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Conservatism in four parts

"Conservatism in four parts" Continued...

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.

Reprinted with permission of James E. Bruce. © 2013. All rights reserved.

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