conservatives in our day, his warnings were not heeded in his. Burke witnessed the destructive power of radical rule in revolutionary France and modern conservatism was born out of an effort to preserve those permanent things left in the wake of this devastation. And while conservatives and radicals may occasionally agree where change is needed, they have more often been bitter foes. For the conservative knows that wherever radicalism goes, destruction and misery is soon to follow. And that is where we’ll pick things up in the fifth and final part of this series.