Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Need for Non-Authoritarian Conservatives

A popular lament among liberals these days is that the authoritarians have taken over the Republican party altogether, unlike the fine, non-authoritarian conservatism of the good old days. This should be taken with a grain of salt. In the early 1950's, after all, the Republican party had a strong McCarthyite wing (while the right wing of the Democratic Party was dominated by Southern segregationists). In the late 1950's, the John Birch Society became influential. And then there is Nixon. So obviously there has been a strong authoritarian streak within conservatism for a long time. The difference now is the extent to which the authoritarians have taken over the Republican Party, their complete domination of the Republican primaries, and their eagerness to win general elections by "rallying the (authoritarian) base." This is unfortunate because I do believe that a strong non-authoritarian conservatism is important to a healthy democratic body politic.

Doubtless it is presumptuous of me, as a liberal, to seek to define true conservatism or tell conservatives what they should be. But let me give it a try. I go back to a definition learned in college -- that liberalism is optimism about human nature and conservatism is pessimism. Though perhaps skepticism would be a better word. A conservative need not consider human nature evil, so much think it unsafe to gamble on human nature being good. After all, in the absence of institutional safeguards, it takes only a few evil people to ruin everything. We should not trust in the goodness of human nature, but in institutions that can handle human evil. This is certainly a sound principle. Conservative skepticism also applies to social innovation and seemingly brilliant new ideas. A conservatives attitude toward reform is, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it; if it is broke, proceed with extreme caution." Or, as Founding Father John Dickinson put it, "Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us."

A society consisting only of (non-authoritarian) conservatives would be stodgy and sluggish in dealing with challenges (new and old). A society consisting only of liberals would be flightly and overly given to foolish and ill-thought-out social innovations. We need both liberals who dare to dream and conservatives who subject those dreams to merciless scrutiny; liberals whose vision soars and consevatives who keep their feet firmly planted on the ground. (One sure sign of danger in the current administration is that it is now liberals taking the traditionally conservative role of being "reality based.")

Let there be no doubt; respect for authority, as well as tradition, is a part of this kind of conservatism. Anyone who does not trust in human nature or believe that people can be expected to be good on their own will favor authority to compel people to be good (or at least stay out of trouble). But respect for authority is not the same as authoritarianism. The difference between conservatives and authoritarians is that conservatives take their skepticism about human nature to its logical conclusion and apply it to authority as much as to anyone else.
If we cannot trust in the goodness of ordinary people without authority to keep them in line, neither should be trust in the goodness authority. Too much concentration of power is dangerous because power tends to be abused. We should not trust in the goodness of our leaders, but in sound institutions to keep them in line.

Non-authoritarian conservatism may be well summed up in a famous quote from James Madison: "If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary." Conservatives never assume that anyone is an angel.



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