Some time ago I saw an amusing description of the gathering known as the Philadelphia Society, a meeting that takes place every year in that Pennsylvania city. The writer called it a place for anyone who considers himself a conservative, from those who want to sell off public parks to the highest bidder to those who yearn for a restoration of the Hapsburg monarchy. But I have a question about this: What unites those who attend this meeting? Obviously it could be hostility toward those who call themselves liberals. After all, are not liberals those who favor abortion, same-sex unions, a government that grows annually bigger like a cancer? Perhaps, but some libertarians (who also attend the Society’s meeting) have nothing against abortion or same-sex unions, and some of those who call themselves liberals hold positions similar or identical with some attendees at the Philadelphia Society, e.g., on the American invasion of Iraq or the need of some kind of restraint on private economic activity to orient it toward the common good. These sorts of reflections produce one conclusion in me: the term “conservative” is so meaningless that we would do well to abandon it altogether. It is not a helpful shorthand to simplify our thinking, but a sure way to muddle our thoughts.
Permit me to engage in some personal history here, not because I suppose that my life will be of special interest to many, but because I think I can illustrate my objections to the term “conservative” better this way. I was raised in a family that could be called moderately liberal politically and with few or no religious beliefs, although we were generally faithful church attenders, going to a succession of Protestant churches till we ended up in the Episcopal Church when I was ten or eleven years old. But I was not expected by my parents to actually believe anything that the Episcopal Church believed nor to regard their services as anything more than a tasteful mixture of music and beautiful sixteenth-century prose.
In the late 1960s, in my last two years in high school, I came under two influences at about the same time, historic Christianity and the countercultural movement of the 60s. From historic Christianity, from authors such as C.S. Lewis, Ronald Knox, Newman and Chesterton I came to recognize the existence of God and the value of objective truth, the fact that the Christian faith was something handed down from the Apostles, not made up by each generation, and the primacy of the spiritual in human personal and social life. From the counterculture I got indeed a jumble of ideas, some right, some perverse. The ideas which were right included a compelling critique of bourgeois materialism and a concern for the natural environment, which seemed to me not all that different from many of the things that Chesterton or Belloc was saying. Of course the erroneous ideas that I got from the counterculture, chiefly about authority and the uses of pleasure, had to be rejected, but even at the time I never entirely accepted them since I could see their incompatibility with my new religious faith.
Even before this time I had been very interested in socio-economic questions, and after reading Richard Tawney’s Religion and the Rise of Capitalism I saw that the Catholic Church had a consistent and ancient view on questions of economic morality. Thus I began to move away from the conventional and mildly statist positions I had hitherto held. But I also saw that the Church’s historic view did have some overlap with the viewpoint of conventional liberalism and of the New Left. At any rate, it certainly did not correspond well with the viewpoint of the Goldwater conservatives with their rugged individualism and exaltation of economic freedom.
In the 1970s I discovered the papal social encyclicals and eventually entered the Catholic Church early in 1978. One question I had to deal with during this time was this: Was I a conservative? I certainly knew that I was not any sort of liberal. But was I a conservative? I opposed abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, the nascent homosexual movement, but I also opposed capitalism, the notion that the government should be reduced to as small a size as possible, the materialism that permeates American life. I remember in the 1976 election there was some attempt on the part of commentators to distinguish between social and economic conservatism, and in fact Jimmy Carter ran for President as a social conservative and economic liberal, though the conduct of his administration provided little evidence of any strong commitment to social conservatism. In any case, this distinction was soon forgotten and during the Reagan years social conservatives seemed happy to conform on all points to the conservative agenda.
In 1976, as part of a post-baccalaureate program, I did a study of American conservatism, discovering not only well-known authors such as Russell Kirk, but largely unknown ones too, such as George Fitzhugh, the bitter Southern critic of capitalism and defender of slavery, and Ralph Adams Cram, architect and social theorist, author of the amazing little book about medieval cities, Walled Towns. But I eventually concluded that I was not, as that word was used today in the United States, a conservative. And although in the succeeding thirty years much has happened, including the emergence of neo-conservatism and “paleo-conservatism,” I still adhere to that judgment. My reasons for this will show why I consider the term useless and muddled.
First, I saw that whatever some writers might claim about what “true” or “real” conservatism was or should be, in the popular mind conservatism was inextricably linked with an economic philosophy that I knew was in reality a form of liberalism, something that the more clear-thinking upholders of the free market, such as Milton Friedman, have always claimed. An economic system that has no explicit care for the common good is simply part of that revolt against Christian civilization which began in the sixteenth century, a revolt against the economic morality of the Middle Ages. Since I was beginning to write and get published about this time, I did not want to have the burden not only of explaining what a traditional Catholic cultural and social approach was, but of explaining or explaining away the label “conservative.” Although I did have some accidental overlap in policies with those who called themselves conservative, I had some of the same with liberals, and I saw no common underlying philosophy that united me with either.
Secondly, I did not understand the descriptive utility of the term. Certainly I did not want to conserve the present order, indeed I wanted to change it radically. It is true that I wanted to restore many of the cultural and social institutions of traditional Western civilization, but this was no longer a matter of conservation but of restoration. Moreover, it seemed to me that Catholics needed to have a positive program, that is, to champion a positive idea, not simply to use a slogan that implied that we wanted things always to remain the same.
Lastly, if we consider the various people who are lumped together as conservatives, the term makes no sense. If General Franco, for example, whose regime certainly was not ideologically committed to free-market economics, is a conservative, how in the world could Ronald Reagan be one too? At best the term is useful only within the context of one country and one limited time period, in which case those who upheld Stalinism in the 1950s in the Soviet Union would rightly be called conservatives.
The official post-World War II American conservative movement seemed to me merely a jumble of conflicting ideas, rabid free-marketers, people who saw Edmund Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution as the everlasting essence of conservatism, those who looked to continental theoreticians such as De Maistre, all united apparently by their opposition to Communism and the moderate statism that Franklin Roosevelt had introduced here in the United States. The divisions, compromises and strange alliances that characterized the movement did not attract me at all. And over it all generally loomed a hostility to state action in the economic realm that often did not agree with the teaching of the Popes in their social encyclicals.
So for many years I have refused to identify as a conservative nor to place myself on the supposed left/right spectrum. A few political scientists have suggested a more sophisticated division, with a four-fold schema of libertarians (little or no state action on either economic or family issues); conservatives (state intervention in family issues but not in the economy); liberals (state regulation of the economy, but not of family issues); and traditionalists (state intervention in both areas). This is certainly a superior way of looking at the matter, but I am not sure even it is completely adequate. For it seems to me that there are fundamental issues here that go back to questions about the origin and purpose of the state which this division does not deal with. For example, all disciples of John Locke (which includes nearly every American political thinker) regard the state as having arisen from a social compact (real or simulated) and to be limited in its purposes to man’s external life, chiefly his liberty and property. But for the ancients and especially for the Catholic tradition, the state is a natural institution and has a kind of care for man’s moral development, for virtue. Thus I think it likely that before one can begin to compare political philosophies one must place them within their broad intellectual traditions. A genuine Catholic political philosophy is neither to the left nor to the right of any Lockean position. They are incommensurable.
The sooner Catholics realize this, the sooner will we free ourselves from associations, both intellectual and practical, with alien philosophies. Although at present there is no possibility in the United States for a genuine Catholic politics, there is always a possibility for right Catholic thinking, for exposition of the truth, for the careful storing up of what may be used by future generations. Our task (except for a few narrow areas, such as abortion) seems to me less one of action than of contemplation, a contemplation of the always fruitful sources of Catholic tradition. It is one of conversion of heart, both our own hearts and of our fellow countrymen. For in the long run, the only hope for a Catholic politics is a Catholic people and a Catholic nation. And if these seem unlikely, then surely a Catholic politics is more unlikely still.