Some claim that today’s conservatives are nothing more than yesterday’s liberals—that conservatism is always on the defensive and fighting an uphill battle before eventually succumbing to the Left’s understanding of equality, or civil rights, or entitlements, or what have you. Now, there is some truth to this idea as conservatives do acknowledge that change or some sense of progression is necessary even to conserve the institutions and traditions of society.
But this raises the question: is conservatism ultimately progressivism with patience or—to put it more negatively—someone who is hopelessly behind the times? The answer, I believe, lies in what we mean by conservative. If we mean the natural impulse to keep things as they are then this understanding of conservatism may be an apt description. But if we mean something deeper—such as a worldview that has some notion of fixed standards or permanent things, to borrow T. S. Eliot’s term—then conservatism is destined to take us somewhere altogether different than Leftist ideologies.
Human Nature > Human Reasoning
In this series we’re exploring the conservative’s principle of prescription. Now, prescription is a method of knowing and of progressing. But it’s more than just a method for it points us towards some fixed standard in harmony with our nature. “Politics ought to be adjusted not to human reasoning but to human nature, of which reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part,” wrote 18th century British statesman Edmund Burke. As we’ve explored throughout this series, it was Burke’s great anti-innovationist innovation of prescription that conservatives use to this day to counter much of the political Left’s reliance on reason alone.
Burke was not speaking against reason but was warning that reason must be put in her proper place—which is in submission to human nature. For it is only by properly ordering our reason to obey imagination and virtue that we have any hope of discovering the deeper truths embedded in our culture and passed down from one generation to the next. This was of particular concern to Burke in the business of politics.
Politics of the Practical
To the conservative, politics is pragmatic, not speculative; it’s less of a science to be handled by experts in the field employing their intelligence, knowledge, and reasoning than it is an art that operates within general principles but allows for a wide range of possibilities to be guided by gifted artists who humbly admit they don’t fully comprehend the full extent of their work. For while there is a dash of mystery involved—as we’ll discuss in Part 4—the conservative always seeks to ground politics in something practical and not mystical, theoretical, spiritual, or philosophical.
“Our ability to know the practical consequences of a particular policy far exceeds our ability to ascertain the truth of a philosophical claim,” wrote Yuval Levin in his book The Great Debate, “In politics, therefore, we almost always ought to judge by effects and not by speculation.” Let us consider the socialist and Marxist motto of “from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs”. That’s a fine sentiment, and it may serve us well if we attempted to apply this notion to our own lives. But how do we apply such a general idea to politics? How do we measure abilities and needs? How do we ensure that the allocation of resources, time, talent, wealth, and knowledge are distributed adequately, fairly, justly, efficiently, and effectively? How do we monitor progress or identify weaknesses? How do we guard against waste, fraud, and abuse? How do we enforce these ideas without those put in charge using their power to become our masters?
“Theory often ignores circumstances and particulars crucial to the success of policy and the happiness of society,” warns Levin, “Theory is general and universal, but politics must always be very particular.” This does not mean that universal principles are of no use, or even that they are secondary to the practicality of politics. Levin continues, “Politics is not a branch of philosophy, in an express search for truth or its application, but is rather in the business of producing good practical outcomes, which help point to higher truth but not directly.”
In this manner the conservative is always on guard against political ideas that are too abstract, speculative, theoretical, and universal. But that does not mean the conservative denies the truth found in some of these ideas. Politics must strike a careful balance of remaining gravely practical and pragmatic while always keeping those “higher truths” Levin alluded to in the periphery as a sort of guidepost between extremities.
Standing Between the Rationalist and the Empiricist
In insisting that politics be adjusted to “human nature” and not “human reasoning”, Burke was not making an anti-intellectual case against general principles or the use of reasoning in politics or abstract ideas. Rather, he was offering guidance on how to use our ability to reason. In this manner, Burke sought a middle ground in the debate between rationalism and empiricism of his time.
The rationalist held that what mattered most were ideas obtained through reasoning while the empiricist trusted in what could be learned through the senses and inductive reasoning. When taken to their extremes, the rationalist argued that innate ideas were the starting point of all knowledge while the empiricists believed that no ideas were ever truly innate. John Locke, the father of classical liberalism, was among the most famous of the empiricists. He developed his theories of liberty championed by conservatives today via empirical means.
It might be tempting then to suppose that Burke’s conservatism joins forces with Locke’s empiricism as Burke was famously hostile to the various abstract ideas that were offered by political theorists of his day. Burke wanted politics to be governed by empirical evidence and not some metaphysician’s latest theory. But Burke also saw the danger in a purely empirical view as Russell Kirk explains:
“Conservatism is empirical only in the sense that conservatives respect the wisdom of the species and think that history, the recorded experience of mankind, should be constantly consulted by the statesmen. Yet mere practical experience, ‘empiricism’ in the sense of being guided simply by yesterday’s pains or pleasures, is not enough for the conservative, who believes that we can apply our knowledge of the remote or the immediate past with prudence only if we are guided by some general principles, which have been laid down for us over the centuries by prophets and philosophers. Burke broke with Locke’s empiricism.”
As Burke himself explained it, “I do not put abstract ideas wholly out of any question; because I well know that under that name I should dismiss principles, and that without the guide and light of sound well understood principles, all reasoning in politics, as in everything else, would be only a confused jumble of particular facts and details, without the means of drawing out any sort of theoretical or practical conclusion.” Conservatives aren’t against ideas reached through reasoning—far from it!—but they use these ideas to guide politics, not to replace politics.
Progressing with Prescription
The conservative argues that prescription is what helps us keep ideas, reason, and politics in their proper lanes. By channeling political change through the wisdom of our ancestors we might hope to make some progress towards our ideas of things like justice, liberty, and equality. Prescription provides us with an almost Darwinian model for change, because the institutions, customs, norms, prejudices, and traditions handed down to us were part of a slow, painful process of trial and error. Though not perfect, this model is a group effort over many generations that’s less prone to error than the pontificating of a lone political theorist. In this way, society itself becomes a reflection of what our culture collectively believes society ought to be. This does not mean we always get it right—obviously—but that our greatest hope in achieving some sense of progress will come by holding faithful to the surviving ideas of the past as we press forward.
We began with this post by questioning whether conservatism was simply yesterday’s progressivism. That is, do conservatives simply want society to progress slowly, or do they have some sense of what direction would truly be progress? Does it matter where we’re going or only how we get there? The answer is that both where we’re going and how we get there matter very much to the conservative. But that there is no simple answer to where we’re going for that can only be discerned through a careful study of prescription.
In fact, the conservative would say that even those who don’t fully comprehend where we’re going can nonetheless be leading us in the right direction so long as they follow a prescriptive path. And that is where we’ll turn in Part 4.