DANIEL VAUGHAN: What conservatism is to me

November 29, 2019

Joshua Tait wrote an excellent piece for Arc Digital this week asking, “What is Conservatism?” The article was brought to my attention by Avi Woolf, who is quoted in the piece making a case for traditionalist conservatism — which is actually the part of Tait’s piece that I agree with the most.

Tait divides different lines of thought in conservativism into themes of “realism, tradition, transcendence, and freedom.” I don’t have many quibbles with this differentiation, though I do struggle with my placement because I don’t see what I believe — and I am a conservative — conveyed there.

The beauty of conservatism is its capacity to hold multiple opposing views within it, and understanding that they’re not mutually exclusive.

Conservatism sees a world in tension. The foundation of conservatism recognizes that there is absolute truth in this world. The debates over moral relativism and truth are essential to remember.

The most common example everyone uses is the idea that murder is wrong. Nearly all cultures agree on this one point: do not murder. Various groups may try to explain that concept differently, but the core truth — “don’t murder” — is real across all.

A conservative sees these truths scattered across all history and culture. As a religious person, I see these divine laws of the world that we are accountable for acknowledging.

That basic core concept — that truth exists, and it has a governing power — is critical. Because if there is an absolute truth, that means there must be a method of separating it from things that aren’t true.

The modern conservative has to recognize that there is both truth and non-truth in the world. The world is not perfect. Whether you believe in God or the lessons of history, one unavoidable fact is that while an absolute truth exists, our capacity to realize the fullness of truth is hampered by our ability to violate those truths — to sin or to commit wrongful acts.

We can choose to do evil. We can select our sin, and we can do that on the smallest level as an individual, or in broader terms as an entire civilization. It’s in this area that conservatism has its most crucial insight, which, until progressivism took over vast swaths of liberal thought, was central to both liberalism and conservatism.

It’s that there is such a thing as human nature, and that matters in all human affairs.

It’s the insight of James Madison, who made one of the most conservative (by modern standards) statements in Federalist 51, writing:

But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.

The conservative sees a world in tension. It’s a world in which there are absolute truths, absolute principles we should strive to meet, but we aren’t likely to get there because we’re human. The conservative understands there are good impulses driving people as well as evil ones, and constraining the capacity of people to inflict harm also means you’re likely restricting the ability to do good.

William F. Buckley, Jr. liked quipping that the conservative’s job was standing athwart history yelling stop, but I see it differently. I see a more Reaganite position, one that views the truths and principles of conservatism not as a constraint on history, but as a guide for moving forward. Reagan put it like this, in his incredible speech, “A Time for Choosing:”

You and I are told increasingly we have to choose between a left or right. Well I’d like to suggest there is no such thing as a left or right. There’s only an up or down: [up] man’s old — old-aged dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order, or down to the ant heap of totalitarianism. And regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course.

Indeed, a conservative enters the future while remaining on a firm foundation, while a future unmoored from traditional truths has led to some of the greatest atrocities of all time. The progressive age, in its ardor to remake the world and create a better place, also wrecked truth to start eugenic programs, Marxism, and the evils of race science. The Nazis quoted the progressive hero Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. in defending their actions at Nuremberg.

Holding opposing thoughts in one mind should also trigger a conservative to understand that capitalism is neither good or evil; it merely is. The laws governing economic behavior will be valid whether the world descends into totalitarian socialism or not. But there is more to the world than bottom-line capitalism. It’s important to protect things like family and community. This might lead to reins on capitalist society, but even those must be vetted.

The more the modern world advances, the more convinced I am of the truths of Christianity and the wisdom in federalism. Christianity provides a path toward understanding why there are governing truths in the world. Federalism seeks the balance to tensions between different power structures while allowing society to work toward better ideals.

Conservatism isn’t just about saying no to everything — it’s about shepherding history in a better direction. Conservatism sees itself as the conservator of history and truth, and conservatives believe those lessons can direct the future better than unconstrained human will and intention.

Grounding the dreams of tomorrow in the principles of our ancestors is the lesson of conservatism. It’s maintaining an absolute sense of truth, and mooring society to that truth.

That’s what it is to me, anyway.

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Daniel Vaughan

Daniel Vaughan is a columnist for the Conservative Institute and lawyer in Nashville, Tennessee. He has degrees from Middle Tennessee State University and Regent University School of Law. His work can be found on the Conservative Institute's website, or you can receive his columns and free weekly newsletter at The Beltway Outsiders. Connect with him on Twitter at @dvaughanCI.