Under The Microscope

TNC's commenters have been having a discussion about yours truly, my 'conservatism', contradictions, etc. I would really like to thank them for such a civil and intelligent discussion - to such an extent that I have little to add.

Maybe two small points: I have conceded and readily concede that my 'conservatism' cannot be seen as 'conservative' in the current American vernacular. There may have been a place for such as me in the Oakeshottcaius conservative "movement" 1970s and 1980s, but obviously no longer. I'm very candid about this in The Conservative Soul. And one thing I'd ask of those who want to know how I understand conservatism is, well, to read that book. Or download it on your Kindle. I know that sounds corny and commercial, but look,  it's why I wrote it. The argument needs a book-length treatment. And the philosophical underpinnings of that book are in my dissertation on practical wisdom, Intimations Pursued.

I've been thinking about these things for a long time, and I appreciate that it all looks absurdly esoteric or simply solipsistic to many. My conservatism is not today's American conservatism, although it could easily find a place in Cameron's Toryism. I have a libertarian streak as well - which puts me at the right end of Toryism. But I hold, following Oakeshott and Burke, that the critical conservative virtue in politics is coherence and balance and practical, prudential openness to change and reform. Remember that Burke, as a Brit, favored American independence. If you cannot see that as conservative in some sense then my arguments will be lost on you.

And yes, it's wrapped up in religion, my inability to lose my faith and my attempt to grapple with what that means in today's increasingly fundamentalist world. That's why the core issue in the book is really Christianity, and why I increasingly feel I want to take some time out to explore these theological and spiritual questions with the time and silence they deserve.

As for conservatism in America, my own belief is that this, at the deepest level, is a philosophical struggle between the worldviews of Leo Strauss and Michael Oakeshott.

I respect Strauss a lot (and a lot more than some of his followers), but I am an Oakeshottian. We Oakeshottians - skeptical, non-violent, fickle, tolerant, but in love with individual freedom - will never be a political party. But I think at the deepest level, we're right and the Straussians are wrong. And that only Oakeshottians are capable of reconciling conservatism with modernity. At some point this is about whether conservatism is in the service of power or resistant to it.

For the rest, "cynic" gets it best:

Sure. He's prone to excess. Some of what he writes is misinformed, ill-considered, or flatly wrong. And all his views, positive or negative, are intense. I'm not claiming that he's the platonic ideal of a pundit.

But it's important, I think, to grapple with the ideas that undergird his particular stances, because it seems quite clear to me that his positions flow from his ideas.

In the same post to which I linked above, he approvingly cites Oakeshott to the effect that "the two deepest impulses in Western political thought - the individualist and the collectivist - need each other to keep our polities coherent." Andrew identifies as a conservative, because of where he would prefer to establish that balance, more toward the individualist than the collectivist. But the point is that the goal is not ideological purity. It is balance, above all, that he pursues.

Politicians are, in this scheme, tools for achieving balance. Which explains, I think, how Andrew can first extoll a politician, and then turn on him a few years later. That's a mark of consistency, not hypocrisy - a politician who pursues the same goals without respect to shifting circumstances will first offer a necessary corrective, and then go increasingly too far. The exceptions are those rare politicians whose views evolve substantially in office, as the solutions on which they campaigned get placed into effect, and they adapt accordingly.

One way to think about Andrew's views is to imagine the ship of state moving quickly downstream. Steer too far in either direction, and it runs aground on the banks. Andrew, I think, has a tendency to see this happening, and to overcorrect - to push the tiller too hard, first one way and then the other. And he would prefer that the ship keep a steady course closer to the right-hand shore, and I to the left. But the basic view - avoiding the perils of steering too close to either extreme, keeping a steady course, adjusting it with the bends in the river - is one I wholeheartedly endorse.