[Note: This post is part of the “On Conservatism” series.]
Recently a friend wrote, “Conservatism is what it is and it’s not subject to interpretation. It’s not a “living” concept subject to the vagaries of public opinion. It’s small government, low taxes and muscular foreign policy in its simplest form.” I suspect most conservatives in America would not in agreement, which is an ironic testament that the word has lost all traditional meaning.
I started this series because I believe that we have failed to pay attention to what leading conservative writers and politicians have said and done. This is particularly true when it comes to conservatives who live outside our borders yet share our same outlook. One example is the British novelist Evelyn Waugh.
William F. Buckley, Jr. considered Waugh to be “the greatest English novelist of the century” and his novels are certainly are worth reading (A Handful of Dust is a personal favorite). But it was a travel memoir that best represents Waugh’s conservative thought. In his book, Mexico: An Object Lesson, he presents what could be considered a succinct manifesto of his British, Catholic-influenced conservatism* (I’ve taken the liberty of breaking up the paragraph to make it easier to read):
Let me, then, warn the reader that I was a Conservative when I went to Mexico and that everything I saw there strengthened my opinions.
I believe that man is, by nature, an exile and will never be self-sufficient or complete on this earth;
That his chances of happiness and virtue, here, remain more or less constant through the centuries and, generally speaking, are not much affected by the political and economic conditions in which he lives;
That the balance of good and ill tends to revert to a norm;
That sudden changes of physical condition are usually ill, and are advocated by the wrong people for the wrong reasons;
That the intellectual communists of today have personal, irrelevant grounds for their antagonism to society, which they are trying to exploit.
I believe in government;
That men cannot live together without rules but that they should be kept at the bare minimum of safety;
That there is no form of government ordained from God as being better than any other;
That the anarchic elements in society are so strong that it is a whole-time task to keep the peace.
I believe that the inequalities of wealth and position are inevitable and that it is therefore meaningless to discuss the advantages of elimination;
That men naturally arrange themselves in a system of classes;
That such a system is necessary for any form of co-operation work, more particularly the work of keeping a nation together.
I believe in nationality; not in terms of race or of divine commissions for world conquest, but simply thus: mankind inevitably organizes itself in communities according to its geographical distribution;
These communities by sharing a common history develop common characteristics and inspire local loyalty;
The individual family develops most happily and fully when it accepts these natural limits.
A conservative is not merely an obstructionist, a brake on frivolous experiment. He has positive work to do.
Civilization has no force of its own beyond what it is given from within. It is under constant assault and it takes most of the energies of civilized man to keep going at all….
Barbarism is never finally defeated; given propitious circumstances, men and women who seem quite orderly, will commit every conceivable atrocity.
Unremitting effort is needed to keep men living together at peace
What can we Americans learn from this indirect manifesto? What should we plunder in order to use in our own understanding of what it means to be a “conservative?”
*Correction: I had erroneously identified Waugh as an Anglo-Catholic. He was in fact a Roman Catholic.