One day, in some Catholic kingdom, the monarch dies. Eleven dudes at a tavern down their pints and groan, “the king is dead.” Then all shout, “long live the king!” A discontent in the corner announces, “Boys, the heir is a glutton and a drunkard. Why shouldn’t you or I be king?” His bar mates are shocked. Then they start accusing …
I think this parable, rightly interpreted, explains much of Western political history since the 18th century (or so), and also how conservatives can adapt to the Western rejection of virtually every conservative idea.
The discontented fellow in our story is the first liberal. His idea is that authority is not self-justifying. But more important than the content of his idea is the fact of it. To propose his question, he had to think to compare custom to an independent standard. Custom, of course, exists precisely because it isn’t subjected to an independent standard. Custom is produced by a local past, and an independent standard exists out of time and out of space. The new king is crowned unthinkingly — no one asks why or whether to do it, only how to adapt the odd facts of the present (this prince’s head is small; should we have his crown shrunk?) to ancient practice.
Thoughts, the political creation of radicals, are judged by whether they just “make sense.” If you’re a plumber, say, then thoughts make sense relative to the goal of plumbing. But our liberal — modernity’s radical — rejects any standards she does not discover and test herself. He trades, in Edmund Burke’s phrase, upon his own “private stock of reason.” He has developed, before his consternated drinking buddies have time to choke on their booze, a systematic critique of his country’s politics.
Let’s analyze his critique: The heir to the throne is gross, and this ought to disqualify him from kingship. To the 11 others, this is incoherent. The heir is qualified just because he is the heir. So long as he lives, no other person is qualified. And if he dies, his brother or uncle replaces him. Of course a regent might be appointed to assist an incapable king. But the former rules always in the king’s name and with his permission. The regent has power but no title.
Our liberal discontent proposes that the title to rule should attend the ability to rule. This simple idea applies to all government. Hereditary peerages are now ridiculous. So is a state church whose priests answer to the mysterious God, rather than to the public god of reason. And if the new regime degenerates, it can be replaced: it falls by the principle it was erected to defend. According to the liberal, age neither justifies nor condemns. It is irrelevant.
The discontent easily becomes a revolutionary. Those who resist him are conservatives, and their intellectual task is impossible. Fearing the specter of anarchy, they attempt to justify a series of institutions sharing, mainly and merely, the fact of existence at one time. The church, the king, the peerage, primogeniture, marriage laws: these are each too complex to cohere with one another as smoothly as the radical’s theory coheres. They do not all together conform to a theory of how the political world ought to operate. And so they cannot all be defended theoretically.
The conservative, to defend against the liberal, must theorize, but the society he wants to defend survived on the absence of theory. Our liberal discontent has what professor Leo Strauss called “the low but solid ground.” The conservative could choose a theory and discern that some institutions conform and that some do not conform. But that requires serious time and subtlety. The liberal discontent has an easier, more attractive proposition: anything may be changed. The conservative’s unenviable response is: all things must be kept.
Conservatives have watched a centuries-long disaster for their favorite institutions, at least in the West. The European Catholic Church is in recession. So is the traditional family. Governments have become more democratic, and technical expertise has replaced what Burke called “prudence” as the principal virtue of statecraft. This mix of radical egalitarianism and technocracy repels conservatives.
But here is the good news for today’s conservatives: not much is now worth preserving. Vast administrative states, declining marriage rates, plebiscites, secularism and the abolition of personal virtue as a criterion for public office … Bits might be redeemed, but this sprawl is a liberal creation. Conservatives now have the opportunity of our liberal discontent from the parable: they can propose a systematic critique of the political world they inhabit, omitting those parts (for instance, state religion) that conservatives of another time felt obliged to defend.
Religion, according to this new conservative politics, is not a strange private activity, but an integral part of the human good and worthy of public officials’ promotion. The family is not some economic unit: it is the foundation of society and the incubator of private virtue. And Mill’s harm principle — free to do whatever doesn’t make another less free — is not the only moral principle of public concern: moral development is a communal matter, and a community is failing if produces many immoral members. This means, for instance, that heroin, marijuana and drunkenness are neither victimless crimes nor mere “public health concerns”: they are degradations of those who indulge in them, and therefore wrong.
This is a more moralistic politics. But if conservatives want a conservative society, rather than just squeeze into shrinking places within the liberal order, they should endorse and defend rational rightism or concede defeat.
Cole Aronson is a junior in Calhoun College. His column runs on alternate Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .