Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The problem with conservatism: the debate continued

This is the continuation of the last post, which was concerned with a debate surrounding William Voegeli's book,  Never Enough: America's Limitless Welfare State. In that post I wanted to make the point that contemporary liberalism, from early in the last century, and under pressure from its socialist left, had largely abandoned the vision of the emergent individual that had previously defined it, and has been captivated by a competing but reactionary vision of technocratic state control ever since. Here I want to look at a problem with the other side of the debate, as stated by Will and Voegeli.

This has to do with the admittedly problematic notions of "progress" and social/cultural "evolution" -- conservatism is right to be skeptical of these ideas, but wrong I think simply to oppose them. Will, for example, is on target here:
... the name ["progressivism"] is tautological: History is progressive because progress is defined as whatever History produces.... 
The cheerful assumption is that "evolving"must mean "improving." Progressivism's promise is a program for every problem, and progressivism's premise is that every unfulfilled desire is a problem.
But misses here:
The name "progressivism" implies criticism of the Founding, which we leave behind as we make progress. 
"Progressivism" per se doesn't or shouldn't imply criticism of the Founding except in the sense that we can recognize that the Founding didn't leave us in some final state of perfection. It's not only possible, it's desirable, to view the Founding with respect as the foundation, so to speak, upon which we can build, indefinitely. Trying to stand athwart history, yelling Stop has a melodramatic appeal, I suppose, especially in the darker days of massive liberal dominance, but it's also a recipe for futility -- and it needs to be said that it's no less a reification to see history as a hostile thing than as a benevolent one. We don't need to make an "autonomous thing" out of history, in other words, to understand that, however well we've done, we can always do better.

But to do so, we also need to do better than the "unprincipled pragmatism" of the modern-day liberal -- indeed, we'll need to progressively undo the baneful effects of liberal recourse to state power as a means of, as Will says, providing "a program for every problem". Here Voegeli's response to Lind is again just about right:
C. S. Lewis wrote that since progress means getting closer to your goal, when you’ve taken a wrong turn and are getting farther and farther from your destination, the truly “progressive” response is to turn around and go back to the right road. Most conservatives believe that America took a wrong turn in 1932, one that has led us farther away from the goal of preserving and strengthening republican self-government....
The conservatives now reviving constitutionalism are rightly insistent on the need to retrace our steps, and to undo the mistakes that have supplanted limited with unlimited government. The point is not to go back to 1932 and stay there, compiling a list of things government cannot do and problems it cannot address. The point, rather, is to resume progress on the road not taken: toward a government that is both limited and vigorous, scrupulous about upholding the principles of republicanism but energetic and prudent about working within the framework created by those principles to respond to economic and social changes with policies that advance the people’s prosperity and security.

No comments:

Post a Comment

You can use some HTML tags, such as <b>, <i>, <a>