Years ago, conservative scholar Richard Weaver was induced to publish a book under the title, Ideas Have Consequences. It became his most famous book, and his most oft-quoted phrase. The conservative movement has always been intellectual in its orientation, beginning with the seminal work, Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790). Conservatism’s influence has come first and foremost from its commitment to the printed page.
The problem with such a movement is that it finds that its appeal to voters is indirect. Those who promote the principles of conservatism are not generally intellectuals. The basic details of the philosophy are communicated to listeners in a haphazard, emotional way. Politicians, businessmen, and pamphlet writers are seldom noted as intellectuals who are able to discern the fine points of doctrine. So some of the ideas get scrambled in transmission. Ideas can be picked up and filtered, reworked, and distorted by politicians and businessmen. The ability of an ideological movement to defend itself from deviations is limited, unless it is also a rigidly bureaucratic movement that can, in effect, take out and enforce a kind of copyright on its ideas. It has to be able to discipline deviants. Not conservatism!
How broad is the conservative ideology? Far broader than any one group, “school,” or organization. They borrow ideas from each other. Each one may think it is the “true conservative” organization, but the public never sees it this way. A group can try to police itself, thereby maintaining its ideological integrity, but ideas cannot be bottled up. Neither can creative people who get “excommunicated.” The result is that the ideas get passed around and transformed as they move outward into the community at large.
A movement needs a bedrock philosophy. It needs a coherent, integrated set of ideas that enable the followers to apply fixed principles to daily activities. It needs meaning. The problem with conservatism is that its philosophy is straightforwardly anti-rationalistic in nature. The leading conservative intellectuals have always been skeptical about men’s ability to draw up platforms, first principles, and even creeds. Social blueprints will not work: here is a first principle of conservativism. The problem is in discovering bedrock first principles that do not resemble social blueprints. Conservatives believe in permanence, but not in rationalism’s supposedly fixed standards of logic. The war between the libertarians and the conservatives has always centered on just this issue, going back to the debates between Jeremy Bentham’s rationalism and the conservative traditionalists. Which is sovereign: tradition or logic? Whose tradition? Whose logic?
The libertarians have always complained that the conservatives rely on incoherent concepts to defend their position. The conservatives border on mysticism, and there is no way to construct or defend a rational order on the basis of mysticism, the libertarians argue. When you examine the writings of the leading theoretical defenders of conservatism you have to admit, the libertarians have a point. One of my favorite examples of meaningless verbiage parading as a philosophy is Eric Voegelin’s “classic” study, Order and History. He begins Volume l with this “illuminating” observation: “The order of history emerges from the history of order” (p. ix). It goes downhill from here. He writes in the opening paragraph of the Introduction:
God and man, world and society form a primordial community of being. The community with its quaternarian structure is, and is not, a datum of human experience. It is a datum of experience in so far as it is known to man by virtue of his participation in the mystery of its being. It is not a datum of experience in so far as it is not given in the manner of an object of the external world but is knowable only from the perspective of participation in it.
I paid 25¢ for a used hardback copy of this book, and I think I was gypped. It is grim to think that some people buy it new, and two more volumes after it.
Voegelin, sad to say, is regarded by some as one of the two or three most eloquent and important political philosophers in the conservative movement, along with Leo Strauss and (some believe) Willmoore Kendall. Kendall was a master of the philosophy of the Founding Fathers of late-eighteenth-century America, and his writings are at least coherent. Strauss adopted an almost arcane approach to the Greeks and Romans, for he was always searching for “secret writings,” meaning obscure and even occult phrases hidden in the body of otherwise logical discussions. Strauss was, in the words of Archie Jones, an apologist for classical tyranny. (Journal of Christian Reconstruction, Vol. V, No. I, Summer, 1978)
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)