James Bruce, assistant professor of philosophy at John Brown University in Siloam Springs, Ark., posts thoughtful articles from a biblical perspective on a libertarian website, Library of Law and Liberty. Here are two we’ve combined two—one from last year and another from earlier this week—that apply insights from University of Virginia politics professor James W. Ceaser.
Bruce, with degrees from Dartmouth College, the University of Oxford, and Baylor University, is the author of Rights in the Law: The Importance of God’s Free Choices in the Thought of Francis Turretin. —Marvin Olasky
Four heads and one heart
James W. Ceaser, a professor of politics at the University of Virginia, has an excellent essay called “Four Heads and One Heart: The Modern Conservative Movement,” in his recently published Designing a Polity: America’s Constitution in Theory and Practice. I read it for this year’s Miller Summer Institute, sponsored by the Jack Miller Center, in partnership with the University of Virginia’s Program on Constitutionalism and Democracy.
It’s an eye-opening piece: Ceaser helped me understand both the unity and the disunity of the right, its agreements and its squabbles. First, the agreement: It’s found in conservatism’s one heart, a heart that hates liberalism. A common “antipathy to liberalism” unites conservatives, not shared intellectual principles. He writes:
“It has been said in jest that the conservative movement in America today is held together today by two self-evident truths: Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi. Like many such comments, this one contains a kernel of truth. Much of the unity that exists among conservatives stems from their shared antipathy to liberalism. It serves as the common heart that beats in the breast of the conservative movement’s diverse and often fractious components. If by some strange dispensation liberalism were to cease to exist tomorrow, conservatism would begin to break apart on the next day.”
The left is different, according to Ceaser; they march under the same banner, touting the same ideals. They get angry with dissenters in their midst because heretics abandon shared liberal principles. Conservatives, by contrast, “have never operated under the illusion of ultimate agreement.”
That’s because, though conservatives have one heart, animated against liberalism, they have four heads, each favoring its own first principle or foundational concept. The heads can be distinguished by these different foundations, which they use to determine what is right or good; they are also known, as we shall see, by what they most deplore in liberalism.
The four heads are (1) traditionalism; (2) neoconservatism; (3) libertarianism, and (4) the religious right. For traditionalists, America’s original culture is to be cherished and guarded. Culture or history decides what is right or good. The foundational concept for neoconservatives, by contrast, is natural right, discerned by human reason, even if it is also established by divine law. Libertarians have a different foundational principle: spontaneous order, that is, letting things work out for themselves without trying to impose a plan. And, finally, Ceaser says, biblical faith animates the religious right.
With different foundations, it should be no surprise that each head hates a different feature of liberalism. Traditionalists find the rejection of the American Founding and our civic identity deplorable; neoconservatives lament liberalism’s relativism; libertarians object to market intervention, government planning, and big government, and members of the religious right decry liberalism’s secularism.
I’m persuaded by Ceaser’s analysis, and it’s interesting how our think tanks, foundations, and journals rarely embrace more than one or two heads. I’m not trying to be provocative or difficult—and I’m certainly open to counterexamples—but (I imagine) foundations, magazines, etc. are established because philanthropists have particular visions for the work that they want to do, and, being conservatives, they set out general guiding principles for the work, or, being conservatives, they have specific things about liberalism they want to criticize. There are places, e.g., the Philadelphia Society, where the four heads try to come together, but, for the most part, different institutions will speak (or read) differently than others, because they speak with the voice of one or two heads, but not all four.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. But Ceaser’s piece is instructive because it reminds us that there are real differences within the conservative coalition. If you think that conservatism is monolithic, you’ll be surprised at how different conservative events feel (a vacuous word, perhaps, but I can’t think of a better one). If you’re at a traditionalist or religious right affair, expect a public prayer before lunch. If you’re at a libertarian lunch, don’t expect one. And don’t think that the libertarians who aren’t praying together publicly don’t pray privately (they may, they may not); it’s just not what brought them together.
Ceaser concludes “Four Heads and One Heart” with two observations, one just plain interesting and the other provocative. Under “The Future of the Movement,” Ceaser says that conservatism succeeds in giving guidance in governance only when its heads are properly arranged. The proper arrangement depends upon the situation at hand. For “correcting or undoing errant liberal policies,” we need traditionalism and libertarianism in order to resist “foolish initiatives” (traditionalism) and “the excesses brought on by centralized planning” (libertarianism). Traditionalists are “the ‘conscience of conservatism,’” and libertarians are the best at “domestic ‘administration’— not, obviously, in the liberal meaning of building the administrative state, but an older meaning of handling affairs.” For “setting a moral compass,” Ceaser continues, “neoconservatives and the religious right must assume the leading roles.”
One sees an underlying theme in “The Future of the Movement”: Conservatives are at their best when they learn from each other and appreciate what others contribute to the coalition.
Finally, in an appendix titled “Is Conservatism a Form of Liberalism?” Ceaser separates modern conservatism from liberalism, while recognizing that Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman both used the label. Ceaser believes that “it is in the end a mistake to think of American conservatism as the same thing as liberalism, even in the original sense.” Though conservatives embrace some liberal principles, conservatism recognizes that political liberalism cannot survive on its own. So Ceaser says, “Conservatism conserves the American republic by its theoretical foundation of natural rights.” Second, “Conservatism conserves the American republic by supporting the idea of the nation.” And, in contrast to liberal theory—which “often failed to acknowledge or appreciate how much liberal society had borrowed from the storehouse of religious capital”—conservatism gives “appropriate support to biblical religion,” recognizing that it “has been the major source of our ethical system, one of self-restraint and belief in something beyond material substance.” Finally, he adds, “Conservatism conserves the American republic by promoting ‘the tradition,’ which refers, beyond religion and the Enlightenment, to the classical Greek and Roman ideals of virtue and excellence.”
Notice how, at this point in Ceaser’s analysis, three of the four heads come into play: natural rights (neoconservatism), nationhood and tradition (traditionalism), and biblical religion (the religious right). Libertarians are not abandoned, either, because “the conservative movement is friendly to property rights and markets and is opposed to collectivism.”
Yet “conservatism is also the home for those who believe that liberalism’s defense requires something more than liberal theory.” “Conservatives of this variety,” he continues, “show how the cultivation of tradition, religion, and classical virtue replenish the cultural capital that sustains liberalism.” He concludes the essay with the following observation, worth quoting in full:
“The existence within conservatism of these different strands of thought produces the aforementioned tensions, but it is also a source of the movement’s great creativity. That creativity is best expressed in the view that the public good is not to be found in adherence to the simplest principles, but in the blending of different and partly conflicting ideas. By acknowledging this complexity, conservatism shows that it is no mere branch of liberalism.”
That’s Ceaser’s piece in a nutshell, and, for what it’s worth, I think his analysis is fundamentally correct. (I do have some reservations about the claim that conservatism is not part of political liberalism, classically conceived, but I’m inclined to trust Ceaser on this one). Ceaser is right to applaud our real and genuine diversity. Let many flowers flourish; we have much to learn from each other.
Ceaser’s piece is also, in a way, hopeful. As we know, different interests can create sharp disagreements. Perhaps the potential for conflict within conservatism is best seen in the dance for, or stumble toward, the Republican presidential nomination. If you think that spontaneous order erupts whenever the state does not intervene, then Ron Paul was (and is?) your man, and he certainly warmed many libertarian (and conservative) hearts with his dedicated frugality. But when, e.g., neoconservatives, heard him talk about his foreign policy (or lack thereof) they utterly rejected him. Similarly, Rick Santorum warmed the heart of some on the religious right, but the libertarians found him appalling. Etc.
And we should recognize the difficulty—the complexity or the confusion—that ensues when we try to apply Ceaser’s helpful and appropriate labels to a political movement. Take for example the Tea Party: What are they? Libertarian and traditionalist or religious right or agents for a possible neoconservative triumph? The answer may be all the above, or a blend, to varying degrees, of bits and pieces of each. Part of the problem—as this Politico piece recognizes—is that people don’t identify themselves in ways that fit with how think tanks, conservative periodicals, and Jim Ceaser see them. Instead, people take labels like “the Tea Party.” Even still, in further confirmation of Ceaser’s general point, they come together with a common heart, united by their opposition to liberalism. One heart, four heads.
Let me end with a tribute to the political genius of Ronald Reagan. Reagan appealed, and still does appeal, to all four heads. (It is slightly anachronistic to ask whether Reagan was a neoconservative, but the ideas are old, even if the label is new, so I hope this anachronism will be overlooked.)
Anyway, let’s take each head of the four-headed conservative coalition and see whether or not Reagan could pass as a legitimate member of each one. Traditionalism? He was a friend of William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review. Check. Neoconservatism? “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” Check. Libertarianism? Think Reaganomics. Check. And, finally, the religious right? Look at Paul Kengor’s God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life. Check.
Now you may resist the notion that Reagan was really part of one head or another, but you have to ask yourself your reason for resisting the claim. I imagine that it’s either because (1) you don’t like that head of conservatism or because (2) you don’t think that Reagan was sufficiently dedicated to your particular cause. So, e.g., you don’t want to think of Reagan as part of the religious right, because you find the religious right disagreeable, or, e.g., Reagan wasn’t sufficiently libertarian for you. He didn’t go to church enough, or his economic policies were actually Keynesian, etc.
But think about what his opponents said about him! They certainly did not think that he was a progressive who was sheepish about rights and a big government taxer who loathed religious faith. Reagan was enough of a believer in each part of the conservative coalition to qualify as a member, but never so zealously dedicated to one cause at the expense of all the rest. That makes dedicated enthusiasts of one head of the coalition understandably skeptical of various aspects of Reagan’s presidency. But that doesn’t mean that Reagan belonged anywhere else.
And I don’t think Reagan was playing a role; I think he was genuinely a member of each. If so, then liberals have it all wrong. Reagan wasn’t dumb. He was a genius. He didn’t have just one head; he had four.
Who wants to be hornswoggled?
I want to add to Ceaser’s theory by proposing that there’s an intellectual attitude that all four heads share; there’s something on which they all agree.
There’s a common intellectual commitment: a deep suspicion of what I’ll call long-term extrapolation. By long-term extrapolation I mean taking discrete, finite data points and extending them either logically, in the here and now, or chronologically, into the past or the present. Progressivism has, I think, a great fondness for long-term extrapolation. Even the name of the movement suggests that there’s a progress to be achieved, based on what we know now, and can know about the future. Conservatism, by contrast, is more skeptical about the experts peering into their crystal balls and telling us what is going to take place in the future, took place in the past, or should occur now. Don’t buy it? Let’s look at three examples.
But first let me offer an explanation for why I think this analysis is important. Conservatives, libertarians, et al. regularly dismiss what the experts have to say, but it’s rhetorically difficult to challenge the experts. After all, how can a politician confront the scientists, or a businessman the economists? Even worse, it may be all too easy for the casual observer to conclude that the conservative coalition is largely anti-intellectual, concerned not so much about the truth as they are concerned to defend their dogma, either secular or religious. In fact, some conservatives support this view by their blatant anti-intellectual rhetoric or by rhetoric that could be taken as such.
The four heads ought to offer a unanimous response to this challenge: Conservatives aren’t anti-intellectual. They just don’t want the country to be hornswoggled by someone who claims to know something but does not actually know anything at all. The controversy isn’t a question about particular, commonly accepted facts but is instead about whether the further claims are justified by the data. What’s often in question is whether or not we can conclude something in addition to the comparatively small amount of information that we actually have. Progressives are more optimistic about our abilities to do so; conservatives are more skeptical. Skepticism by itself isn’t anti-intellectual; caution and care over what we believe is surely a hallmark of an educated mind, not evidence against it.
Anyway, though “we don’t want to be hornswoggled” probably isn’t a winning campaign slogan, that doesn’t mean it isn’t true. After all, who wants to be hornswoggled?
Now to the three examples.
Future: Climate change. First, there’s long-term extrapolation about the future. The debate over global warming or climate change is regularly framed as a competition between the nonscientific Neanderthals and their wunderkind scientific competitors. Even the title of Vice President Al Gore’s movie, An Inconvenient Truth, speaks to the progressive narrative on climate change: There are things happening that some people (the conservatives) happen not to like, but they should realize that the (long-term extrapolations of particular scientists that therefore must be the) truth isn’t always agreeable to their lifestyles. But that’s not the point. There are truths that are inconvenient. Certainly. The question, though, is whether or not the so-called “truth” is, in fact, true. Is there not room for skepticism here? Conservatives may chuckle at this month’s news that the polar ice cap has grown dramatically, and it’s hard not to chuckle at this nugget:
“Only six years ago, the BBC reported that the Arctic would be ice-free in summer by 2013, citing a scientist in the US who claimed this was a ‘conservative’ forecast. Perhaps it was their confidence that led more than 20 yachts to try to sail the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific this summer. As of last week, all these vessels were stuck in the ice, some at the eastern end of the passage in Prince Regent Inlet, others further west at Cape Bathurst.”
But the point here isn’t whether or not global warming is true or false. After all, a believer in long-term extrapolation will just as easily panic over the coming Ice Age, and the firm believer in government action will call for whatever it could possibly take to prevent it. Conservatives, by contrast, will be just as skeptical about the coming Ice Age as some of them have been about the former vice president’s Inconvenient Truth. That’s the point: The question isn’t the current data; we can all see the satellite imagery. The question is whether the handful of data points that we have is sufficient to tell us what will happen in the future.
Present: Economics. Next, let’s talk markets. Here we’re not talking about long-term extrapolation into the future but about a working assumption that, somehow, we can take a series of data points, put them into our financial models, and discover by them what things ought to cost. Progressives are confident, or at least hopeful, that financial models will yield positive results in the form of new information that is the result of complex, mathematical manipulations of a given data set.
Libertarians have a different way of getting to this information: the market. “One reason why economists are increasingly apt to forget about the constant small changes which make up the whole economic picture is probably their growing preoccupation with statistical aggregates, which show a very much greater stability than the movements of the detail”—that’s Hayek in “The Use of Knowledge in Society.” His point, lest there be any doubt, is not to encourage economists to forget about the constant small changes; on the contrary, he wants us to avoid central planning and its reliance on a bird’s-eye view of human life.
The four heads of the conservative coalition are generally skeptical about people claiming to know something that’s not per se investigable, especially when those people cannot actually see it, either, but claim to know it on the basis of a careful analysis of a comparatively small number of data points.
Past: Evolution. Some members of the conservative coalition are famously (or infamously) skeptical about macroevolution, and most especially about claims that macroevolution explains the development of all biological life, including man. They are not alone in the United States, with only 21 percent of Americans in a recent poll saying that humans evolved without divine guidance. Religious beliefs obviously play a role, but I think skepticism about long-term extrapolation plays a role, too—it’s just that this time it’s about extrapolation into the past.
Take the following example. (I know that anecdotes aren’t surveys, but that doesn’t mean they’re entirely useless!) Virginia Heffernan, a former New York Times writer now with Yahoo News, achieved no small amount of notoriety by saying that she is a creationist. In “Virginia Heffernan’s Shameful Confession,” Laura Helmuth takes Heffernan to task, as does Hamilton Nolan in “Yes Virginia, There Is a Darwin.” Nolan summarizes Heffernan’s confession in a sentence: “Virginia Heffernan is a science-phobic angel-believing climate change skeptic.”
If the above analysis is correct, she may also be a libertarian. She’s already evidenced a skepticism about long-term extrapolation for the future (climate change) and for the past (evolution). If she shows skepticism about these two, then it’s not farfetched to assume that she’s skeptical about central planning in the present. (And if she’s not yet a member of the conservative coalition, then she is by destination.)
Regardless, she’s learning the hard way that “it is almost heresy to suggest that scientific knowledge is not the sum of all knowledge.”
In case you’re wondering, that’s not a quote from William Jennings Bryan’s closing argument at the Scopes trial. It is, instead, another quote from Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society.”