Thursday, 21 July 2011

Conservatism in Everyday Life

There is an argument my girlfriend and I return to from time to time, though thankfully for the moment it seems to be a purely academic one. It’s about marriage. My official line is that I don’t see the point, and that it is a farcical formality to make such a big show of commitment when people today see deep commitment as a precondition of marriage. Her view is that it’s a tastefully done wedding, professing your love in front of the people you care about, is a nice thing.

The strange thing is that the force of our opinions far outweighs the commitment our arguments would seem to suggest. Why do we care so much? I realised one day that in the subtext of our dispute was hidden the same essential disagreement that has divided radicals and conservatives for generations. Part of the reason that I feel so strongly about marriage is a mistrust of anything that is so established, and yet she sees this conventionality as a virtue.

For the conservatives, the fact that everybody is doing something, and that they continue to do it, is a consideration in its favour. If so many people feel that way, the chances are they know something we don’t. The radical mind spurts off in the other direction. We know people have a tendency to fall prey to mindless dogma, and the more deep-rooted a custom is, the less likely it is to have been subjected to critical scrutiny. If everybody is doing it, the chances are that most of them haven’t stopped long to think about whether they really ought to do it.

This argument is exactly the one that Michael Oakeshott wades into in his famous Conservative critique of ‘Rationalism in Politics’. According to Oakeshott, a major error that the Rationalist (or Radical, as I have called them) needs the Conservative to put them right on, is that “Intellectually, his ambition is not so much to share the experience of the race as to be demonstrably a self-made man”. Conservatives appreciate that excessive haste to be critical can blind us to the wisdom of past generations.

It’s not always my girlfriend that it is cast in the conservative role. She often complains that I have an irrational aversion to certain types of change. If she gets her hair cut, I complain. I never want to get new clothes. I have a definite tendency to find myself in ruts (or comfortable grooves, depending on the spin you want to out on it), with no intention of leaving them. ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ isn’t just a piece of practical wisdom, it is also Conservative doctrine. Again, Oakeshott puts it best:

To be conservative, then, is to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.

All this is peculiar because one of the few people I know to be more virulently, emphatically anti-Conservative (in terms of the political party and ideology) than me is my girlfriend. Is this an anomaly, or are dispositional conservatism and ideological Conservatism entirely distinct? It would seem peculiar if the two were entirely unrelated, since the ideology seems merely to apply the dispositional to the political and social, rather than just the personal sphere.

The study of political psychology, and in particular, the characteristics of the Conservative mind is currently a fashionable area of research, but I’m not sure how thoroughly the connection between the disposition and ideology has been investigated. If nobody has asked this question yet, it would be interesting to find an answer.

This also raises a broader question about how our everyday personalities relate to our moral and political beliefs. For example, just anecdotally, my experience is that libertarians tend to be more optimistic than those who favour a big state. One obvious explanation for this is that statists fear spontaneous action is bound to result in disaster, whereas their opponents see it as promising and in need protection. Perhaps this is another area where further research is needed.

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