In the backlash against President Bush’s democracy agenda, conservatives are increasingly taking the lead. It is inherently difficult for liberals to argue against the expansion of social and political liberalism in oppressive parts of the world — though, in a fever of Bush hatred, they try their best. It is easier for traditional conservatives to be skeptical of this grand project, given their history of opposing all grand projects of radical change.
Traditional conservatism has taught the priority of culture — that societies are organic rather than mechanical and that attempts to change them through politics are like grafting machinery onto a flower. In this view, pushing for hasty reform is likely to upset some hidden balance and undermine the best of intentions. Wisdom is found in deference to tradition, not in bending the world to fit some religious or philosophic abstraction, even one as noble as the Declaration of Independence.
A conservatism that warns against utopianism and calls for cultural sensitivity is useful. When it begins to question the importance or existence of moral ideals in politics and foreign policy, it is far less attractive.
At the most basic level, the democracy agenda is not abstract at all. It is a determination to defend dissidents rotting in airless prisons, and people awaiting execution for adultery or homosexuality, and religious prisoners kept in shipping containers in the desert, and men and women abused and tortured in reeducation camps. It demands activism against sexual slavery, against honor killings, against genital mutilation and against the execution of children, out of the admittedly philosophic conviction that human beings are created in God’s image and should not be oppressed or mutilated.
And the democracy agenda goes a step further. It argues that the most basic human rights will remain insecure as long as they are a gift or concession of the state — that natural rights must ultimately be protected by self-government. And this ideology asserts that most people in all places, even the poor and oppressed, are capable of controlling their own affairs and determining their own rulers. If this abstract argument seems familiar, it should, because it is the argument of the American founding.
Traditional conservatism has many virtues — and a large historical problem. Certainly, established traditions concerning family, manners and military honor deserve our respect, because the human race is often wise while the individual is often foolish. But few human traditions were more deeply rooted in history than human slavery. Many traditional conservatives (though not the Whig Edmund Burke) defended this tradition and criticized the disruptive, religious radicalism of abolitionists such as William Wilberforce. Lord Nelson argued: “I was bred in the good old school, and taught to appreciate the value of our West Indian possessions, and neither in the field nor the Senate shall their just rights be infringed, while I have an arm to fight in their defense, or a tongue to launch my voice against the damnable doctrine of Wilberforce and his hypocritical allies.”
The unavoidable problem is this: Without moral absolutes, there is no way to determine which traditions are worth preserving and which should be overturned. Conservatism assumes and depends on an objective measure of right and wrong that skepticism cannot provide. Without a firm moral conviction that independence is superior to servitude, that freedom is superior to slavery, that the weak deserve special care and protection, the habit of conservatism is radically incomplete. In the absence of elevating ideals, it can become pessimistic and un-ambitious — a morally indifferent preference for the status quo.
History does teach that reform is easier to start than finish well. But history also teaches that some organic social arrangements are rotten and wormy; that it is not utopian to rescue a human life from oppression, it is justice; that events without reference to universal ideals of freedom and human rights can become a hell of permanent, unchallenged slavery. It is not a coincidence that the great movements of conscience have generally come not from skeptical traditionalists but from men and women of faith and conviction who taught that loving your neighbor is inconsistent with enslaving him; who rescued children from the nightmare factories of the Industrial Revolution; who asserted that the long tradition of racial segregation created 10,000 petty tyrants; and who believed that the Declaration of Independence is actually true, for us and for all.
Traditionalism can save moralists from a foolish utopianism. But a moral vision is equally necessary to save traditional conservatism from its worst instincts.