On Conservatism:
Waughian Conservatism

On Conservatism — By on January 16, 2008 at 1:52 am

[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.



  • http://www.notconformedthoughts.com Matthew Cochrane

    That is a fascinating excerpt, Joe. I am glad you are doing this series, as the conservative movement in America has definitely lost a lot of its intellectual firepower and has too often been reduced to a much cruder, simpler form of itself. Sadly, I am as guilty of this as anyone. Thanks for this series and this post.

  • http://evangelicalperspective.blogspot.com/ Collin Brendemuehl

    Great quote. C S Lewis’ statement as to why he is a democrat.
    http://jmm.aaa.net.au/articles/14081.htm
    We really are all quite “liberal” after all.
    Collin

  • http://www.sufficientscruples.com Kevin T. Keith

    As to what you can take from this, I would think one first step would be to avoid the crazy parts:
    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;
    Aside from the fact that those claims are all demonstrably false (humans evolved on this planet, we cannot be exiles from anywhere else; violence and systematic oppression have manifestly decreased in response to specific historical changes in social structure and ideology; lifespans, infant death rates, crime rates, deaths by violence or war – all have declined over the long term, in response to specific human practices aimed at improving those problems; those changes have often been dramatic and short-term, and often for the better; Waugh’s belief that there is no point in attempting to address any of these problems unmistakeably marks him as one of “the wrong people”), they’re the product of a perverse and delusional mindset as well.
    Waugh clearly just doesn’t care how miserable (other) people are, and justifies it by made-up and absurdly false claims that there is nothing to be done about it anyway. But of course there is a great deal to be done about it, and that has been done, successfully, through out history. His reason for not caring is not explicit in that passage, but it’s clear enough anyway: pie in the sky by and by is good enough for anyone who doesn’t already have it as good as him. Note, though, that if he had merely said all the above without tagging some hint of heavenly reward to it (we are “exiles” from . . . [fill in the blank]), his conservatism would rightly be seen as what it obviously is: sociopathic.
    I contend that sociopathy plus an absurd delusion is not better than sociopathy alone.

  • http://www.sufficientscruples.com Kevin T. Keith

    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 [be] in agreement, which is an ironic testament that the word has lost all traditional meaning.
    It seems to me you’re complicating your problem by taking this kind of position.
    It’s one thing to argue that you think conservatism should be such-and-such, or that people who call themselves conservatives should adopt certain positions. That is essentially an argument that “conservatives” can be identified as a broad category, but that that category is best defined in a more exact way, including certain specific propositions. That’s the kind of argument we make all the time about broad ideological or political concepts, such as “democracy”, “equality”, “liberty”, etc.
    Instead, you seem to be claiming that the word “conservative” has one precise, unambiguous, in some way objective meaning – and necessarily that most people who use it are using it wrongly. That doesn’t seem to make sense. For one thing, it doesn’t have a traditional and unambiguous meaning, and your friend’s definition of it is clearly not one that even most self-described “conservatives” would endorse. (I’m sure there were significant points of disagreement between, say, Burke, Churchill, C.S. Lewis, and Evelyn Waugh – which of them only falsely believed themselves to have been a conservative? And historically, US conservatives have more often been isolationists than devotees of “muscular foreign policy”. Also, historically, US conservatives exceed most others in their obsession with taxes.) Of course “conservatism” changes its meaning, just as any concept takes on new points of reference as circumstances change. It’s only conservatives who think otherwise, but thinking so doesn’t make it true. (The original “conservatives” were all hereditary monarchists; modern conservatives are merely corporate monarchists, which is a very different thing. Rampant racism became declasse’ and conservatives moved on to rampant homophobia. Autres temps, autres moeurs.)
    More to the point, defending a precise and unchanging definition of any categorical term necessarily requires you to declare that those who see things differently are not only wrong, but not really members of the category in question. It requires you to deny that there could be competing reasonable understandings of what the term means. That seems like an unnecessary fight, and strangely hostile to people who are largely on your side. Why not just argue for your preferred definition of conservatism, without arguing that those who hold others are not merely wrong in their ideas, but wrong for even holding such ideas? It would be the liberal thing to do.

  • giggling

    Good post in the series, Joe.
    Btw, did you get my email?

  • http://www.codemonkeyramblings.com MikeT

    1) War has decreased because there is a greater inequality between the leading power and any other nation than has ever existed before, along with the advent of nuclear weapons. For most countries to go to war with a first world country is tantamount to suicide.
    2) Fertility has gone down dramatically in industrialized nations. Ironically, the people who tend to say that this is not an issue, are also the same people who will tout evolution.
    3) The causes of poverty are well known now, and there is no excuse for any country to make them ever again. Every country in the world that is poor for reasons other than being the victim of natural disasters or total war being unleashed upon it has no excuse to continue policies that result in poverty.

  • Philip Terzian

    Pedantic note: It’s not quite accurate to call Evelyn Waugh an ‘Anglo-Catholic.’ That phrase is generally understood to mean a High Church Anglican; that is, an adherent of the old Oxford Movement contention (Keble, Pusey, Newman etc) that the Church of England should reacquaint itself with its Catholic roots. Newman, of course, converted and became a Roman Catholic–as did Evelyn Waugh in 1930.

  • Philip Terzian

    Pedantic note: It’s not quite accurate to call Evelyn Waugh an ‘Anglo-Catholic.’ That phrase is generally understood to mean a High Church Anglican; that is, an adherent of the old Oxford Movement contention (Keble, Pusey, Newman etc) that the Church of England should reacquaint itself with its Catholic roots. Newman, of course, converted and became a Roman Catholic–as did Evelyn Waugh in 1930.

  • ex-preacher

    You seem to be engaging in this entire project bass-ackwards. You apparently start with the given that being a conservative is a good thing that everyone should aspire to, and then proceed to try to define it. Why do you start with that assumption? It seems more logical to start from more foundational principles (like “treat others the way you want to be treated”) and then proceed to form specific political goals. Who cares whether anyone calls you a “conservative”? Are you so brainwashed by the Republican strategy of making “liberal” a dirty word?

  • http://tomgrey.motime.com Tom Grey

    The Low Taxes goes with the Small Gov’t as a subset, they should logically be connected by all rational folk; although Low Taxes could also go with huge regulation (anti-smoking bans, for instance) and thus be a low-tax nanny-state. But all Small Gov’ts have to be low tax.
    The morality of Tax Collection needs to be included: taking Other People’s Money by force is the sin of stealing, and the gov’t need for money does not clearly absolve any of that sin. The frequently demonstrated desire of a majority to vote for a benefit that is to be paid for by OPM is part of the corruption is possible, and usual, inside of any democracy.
    “Government collected OPM is the opiate of secular humanists” (Tom Grey!)
    I consider income tax collection more immoral than user fees for instance, or even sales taxes (arguably a fee on property & contractual rights protection), or a Henry Georgist Land Tax/ ownership protection fee. Although both taxes and user fees may go to the gov’t, the user fee is more controllable & choosable by the user.
    While I support Operation Iraqi Freedom, it is also unfortunately clear that “War is the health of the State”.
    Typo to ponder on plunder near the end: “What should we plunder in order to use in our own understanding…”

  • Jeff Blogworthy

    “[Conservatism is] small government, low taxes and muscular foreign policy in its simplest form.” I suspect most conservatives in America would [nod] in agreement, which is an ironic testament that the word has lost all traditional meaning.
    I don’t know why you feel the need to disparage this. America’s foundational principles are individual equality, limited government, individual property rights, and self-rule. As much as you try to conflate the issue, these things ARE conservatism. As Tom Grey says, low taxation is a natural consequence of adherence to these foundational principles. High taxation is symptomatic of their abandonment. Americans do not ponder the relationship between property rights and taxation and regulation enough.

  • http://dutch4huckabee.blogspot.com kevin t. keith’s post

    Particularly like kevin t keith’s advice, especially in the context of a dynamic political campaign and the collective failure, that you mention in the introduction, to understand what constitutes a conservative philosophy or worldview is preventing us from increasing our tribe.
    kevin T. Keith says:
    Waugh clearly just doesn’t care how miserable (other) people are, and justifies it by made-up and absurdly false claims that there is nothing to be done about it anyway. But of course there is a great deal to be done about it, and that has been done,
    I would like to refer to Abraham kuyper who founded the first political party in the Netherlands and who shows in his speech “Maranatha” that he clearly opposes the view Waugh seems to have. But still Kuyper is considered conservative by many in the US.

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