Following up on this post, a Burke-steeped friend writes:
You're going too easy on Brad DeLong today, whose reading of Burke is very far off the mark in my opinion; but your original definition doesn't really work for me either. Burke is not a utilitarian "content-free" conservative. He thinks there is a kind of natural standard of justice we can aspire to, but that the only way we can approach some knowledge of that standard is by the product of our constant rubbing-up against the realities of human nature and the resulting shaping of our institutions over many generations. That is why the practices that have generally worked to provide us with a decent society have something to tell us about how to judge new ideas, and why changes-when they are necessary or desirable-need to follow, as he put it, "the model of nature," i.e. a kind of evolution over generations rather than a sudden break or new beginning. He rejected the revolutionary mindset because it thought it could grasp the natural standard of justice directly, by reason and logic from its very distorted notion of nature, and in the process threatened to cut us off from the process of continuous change which was our only means of actually learning about justice in politics. He thought we were for the most part denied the benefit of distinct principles in politics, except in instances where there was a clear and evident violation of those rules that we surely could learn from our experience (that is why he speaks of natural law and eternal justice almost exclusively in the unusual case of the utterly shameless rape of India by Hastings). Usually, we didn't have such clear principles ("history is a preceptor of prudence, not of principles") but that doesn't mean we didn't have any standards at all, only that we had no easy way of learning them directly. He valued tradition not because it began a long time ago, but because it has been developing and improving for a long time and so was well suited to us-and in that sense he thought the present was in many respects better than the past to the extent it has been allowed to evolve in a slow and continuous way. The mode of change is the key, and the insistence on giving some preference-not absolute authority, but a benefit of the doubt-to what our fathers and their fathers did. (In this respect I think DeLong is mistaken in his characterization of the English policy toward America in the 1770s, for instance, as what the English had always done). For all this to work, though, takes a certain kind of disposition toward politics; it takes a man whose basic reaction to the given world is humble gratitude for what is good about it, rather than passionate outrage at what is bad about it. A free and liberal politics will consist of men with both types of attitudes, and so will consist of two (and really only two) distinct views about the given world and change. For me, the definition of conservatism has to do with that attitude of humble gratitude, and therefore with a mode of change as continuity. But a proper conservatism would be very reticent to define itself.
I think this is very fine; I would only add that I didn't actually mean to assent to DeLong's characterization of conservatism as lacking "contents," and I certainly didn't mean to characterize conservatism as a utilitarian approach to politics. I merely meant to suggest that because conservatism has more to do with dispositions and attitudes and preferences than with universal principles, its "content" - the institutions it sets out to defend, the habits it hopes to conserve, etc. - will perforce vary from time to time and place and place, which can make it appear content-free to observers mistakenly expecting to find in conservatism a perfectly consistent set of ideological precepts for ordering society.
I also think the distinction between "humble gratitude" and "passionate outrage" helps clarify Tyler Cowen's question of whether opposition to segregation can grow out of a conservative approach to politics. This distinction would suggest that while conservatives might indeed oppose segregation as conservatives - there's no reason that one can't start with a "humble gratitude" about the world as you find it and a belief in "change as continuity" and come to the conclusion that Jim Crow ought to be gradually done away with - they weren't ever likely to do anything dramatic about it as conservatives. If there's anything that's clear from the history of the civil rights movement, it's that the essentially unconservative spirit of "passionate outrage" was a prerequisite for real change. (Likewise, I think that one can oppose abortion today in a spirit of conservatism, especially so long as the principle goal of a pro-life politics is the slight alteration of the Supreme Court's composition - but that being said, in the long run the pro-life cause will succeed or fail based on how much "passionate outrage" it can generate.) Which is to say that it isn't just a regrettable accident of history that American conservatives were more likely to either defend segregation or propose only half-measures to do away with it, since a failure to generate sufficient outrage when times and evils demand it is a failure to which conservatism is by its nature heir - just as radicalism is by its nature heir to the reverse evil, the tendency rushing to embrace novelties (eugenics, Communism, etc.) that promise dramatic improvements, without pausing to consider the costs.
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