Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rod Dreher and the Conservative/Conservationist Conflation

Rod Dreher, author of the book Crunchy Con, has a habit of referring to what I call "grounded human behavior" as "conservative." Here's his most recent example. However, I think Rod is conflating "conservatism" with "conservationism." The irony here is that when most people think of the notion of conservation, most people think of liberal environmentalists -- those individuals who believe that husbanding and caring for the natural resources of the world in a responsible way with the well-being of future generations in mind. The tree-huggers, the recylcers, the bicyclists, the alternative energy proponents, etc. The notion of "crunchy" behavior -- although it may have some connection to an ideological conservatism in the mind of Rod Dreher -- comes squarely out of an ideologically liberal tradition -- really out of a communitarian tradition. And ideological conservatism (as opposed to conservationism) is decidedly not what Rod Dreher must think it is. I think Friedrich Hayek's explanation of ideological conservatism, which he wrote in his famous treatise The Road to Serfdom, is much more accurate:

Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social program; in its paternalistic, nationalistic, and power-adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism; and with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual, and often mystical propensities it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place. A conservative movement, by its very nature, is bound to be a defender of established privilege and to lean on the power of the government for the protection of privilege.
So, when Rod Dreher writes of "The conservatism of parenting," he's really not talking about conservatism at all, but of a kind of social conservationism. And this social conservationism is very much in line with how I understand ideological liberalism.

3 comments:

Eric said...

Well, there is a reason that conservative and conservation share the same root. Along that line, another term for social conservationism would be traditionalism, and I think it is very hard to argue that ideological liberalism has much of a traditionalist component to it.

That is one of the basic divisions I see between liberalism and conservatism, at least in their modern sense (and more in terms of 'worldview' than 'politics', though of course one tends to follow the other): liberalism is concerned with proactively replacing traditional social norms with ever expanding new boundaries, while conservatism is concerned with protecting and promoting the social memes that got us to where we are today (which of course means that over time, some ideas that were liberal in origin, after they gain ubiquitous social acceptance, fall under the shepherding influence of conservatism).

Under this dynamic, we have a constant battle between liberalism and conservatism in terms of social issues, and both play an important role in the evolution of society. The constant moral expansion of liberalism means that over time some harmful ideas are set aside. Ending slavery and recognizing civil rights for blacks, women's suffrage, the normalization of interracial relationships... those were all driven by a liberal component in our society (and it is a mistake to identify this component solely by Politcal Party). However that same liberal component places us in danger of accepting harmful ideas, and it needs a strong conservative element in society to keep it in check. It also shares a lot of responsibility for the degradation of the modern family, the loss of spiritual cohesiveness in America, and the crudeness of popular culture (of course conservatism shares some of this blame too... if their duty is to guard against these things, then they have clearly failed in their duty). The problem is aggravated by a tendancy from BOTH SIDES in the last 50 years to look for legislative answers to these problems, when the solution really lies at a fundamentally local and spiritual level.

I think that is the basis for Dreher's paradigm when he talks about 'the conservatism of parenting', and while such a viewpoint certainly sees liberalism in a more positive light than more conventional notions, it also makes it clear that the traditionalist aspect he's talking about is conservative in nature.

Huck said...

Eric - That's an outstanding comment. I can't argue with it in principle, though I may take issue with a few of the particulars. Here are some of the particulars:
(1) I agree with you that ideological liberalism tends towards pushing boundaries; but I don't think that necessarily means liberalism always rejects what works traditionally and abandons restraint. To parse words again, a philosophy that fails to exercise restraint, rejects the values of tradition, and pushes boundaries indiscriminately would be libertinism. And I'm not a libertine, but a liberal. I accept what works, but don't shy away from pushing new boundaries and even pushing against the boundaries of established conventional wisdom.
(2) I do think there is a role for legislative answers to some intractable social problems. Many of the benefits of the New Deal -- child labor laws, restricted work weeks, social safety nets, etc. -- would not exist, I would argue, without a legislative impulse. I think liberals and conservatives may differ in terms of the degree that this is seen as effective or necessary, but I don't think there are many conservatives that wouldn't agree that legislation can and does offer effective solutions to intractable social problems that may be constrained by traditions.

More to say, but I've got to run for now. I'll be back, but I want to thank you, again, for an outstanding and thought-provoking comment.

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