Monday, July 21, 2014

The Case for Social Conservatism

Social conservatives focus on what is permanent in human nature, emphasize the importance of tradition, trust in a market economy and put the family ahead of the state.

NOTE: While the article is focused on Canadian politics, the insights are relevant to America.

Many Canadians associate the “social conservative” label with a narrowly focused political attitude defined almost solely in terms of opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage and euthanasia. “People clinging to their guns and Bibles,” as President Obama suggested during his 2008 presidential campaign. Whatever the definition, the basic idea is that social conservatives are a weird group of loudmouth simpletons, long on religion and short on reason who seek to impose their moral views on society. This perception is widely shared by our media, as attested to by a 2002 Maclean’s front-page characterization of Stockwell Day as “scary.” It is also shared by a majority of Canadian academics who would view any debate with a social conservative as beneath their dignity.

The notion that social conservatism is but a remnant of religious bigotry is a very effective strategy because it sets the burden of “disproof” on conservatives while implicitly suggesting that only liberals and socialists can speak a language consistent with “public rationality.” Yet, social conservatism is based on certain broad principles that, until a few decades ago, were widely shared by Canadians, to the point where they were generally taken for granted by most elected officials. Given the deep transformation in Canadian political culture largely ushered in by our Charter of Rights and Freedoms over the past 25 years, a quick review of those principles seems warranted.

In the words of Roger Scruton, conservatism essentially involves “loving the world as it is,” being sensitive to what has been handed over by our forefathers. It is based on a sense of amity toward the community, rather than a desire to remake it according to purely intellectual constructs. This attitude of receptivity toward the experience of earlier generations reflects the view that there is a “hard-core” human nature that cannot be tampered with and by which cultures, in spite of their diversity and constant evolution, can be judged. While recognizing that our common understanding of human nature evolves over time, social conservatives thus acknowledge that there is something unchanging in that nature.

Post-modern or egalitarian liberals, libertarians and socialists take a different view of human nature, which they understand as a more or less malleable reality that can be perfected by a so-called progressive accumulation of scientific knowledge. By denying a permanent or unchanging human nature, non-conservatives make the traditional distinction between culture and nature increasingly irrelevant. This has led to an increasing mental confusion about the nature of man, as evidenced by the fact that as much as half the books published on scientific topics today are about human psychology. Yet, there is no area of science where there is less of a consensus and less certainty than human psychology. Despite a century of scientific analysis, modern man knows himself less well than in earlier, less self-centered times. The more we look at ourselves, the less we understand.

Social conservatives are countercultural in that they believe, at a minimum, there is an objective order of universals that defines the nature of things, including human nature. What they seek to conserve are those institutions that reflect this objective order. When a society deviates from this order, conservatives feel the need to “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop,’” as long-time editor of National Review William F. Buckley once put it.

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