Conservatism -- It's Alive!

A short excerpt from a long piece in The New Republic that asserts “conservatism is dead”:

Many have observed that movement politics most clearly defines itself not by what it yearns to conserve but by what it longs to destroy—“statist” social programs; “socialized medicine”; “big labor”; “activist” Supreme Court justices, the “media elite”; “tenured radicals” on university faculties; “experts” in and out of government.

But, if it’s clear what the right is against, what exactly has it been for?

Isn’t that a strange couple of paragraphs? It’s as though the author imagines conservatives want to destroy these things as an end, rather than as a means of conservation. So one could say that conservatives want to “destroy socialized medicine” — or that they want to conserve free markets in health care, freedom of choice for consumers, and a federal government that limits itself to tasks delineated by the Constitution.

One could say that conservatives want to destroy “activist Supreme Court judges,” but that obscures the fact that their primary goal is to conserve the Constitution as understood by the Founders and the legislators who passed its various amendments, to conserve the right to bear arms, to conserve the safeguards we enjoy due to a federal system of enacting laws, etc.

Were I intent on framing matters as though liberals merely wanted to destroy things, I suppose I could write that they want to destroy prayer in schools, to destroy rights for the unborn, to destroy the ability of the rich to keep what they earn — but that would be silly, because it isn’t that liberals want to destroy those things, it’s that they want to preserve religious freedom, expand autonomy for women, and increase income equality and the status of the poor.

This is a rather elementary point in political discourse, and grasping how a flip in perspective changes things would seem to be a prerequisite for writing a lengthy magazine piece on political philosophy. That isn’t to say that there aren’t any conservatives who are motivated by a desire to destroy, or schadenfreude, or other malign motives — indeed I criticize those conservatives all the time — but the idea that all conservatives are so animated is the kind of misguided premise that might lead a writer toward the silly conclusion that conservatism is dead.

UPDATE: Russel Arbon Fox sums up the piece by saying its author argues that modern conservatism, “whenever it has attempted to be something more than an Oakeshottian disposition, whenever it has attempted to address modern life as a political ideology, has been troubled by capitalism. Which should be apparent to anyone who understands either the basics of capitalist economics or the fundamental meanings of words.”

After all, what kind of social order can be “conserved” in conjunction with a market economy that encourages the evolution of tastes, the invention of labor-saving devices, the expansion of opportunities, the shifting of investments, the move to mass production, and all the other elements of that “creative destruction” which bring about so much diversification and wealth (and corruption)?

Well, one kind of social order that can be conserved is the one established by the Constitution — a federal republic of enumerated powers, where matters not mentioned are reserved for the states and the people. It is a framework that at least conserves certain basic freedoms. Were conservatives merely assured that they could stay within the guidelines of the Founders — amendments included! — it’s a bargain many would accept.