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January 05, 2010

Defining Conservatism

A while back I was asked by a very lovely and intelligent lady to write an essay on conservatism.

I did quite a bit of research and was rather surprised by what I learned. Yes, I do have an opinion on this subject. But I hear so many people say, "He/She isn't a conservative" that I can't quite resist throwing the question back at you all: "OK. Exactly what IS a conservative? Define it for me."

So that's my challenge to you, whether you are a blogger or a reader. Define conservatism for me. Better yet, do it for yourself.

Have at it in the comments section. And if you are a blogger and want to post your reply, let me know and I'll post a roundup of responses.

Should be an interesting discussion.

Posted by Cassandra at January 5, 2010 09:50 PM

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Conservatism is normally defined by political scientists as breaking into two camps: "independent conservatives" and "traditional conservatives." Independent conservatives favor individual liberty from the state; they are largely aligned with classical liberals of the Jeffersonian sort, but are less friendly even than the classical liberal to state action to 'shape' society. Rather, they want to see society shaped by family, church, and so forth.

Traditional conservatives also want to see society shaped by the institutions of family and church, but are ready to consider the state as a third institution. This is a very old philosophy; the "God and Country" philosophy. It loves country as mother, God as father, and defends both with the same fury that it uses to uphold its actual mother and father. To those latter, and the grandparents behind them, it feels a deep and abiding debt.

In both cases, conservatism concerns itself with the defense of institutions and standards that shape society.

For that reason, it trusts only a certain kind of person to exercise power. We had this discussion recently, you and I. You might want to track back through the various comments at your place, my place, and so forth.

Posted by: Grim at January 5, 2010 10:18 PM

I like Russell Kirk's take on the subject.

Posted by: bthun at January 5, 2010 10:38 PM

Conservativism is the mindset and act of knowing and holding to a proper and virtuous balance between the competing goods of human nature.

Posted by: Ilíon at January 5, 2010 11:37 PM

Ilion: how do you define "proper and virtuous"? I can imagine many different notions of both adjectives that I would disagree with deeply, but my liberal friends would find very much in line with their thinking.

bthun: I thought Kirk's principles had the most rigor of the definitions I read. But there are still huge holes you can drive a truck through because he rightly observes that conservatism is not an ideology, but more of an attitude. And one has to ask, "attitude towards what"?

In discussions with Eric Blair, I've pointed out many times that my view of what constitutes traditional social/legal norms and is therefore to be conserved is quite different from his.

He was born only 5 or so years after I was. In the world I grew up in, the state interfered in many ways with our private choices and there were many more limits, both societal and legal, on private behavior. Obscenity laws and censorship are two excellent examples of this. Things that occur everywhere today would have landed people in jail years ago. Now they're protected by federal laws that have overruled the right of states to settle such matters for themselves.

I honestly believe that if most conservatives had to live with the God's honest results of many of the things they "wish" for, they'd find the practical application of "conservatism" intolerable.

Which begs the question: from what reference point (my childhood? Eric's? the 18th Century, which despite Eric's contention that "vice" is nothing new, had quite strict laws punishing behavior that occurs in the mainstream today and is protected by law?) do we draw a line and say, "This is traditional. This is customary. This is what should be conserved?

Posted by: Cassandra at January 5, 2010 11:52 PM

Conservatism is Liberalism after reality hits it with the cluebat...

Posted by: BillT at January 6, 2010 12:07 AM

... conservatism concerns itself with the defense of institutions and standards that shape society.

For that reason, it trusts only a certain kind of person to exercise power.

Then conservatives, from what I can tell, must believe that our system of elections is wrong because it cannot (and arguably almost never does) deliver that kind of leader.

I happen to think that's a great argument for limiting the power of government :p Unfortunately, "defending institutions and standards that shape society", unless one limits this to family and church only, is a problematic definition of conservatism.

Johnson's Great Society and Roe v. Wade have both been around long enough to be "traditional'. They have both shaped society. Must conservatives defend them, then?

I find 9/10ths of "conservative" though is outcome based. We know what we want and we cherry pick the arguments that will get us there. But I'm not sure that's really "conservatism" :p

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 12:08 AM

Cassandra: Most of what I identify with as conservatism can probably be found in this prior blog post of mine...

http://gregorys-rantsite.blogspot.com/2008/10/conservatism-big-g-style-introspective.html

Generally speaking, though, I believe that most conservatives can agree with more or less the following in no particular order;

1. Limited government
2. Free market principles with minimal intervention from government or government-like bodies
3. Private liberty balanced with public decency and morality
4. Basic human rights not to be infringed by anybody (freedom of speech, religion, association, right to bear arms, right to privacy, etc)
5. Equality before the law

Posted by: Gregory at January 6, 2010 12:37 AM

You guys are making it too complicated.

Conservatives believe we should take a literal view and application of the words in the US Constitution.

Since the Constitution is an obstacle to the Liberal's agenda, Liberals take the relativist view that it means whatever they feel it should say.

Posted by: Gator at January 6, 2010 12:41 AM

The root word of conservative is conserve, so that's a good starting point.

Now, what is it that a conservative is trying to conserve? Some might say "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness", which is all well and go so far as it goes. It may also be said that the conservation of resources (as in: tax dollars) is part of the equation. So, rather than advocating a "nanny" State that fails to conserve essential liberties in exchange for governmental "safety nets" at the expense of tax dollars, a true conservative is one who espouses limited government (and its inherent intrusion into our liberties) and free market solutions to various situations.

OK, that's enough out of me...

Posted by: camojack at January 6, 2010 01:14 AM

M'lady,

Attitude is one of, if not my only, strength, and me a self professed conservative. Go figure…


I do enjoy your discussions with Eric on various and sundry. Being a bit older than you, I'll admit that I usually come down in your camp. We have very similar frames of reference with respect to traditional social/legal norms, I suppose.

” Things that occur everywhere today would have landed people in jail years ago.”
Those things went on in times past but they took place behind closed doors and in the shadows. They were not protected by law, sanctioned by society, and so were not normalized and adopted by multitudes right on down through preteens steeped in our current culture. And I'll admit that, I'm not very concerned with what consenting adults do behind their closed doors if they do not infringe on the rights and liberties, as described in the Constitution/BoR, of others who are not so disposed.
” I honestly believe that if most conservatives had to live with the God's honest results of many of the things they "wish" for, they'd find the practical application of "conservatism" intolerable.”
That may be the case, but I’ll have to reserve the my agreement or disagreement depending on what, exactly, constitutes those wishes.

” Which begs the question: from what reference point (my childhood? Eric's? the 18th Century, which despite Eric's contention that "vice" is nothing new, had quite strict laws punishing behavior that occurs in the mainstream today and is protected by law?) do we draw a line and say, "This is traditional. This is customary. This is what should be conserved? ”
You’re asking me? The resident Neanderthal curmudgeon?! Ok, Yes, draw the line. And I would be good with an 18th century's Constitutionalist stake in the ground. We could haggle from there.

Posted by: bthun at January 6, 2010 01:34 AM

Cassandra: "Ilion: how do you define "proper and virtuous"? I can imagine many different notions of both adjectives that I would disagree with deeply, but my liberal friends would find very much in line with their thinking."

Why limit your question to just those words? All the words of the sentence were deliberately chosen to give "liberals" apoplexy.

But, as you ask about just those two words -- well, if your “liberal friends” use those terms non-tendentiously, then they’re about to step on a banana peel (and if they use them tendentiously, they merely expose their intellectual dishonesty). To use, --and mean -- such terms as ‘proper’ and ‘virtue’ is to acknowledge that there is an objective moral standard, which we can know and to which we can appeal, and upon which we may reason.

“Liberalism” (as libertarianism, though in a different manner) is about the denial of an objectively real moral order in favor of the assertion of will and power.

Posted by: Ilíon at January 6, 2010 02:28 AM

Ilion: You (and also bthun) have touched on one of the most important points I want to discuss here: your "objectively real moral order".

I will confess that (like bthun) I believe there is such a thing, and that communities and societies are better off when some attention is paid to it.

But again, the lion's share of what passes for "real conservatism" these days either pays lip service to the notion of an enduring moral order or rejects it out of hand in favor of what is not conservatism at all, but libertarianism. Kirk nails that, here:

A society in which men and women are governed by belief in an enduring moral order, by a strong sense of right and wrong, by personal convictions about justice and honor, will be a good society—whatever political machinery it may utilize; while a society in which men and women are morally adrift, ignorant of norms, and intent chiefly upon gratification of appetites, will be a bad society—no matter how many people vote and no matter how liberal its formal constitution may be.

The bolded section describes the stances of many "real conservatives" quite aptly. They are all in favor of gratifying appetites they share and in fact want this protected by law regardless of whether there is any grounding for this practice in American history - which strikes me as more progressive than conservative. But this ardent defense of liberty only extends to appetites they happen to share :p

Grim and I have had this discussion before. I think it's ludicrous to expect widespread acceptance of an enduring moral order unless the law supports such. The law itself shapes what we consider to be "social norms" whether we like that or not. If behavior that was not generally accepted by society is suddenly protected by an activist court, it flourishes. Public expression of that behavior soars and over time opposition to it wanes and it comes to be accepted as a rarely questioned social norm.

The same thing happens on the Internet. Things that once shocked are now not only commonplace but defended by conservatives. I never thought I'd hear self-described conservatives pitching a hissy fit when discussions of morality are raised and yet that, too is commonplace.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 05:29 AM

Cassandra summarizes, above, her position:

Generally speaking, though, I believe that most conservatives can agree with more or less the following in no particular order;

1. Limited government
2. Free market principles with minimal intervention from government or government-like bodies
3. Private liberty balanced with public decency and morality
4. Basic human rights not to be infringed by anybody (freedom of speech, religion, association, right to bear arms, right to privacy, etc)
5. Equality before the law

I generally agree with her; however, these are outcomes, not principles. I consider myself an 18th Century Liberal, possibly in the Jeffersonian, Independent Conservative umm, tradition, but I believe Thomas Paine provides the actual Conservative First Principles. Mr Paine wrote extensively of the primacy of the individual--of individual rights having precedence over the state's (or the united States') rights--and he coupled this, to the point of their being two sides of the same coin, with the equal primacy of individual responsibility. Thus we as individuals are free to do as we will, but the outcomes of our choices and our actions are the responsibility of no one but ourselves.

To actualize (to use the Valley-speak of my generation) these First Principles, the five criteria listed by Cassandra are necessary. Stray from these, and the Conservative's First Principles are violated, and our society (in both senses of that word) are put at risk.

Eric Hines

Posted by: Eric Hines at January 6, 2010 07:40 AM

Eric Hines: Just a small correction, our Blog Mistress did not summarise her position thus, for those were my words, and I doubt she'd like to have those words put in her mouth.

I presume Cassandra pretty much believes in them, too, sure, but she did not say so, certainly not in those words, and not in this thread.

One of the things that has happened, Cassandra, is that people have stated to separate themselves into 'fiscal' conservatives and 'social' conservatives. I happen to be both according to those labels, so to speak. But a 'fiscal conservative' can pretty much believe in the government butting out of the economy, and therefore prostitution and drug trading should be as legal as modelling and drinking. And a 'social conservative' can believe in using the government bludgeon to enforce public morality.

Or so I understand the argument to go.

Posted by: Gregory at January 6, 2010 08:42 AM

Gregory,

Right you are; my apologies to both. I read the "Posted by:" just above, rather than just below.

Eric Hines

Posted by: Eric Hines at January 6, 2010 08:52 AM

Credit notwithstanding, I agree with Gregory regarding the desirability of those things. But I've also seen many "real conservatives", for instance, argue vociferously against his #3 (but of course only when it's their public behavior that should be privileged/allowed while others should only be allowed to indulge their preferences behind closed doors :p).

And thus consequences do make hypocrites of us all. Easy to spout off. Not always so easy to live by what we spout off - we'd much prefer our principles to be applied inflexibly to others but selectively to us. Insofar as I can tell, this is neither a conservative nor liberal trait but a human one.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 09:10 AM

And yet, not to get too hung up on a single point, it's the definition of "morality" and "decency" (and even of "public," since government takes as one of its ends--purely in service to the greater good--an intrusion into one's home), and the personal nature of these definitions, that make government singularly unfit to mandate such.

Much of morality used to be defined by the deliberately nebulous and geographically variable "community standard." Small communities (the locals' definition of "small") should set these standards, not any government.

Eric Hines

Posted by: Eric Hines at January 6, 2010 09:38 AM

Much of morality used to be defined by the deliberately nebulous and geographically variable "community standard."

I happen to agree. I just wonder how many conservatives would be happy with that outcome if it means their freedoms would be limited? And the Internet/cable make local standards pretty much impossible to enforce.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 09:43 AM

Interestingly enough though, the FCC effectively enforced a national standard for a very long time. Obscenity law is very interesting. I think it would confound the expectations of many conservatives if they bothered to check into it.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 09:44 AM

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried and true to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

-On Being Conservative (1956)

Posted by: Drive by Michael Oakeshott at January 6, 2010 09:52 AM

Mr. Drive By:

I like that definition. But I have to say that I think many of the terms in it are either very subjective or difficult to prove one way or the other.

For instance, one thing liberals often say is, "How do you know it won't work if it's never been tried before?"

A conservative will tend to say "the actual" is what has been shown to be possible. But it is possible to have national health care. That doesn't make it desirable necessarily and since conservatives also believe there are no perfect systems, there are some logical issues with citing anecdotal evidence that national health care results in bad outcomes and therefore we shouldn't go there.

I may agree with these arguments but if I were judge and jury I might point out that not having national health care also results in some bad outcomes :p I'm more comfortable with the argument that it's unconstitutional.

In the end I think a lot of this comes down to whether you think government has an duty to provide for goods that individuals can obtain for themselves, even if not all obtain them (by reason of not doing what's necessary to get them, preferring other goods, or simply from bad luck). Liberals don't even seem to agree that we need a military, though national defense is not something individuals can provide for their themselves and their families, yet they think we need national health care even though something like 80% of Americans already have it :p

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 10:11 AM

Sensible adults are conservative in most aspects of their private lives. If this weren't so, imagine driving on I-95: The majority of drivers are drunk, stoned, making out, or watching TV, while the rest are trying to calculate the size of their carbon footprints on the backs of Whole Foods receipts while negotiating lane changes.

-We Blew It
Weekly Standard (11/17/2008)

Posted by: Drive by PJ O'Rourke at January 6, 2010 10:16 AM

I don't think there really is a definition. I think that defining conservatism, liberalism, etc. is a bit like defining fascism, execpt we're less aware of the difficulties.

I've always thought of it as conserving individual liberties - as much as is practical and desireable. What is practical and desireable is what is being debated in most cases, I've found. The main difference with people more to the left is an emphasis on greater economic freedom, as well as a slightly different definition of what, socially, is a legitimate freedom. (Think of the question of abortion.)

Posted by: Lisa at January 6, 2010 10:25 AM

Personally, I like the textbook definition of conservative: "just a little" as opposed to liberal: "a lot".

Is it specific? Not at all. But then again, if you get too specific you end up with a population of adherents equal to 1.

The function of gov't is to protect the rights of individuals from predation by two groups of people. The gov't itself and other individuals.

Thus, by this rubric laws against murder and theft fall under protecting the rights of individuals from predation by other individuals, while laws against unreasonable search and seizure or delaying for 10 years to bring a case to trial protect the rights of individuals from predation by the gov't.

Laws that make it felony smuggling to ship lobsters in a clear container vice an opaque one (because nothing screams smuggling like allowing everyone to see your cargo), however, protects the rights of no one from anyone.

Welfare protects no one's rights from the predation of anyone else. But while it's illegal for a politician to buy votes with his own money (it's predation by gov't) appearently it's just hunky-dory to do it with everyone elses.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 6, 2010 10:34 AM

A slight clarification, a conservative gov't would be one that is conserned with the protection of negative liberties. That is, those things which may not be done to you rather than those which must be done for you.

You may not be murdered, you may not have you property stolen, you may not have your things searched unreasonably or without a warrant, you may not be required to house soldiers, you may not be required to testify against yourself, you may not be invaded by the mongrel hordes. :-)

This is to be contrasted with the liberal definition of rights as positive rights: you must be provided a "living wage", you must be provided healthcare, you must be provided an environment stripped of any mention of religion, you must be provided with housing, you must be provided with a world covered in Nerf™ etc.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 6, 2010 10:50 AM

I think conservatism is a means of preserving the status quo; but also limiting government. I tend to be more like the classic liberal of Jefferson; liberation from government restrictions and self governance.

Posted by: Cricket at January 6, 2010 11:18 AM

Ok, sweet lady, I tried to articulate what it means to me, but fraid it is way too long for comments section. I have no idea how to utilize trackback, so, I let you know it is on my blog.

Posted by: GunnyPink at January 6, 2010 11:23 AM

Cass:

I think there are three things bothering you. The first is that you'd like a "conservative principle" that is reliably in favor of things you wish to be in favor of; and there isn't one.

The second is that you'd like a conservatism that arises from completely rational principles; not only is there not one, but there should not be one.

The third is that you'd like to rebalance a lot of the load back toward the government. That's fine: a lot of conservatives have felt that way. The bifurcation in the movement, though, is quite old.

I'll explain in detail by going through your previous reply.

Then conservatives, from what I can tell, must believe that our system of elections is wrong because it cannot (and arguably almost never does) deliver that kind of leader.

That was the point of our last conversation: at one point, conservatives did indeed believe that our system of elections was wrong. Your Hamilton was quite concerned about limiting the power of the people; and the British conservatives, still more concerned about it.

I think that's an important thing to remember. You ought to construct a definition that fits the facts, rather than what we might like the facts to be. (That's a conservative principle right there!) The fact is that conservatives have often been susipicious of elections or the push for more-and-more democracy; and indeed, an argument can be made that we've gone too far in that direction.

I happen to think that's a great argument for limiting the power of government :p Unfortunately, "defending institutions and standards that shape society", unless one limits this to family and church only, is a problematic definition of conservatism.

That is the reason for the bifurcation of conservatives into 'independent' v. 'traditional.' Family and church are more reliable places to located moral authority; the government, especially in a democracy, won't always be controlled by people who share your moral values.

This position is actually rooted in some very old doctrines, by the way. The medieval Church (quite a conservative organ!) believed that the state had certain duties, mainly the establishment of peace and order; but moral training was best handled by the faith and by the family. All it wanted from the state was room to operate. (And this is Biblical, if you like: "Render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's..." as Jesus said.)

Johnson's Great Society and Roe v. Wade have both been around long enough to be "traditional'. They have both shaped society. Must conservatives defend them, then?

No. This is the most important thing, really: conservatives believe that the point of society is to produce the right kind of man. If it isn't doing that, the society is broken and needs reform.

This is one of the few points that Aristotle and Plato agreed upon: politics is meant to arise from ethics, and in turn, to support ethics. I think you're trying to say this ("...ludicrous to expect widespread acceptance of an enduring moral order unless the law supports such").

The simple age of a thing isn't important. However old The Great Society is, the Church is older; Aristotle is older. By the same token, sometimes an old institution -- say, Congress -- ceases to perform the function it was once reliably inclined to perform. In such cases, "conservatives" can become quite reform-minded.

The question is whether the society -- which means more than the government -- is producing the right kind of man. There is room for some debate about what that kind of man is, but it's the root of the thing.

So, yes, conservatism is meant to be "outcomes based." If it's not doing that, society is broken and needs reform.

Now, as for the question "What is the right kind of man?", one can point to Aristotle or to the Church, or elsewhere; but it's important to recognize right at the front that the definition won't be wholly rational. A lot of it is going to be rooted in ideas of beauty, which are fundamentally irrational.

The human soul has both a rational and an irrational part; and, therefore, society must be able to nurture both. A desire for a fundamentally rational society is bad thinking; such a society would not be a fit place for human beins.

So, we have to push for what I have often called "a vision of beauty," but what Aristotle calls "a proper upbringing." This is the structuring of the internal, irrational soul so that it values things we can agree to be beautiful. This is not a fully rational project, and cannot be.

It can certainly include a very great deal of clear and careful reason. For example, St. Thomas Aquinas employs very careful reason to explain where he believes that human sexuality is virtuous instead of a vice: he starts with the Bible, reads back into it three "reasons" for sex that God seems to approve of, and then posits a system for judging sexuality based on those reasons. Where all three are present, sexuality is a virtue; where one or more is absent, a vice; and because the principles are ranked, you can even judge exactly how serious a sin by knowing which and how many principles are absent.

That's very rational, but it starts with the Bible. You can imagine how difficult it is to demonstrate, on a purely rational basis, that humanity ought to start with the Bible. That is ultimately a function of either upbringing, or of being swayed by the beauty of the vision. You can't reason someone into faith, because faith isn't a function of pure reason. It's very much a function that treats the areas of life where reason is not enough.

So, I think you'll have to accept that irrationality is part of the package. Further, you'll have to accept that institutions can break, and if they break they must be reformed or abandoned, because the real thing being defended is the kind of person society shapes. The institutions are valuable if they are reliable guides to that; and if they have been in the past, but are not now, they probably need reform rather than destruction.

Yet it is the person that matters.

Posted by: Grim at January 6, 2010 11:33 AM

I think you are confusing what you think I want with my observation that there is no philosophy of "real conservatism".

I understand that you think I want this, but that is not the same as my noticing that when other people maintain that they are operating under a rational, consistent philosophy, they in fact are not :p

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 12:10 PM

Yet it is the person that matters.

I believe that was the entire point of my last lengthy post ;p

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 12:14 PM

thanks, Gunny! I'll get the link up as soon as I can!

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 12:15 PM

Conservatism in liberalism after a mugging.

Posted by: Mark at January 6, 2010 12:28 PM

conservatives believe that the point of society is to produce the right kind of man.

So do liberals. They just happen to disagree about the definition of "the right kind of man".

I think you really are missing my point here, Grim. Perhaps I've stated it badly.

My point has absolutely NOTHING to do with what I want.

It has to do with how "conservatives" define conservatism today. I already know how I define conservatism. My point is that when people talk about "conservative principles" they conflate a whole lot of things that are not properly conflated. Since they rarely stop to consider whether we're all in favor of the same things (we're not) they end up with an artificially narrow definition full of unexamined assumptions.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 12:30 PM

It's not right to say that there is 'no real philosophy.'

There has probably been no philosophy that has been more completely developed, at greater length, by more thinkers. As many Marxists as there have been in the last century and a half, and as prolific as their writings have been, it doesn't compare even to just the Scholastics of the Medieval Church, let alone all the others who have been interested in the question.

There isn't, and can't be, a purely rational philosophy of it; but there shouldn't be any completely rational philosophy governing a human society.

Further, given that the philosophy has developed over more than two thousand years, and involves people from any number of nations writing in dozens of languages, the amount of consistency at work is quite remarkable.

If what you take away from all of this is that 'there is no real philosophy,' you have -- as they say -- missed the forest for the trees. Say, rather, that it would be the work of a lifetime or two to synthesize all that has been written; even to list all the sideline arguments and minor disagreements; but that the thing resembles an enormous mountain with several long fingers. One may barely be able to see another of those fingers, if the bulk of the mountain is in the way: but they are all part of the same rock.

Posted by: Grim at January 6, 2010 12:33 PM

"...when other people maintain that they are operating under a rational, consistent philosophy, they in fact are not..."
The sharing of gentle wisdom is but one method offered in the scriptures to correct a person so afflicted. Both you, M'lady, and Grim perform that labor very well.

Philistine's such as myself may give that a try, on first pass, but the follow up option often consists of a more direct approach in pointing out the debris in the person's cornflakes.

Is this where I mention the utility and conservative value to be found in a slap to the back of the head, of tar, feathers, railroad cross ties, stocks in the square, and such? =8^⁄

Posted by: bt_cant-hepit-ima-redneck_hun at January 6, 2010 12:34 PM

Actually, this debate kind of clarifies the problem. 99% of what you are trying to say, Cass, is precisely what I am saying too. Every time we run up on an objection (e.g., 'but that doesn't make us consistently in favor of elections'), it proves that the objection was already agreed to. I point out that the final objective is developing the right kind of person, and building a space for that kind of person in the world; you say that was the point of the last thing you've written.

Someone might think that we were arguing from two very different philosophies. In fact, the disagreement is over a term, or a phrase, or just because we like to fight. Almost everything is agreed-to; the apparent dispute masks the fundamental agreement.

Posted by: Grim at January 6, 2010 12:49 PM

If what you take away from all of this is that 'there is no real philosophy,' you have -- as they say -- missed the forest for the trees.

"No real philosophy" and "No philosophy of 'real conservatism' (my actual words)" are two very different things, Grim.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 12:52 PM

Conservative principles:


"New" is not a synonym for "Good"; "Old" is not a synonym for "Bad"; and "I want the State to make you ..." is almost always wrong.


Individuals have rights. Groups have powers which are limited by rights.


"Freedom" is how much of your life is not constrained by "Thou must", "Thou mustn't", and -- contradictory -- both of those.

Posted by: htom at January 6, 2010 12:53 PM

Grim, that was the point I was trying to make: that you seemed to think I was arguing with you when in fact we were essentially saying the same thing (there is no one rational, uber consistent set of overarching conservative principles that produce the outcomes conservatives desire - or say they desire - not the same thing).

My definition of conservatism is somewhere in between Russell Kirk and Yu-Ain's negative liberty argument.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 12:55 PM

So here's my next question:

Is David Brooks a conservative?

Is Kathleen Parker?

Defend your answer.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 12:57 PM

There isn't, and can't be, a purely rational philosophy of it;

I'm taking a guess here, but I think Cass agrees with this. She is rather pointing out that there are a lot of conservatives who claim that there can be, but that all of their proposals for such purely rational philosophies aren't.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 6, 2010 12:57 PM

I used the '' rather than "" for that reason, Cass. I want to be sure that you convey that there is a real philosophy at work: perhaps the most deeply developed philosophy the world has ever known. Indeed, its competitors are traditional Chinese thought, and traditional Indian thought; but especially the Indians have quite a bit of fundamental agreement as well. (Quite possibly due to the Indo-European roots underlying both Greek and Indian thought; but that's a discussion for another day.)

As for who is a "real conservative," the answer is: anyone who makes his lodge somewhere on this mountain. The ones who are not are the ones who hate the mountain, and would like to bend their will and power to tearing it out of the earth.

Posted by: Grim at January 6, 2010 12:57 PM

As for who is a "real conservative," the answer is: anyone who makes his lodge somewhere on this mountain. The ones who are not are the ones who hate the mountain, and would like to bend their will and power to tearing it out of the earth.

And that's exactly what I've been arguing ever since the last election :p

To great consternation, as I recall.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 01:01 PM

You understand me well, Obi-YuAin :p

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 01:02 PM

So, once again, having fought hotly for several hundred words, we discover that we agreed all along. :)

Live to fight, love to fight.

Now, as for Ms. Parker, I have never read anything she's written. No one can read everything that is written, and she is one of those I've chosen to set aside.

I did read Mr. Brooks' latest, at least, and it was problematic. He is arguing a line that sounds conservative -- 'defend institutions' -- but is doing so in a way that is blind to the question of how one might defend an institution that has abandoned its purpose. I mean that the purpose of Congress, say, is to craft laws in accordance with the Constitution's limits; if it has stopped doing that, then the right way to "defend" it is to force it back to its proper function.

The problem Alinsky raises is that he has learned that you can undermine the conservative project by forcing it to obey its own rules. By setting the less important rule forward as "an inconsistency," you're trying to trick people into letting you get away with using the technicality to attack the fundamentals. That is a serious error in thought.

I don't know if Brooks is a conservative who has been undermined by such an attack; or if he harbors such thinking himself; or if he has simply not given the matter adequate thought yet. I haven't read enough of him to guess.

Posted by: Grim at January 6, 2010 01:16 PM

The problem Alinsky raises is that he has learned that you can undermine the conservative project by forcing it to obey its own rules. By setting the less important rule forward as "an inconsistency," you're trying to trick people into letting you get away with using the technicality to attack the fundamentals.

It may well be that I don't understand Alinsky here, but it was my impression that this particular rule dealt largely with impeaching the credibility of all conservatives by pointing out that individual conservatives don't always live up to their own rules.

I've pointed out many times that this is a logical fallacy and is actually pretty easy to refute if one is clear about the Alinsky rule being a particularly clever ad hominem used to distract rather than directly refute conservative principles.

Thus, conservatives go apeshit trying to defend every dumb thing Carrie Prejean does because admitting she's made mistakes somehow makes her wrong on gay marriage :p

You tell me who is committing the error in thought there and I'll send you a stuffed marmoset!

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 01:28 PM

Brooks also argues for the wisdom of the elite - which sent "conservatives" into a frenzy :p

Yet I believe many very well respected conservatives (including those who wrote that Constitution conservatives want everyone to adhere to) were of the same opinion.

It is a puzzlement, no?

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 01:33 PM

I'd begin by saying that conservatism is in part the belief that humans are by nature imperfect and unperfectable. From there it requires a lot more grey matter than I can devote to the discussion at this moment.

Posted by: LittleRed1 at January 6, 2010 01:36 PM

So, once again, having fought hotly for several hundred words, we discover that we agreed all along.

My dear friend, as much as I hate to quibble, I wasn't arguing with you, but with your 11:33 AM summary of what you thought I believed.

It was your summary of what you thought I wanted (which you thought was wrong, and it was - just not in the way you thought :p) that I took issue with, not your position.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 01:42 PM

Of course, it goes without saying that MY definition of conservatism is entirely rational, logical, consistent, and coherent.

Just sayin'.

/running like hell for the barricades!!!!

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 01:44 PM

That's part of what Alinsky wanted; and the Preejan thing marks another part of it, which is to "personalize it." If you can make gay marriage about her, then if she does something wrong, you can elide that into a discrediting of 'opponents of gay marriage.'

However, the other part of 'make them live up to their own rules' is tactical. You understand the Marine Corps approach to maneuver warfare, which is summarized: Find, Fix, Finish. The first thing to do is locate the enemy; the second thing, to deploy units to fix them in a given place; and then to finish them with a flanking maneuver, or by bringing artillery, etc., to bear on their fixed position.

This is the "fix" approach as used in political debates. If you can "fix" conservatives to a given rule, and force them to defend that, they are open to a flanking maneuver. In the current case, if 'conservatives should defend institutions' is the rule you can convince people that they need to uphold, then you can force them to defend institutions you've captured.

Alinsky's writings on ethics make clear that he considers them dispensable, for himself; but very valuable in his enemy. That's a difficulty, for those of us for whom ethics are not dispensable; and it's something we need to consider carefully in the future.

Posted by: Grim at January 6, 2010 01:44 PM

Oh, I just like to fight, Cass. I'll take any opportunity; a miscommunication is as good as a genuine disagreement, as long as it gives me a chance to go a few rounds with someone who knows how to fight back. :)

the wisdom of the elite...

The problem here is the definition of "elite." Elite properly means what we have here called "the right kind of man," in which case conservatives are right to defend it. But this elite is defined by its Aritotlean virtue.

What it has come to mean is something like what Brooks variously calls "the educated class" and "the political class," few of whom have or seek the virtues described. Again, the error is in following the surface rule, while forgetting the substance that the rule intended to defend.

Posted by: Grim at January 6, 2010 01:48 PM

Oh, I just like to fight, Cass.

*snort*

One of the many qualities I alternately find endearing and infuriating in men.

What it has come to mean is something like what Brooks variously calls "the educated class" and "the political class," few of whom have or seek the virtues described.

Well, again, the Founders would have been quite comfortable with Brooks' definition of the elite. It is WE who have changed that. And that's part of what Brooks was trying to say, IMO.

Conservatives wanted the franchise limited to educated white, wealthy (or land owning) types. The so called "upper crust" of society. That's not what you just described at all, though. You refer to a moral elite, which I don't think it's entirely unfair to describe as "morally elite b/c their values match mine - i.e., they're traditional".

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 02:03 PM

Let me be clear on this: there is nothing in the Constitution about limiting the franchise to those who subscribed to any moral or aesthetic vision.

We may want that. But it ain't in the Constitution. What the original C did was limit the franchise to a small, male, white landowning class who could be presumed to have a bigger stake in forming a civil society than non-whites, females, and non-landowners.

I think it's important to recognize this "original intent".

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 02:11 PM

A conservative is someone who thinks that a family should perform like a good Judeo-Christian family, and that the government should act the same, but only within the areas allowed in the constitution.
A conservative thinks that Government is trying to replace the family, and it's being an irresponsible head-of-household at that.


My two-cents. Thanks for the chance.

Posted by: tomg51 at January 6, 2010 02:40 PM

Any time :)

Thanks for weighing in.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 02:56 PM

Respectfully, Cass, Jefferson wrote quite a bit about how the "yeoman farmer" was a class that could be relied upon to have the particular virtues he felt were most well-suited to democracy. It was certainly a concern of his, even if the language doesn't appear in the Constitution.

And indeed, if you return to that actual class of people -- white, landowning Christians -- you'd find that they remain a stalwart band of conservative thought. It wasn't a bad attepmt a defining a class of 'who is most likely to havfe the virtues.' Not to advocate returning the franchise to them only; but if you were starting off on such a radical experiment as the Founders were, and you were looking to try out this whole 'elections' thing with a group of people who wouldn't run the project off the road the first few years, you could hardly do better.

What Brooks is describing is a group of people quite distinct from what the Founders intended. First of all, it's not clear what he considers 'educated,' since it apparently doesn't include anyone who disagrees with this orthodoxy; but if we take it to mean "the class of people who hold a Ph.D.", we're talking about a form of education that didn't exist when the nation was founded. While there was an order called the Doctorate of Philosophy in the Middle Ages, it wasn't until the 19th century that the Ph.D. developed as a standard of education outside of theology (and, I believe, law and medicine -- which no longer award the degree, instead having professional degrees).

I imagine if you were to poll those with Ph.D.s in theology, they would not necessarily exhibit the 'class view' on abortion that Mr. Brooks ascribes to 'the educated class.'

So, again, none of the Founders had a trust in 'the elite, however it may someday be defined.' They were looking for a class, visible in their own world, which held the values they felt they could rely upon. It's important to remember how radical their undertaking was, and how much they wanted to ensure it was placed on the most solid of foundations.

Posted by: Grim at January 6, 2010 03:12 PM

I see that you haven't had an artistic interpretation yet, so as I happen to have a very broad brush, here is a portrait for your contemplation.

The conservative looks at the good things in the past, the liberal looks for something better in the future, oh, and the libertarian says, "I want it now".

Posted by: Bugout at January 6, 2010 03:14 PM

A couple of points from earlier posts: in re community standards and cable networks: I suggest that cable TV and the Internet are redefining both "community" and "local." And the definitions remain far from settled. In light of that, though, I remain firmly on the side of local community standards, not centrally directed government standards. The dichotomy, after all, is not _my_ standards vs _your_ standards, but rather _my_, or _your_, standards vs a government's standards.

In re the question of whether the government ought provide for individuals that which they can provide for themselves, of course not. This would contradict the primacy of the individual, coupled with the primacy of individual responsibility, which I suggested earlier, speaking ex cathedra from my navel, as a Conservative's First Principles.

Of course, there are boundaries here, too, beyond which it's useful for a government to step in, but at this point I'm unwilling to debate where those boundaries might lie. First understand the heart of the envelope.

Eric Hines

Posted by: Eric Hines at January 6, 2010 03:21 PM

Defining 'conservative', 'moderate', 'liberal', 'progressive', et al. (at least beyond the dictionary definition, that is) is like defining humidity.....it's all relative to the individual. And, IMAO, seems an exercise in futility.

Posted by: DL Sly at January 6, 2010 03:21 PM

Summing up what YAG said (via PJ O'Rourke)@ 10:34 and 10:50:

Government:
Keep your hands to yourself.

The rest of society:
Mind your own business.

Being a Conservative might actually mean a negation of a 'philosophy', so to speak, because such a broad two-handed axe is the weapon sure to make us all dogmatic (in the end), and stop using our heads to figure out the individual problems that arise. In the wrong hands (heh) a powerful philosophy becomes the hammer to drive in any nail that stands out.
It is not wrong for an individual to have an ethical, moral or profoundly philosphical bent in life. That would help make them Grim's "better individual/man", that is, a better citizen and consequently make a better Republic.
But it may be a mistake for a so-called conservative to espouse a completely house-broken 'philosophy'. That indeed is a comforting edifice, but it will also be a point of attack for those opposed to you.
It has to be more than Lincoln's one-time political admonition "My policy is to have no policy", regarding a certain political matter. But it should not be an ironclad basis for approaching all problems.
A modern (21st century) political conservative should have a respect for the principle of Federalism. It has been trampled by the modern Republicans and Democrats.
A modern 21st century political conservative should also respect the structure and meaning of the Constitution as written. There are no magic hidden meanings within the writings. When we actually want something new, we should be able to debate and vote on it, either directly or through our representatives, not wait or expect the courts to be super-legislators and find new meanings in our basic government document. Being a conservative should mean a respect for the will of the people (and being willing to ask for it) when it does not contravene the obvious meaning(s) of the Constitution.
A modern 21st century political conservative should also recognize the limits of all government, and demand that government recognize the limits of what it can impose on the citizens ("keep your hands to yourself").
A modern 21st century political conservative should also recognize that man is not perfectable by government, the church, the Academy, a philosophy or any other endeavor seated in the minds of other men. Mankind can only be led where he wants to go, and there is limited utility in doing things that are altruistic in nature in the hopes that you can somehow refine the nature of your fellow man. (That is Carrie Prejean's, and the religious conservatives/liberal flaw, along with the 20th and 21st century political Progressive.)
The self-proclaimed Progressive is the natural antagonist of the Conservative. Thus, the present tension with our current President, Barack Obama.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha, lost at C at January 6, 2010 03:25 PM

Conservatism to me is keeping everything in it's proper boundaries. The Federal government has a defined role that was supposed to be limited by rights given to either the States or the People.
In some of Grim's old western movies you see men on the run from a posse escape to a church. Church was God's property and the government had no authority in it.
Family was another area that the government had no business in and stayed out of (For the most part).
Now, of course, in the original Constitution, the states had the right to pretty much do what they wanted concerning religion, family, etc., but men were free to leave the state if they didn't like it.
The separation of authority between an individual, religion, community, state, and the federal government was intended to give the individual the greatest amount of freedom possible without living in anarchy.
The Founders set our government up to have to weigh everything against individual freedom. We have know let it get to the point that the government only looks at individuals as ATM machines for it's desire.

Posted by: Russ at January 6, 2010 04:04 PM

Regarding Brooks and whether or not he is "a conservative". Yes, Brooks is a fairly smart guy. And I'm convinced that Brooks knows E. Burke forwards and backwards, FWIW. And as much as I hate to say it, I'll have to concede that Brooks has a "conservative" ingredient or a few in his possibles bag. Or as noted above, he has a vacation lodge on the mountain of amalgamated conservative principles.

My problem with Brooks is that almost every time I read one of his pieces, he is attacking many other lodges on that same mountain. And he does so in a most demeaning way. That as much as his tilts from the moderate center to the left is, off putting, to say the least. More's the shame that someone who possesses the belief in his own intellectual superiority resorts to the crass attack tactics that he all too often employs.

Beyond that, I'll need some quiet time to assemble and sequence examples of Brooks advocacy for a few far from conservative ideas and issues, his denigration of proponents/defenders of conservative positions with which he does not agree, and his attempt to stand athwart, as a member of the educated deciders, the maintenance of institutions he discounts in the name of the superiority of judgment of the educated class, the blue bloods, or whatever... These are but a few of the things about Brooks that tweaks my nose.

Maybe it boils down to my not thinking that Brooks is the right sort of fellow, as Grim says. He is not one that I would trust to support and defend institutions and ideas that I think are relevant to conservatism and important to the maintenance of the Republic.

Wasn't there some recent talk about the intertubes of growing the GOP through inclusion of ideas and the respect for same? How's that gonna work out when Brooks and his sort never miss an opportunity to thrash others with some subset of conservative notions of which he does not approve?

Now as soon as I finish my afternoon on the phone with doctors and attorneys, and insure that my slacks are creased precisely and as sharply as possible, I'll attempt to put a finer point on this, with examples and links, if necessary.

But in a nutshell, Brooks is not my ideal of a font of conservatism. Far from it. To paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart when asked to define porn, 'I know it when I see it', and Brooks, IMO, ain't it.

Posted by: bt_cant-hepit-ima-redneck_hun at January 6, 2010 04:05 PM

Then again, maybe I should just say, what DL-Sly said... =;^}

Posted by: bt_cant-hepit-ima-redneck_hun at January 6, 2010 04:06 PM

A conservative is one bird in the hand.
A liberal is two birds in the bush.
And a socialist is two hands in the bush.
That's why I'm an independent.
No hands.

Posted by: spd rdr at January 6, 2010 04:44 PM

Poetry, spd.

Posted by: Grim at January 6, 2010 05:52 PM

The man *is* sheer poetry, it is true :p

Posted by: Cassandra at January 6, 2010 05:59 PM

A thing of beauty, Spd's poetry is, it's true. But it's the tactile imagery of that poem that'll get ya locked up in this brave new world of thought crimes.

*peeks past the curtain to check on the Black Crown Vic*

Posted by: bt_cant-hepit-ima-redneck_hun at January 6, 2010 06:06 PM

Conservatives understand that things are what they are and deal, Liberals spend their time trying to make things the way the "should" be - and each Liberal knows better than the next what that is.

Posted by: Mark Walker at January 6, 2010 06:43 PM

"...one bird in the hand.
...two birds in the bush.
...two hands in the bush."

I didn't know this was another Tiger Woods thread.
0>;~}

Posted by: DL Sly at January 6, 2010 06:58 PM

I've never seriously considered myself a conservative, but I've been working a lot with local Tea Party and conservative types lately and so will weigh in based on observation of folks calling themselves conservatives.

From interacting with them, there seem to be religious conservatives and secular conservatives. Both, in my mind, are concerned with producing the "right kind" of society (pun intended), and both seem to subscribe to foundational moral codes.

The religious conservatives seem to believe government should ensure our society produces the right kind of people, as Grim suggests, with a particular moral foundation, and by this to produce the right kind of society. (Good men make good government.)

The secular conservatives tend to be originalist or textualist constitutionalists, replacing the moral philosophy of religion with one derived from the Constitution. The secular conservatives, as I see it, want to produce the right kind of society by adherence to a certain interpretation of constitutional principles, rather than producing the right kind of people. (A nation of laws, not men.)

As has been put in different terms above, both seem to adhere to what are wishfully seen as unchanging principles of a foundational morality, with the foundation provided by particular documents, whether Scripture or Constitution or what have you.

In both cases, as has been mentioned above, there are contradictions. I agree with many of the reasons for this given above. I would like to add that, from my perspective, these contradictions are in part because the commonly accepted meanings of the ideas in these foundational documents have changed over time, regardless of how unchanging conservatives want to believe they have been.

Again, I don't claim to be right (ha-ha); this is just from interacting with self-professed conservatives. YMMV.

Posted by: tom at January 6, 2010 07:11 PM

tom: Actually, there are those who are both. Sort of. We believe that moral behaviour should be inculcated at home, yes, and also that some aspects of the moral code can be enforced by the legal code.

Which parts and how much and how effective and how far are all legitimate targets for dissent and discussion. Laws cannot make men moral, but they do serve for the purpose of deterrence... so outlawing public lewdness is probably not a very controversial idea, as opposed to enforcing no commerce on Sunday, for instance.

Don Brouhaha, I think most Christians would agree that the church, far from being a perfect and perfecting instrument, is rather a gathering of imperfect people. Who let the Holy Spirit do the work of perfecting.

Posted by: Gregory at January 6, 2010 09:57 PM

First and foremost, love the blog and the topic.

Rather than muddy the waters with intellectual theories sounding more like the politicians we seek to replace, I will make the observation, "why recreate the wheel".

Foundational morals and values what is right, what is just, what is best for the village and not the king are the global action points to a free society. Call that conservative, secular, religious what have you, as a people we seem to enjoy choosing sides rather than fixing problems.

We have abdicated our right to choose in retrospect out of our individual apathy toward the purpose of government, by blind acceptance of the machine over the last 100 years.

Now we are pissed and searching for meaning, or as the great orator of the big lie puts it, "fundamental change", our angst comes from the inability to participate in that "fundamental change" now that the barn door has been open for so many years.

So the defining moment is still in flux, as is the definition of conservative, that is the holy grail of this decade. A conservative platform, should contain heavy doses of pragmatism, mixed with fiscal policy based in efficiency, with a big dollop of leadership. Or put simply, and I quote Goldilocks "just right".

Off the soap box, on to Brooks, and a little spam on the side, check this out, http://wp.me/pxg8T-h7

Kynikos

Posted by: Moonbat Patrol at January 6, 2010 10:06 PM

Gregory
I agree with you completely. That is how it should be. And why the philosphies of the church (any church) should stay out of politics.

People are entitled and encouraged to lead a moral life, which may include religious worship and belief. This also informs those that are politicians. As individuals we should be encouraged to have value centered beliefs.
But a conservative, in particular, should be wary of bringing the church and beliefs overtly into politics. Because my church might just believe something fundamentally different than yours, and surely God is on my side, and beside I just got elected.

Compulsion in a representative republic such as ours is poison. Even for the "best" of reasons, for which it usually isn't.

Posted by: Don Brouhaha at January 6, 2010 11:41 PM

Don, what I would say is that the State should not include any church as part of its governance machinery, and that the church should not include the State in any of /its/ machinery.

If that is what you mean by bringing the church overtly into politics, then I agree wholeheartedly. It just doesn't work out when you go for a theocracy.

But in a properly federally governed republic with federally guaranteed negative rights (especially the right to vote with your feet), I see no real problems with anybody trying to enforce public decency. If the people don't like it, they can kick the guy out, or leave.

The only exception is when the religion tries to meld itself with the state... and right now, Islam is the only theistic religion doing so. Atheism/Scientism is the non-theistic religion doing so, of course.

Posted by: Gregory at January 7, 2010 04:57 AM

Liberals see a problem and look to government for the solution. Conservatives see a problem and look to government for the cause.

Posted by: RonF at January 7, 2010 09:17 AM

a conservative gov't would be one that is conserned with the protection of negative liberties. That is, those things which may not be done to you rather than those which must be done for you.

...

This is to be contrasted with the liberal definition of rights as positive rights: you must be provided a "living wage" ....

I absolute despise this formulation. The use of "negative rights" to describe the preservation of personal liberties and "positive rights" to describe the creation of entitlements is one of the most blatant efforts to spin and bias political debate that I've ever heard. When I discussed this with someone on the left they denied it was spin. They said that the use of "negative" and "positive" in this context is simply a convention. I replied, "Are you seriously trying to tell me that 'negative' does not have a negative connotation and 'positive' does not have a positive connotation?" I received no reply.

"Rights" are liberties, actions, etc. that no one has the privilege of stopping you from doing and that any worthwhile government will bring the power of the State to bear to ensure that. "Entitlements" are things that must be done for you by your parents, the government, or whoever else has the power to do so.

But the left hates the word "entitlement" because they understand that it reveals what they are trying to do for what it is.

If you want to keep this meme from infecting the political debate we'll have to scream long and loud every time we see it.

Posted by: RonF at January 7, 2010 09:28 AM

Conservatives emphasize personal liberty and personal responsibility. They view people as individuals who are under the law fully empowered. They view government as an agency for ensuring that this empowerment is preserved. They believe that a country can only be strong when the individuals comprising it are considered to be responsible for their own actions and will enjoy or suffer the results of their own choices with little interference by the State. They mistrust government and wish to limit it's power. They recognize that people have a responsibility to their fellow man but believe that it is the role of the individual, not the State, to determine what that responsibility is and to take action to meet it.

Liberals (in the context of American politics, anyway) emphasize collective responsibility and liberty. They see people as groups. They believe that certain groups inherently have power in the United States and that other groups are inherently devoid of power, and that an individual's level of power and empowerment is chiefly due to the group they belong to. They believe that the main cause of economic and social inequality is due to institutional predjudice and privilege rather than individual responsibility and choices. They believe that the existence of inequality proves the existence of such predjudice and privilege. They further believe that it is the responsibility of the government to eliminate inequality of outcomes rather than eliminating inequality of opportunity. They believe that people should be protected from the results of their bad choices - perhaps because they believe that a given group's problems - or, equally, successes - do not in fact stem from their choices but from the race and economic class they belong to. They believe that the government should have whatever power necessary to reach the goal of eliminating these inequalities.

Posted by: RonF at January 7, 2010 09:40 AM

I replied, "Are you seriously trying to tell me that 'negative' does not have a negative connotation and 'positive' does not have a positive connotation?" I received no reply.

Well, I'll reply:
Negative rights no more have a negative (bad) connotation than negative (minus) five has a negative (bad) connotation. Positive rights no more have a positive (good) connotation than positive (plus) five has a positive (good) connotation.

A negative right does not imply a "bad" right, while a positive right implies a "good" right. A negative right is a subtraction of gov't power while a positive right is an addition of gov't power.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 7, 2010 11:17 AM

You can also liken it to standard operant conditioning or behavior modification of Positive and Negative Reinforcements and Punishments.

Reinforcements increase the behavior while punishments decrease it. Positive and Negative have to do with whether those things are added to you or taken away.

The "positive" methods are not the "good" methods and the "negative" methods are not the "bad" methods as they can often be the same thing (turning on the AC in a hot room adds a good thing [positive reinforcment] while also removing a bad thing: heat [negative reinforcement]).

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 7, 2010 11:42 AM

So, YAG, are you saying that if your checkbook is negative five that that's neither a good nor bad thing?

Posted by: DL Sly at January 7, 2010 12:03 PM

The same word can have different meanings in different contexts.

I agree that the negative/positive rights framework is useful. I disagree that it's always obvious whether a right is negative or positive because the enforcement of negative rights often creates a duty for the government (something it must "do" for you in order to ensure you are left alone :p

Still, it's a useful lens even if the classifications aren't perfect.

Posted by: Cassandra at January 7, 2010 12:10 PM

If my checkbook *balance* is negative five it is a bad thing. If an *entry* is negative five because I bought a $1000 painting at a yard sale because the owner didn't realize what he had, that's a very definite good thing.

The former owner who now has a positive five entry into his checkbook, however, is certainly the worse off.

Not all positives are good, not all negatives are bad.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 7, 2010 12:25 PM

"The same word can have different meanings in different contexts."

Yes, they can. However, if we're trying to find a common definition of conservativism that a good many *conservatives* can agree upon, then using less than common connotations for common words will have negative results. (Sorry, could resist.0>;~}) Negative, in the everyday vernacular, is not a good thing. And, unless you're talking to a behaviorial therapist, or an electrician, or a mathematician, etc. then the commonly accepted reference when using the word *negative* is that it is not a good thing.
Also, while I understood what you meant, YAG, when you said "negative right", it still took me a minute or three to wrap my brain around the disconnect between what is commonly held to be negative and what you described.

Posted by: DL Sly at January 7, 2010 12:28 PM

Of course, this brings me back to my original statement:
It's all relative humidity.
0>;~}

Posted by: DL Sly at January 7, 2010 12:30 PM

And, unless you're talking to a behaviorial therapist, or an electrician, or a mathematician, etc.

Well, I've been hearing the usage for 5-6 years now in the political context and you and RonF are the first I have ever heard of anyone equating negative liberties/rights with bad liberties/rights. Even the anti-2A folks don't call gun rights "negative rights" in an effort to spin them as "bad".

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 7, 2010 12:59 PM

.. than negative (minus) five has a negative (bad) connotation...

This is not the right week to convince anyone that "negative five" doesn't have a bad connotation. Except maybe in North Dakota; I hear it's down to negative fifty there!

Posted by: Grim at January 7, 2010 01:47 PM

"...first I have ever heard of anyone equating negative liberties/rights with bad liberties/rights."

C'mon, man. That is not what I wrote, and you know it.
"Negative, in the everyday vernacular, is not a good thing."

"Well, I've been hearing the usage for 5-6 years now in the political context..."
Hmmm....5-6 yrs. of use within the political context replaces the common meaning that has been accepted for how many years, decades....?

And I'm still trying to figure out why you chose to skip this completely:
"Also, while I understood what you meant, YAG, when you said "negative right", it still took me a minute or three to wrap my brain around the disconnect between what is commonly held to be negative and what you described."

I always thought you were better than that.

Posted by: DL Sly at January 7, 2010 02:13 PM

And I'm still trying to figure out why you chose to skip this completely:
"Also, while I understood what you meant, YAG, when you said "negative right", it still took me a minute or three to wrap my brain around the disconnect between what is commonly held to be negative and what you described."

I didn't skip that section. It was the very basis of "...first I have ever heard of anyone equating negative liberties/rights with bad liberties/rights." - Me

While you did "wrap your brain around it" the "disconnect" occurred because of "what is commonly held to be negative" i.e. your first thought (as opposed to your final conclusion) was that negative liberty was supposed to equal bad.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 7, 2010 03:09 PM

Hmmm....5-6 yrs. of use within the political context replaces the common meaning that has been accepted for how many years, decades....?

Well, excuse me for thinking that a discussion on politics was occuring within, you know, a political context.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 7, 2010 03:22 PM

Additionally, though I have only been hearing it for 5-6 years personally does not imply that it has only been around for that long. The concept originated with guys like Locke, Hobbes, and Smith who were writing about it over 300 years ago.

Somehow, unlike RonF, I don't think those durn demoncraps were around back then to spin the political debate toward entitlements.

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 7, 2010 03:29 PM

Especially as the guy who pretty much was the first to explicitly lay out the terms "believed that positive liberty nearly always gave rise to the abuse of power. For when a political leadership believes that they hold the philosophical key to a better future, this sublime end can be used to justify drastic and brutal means."

Posted by: Yu-Ain Gonnano at January 7, 2010 03:43 PM

The terms 'conservative' and 'liberal' are misleading and confusing. I use the terms 'lex' and 'rex' instead. These are, respectively, 'Law' and 'King'. A modern conservative takes a lex approach, and a liberal the rex attitude. Let me enlarge this.

In the Bible, for 400-500 years after Moses, the nation of Israel had only the 5 books of Moses, plus some oral history. This was, in its very essence, a 'lex' or lawful nation. There was no king, no central government. Every man was free to obey (or disobey) the laws of Moses. There was only the Tabernacle and its worship to bring the 12 tribes together. The priests and Levites had NO political power to enforce the Law. Every man was FREE, however. THERE WERE NO TAXES. The word of God (the books of Moses) provided for EVERY social service that we expect from a government.

In the 10th Century BC (you can read this in the book of Samuel, starting in the 7th chapter) the people demanded (of God) a king (rex). God told Samuel that the people who demanded a king were in rebellion against Him. Nevertheless God let them have the king. He allowed the people to choose their own. They chose the disastrous Saul. The second king was chosen by God. This was David "the man after Gods own heart". But even David was guilty of manslaughter, and his kingdom ended in failure.

So a modern conservative believes in Law that is unchanging and even eternal. The American conservative believes that this law is reflected in the Constitution.

Several years ago, I wrote a long usenet post on this matter, where I expounded on this in further detail. Please read it: http://groups.google.com/group/alt.books.tom-clancy/msg/cffacfdebf861525?hl=en&dmode=source

Chris

Posted by: Geekazoid0 at January 7, 2010 03:55 PM

"Is Kathleen Parker [conservative]?"

Probably not.

When I first read her columns -- back when there were such things as newspapers, and there was no internet -- she was "liberal." Over time, she drifted toward the "conservative" side -- or perhaps "liberalism" became even more insanely leftist, and she stayed relatively where she'd always been.

Posted by: Ilíon at January 7, 2010 05:30 PM

... to finish that last post ...

With the advent of Sarah Palin, Kathleen Parker appears to have reverted (with a vengence, even) to the more "liberal" side of life.

Posted by: Ilíon at January 7, 2010 05:48 PM

"Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote." - Benjamin Franklin. My assumption is that the lamb is a conservative.

Posted by: Punkindrublic at January 7, 2010 06:47 PM

Conservatives follow a few basic rules (or principles if you want to be fancy):
Man is imperfect, that is we screw up - even when we know better.
There is objective good and evil.
We know the difference.
4) The “trick” then is to attempt to do the “right” thing at all times, even if it is unpleasant to us.
When we - inevitably fail - we have to own up to this fact and not put the blame on others.
Not trying is almost as big a sin - even if we fail - as playing it safe. (viz. the parable of the talents). - i.e. playing it safe is not a safe or moral option.
and Cass I don’t think you are quite just to the founding fathers in your opinion “Conservatives wanted the franchise limited to educated white, wealthy (or land owning) types. The so called "upper crust" of society. That's not what you just described at all, though. You refer to a moral elite, which I don't think it's entirely unfair to describe as "morally elite b/c their values match mine - i.e., they're traditional" - what they referred to was people who shared their understanding and values of what they (enlightenment people that they were) knew/believed was indisputable. Reading the founding papers - especially The Federalist Papers - leads me to believe, that they would have accepted people outside their class if they had the same - for them - self evident understanding of the nature of man and morals. Comparing the group of people, who wrote the constitution and propagated the revolution, to “ivory tower elitists” is I think quite unfair to them. They would have been aghast when confronted with the people of present, who think they are better than the “riff-raff” presently populating our prior institutions of higher learning and the corridors of Washington.
I, for one, find more sensible real conservatives among people, who work for a living while raising a family and taking personal responsibility for their own lives as well as their families.
To put it in a simplified way, you cannot be a conservative and liberal (in the old sense) and be a postmodernist at the same time.

just my two cents, peace

Hejde

Posted by: Hejde at January 8, 2010 01:18 AM

Moonbat Patrol: "Rather than muddy the waters with intellectual theories sounding more like the politicians we seek to replace ..."

I'm mildly offended by that! I assure you, the politicians we are trying to replace go out of their way to pretend to be normal people and never use terms like 'foundational morality' in public. (And in private I imagine they would never think to use it.)

I suggest if you want to avoid sounding like those politicians, you will avoid coming off as a regular guy at all costs.

Posted by: tom at January 8, 2010 07:26 AM

I have a post inspired by this question up at Chicago Boyz

Posted by: david foster at January 8, 2010 11:17 AM

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