The Future of Conservatism - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
The Future of Conservatism

That was the title of a Heritage Foundation lecture I attended this afternoon, delivered by Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield. The title was somewhat misleading in that it ended up being less a prescriptive talk on what conservatism should be going forward, but more of a meditation on what conservatism is and has been.

Mansfield traced the origins of conservatism back to the French Revolution, when it arose out of a need to check the excesses of liberalism. Ever since then it has faced the dilemma of whether to offer an alternative to liberalism, or to essentially act as the best defender of liberalism by saving it from its extreme application. As he put it, "Does it go back, or go slow?"

In an Aristotelian sense, conservatives see democratic society as an end by itself, while liberals see it as a means, and constantly charge forward in the name of equality, without thinking about the consequences.

Mansfield is an engaging lecturer and while he speaks, everything he says sounds simple and self evidently true, but on further reflection his efforts to craft a coherent framework for defining conservatism and liberalism weren't totally satisfying to me. In addition, he creates a lot of dualities and juxtapositions that sound really clever at first, but don't always ring true when fleshed out.

For instance, he set up the contrast between big government liberals who believe that the state is needed to put rational controls on people and conservatives who rely on the free market. However, he argued that in the free market, stock advisers replace government bureaucrats as "rational controllers." If you remove this from the realm of an academic discussion and place it in reality, there's a world of difference between the coercive and unavoidable controls of the government and the voluntary controls of an adviser. In a free market, the profit and loss system is the equalizing force, and people can choose whether or not they want advice to navigate through it.

Mansfield also argued that dating back to Rousseau, the central critiques of liberalism have been that it is too focused on self interest rather than community, and that it inspired mediocrity. On the extreme left, he noted, communism responded by seeking to cure selfishness, while fascism responded by seeking to cure mediocrity. But such a dichotomy neglects the fact that fascism, too, sought to cure selfishness by subordinating self-interest for the glory of the state.

Mansfield used liberalism in two ways, both in its modern application and classical, generic sense, of a society that is built around rights. But at times the definitions became conflated, and at any given time you could use them to argue that either side is actually behaving as the other.

For instance, in the more modern sense, he argued that the elder Bush (who decried "the vision thing") and Bob Dole were examples of "responsible" pragmatists who sought to slow down liberalism. Most conservatives have come to accept the underlying idea of entitlements, and seek to reform them rather than challenge them on principle.

But in Mansfield's definition, who were the conservatives of the New Deal era? One could argue that by instituting the New Deal, FDR was acting as a conservative, by saving classical liberalism from its own excesses, in this case, its boom and bust cycle; or you could argue that FDR was the liberal by further expanding democracy and equality. You could argue that the conservatives of the era, by supporting the onward march of something close to laissez-faire capitalism, were the liberals of the era; or you could say that they were in fact conservatives by trying to cling to the past and resist change.  

Either way, it was refreshing to take a break from some of the horse race stuff and listen to a thoughtful lecture, and hope that whatever the outcome of the election is, we can have an open debate on the nature of conservatism, as well as its future.

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