Notes Toward a Definition of Conservatism

Two weeks ago, I proferred my definition of (American) conservatism:

...A commitment to the defense of the particular habits, mores and institutions of the United States against those socioeconomic trends that threaten to undermine them, and those political movements (generally on the left, but sometimes on the right) that seek to change them radically in the pursuit of particular ideological goals.

Last week, Tyler Cowen proposed an emendation, for the following reason:

I should not speak for Ross but having read his blog for a while I believe he would prefer a modified definition to allow some of those habits and mores to be judged. Ross circa 1958 for instance need not defend segregation.

And here's his proposed revision:

A realization that we will do best by building on the strengths of the particular habits, mores and institutions of the United States (and other successful nations) rather than trying to reshape the nation radically in the pursuit of particular ideological goals.

I'm of two minds about this critique. On the one hand, yes, I would like my definition of conservatism to allow space for opposition to segregation circa 1958 within its parameters, and in that sense I'm favorably inclined toward Tyler's revision. On the other hand, one of the things I like about my definition is precisely its narrowness and lack of specific ideological content - or put another way, I like the fact that it deliberately doesn't attempt to encompass every political belief that I consider correct, and every political movement that I like to think I would have supported, had I been alive to do so. This is why I'm not all that taken with, say, Russell Kirk's famous ten pillars of conservatism: Not because I disagree with them, exactly, but because they seem like an attempt to define the conservative as one who supports all that is Good and disdains all that is Bad. (I can imagine almost anyone, save a nihilist or a self-proclaimed revolutionary, claiming Kirk's pillars as the basis of their political philosophy, which makes them somewhat less than useful as a tool for taxonomizing political debates.)

With this mind, I think there's something to be said for simply conceding that support for segregation - as deep-rooted and "conservative" an institution as has ever existed in America, in a sense - simply was the conservative position in the 1950s, and that the liberals were right that the injustice of the practice required a deeply un-conservative response, as they have been right (and will be right again) on other points as well. Having conceded this, I would go on to argue that self-identifying as a conservative, under my definition, doesn't require taking the conservative position on every issue; it merely requires taking the conservative orientation as one's general approach to politics, and believing that we've reached a pass where America's distinctive "habits, mores and institutions" are more in need of defense then renovation. So you could call yourself a conservative in the 1950s and support the forcible rooting-out of segregation - you would simply be a conservative on most questions, and a liberal on that one. (Though to the extent that opposition to segregation came to dominate your political worldview, and determine your voting behavior, self-identifying as a conservative might become something of a stretch no matter what your other views.)

I should also note that my views on how to define conservatism are colored by my allegiance to Christianity, which unless you expand the Kirkian definition to the breaking point only tends to be a conservative force in societies that are already deeply permeated by Christian beliefs - and even then not necessarily. This means that I take it as a given that I wouldn't have been able to self-define as a conservative in second-century Rome, or sixteenth-century Japan, and I don't have all that much trouble saying that I wouldn't have self-defined as a conservative in 1950s Alabama either - which was one of those Christianity-permeated societies, I might add, where the Christian religion turned out to be something other than a conservative force. Nor do I have much trouble with the notion that depending on the trajectory 21st-century America takes, by the time I'm an old man I may not really be able to self-identify as a conservative either; I'm not a "reactionary radical" today, but on certain issues (abortion, for instance) that's probably a better description of my point of view than "conservative," and by 2060 it may apply to my views more generally.