Conservatism and the Plainly Visible

My mostly-former colleague Dan Scotto develops a thesis on conservatism and “the unseen” that I think may be too coherent, or explain too suspiciously much, to be fully credible.

The debater’s “presumption of the status quo” is the classical conservative presumption, and adherence to it lends justification to the frequently heard claim that authentic conservatism is non- or anti-ideological, or pragmatic and utilitarian rather than idealistic and intellectual, especially in the American tradition: We care less, so the theory goes, whether the results fit any enunciated theory than that we actually prefer them over apparent alternatives. The argument was crucial to Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism (1982), one of the best and arguably most influential intellectual cases for American non-intellectualism. Long-time readers at this site may recognize the contradiction or implicit paradox as typical and in multiple senses systematic: As a defense of  Americanism as an anti-ideological ideology, especially during the period of competition with communism, Novak’s argument was that democratic capitalism concretely delivered the goods, whether in the form of victory in war or a very tangibly higher standard of living even for the poor, than real existing alternatives, even if, from certain perspectives, those alternatives might look better “on paper” or “in the abstract.”

Put differently, American conservatism puts as much priority on the very much seen, on the entirely visible, as on any supersensible justifications, and its difficulties have as much to do with the tendency for what we accept, favor, or need to become “hidden in plain sight.”

Not that Dan is simply wrong: His initial statement, for instance, strikes me as quite reasonable, as far as it goes- that is, in describing merely “[o]ne way to think about conservative argumentation.” “When conservatives oppose a progressive policy plan,” he writes, “it is not out of pique or unthinking resistance to change; it is often because, at some level, we believe that the progressive plan is neglecting some invisible—but all too real—danger.” He goes on to list a familiar set of conservative policy stances in relation to particular “invisible evils,” or what we more conventionally call “unintended consequences” – a higher minimum wage that constricts the labor market, health care reform that pre-empts medical advances, bailouts that increase risks, income support that paralyzes the recipient – then provides a conservative’s practical credo:

These unintended consequences, or invisible risks, are best mitigated by acknowledging the importance of limits: limited human knowledge and limited human capacity suggest that we should limit our exercises of political power in these complex domains, choosing instead to work with and improve existing structures that have proven their effectiveness over time.

The rest of his discussion seeks to explain American conservatism’s current political problems on this basis, especially by demonstrating the susceptibility of the Republican Party to takeover by a demagogue who is all about the gaudy show (larger than life and beneath contempt), but I think the treatment inadvertently allows what that credo observes, or glimpses, to fall completely out of view – I mean that last part about “existing structures that have proven their effectiveness over time.”

I agree about much with Dan, and I think I understand his thesis and his development of it – including his most speculative passages concerning the decline in religious belief – but to me the opposite view, that Americans and the American system are based on a very pragmatic acceptance of the visible and material, is just as valid: Americans have accepted our generally but not exclusively inefficient, at times quite embarrassingly and pathetically paralyzed and corrupt, often morally execrable as well as ridiculous and self-defeating governance because one way or another it has not gotten too much in the way of exploitation of America’s materially advantageous position in the world.

Now, the real basis for such success as America has had may remain “unseen.” It may be beyond anyone’s ability to view in its entirety or to explain comprehensively. Similarly, the way that one isolated, seemingly rational and desirable initiative or reform may affect some other, seemingly remote concern may be quite invisible to most or all of us – a problem that returns us to Dan’s initial examples. More generally, the same very material, entirely visible facts may look quite different, depending on distance, viewing angle, lighting, backdrop, and so on. Yet a conservative looking for evidence that America does not need to be made “great again,” because American never stopped being “great,” would not need to look very far. The political problem for American conservatives in this era seems to me more complex, but at the same time less intractable, than a simple juxtaposition of the visible (or “envisionable”) vs. the unseen.

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