“Conservatives are chastened by their principle of IMPERFECTABILITY.” Russell Kirk – Ten Conservative Principles
Throughout this series we’ve explored the curious fact that—while there is much disagreement on the specifics—we all seem to have some notion that things ought to be different than what they actually are. No one needs convincing that this world, and the people who inhabit it, are imperfect.
In Part 1 we discussed how no human society lacked some notion of perfection or perfectibility. There seems to be something quite primal about our capacity to not only recognize that things aren’t as they ought to be, but to then go on pondering how things would look if they were as they ought to be; what we might call a vision.
And, as we further explored in Part 1, possessing a vision isn’t enough; there are certain “rules” we must follow if we are to make our vision a reality. Namely, that our vision must comport to reality and not fantasy. For instance, any vision that would only work if men were angels is doomed to failure because it doesn’t fit with reality.
In Part 2 we teased out how the imperfection of humanity is something that’s rooted in our nature and not simply something we can evolve out of at will. And in Part 3 we explored some of the dangers that accompany the belief that our human nature is just as prone to progress as the technological advances of the past century.
Playing by the Rules
Sometimes our musings of how things really ought to be rarely get past complaining how the line at the DMV moves far too slowly or how the rent is too damn high. And, at other times, these musings get written down into complex and lengthy belief systems that form cults or religions or philosophies or political ideologies. All of this is quite alright, so long as we play by the “rules”.
But when we don’t play by the “rules”—when we try to force our vision of perfection into some category it doesn’t belong—things often digress worse than if we’d simply left well enough alone. Resting our vision of perfection in a political ideology—any political ideology—is a perfect example of not playing by the “rules”. And, while this is more commonly a mistake of the Left, this tendency can crop up just about anywhere.
Libertarianism—depending on how it’s defined—is an example of a non-Leftist political ideology that borrows too heavily from a utopian myth of achieving perfection. I do not mean that libertarians teach or believe that putting their political ideology into practice will alleviate every conceivable problem humanity has ever suffered. Rather, their solution to nearly any societal problem is to lean more heavily into their political doctrine of pursuing liberty as the supreme political virtue.
“Liberty, like equality, is a word more used than understood. Perfect and absolute liberty is as incompatible with the existence of society, as equality of condition,” wrote James Fenimore Cooper. The truth of libertarianism is that liberty is a virtue. The untruth of libertarianism is that liberty is not the highest virtue, perfect liberty isn’t realizable in an imperfect world, and the pursuit of absolute liberty will invariably lead to worsening trade-offs. In much the same way, progressivism’s laudable desire for equality leads to contemptable schemes at enforcing equal outcomes.
Damning the Nature of Things
A political ideology doesn’t have to promise absolute perfection to be a utopian idea. A political ideology that takes into account the ills of this life and offers salvation from our present sufferings if only we fully embrace the ideology is, in effect, promising some form of perfectibility. Conservatism offers hope and restoration. But it does so by pointing our hearts and minds away from the political order to find our deepest purposes and meaning. And it further insists that we can expect things to never be perfect or nearing perfection in this life, no matter how well we construct our economy, military ventures, or political structure.
“There always must remain some individual deprivation or scarcity, which we are too prone to call ‘injustice,’ wrote Russell Kirk, “We are not perfect or perfectible creatures; and if we would be in harmony with Nature, we must not damn the nature of things.” And the nature of things is such that we will always experience imperfections in this life. If that strikes you as a dissatisfying or horrifying idea, that is precisely why the majority of conservatives look for hope in some place other than this life. Such places can be found in philosophies or religion. But it can never be found in political ideologies—for they are products of this life.
This does not mean a conservative believes there is nothing of value in a political ideology. Rather, the conservative believes political ideologies are helpful (to the extent they’re truthful) if, and only if, they play by the “rules”. And the primary “rule” for a political ideology is that it can never provide for perfection, or near perfection, or replace other associations—such as religion or philosophy—where humanity might seek out the deeper questions of perfectibility and ultimate meaning. Conservatism can get along quite nicely with those political ideologies that play by the “rules”—such as certain variants of classical liberalism and libertarianism—but finds nothing commendable with those who don’t—such as Communism or fascism.
Take classical liberalism, for instance. Here Russell Kirk explains how, as a political ideology, it is insufficient to hold humanity’s yearning for some transcendental pursuit:
“Liberalism…found its popular support in myth, but in myth distorted: the myth of individual free will, but a free will stripped of divine guidance and of grace; the myth of popular sovereignty, but a myth deprived of the saving phrase ‘under God’; the myth of natural rights, but a myth shorn of the Providential order which gives such rights their sanction…The liberal system attained popularity because it promised progress without the onerous duties exacted by tradition and religion. It is now in the process of dissolution because, founded on an imperfect and distorted myth, it has been unable to fulfill its promise, and because it no longer appeals in any degree to the higher imagination. It has been undone by social disillusion. Before long, no one will be able to take shelter under the ruinous fabric of liberalism. I see three alternatives to the liberal system: some iron discipline like that of Communism, founded upon a gross heresy from Christian principle; some Machiavellian scheme founded upon self-interest and creature-comforts; or a reinvigorated adherence to religious doctrine and traditional rights, which system we call, in politics, ‘conservatism’.”
What Lurks Beneath
We have lost the fine art of talking frankly and earnestly about the essential role of religion in a healthy society. It is very common—even among those who consider themselves to be religious, spiritual, or theists—to insist that what they really want is for social conservatism—with all its antiquated and overbearing ideas about how we should all be living our lives—to whither away and, instead, be replaced by the sort of “conservatism” that simply lets people do whatever they damn well please.
I don’t at all deny that there is a certain militant strand of what we might call theocratic conservatives who seem mostly interested in using the government to control our lives; but that does not mean religious institutions and traditions have no role to play in a healthy society. “Modern conservatism found it necessary to argue what had always been previously assumed by all reasonable men: that institutions which have existed over a long period of time have a reason and a purpose inherent in them, a collective wisdom incarnate in them, and the fact that we don’t perfectly understand or cannot perfectly explain why they ‘work’ is no defect in them but merely a limitation in us,” wrote Irving Kristol. It is the hubris of humanity that believes we are far too sophisticated and superior to our ancestors to be cumbered with tedious traditions and religious orthodoxies of the past.
As I argued here, conservatives view our civilized world as a fragile film over uninhibited human appetite. Once breached, what lurks beneath is the savage and violent reality of our pre-civilized nature. We do not get perfection when we tear down ancient institutions—even if they are antiquated. We do not get utopia if we abolish the traditions of our ancestors—even if they have been shown to be false. Yes, there are times when institutions need reforming or—in instances such as the institution of slavery—abolishing. Yes, there are times when our traditions need revising or scrapping altogether.
But we should take these steps with much fear and trepidation and, above all, not be lulled into the simpleminded and dangerous belief that we can achieve some sense of perfection once we uproot the moorings that held our society together. More likely than not, even when traditions or institutions are truly holding our culture back, their elimination will still result in widespread unintended and unforeseen consequences for generations to come.
What Conservatives Seek
Conservatives don’t look for perfectibility in a political system. But to look for it elsewhere requires vibrant communities, sound religious doctrine, and—perhaps most important of all—a mature and self-controlled people. What conservatives seek is the best possible life for imperfect humans. And most conservatives consider the self-governing experiment of the United States to be the closest we’ve come to a political model that both expands liberties and protects the rights of the individual.
But, while conservatives don’t expect men to be angels, they do insist that we call upon our better angels. This is not a call to mediocracy, but a call to greatness and nobility. In recognizing that we’re imperfect and imperfectible, we do not have to accept that we cannot strive for (and attain!) the powerful virtues of courage, self-control, temperance, and perseverance that lasting civilizations are built upon. As Irving Kristol put it, “to enjoy the fruits of self-government, you must first cease being ‘masses’ and become ‘a people,’ attached to a common way of life, sharing common values, and existing in a condition of mutual trust and sympathy as between individuals and even social classes.”
We often joke about the shallowness of our challenges by referring to them as first world problems. Indeed, there are many life-threatening problems those of us living in first-world countries will never encounter. But the struggle to live a life of virtue and decency—the struggle to rise to the occasion and strive for greatness and nobility—is a struggle that’s universal. It’s embedded in our human nature just as tightly as our imperfectability.
The conservative doesn’t have to look fondly to some distant era when men and women conquered seemingly insurmountable challenges, for the conservative knows that all people must wrestle with themselves to war against their imperfections. Men may not be angels; but the call to embrace our better angels comes to us all.