“Being neither a religion nor an ideology, the body of opinion termed conservatism possesses no Holy Writ and no Das Kapital to provide dogmata. So far as it is possible to determine what conservatives believe, the first principles of the conservative persuasion are derived from what leading conservative writers and public men have professed during the past two centuries.”
Thus begins Russell Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles, which, in my humble opinion, is the best and most succinct description of what conservatives believe. Kirk was admitting there was no official text—no holy Scripture or political manifesto—that perfectly embodied the conservative worldview. Instead, he would rely upon what “leading conservative writers” had “professed during the past two centuries”.
The modern conservative worldview formed when Edmund Burke penned his Reflections on the Revolution in France. And conservative thought can be extracted from the writings and teachings of those who followed in Burke’s tradition—which is precisely how Russell Kirk set out to examine conservatism in his masterpiece The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot. But one cannot do the same in attempting to define the worldview of centrism. The modern political moderate was not begotten of some godfather such as Burke. Conservatism means something specific, however difficult it may be to fully comprehend what that something is. Centrism does not.
It is for this reason my task of comparing and contrasting the conservative to the moderate is ill-fated from the start—for whatever definition of moderate I land upon will be agreeable to some and not to others. All that said, I will attempt to differentiate the worldviews using the Niskanen Center’s Rules for Moderates. A list of rules that—while incapable of defining a moderate perfectly—will do nicely for this short series.
The Niskanen Center professes to be moderate in both means and ends. While I’ve no doubt they believe this to be true, their frequent and liberal mission of seeking an “open society”, their affection for Saul Alinsky (the father of community organizing), and their tendency to single out boogeymen on the political Right all suggest they are far more left of center than they are “moderate”. Nevertheless, I think their description of centrism is spot on. Perhaps their left of center description combined with my right of center perspective will land us appropriately in the middle.
Rules for Moderates
Rather than relist the lengthy Rules for Moderates in its entirety here, I will quote brief sections in red and include my thoughts:
Moderates defend the principles of an open society, civil dialogue, and constitutionalism. They have a primary commitment to creating and maintaining an inclusive community that comprises people with whom they disagree.
A lot of this hangs on how we’re defining things—but conservatism is a defender of a civil society that seeks to combine various factions together through protection of free speech and recognition for the rule of law. The idea of an “open society” is highly debatable, but it isn’t the case that conservatives simply want a “closed society” in the strictest sense of the word (though many claiming the conservative label do very much want this). Rather, conservatism seeks to balance the benefits of innovation and variation brought by the manageable flow of immigrants willing and able to assimilate into the dominant culture with the continued preservation of cultural norms and institutions held by those who are already here.
They are aware of human fallibility, ignorance, and the role of uncertainty in political affairs.
Principle #6 in Russell Kirk’s Ten Conservative Principles is the principle of imperfectability—the belief that human nature suffers universally from certain grave faults and that no perfect social order ever can be created among humans. While the conservative and moderate may be coming from different places—the conservative believing in original sin and the imperfectability of humanity and the moderate observing no political system to be perfect and, therefore, concluding everything is prone to human fallibility and warrants us distrusting dogmatic, abstract, political thought—we’re ending up at pretty much the same place. Neither conservatism nor centrism seeks to establish utopia but instead endeavors to make the most of the world as it is.
The universe as seen by moderates is not divided between the forces of good and the forces of evil. It is rather a world made of many shades of gray and lots of nuances, a world that is full of contradictions and tensions, many of which can never be fully resolved.
Here again, the conservative finds much to agree with—depending on how we’re defining things. Conservatism is a worldview of trade-offs and nuances. Conservatism isn’t interested in abstract visions of ideological utopia—such as the blind pursuit of liberty or justice or order—but demands to know what is meant by those abstract ideas, and what is necessary to sustain them if they are deemed worth pursuing. On the other hand, the entire worldview is built on the premise that there exists a moral order to the universe and—therefore—the forces of good and evil do exist in some ultimate sense. The question lies in humanity’s ability to distinguish good and evil; a task that is better suited to religious orthodoxy than political ideologies.
Moderates can be found on all sides of the political spectrum, not just the center. They are aware, in the words of Burke, that the activity of governing is founded on compromise and barter: ‘We balance inconveniences; we give and take; we remit some rights that we may enjoy others.’ Instead of asking whether the end justifies the means, pragmatic moderates prefer to ask, ‘Does this particular end justify this particular means’?
It warms my heart that the Niskanen Center evokes Burke here, but—again—the devil’s in the details. If by “all sides of the political spectrum” we mean those on the Left, such as classical Lockean liberals, and those on the Right, such as Burkean/Kirkean conservatives, then I wholeheartedly concur. And it is true that conservatism stresses a give and take between progress and permanence, liberty and order, pragmatism and principle.
Moderates know that the institutions of an open society can, at best, create an imperfect form of harmony in dissonance, and can never aspire to achieve a full agreement on the meaning of the good society. That is why moderates try to make the most of the tensions, conflicts, and contradictions that make up the real world. The most they can aspire to is a decent form of ‘reasonable inconsistency’.
Russell Kirk taught that we must take the world as it is, not as we’d like for it to be. Both the conservative and the moderate share a common problem—the challenge of attracting converts to a worldview that doesn’t promise utopia, but instead offers to strive for something a little bit better than what we have now. This lackluster vision pales in comparison to the promise of glory and conquest of the radical Right or equality and material prosperity of the radical Left. Yet these utopias always lead to hell on earth, whereas a more sensible, measured pursuit of excellence can lead to achievable improvements in our lives.
Democratic regimes cannot properly function without compromise, bargaining, and moderation; this can be a winning card if played wisely. Although it may not be sufficient to create a mass movement, moderation has the great advantage of being an optimistic virtue tailored to human nature, one that aims neither too high nor too low. Because it is neither a fixed ideology nor a party platform, moderation enables different people from many walks of life to take effective action in defense of freedom, toleration, pluralism, limited power, and the rule of law.
Perhaps the most striking thing that conservatism and centrism have in common is a refusal to follow an abstract ideology. Let’s look at that in-depth:
To Nullify, or to Negate: that is the Question
An ideology is a system of ideas and ideals that forms the basis of economic and political theory and policy. Taken in small doses, ideologies are harmless. But untethered from a larger system of beliefs or worldview, they soon take over and radicalize. English philosopher Roger Scruton explains the dangers inherent in ideologies well: “[an ideology] occupies the space vacated by religion, and in doing so excites the true believer both to worship the…idea and to seek in it for what it cannot provide—the ultimate purpose of life, the way to redemption, and the consolation for all our woes.”
Both the conservative and the moderate recognize the dangers inherent in ideologies. Both reject the radicalization of pure, abstract ideology. Their objections run parallel and the difference is slight—if you blink you’ll miss it!—but of stupendous importance. How do they differ?
The moderate nullifies. The conservative negates.
The moderate—seeing both the good and the bad in differing ideological perspectives—seeks to smooth out the rough, radical edges. What’s left is a nullified ideology, a sort of canceling out of extremisms. The moderate doesn’t reject or repudiate ideologies so much as they find a neutral path between them. To the moderate, a radical ideology is like a wolf in sheep’s clothing. The aim of the moderate is to defang the wolf and extract benefits from what’s left over.
The conservative, on the other hand, negates ideology. That is, the conservative actively denies the evidence or truth of ideological certainties. This is not a radical position, but it is also not a neutral position. The conservative isn’t interested in defanging the wolf; the conservative opposes the wolf.
I realize there’s a rich irony in describing how conservatives and moderates oppose abstractions by using abstract examples like wolves in sheep’s clothing. I’ll attempt to unpackage all that in Part 3, when we’ll turn to how the conservative and moderate differ.