Conservatism Kant survive without Burke

The wonderful John Zmirak:

Furthermore, suggesting that a set of natural rights, discerned by intellectuals and imposed by judges, must trump the wishes of the population will equally result in the victory of leftist social activism. Who produces most of the lawyers, law professors, and judges? Does anyone really expect that the answer to this question will cease to be “Harvard, Yale, Stanford and Princeton,” that such institutions will yield to “Ave Maria, Regent, and Liberty universities”? If not, the victory of judicial power will always remain a tool of elites who wish to impose their prejudices upon a relucant population. If you want to see the outcome of such a theory, look at the EU and the European Court of Human Rights. I’d prefer that slightly bigoted Bretons, Catalans, Bavarians, Serbs, and Slovaks enacted socially conservative legislation in their regions… even if it meant that (for instance) they weren’t especially kind to Gypsies, to a totalizing system that enforced “human rights”—which will ALWAYS end up including the right to abortion.

Social conservatism must rely on decentralism, populism, anti-elitism, and a certain degree of healthy, pre-rational “prejudice” (in Edmund Burke, not Archie Bunker’s sense). We can’t turn the pro-life movement into a Kantian, ideological monstrosity.

I have only two qualms with this passage. First is with the idea of “social conservatism,” rather than “cultural conservatism,” or just plain “conservatism.” For me — and maybe I’m wrong on this —, “social conservatism” insinuates something akin to MacIntyre’s “conservative liberalism” — which I may not fully grasp, anyhow —, in that at its root is individualism, upon which Christian/otherwise traditional morals and mores are heaped. That is, to me, “social conservatism” is unsustainable and, at root, not conservative. Conservatism, on the other hand, as I’m thinking of it — perchance even the liberal conservatism of Röpke is an appropriate example, given that Zmirak has written a biography of the man — has the Christian/otherwise traditional morals, mores, and customs as its foundation, and, at least in the liberal sense, embraces market economics within such framework. I suspect that, posed this way, such a riposte would be agreeable to Zmirak, or so I hope.

My second dissent responds to the notion of “anti-elitism.” In a certain sense, of course, there’s good reason for this — depending on who comprise the élite. The examples Zmirak provides chasten my sympathy for élitism, broadly conceived. However, I bear no opposition to a traditional, say, aristocracy, one composed of well educated, morally restrained and responsible men dedicated not (just) to the nation, but, much more important, to their places. Decentralist aristocrats, whose noblesse oblige compels them to tend to the well-being of their communities, rather than to belong to the Hollywood-New York-Washington jet set.

I recognize that such an aristocracy is an impossibility here, but in the Old World, I hope, some ember of hope remains. And after the ineluctable collapse of the United States, perhaps a more cavalier-peasant society can emerge, at least in some of the new, smaller republicans rise from her ashes.


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