Since last night, I’ve been thinking more about the Phil Agre essay What Is Conservatism and What Is Wrong with It? After giving it some thought, I’ve realized that the essay is fundamentally flawed in that Agre saddles conservativism with thousands of years of history, but he puts forth a form of liberalism that means something very specific to him, and compares that to conservatism. But if you’re going to take an expansive view of conservativism, you have to do the same thing to liberalism if you’re going to be honest about things. Defined most basically, conservatism favors the status quo, and liberalism opposes the status quo.
Agre is right that liberalism is basically a movement of conscience. The idea of liberalism is that we can build a society that is more just, more egalitarian, more compassionate, more whatever than society as it exists. The basic conservative argument is that when liberals try to do this, they just screw things up. If you’re going to make conservatism accountable for its full history, you have to do the same for liberalism, and liberals have shown poor judgement in the past when it comes to putting their trust in people and institutions that promise to shake up the status quo. If we’re going to pin the pharaohs on the conservatives, we have to pin communism and socialism on liberals. There have been plenty of other revolutionary concepts that liberal people have supported out of conscience that really have turned out to screw things up. Conscience is never enough. Agre knows this, as he factors it into his personal definition of liberalism, but that doesn’t exonerate liberalism in the larger definition.
The other problem I had with the essay is that it doesn’t really make it very clear which conservatives are dupes and which are knowing supporters of the aristocracy. As Agre points out repeatedly, nobody wants to come out and say that they’re a shill for the aristocracy, and he also makes the point that many conservatives don’t even know what conservativism is really about. So which ones do? And what is the nature of that knowledge? I find it impossible to believe that even big name conservatives would define themselves as supporters of the aristocracy, so while it seems clear that conservatism does perpetuate the aristocracy that Agre describes, I find it hard to believe that very many people accept that as a goal. I do think that conservatism does more openly embrace the idea of preserving society’s current institutions, some of which are undervalued by liberals. Anyway, this whole argument strikes me as sophistry. If people are unknowingly supporting the aristocracy, then shouldn’t he address what it is that they do knowingly support rather than dismissing them as willing dupes?