Le Maistre Chat asks, on a SSC open thread:
What do y’all think is the central conservative insight, the idea with the most explanatory power that an autonomous rational person could easily overlook and be left with a bad map of the world?
Is it “a culture is a cult”? Chesteron’s fence? I’m going to say it’s not “heredity matters” as A) neither Burke nor Maistre espoused racism and B) that’s a question for science, which rationalists are predisposed to regardless of politics.
Some answers follow.
O’Rourke, quoting Oakshot:
“To be conservative is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the impossible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, the present laughter to the utopian bliss.”
The central American conservative insight is found in Federalist 51:
If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.
The government is just as fallible as all other organizations. Most people, when imagining solving some problem through “regulation,” are basically imagining the government as God, an all-knowing, omnibenevolent entity.
The conception of this I like is Mike Munger’s Unicorn:
“Problem: “the State” is a unicorn
When I am discussing the State with my colleagues at Duke, it’s not long before I realize that, for them, almost without exception, the State is a unicorn. I come from the Public Choice tradition, which tends to emphasize consequentialist arguments more than natural rights, and so the distinction is particularly important for me. My friends generally dislike politicians, find democracy messy and distasteful, and object to the brutality and coercive excesses of foreign wars, the war on drugs, and the spying of the NSA.
But their solution is, without exception, to expand the power of “the State.” That seems literally insane to me—a non sequitur of such monstrous proportions that I had trouble taking it seriously.
Then I realized that they want a kind of unicorn, a State that has the properties, motivations, knowledge, and abilities that they can imagine for it. When I finally realized that we were talking past each other, I felt kind of dumb. Because essentially this very realization—that people who favor expansion of government imagine a State different from the one possible in the physical world—has been a core part of the argument made by classical liberals for at least 300 years.”
“Conservative” as opposed to what?
My wife is an intelligent, rational and successful person, but before I met her, she’d never been exposed to a right-wing idea in her life. She simply wasn’t politically engaged, and you have to seek out conservatism to find it, so she just wandered in the normal fog of unconsidered leftism. An autonomous rational person can have a terrible map of the world in political terms, because having undeveloped ideas won’t hurt you, whereas having unpopular ones might. The ideas that have most transformed her politics are the standard ones – that incentives matter, that secure property rights matter, that supply and demand aren’t optional, that decisions involve trade-offs, etc – ideas so obvious that we can’t deny them in our everyday lives. So I encouraged her to apply them to politics, and of course she felt like the scales were falling from her eyes and quickly became a Conservative. Let’s sum up this insight as “free markets.”
But although this is the central insight of the political right as opposed to the political left, would a user named “Le Maistre Chat” call such a politics particularly conservative? Maybe we’re assuming that the “autonomous rational(ist?) person” is already familiar with libertarianism. Well, the central insight of conservatives as opposed to libertarians is that “each new generation is a fresh invasion of savages.”
My own personal view is “Things – like laws – happened for a reason”, though I’m not sure if that comes under the ambit of Chesterton’s Fence.
The simple idea that it’s highly unlikely someone woke up one morning and thought “Yeah, today I think I’ll write a law about [thing] just to piss everyone off!”
There is usually a reason. You may think it a bad reason. It may even be a bad reason. But laws and rules don’t fall out of the sky or leap up full-blown like the Spartoi; somebody, indeed several somebodies, had to make them. And usually they were made in response to what was perceived as a need, a lack, or a danger.
That’s something I’d like to see appreciated: “Aw, why do we have these dumb ol’ rules? The only possible reason is because old people hate fun (or it may be, white people/white men hate love/equality/niceness)!” And everyone applauds and agrees that indeed, the only reason for this is mean-spirited trying to stop people enjoying themselves.
No, it’s because there was deemed a need for such a law for the general good.
However, “white men hate fun” would be more accurately rendered as “white men are willing to orchestrate the suffering of others in exchange for some benefit”
And black, brown, yellow and red men never did so themselves in their own native cultures?
Perhaps I should propose as a conservative notion the idea that what is outside your door this o’clock is not the universal experience through all time and the geography of this globe.
“White men the oppressors” is true, of course; but they have also oppressed other white men. And brown men have oppressed brown men, and black men (e.g. Arab slavers selling black Africans to white traders) and so have all humanity in all times and places.
Maybe “it’s not local, it’s human” or “Original Sin – the explanation” would be what I’m trying to get at here 🙂
Not central, but close to it, is “incentives matter, even when you don’t want them to”. A great deal of conservative thought is based around avoiding moral hazards due to incentivizing undesired behavior, and on not disincentivizing desired behavior. And the reflexive “that’s stupid and won’t work” to just about every new progressive idea is often based on looking at the unintended incentives being offered.
It’s a dirty job, but someone has to do it.
If we are talking specifically about the Anglo-American brand of “right wing” conservatism I would say that the key insight is Hobbes, Burke, Kipling, et al’s concept of natural law. As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn, The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!.
However, in the general case I think Chesteron’s Fence has the stronger claim.
“You are not smarter than the entire past.”