In the course of my ongoing debates with Maj. Mad Dog, I recently asked him, “If you see your cause as progressive (even Progressive), what are you progressing toward? How will you know when you get there?” His usual response is that conservatism is simply a pathological fear of change (or of “cheese moving”, in the parlance of the world in which sloganeering is a substitute for thought — not that he’s guilty of that.)
I was reminded of this exchange this afternoon while I was reading one of Roger Scruton’s essays. (I know I’m late to the party on this guy, but I’m always excited to discover thinkers on my side with whom I’m unfamiliar.) In discussing Leftism, he says:
[Leftists] know nothing of the socialist future, save only that it is both necessary and desirable. [Their] concern is with the “compelling” case against the present, that leads [them] to destroy whatever [they] lack the knowledge to replace. A blind faith drags the radical from “struggle” to “struggle”, reassuring him that everything done in the name of “social justice” is well done […] He desires to leap from the tainted world that surrounds him into the pure but unknowable realm of human emancipation. This leap into the Kingdom of Ends is a leap of thought, which can never be mirrored in reality. (Scruton 40)
I don’t think people like my friend see themselves as utopians –“We just want to make things fairer, and what’s wrong with that?” Well, part of the problem is that they tend to conflate inequality and injustice. The fact of the matter is that no two people are the same, and therefore no two people are really equal. We have different strengths and weaknesses. This isn’t injustice — it’s reality.
This definitional error leads to attempts to destroy systems that have the advantage of having developed in response to the world as it actually is. In the case of Anglo-American limited government and civil society based largely on common law and tradition, it has been a system that has allowed its people to thrive and prosper at levels most of the world would consider beyond the dreams of avarice. Meanwhile, where the variations of Marxism (Communism, Socialism, etc.) have been tried, the results have ranged from misery to mass murder. Therefore, I tend to agree with Scruton, when he says:
It is not for us to defend a reality which, for all its faults, has the undeniable merit of existence. Nor is it for us to show that the consensual politics of Western government is somehow closer to human nature and more conducive to human fulfillment than the ideal world of socialist emancipation.
In short, just because the aims of the Left may be good, it does not mean that their approaches are good, or that their side is necessarily more virtuous. It is the burden of the so-called progressives to demonstrate what they would have us progressing toward, and how it can coexist with people no more or less noble than they actually are. It isn’t a conservative flaw to be skeptical of the new. It’s only wise to ask whether the cheese is being moved to a better site, or to the trigger of a mousetrap that though theoretically attractive, remains deadly.
Scruton, Roger. “What is Right?” 1986. Reprinted in The Roger Scruton Reader. Mark Dooley, ed. London and New York: Continuum, 2009. 20-42.