Paul Moser & “Conservatism”

Dr. Paul Moser is a well respected Christian Philosopher and Scholar. He’s written numerous books. Unfortunately he’s fallen prey to the popular caricature of Conservatism that befuddles so many these days. We had a brief interchange on Facebook that sadly revealed his ignorance of The Great Tradition.

Here is the interchange:

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Lots could be said here, but not much will be because Moser simply needs to read some real Conservativism. Sometimes we must reproach our betters, and Dr. Moser is certainly my better by a long shot and I will deal with his 4 “points” as briefly as possible.

  1. Conservativism is supposed to be a “wax nose” in that it is by definition pliable and adaptable. This is a common claim made against us by Libertarians especially. And no real Conversative denies that our tradition is hard to define, because it isn’t an ideology. Conservativism is a practice that is accidentally. political. But as Sir Roger Scruton says it begins with Love. The Conservative has found something to love and seeks to Conserve it. As Edmund Burke made clear Conservation requires reform and reform requires an object worth conserving. This will look different in different times because the needs of society change. Conservatism is the virtuous managing on change, which is why Burke was so opposed to the French Revolution but not the American.

2. The Republican Party is a hurdle to the Federal deficit. The classic Reagan formulation was that by lowering taxes on the rich the government would have access to more money over all. I’m not an expert on this but I believe the math actually works. But part of the problem is that while Reagan was able to roll back the massive progressive tax rates no one has been able to do anything to rollback entitlements. Once. government grants an entitlement, especially in a democracy, there is virtually no way to get ride of it. Professional politicians in a broad democracy, especially one with universal suffrage, have no incentive to act as Burkean Trustees and essentially act as mere delegates for the people. Ironically this means that democracy is robbed of representation because only the winning votes are rerpresented. This tyranny of democracy reifies Rousseau and allows the people to rob themselves of leadership. This is why Conservatives are almost universally in favor of repealing the 17th amendment, which changed the election of US senators from state parliaments to a popular vote within each state. Term limits would help with this as well. But none of this has happened yet, so entitlements remain and the GOP almost always cuts taxes. This is a major cause of the ever increasing deficit.

3. “Unbridled human freedom in politics and commerce” is an interesting way to describe The Great Tradition of Conservatism. Sir Roger Scruton founded The Salisbury Review in part because of Maggie Thatcher’s rise to Prime Minister. Because Thatcher and Reagan represent not so much the victory of genuine conservatism as much as the victory of F.A. Hayek’s classic “The Road to Serfdom.” Hayek infamously wrote an essay entitled “Why I am not a Conservative.” The truth about Hayek is much more complicated, and I honestly believe he is fundamentally an integral part of The GreatTradition, but he was the prime intellectual influence on both the “Reagan Revolution” and Thatcherism. And both those movements have more to do with the defeat of 20th century totalitarianism than Conservatism qua Conservatism. Indeed as Scruton has pointed out, on numerous occasions, the identification of Conservatism’s raison d’etre with freedom is a mistake. Classical Liberalism and Conservatism are deeply intertwined but not in the way that most think. Liberal education is an achievement of a society, not its basis, which is why the Liberal arts are contrasted with the Servile arts. Barring some Star Trekish robotics revolution the Servile arts, like farming, will always be necessary. The Liberal arts are not necessary. They are engaged with by access to leisure not necessity. But more importantly the Conservative recognizes that freedom, while a good thing and a societal achievement to be treasured, is deeply dangerous. Os Guinness’ golden triangle of freedom is instructive here. Free societies are rare because genuine freedom requires both Faith and Virtue. When faith and virtue come together, as they so beautifully did in Tocquevillian America, people can be truly free. Not free in the sense of Rousseian internal identity, well described by Francis Fukuyama in last year’s excellent “Identity”, being expressed, but free to do what we truly ought to do. But freedom always eventually corrodes either Faith or Virtue. This is why Marx was right to conclude that Capitalism sowed the seeds of its own destruction. But his reasons for thinking so were wrong. In fact Marx had almost too high a view of capitalism and what it could accomplish, since it created the Proletariat and they would eventually displace the Bourgeoisie through the dialectic of history. Josef Schumpeter was the brilliant economist who rightly identified why capitalism was not sustainable, partially through his concept of creative destruction, but also because capitalism undermines the very things that made it possible in the first place. Namely the Faith and Virtue that lead to freedom and capitalism. Capitalism is clearly a good thing, it alleviates poverty, improves medical care, science etc. But all these things come with a cost. The less we have to rely on Faith and Virtue the less we need them. And so these things atrophy, which is why I am essentially a BenOp guy. And when faith and virtue disappear so does freedom. Tim Carney’s “Aliented America” perfectly encapsulates both the US failure to actually fight for truly free markets but more importantly what happens when Faith and Virtue are dissolved by focusing only on freedom. But last year’s “Why Liberalism failed” by Patrick Deneen makes the case even more concretely that freedom itself cannot be the goal or the method of the Conservative. Freedom is an outcome, not a philosophy.

4. As I said in 1 Conservativism isn’t an ideology, and it’s ironic that Moser accused it of being amorphous and an ideology! I think it’s clear that he probably doesn’t know what he’s talking about. So I will end this post with a short reading list, of mostly short books, so that he can learn what Conservatism actually is and is not.

  1. Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition by Sir Roger Scruton

2. How to be a Conservative by Sir Roger Scruton

3. How to think Seriously about the Planet: The Case for an Environmental Conservativism by Sir Roger Scruton (anything by Scruton is great)

4. The Wise Men know what Wicked things are Written on the Sky by Russell Kirk (anything by Kirk really)

5. A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future by Os Guinness

6. Obamanomcis: How Barack Obama is Bankrupting You and Enriching His Wall Street Friends, Corporate Lobbyists, and Union Bosses by Tim Carney (this book goes after the GOP just as much as the DNC)

7. The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis (hopefully just needs to be reread)

And whenever I finally finish my book on Conservatism (Lord Willing) maybe he’ll read that, because maybe (Lord Willing) it will be worth reading.

Educator, podcaster, & writer

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