Privately Circulated Paper, September 2009
This project explores what it means to be a conservative in the age of Obama. I argue that because conservatism emerged as an ad-hoc, Cold-War coalition, it has proven inadequate to post-communist realities. I re-redefine 21st-century conservatism as the political philosophy of personal responsibility, and ground this conception in the defining Western idea: human nature is choice.
What’s Wrong with the Right?
American conservatism is richer in moral sources than its critics allow, or than we ourselves know. This richness has been obscured by an impoverished philosophical language -- a legacy our movement’s Cold War coalescence.
The anticommunist urgencies of postwar conservatism subverted the traditional primacy of intellect over politics. Rather than deriving our politics from an intellectual movement, like liberalism, we improvised an intellectual coat of arms to legitimize our policies. Finding scant support on the Old Right for a “garrison state,” many conservatives bought into Lionel Trilling’s famous dictum, and decided America lacked a “true” conservative-intellectual tradition.
From Russell Kirk to Irving Kristol, a quorum on the right has consequently rested its defense of American values on European foundations (Burke, Strauss). That’s undermined the resonance of our case in the American public square; and while this ad-hoc approach got us through the Cold War, but it has been less adequate to the Culture War. We have the better facts, but sometimes the worse arguments. Understanding American conservatism anew, and aright, is therefore an exercise in retrieval.
What Is Conservatism?
I approach this question in an Aristotelian way, reflecting on “how we talk about these things.” What do we call conservative, and what do we call liberal, in daily life? A conservative, I contend, explains behavior spiritually, and personalizes responsibility. In Aristotelian terms, “the principle of motion is within us.” A liberal, by contrast, explains behavior mechanically, and externalizes responsibility: “the principle of motion is outside us.” Thus, in the typical policy debate, a liberal makes excuses for the human agent, and a conservative places blame. The spark of the liberal argument -- “He didn’t have the same opportunities you did” -- meets the conservative conceptual firewall: “Lots of people start poor, but still find ways to make it.” I appeal to the reader’s experience here; and I think this part of it will be accessible to the layman.
My next step is to ask: If conservatism is the political philosophy of personal responsibility, then on what view of man must it rest? In Kantian terms: How is personal responsibility possible? That tracks us back to a worldview of human nature as choice, and character as destiny -- the mainstream moral tradition of the West. We are not free to choose our nature; rather, our nature is to make choices, for which we are personally responsible. To sum up the human condition in a single, simple sentence, compressing the essence of a 2500-year conversation: We must choose to act on what we know.
I then map this moral tradition in the American mind. I locate its intellectual godparent in Puritan minister Roger Williams, founder of Rhode Island. From the soul’s personal responsibility to choose its own path to God, Williams deduced that we must be free to choose to act on what we know -- and from this principle, he fashioned the first truly free society. From Williams I trace the political idea of personal responsibility through the Founders, the Seekers, the Unitarians, the Transcendentalists, the Self-Help movement, and ultimately to Goldwater and Reagan.
A Revaluation of Conservative Values
My final move is to apply this rediscovered tradition to the present, renewing the conservative policy-agenda. A conservative in the Age of Obama must defend and extend the freedom to act on what we know. Leveraging the personal-responsibility research of Institute fellows -- on policing and prisoner re-entry, race and ethnicity, welfare, the economy, medical progress, social entrepreneurship, and the reform of our schools, our courts, and our cities -- I present an integrated tiara of policies, which I believe can garner bi-partisan political support, and transform the quality of American life.
Renewing our policy agenda through personal-responsibility, I believe, can untie three knots that have long taxed the conservative mind.
Freedom vs. Virtue
The “freedom vs. virtue” debate which has divided libertarian and traditionalist conservatives since the 1940s. Freedom and virtue do not need “reconciling,” I argue, because personal fulfillment cannot come without a solid foundation in personal responsibility. Empirically, I validate this claim by referencing the failed social experiments of the 1960s, as well as the “happiness” research collated by Arthur Brooks. Philosophically, I ground this outlook in the view of character as destiny, and virtue as self-mastery, which spines the Western tradition from Heraclitus to Foucault -- and which veins American thinkers as diverse as Williams and Channing, Jefferson and Madison, Emerson and Whitman, Dewey and James.
Moral Justification for Capitalism
This re-construal also addresses the corollary problem of how to justify capitalism. Properly articulated and defended, the idea of personal responsibility may be key not only to “fixing broken markets,” but to morally grounding them as well. While starry-eyed celebration of economic choice is in relative disrepute, the idea that markets require and inspire individual accountability is generally accepted. Therefore, if personal responsibility is good, we can promote not just markets’ material efficiencies, but their moral benefits, too. To state briefly and abstractly what I’d argue empirically and at length: We embrace markets, despite the challenges of managing booms and busts, because economic choice maximizes personal responsibility, and therefore conduces to personal fulfillment.
What Does Conservatism Conserve?
The final puzzle can be phrased as a question: What, exactly, is conservatism trying to conserve? Fifty years after Russell Kirk and Frank Meyer went to war over the answer, Sam Tanenhaus and Roger Kimball are still having at it. What conservatism above all seeks to conserve, I argue, is the Western moral tradition of personal responsibility. In his magisterial work Sources of the Self, Charles Taylor traces how modernity has strayed from that tradition, but does not show how that ancestral wisdom can be revived and adapted for postmodern citizenship and governance. That is task that is left to us.