The central conservative insight?

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.

Nancy Lebovitz:

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.

Deiseach again:

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 🙂

John Schilling:

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.”


13 responses to “The central conservative insight?

  1. Christopher Grant June 8, 2016 at 1:44 am

    Upon reading the title of this article, Burke’s insight that the individual is foolish and the species is wise, immediately came to mind. Many of the responses seem to touch upon this theme as well.

  2. NRK June 8, 2016 at 9:28 am

    A troubling thing these insights have in common is that they portray conservatism as a cold, dispassionate appreciation of immutable realities (Burke is the exception, but, am I the only one who finds his portrayal utterly boring and unappealing?). This may seem wise vis-a-vis a post-modernist left that has thrown all realism out of the window, but for two different reasons, it really isn’t:

    For starters, it makes conservatism vulnerable to the changes it is supposed to resist. The moment a given reality turns out to be mutable after all, conservatives will indeed look like white men who hate fun, and who are also demonstrably wrong. The left, no matter how loony, will never run into similar problems, as it gets to claim the moral high ground even in the face of abject failure. Turns out, sounding good on paper might actually take you a long way.

    The bigger, related problem: this pragmaticism betrays a failure on the part of conservatives at, of all things, conserving values. This, after all, is what they’re supposed to be good at, and, in the larger scheme of things, good for. None of these collected insights lend themselves to the defence of value judgments that the reality of progress threatens to marginalize and dissolve, quite the contrary: to the extent that they are becoming unrealistic, the pragmatic conservative throws them on the same rubbish-heap of history that he otherwise reserves for the equally unrealistic aspirations of the left. In that sense, conservatism is little more than the reality principle manifesting itself in the mind of the nonetheless leftward-drifting Great Old One.

    To play us out, here’s Horkheimer:

    It is true that according to critical theory, the good itself, the absolute positive cannot be depicted. On the other hand, we, speaking of Adorno and myself, have always declared that in different areas, you can designate that which is to be respectively changed for the better. Furthermore, I have always emphasized that doing the right thing would not only involve change, but also the üreservation of certain aspects of culture, indded that the true conservative is closer to the true revolutionary than he is to the fascist, just as the true revolutionary is closer to the true conservative than he is to the so-called communists of today.

    tl;dr: Somewhat unsurprisingly, cultural marxists are better at conservatism than right-wing scc commenters.

    • NRK June 8, 2016 at 9:32 am

      Burke is the exception, but, am I the only one who finds his portrayal utterly boring and unappealing?

      Oakeshott. Not Burke. Damnit.

      • Frog Do June 9, 2016 at 5:23 am

        It just seems so sad and tired, but I relate, because I always feel sad and tired when I try to take politics seriously.

  3. Morra Thomason (@outtodoor) June 9, 2016 at 3:23 pm

    >”Let’s sum up this insight as “free markets.””

    I like how this one explainer has also included a staple conservative unicorn: Free markets.

  4. Nathan June 11, 2016 at 5:49 pm

    The central conservative insight is that “man needs order.” This insight is perhaps best encapsulated in a passage from James Fitzjames Stephen’s magisterial “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” (his rebuttal to Mill’s fanciful “On Liberty,” which generally goes unread):

    The life of the great mass of men, to a great extent the life of all men, is like a watercourse guided this way or that by a system of dams, sluices, weirs, and embankments. The volume and the quality of the different streams differ, and so do the plans of the works by which their flow is regulated, but it is by these works — that is to say, by their various customs and institutions — that men’s lives are regulated. Now these customs are not only in their very nature restraints, but they are restraints imposed by the will of an exceedingly small numerical minority and contentedly accepted by a majority to which they have become so natural that they do not recognise them as restraints. … [T]he utmost conceivable liberty which could be bestowed upon [men] would not in the least degree tend to improve them. It would be as wise to say to the water of a stagnant marsh, ‘Why in the world do not you run into the sea? You are perfectly free. There is not a single hydraulic work within a mile of you. There are no pumps to suck you up, no defined channel down which you are compelled to run, no harsh banks and mounds to confine you to any particular course, no dams and no floodgates; and yet there you lie, putrefying and breeding fever, frogs, and gnats, just as if you were a mere slave!’ The water might probably answer, if it knew how, ‘If you want me to turn mills and carry boats, you must dig proper channels and provide proper water-works for me.’

  5. Ramona June 11, 2016 at 8:42 pm

    The most insightful thing I’ve read on conservatism is David Hume’s idea of false philosophies vs the insights of common life and the idea that no philosophy or ideology could take the place of experience and tradition and any ideology that attempted to construct a political order from first principles would be flawed from the outset.

    IMHO Hume is particularly relevant to those seeking to reconstruct a modern conservative order in a post Christian society because he was both an atheist and a Tory

  6. Pingback: Outside in - Involvements with reality » Blog Archive » Chaos Patch (#118)

  7. Ahote June 14, 2016 at 7:19 pm

    Pierre-Simon de Laplace:

    Let us apply to the political and moral sciences the method founded upon observation and calculation, which has served us so well in the natural sciences. Let us not offer fruitless and often injurious resistance to the inevitable benefits derived from the progress of enlightenment; but let us change our institutions and the usages that we have for a long time adopted only with extreme caution. We know from past experience the drawbacks they can cause, but we are unaware of the extent of ills that change may produce. In the face of this ignorance, the theory of probability instructs us to avoid all change, especially to avoid sudden changes which in the moral as well as the physical world never occur without a considerable loss of vital force.

  8. Cryptogenic June 15, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    The chief conservative insight is that our amygdalae actually function.

  9. The Dissenting Sociologist June 16, 2016 at 12:08 am

    Chief conservative insights:

    a) If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. If you do have to fix it, it’s a good idea to know what you’re doing first. And *you* don’t know what you’re doing.

    b) Your ancestors were a lot smarter than you think; and if they way they did things seems strange to you, the chances are pretty good it’s that they knew something you don’t.

    c). Corollary of b.The customs, usages, and traditions of your culture exist for a reason. If you can’t figure out what that reason is- you’re not quite ready to be a social engineer yet.

    d) The State is powerful to destroy men and things, but wholly impotent to change their nature.

    e) Sociologists have identified a place whose inhabitants are equals, where the patriarchal family and private property are forbidden, and the distinction between male and female blurred. It is called a “barracks”; and its residents, “slaves”.

    f) Corollary of e. Be careful what you wish for.

  10. Pingback: June 2017 Lightning Round – quas lacrimas peperere minoribus nostris!

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