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Home > Politics
The Conservative Mind
by Bob Powell, 9/01/06
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The Conservative Mind from Burke to Eliot by Russell Kirk, 1953. It's considered the foundational book that inspired the conservative resurgence in America.

The conservative resurgence is actually a result of where the economy is in the 45 - 60 year long wave cycle; we're now in the "trough" of the long wave when there's excess capacity and when politics turns conservative and nasty (see the explanation of the long wave at In the Long Wave Trough ... the political cycles associated with the long wave are described in "The Long Wave Decline and the Politics of Depression" by John Sterman, pdf, 21.1Mb).

Nevertheless, the book is very revealing of conservative thinking. The points below illustrate:

  • The "conservative mind" rebels against the idea of using reason to determine how the system can be changed to correct the ills of society.
  • It rejects the principle of "system as cause" and the "primacy of the whole" described by Peter Senge in his book, The Fifth Discipline.
  • It is blind to the existence of the "fundamental attribution error" (see below) and rejects even the thought of it.
  • Individuals in poverty are solely to blame for their plight and attempting to do anything about it is not just wrong, it's impious.
  • Poverty is part of the "eternal order of things ... which never can be removed by legislation."

We see all this in the conservative agenda being enacted today.

An inability to see the power of systemic effects is so powerful that there's a name for it. It's known as the "fundamental attribution error":

  • "A fundamental principle of system dynamics states that the structure of the system gives rise to its behavior. However, people have a strong tendency to attribute the behavior of others to dispositional rather than situational factors."
    (from the paper "Learning in and about complex systems" by John Sterman, System Dynamics Review, Vol 10, Summer-Fall 1994, p. 308 and
    also in Business Dynamics: Systems Thinking and Modeling for a Complex World, Irwin/McGraw-Hill,  2000 by John Sterman, p. 28.
    Dr. Sterman is Jay W. Forrester Professor of Management and Director, MIT System Dynamics Group).
  • "... blaming individuals instead of attributing the behavior to the system."
    (from The Fifth Discipline, The Art & Practice of the Learning Organization by Peter Senge, p. 42)

These quotes from the chapter on Edmund Burke are chilling:

<< p. 30
The Age of Reason, Burke protested with all his splendor of rhetoric, was in reality an Age of Ignorance. If (as most men, since the beginning of human history, have believed) the foundation of human welfare is divine providence, then the limitation of politics and ethics to a puny "reason" is an act of folly, the refuge of a ridiculous presumption"
>>
 
<< p. 34
If our world indeed is ordered in accordance with a divine idea, we ought to be cautious in our tinkering with the structure of society; for though it may be God's will that we serve as his instruments of alteration, we need first to satisfy our consciences on that point. Again, Burke states that a universal equality among men exists; but it is the equality of Christianity, moral equality, or, more precisely, equality in the ultimate judgment of God; equality of any other sort we are foolish, even impious, to covet.
>>
 
>> p. 35
Poverty, brutality, and misfortune are indeed portions of the eternal order of things; sin is a terribly real and demonstrable fact, the consequence of our depravity, not of erring institutions; religion is the consolation for these ills, which never can be removed by legislation or revolution. Religious faith makes existence tolerable; ambition without pious restraint must end in failure, often involving in its ruin that beautiful reverence which solaces common men for the obscurity and poverty of their lot. To inculcate this veneration among men, to consecrate public office, Burke believed that the church must be interwoven with the fabric of the nation.
>>
 
<< p. 36
"Religion, morals, laws, prerogatives, privileges, liberties, rights of men, are the pretexts" for revolution by sentimental humanitarians and mischievous agitators who think that established institutions must be the source of our afflictions. But the human heart, in reality, is the fountain of evil.
>>
 
<< p. 42
And Reason, dear to the illuminati of the eighteenth century, seemed to Burke a tool weak at best, frequently treacherous.
>>
 
<< p. 43
Burke's affection for prejudice and prescription was not new in English thought. Chesterfield had written, "A prejudice is by no means (though generally thought so) an error; on the contrary, it may be a most unquestioned truth, though it be still a prejudice in those who, without any examination, take it upon trust and entertain it by habit .... The bulk of mankind have neither leisure nor knowledge sufficient to reason right; why should they be taught to reason at all?"
>>
 
<<p. 52
Egalitarian proposals to accomplish the restoration of a pretended "natural right" of equality, abolishing both artificial and natural aristocracy, display this cruel and fallacious character.
>>
 
<<p. 54
And natural rights do not exist independent of circumstances; what may be a right on one occasion and for one man, may be unjust folly for another man at a different time. Prudence is the test of actual right. Society may deny men prerogatives because they are unfit to exercise them. "But whether this denial be wise or foolish, just or unjust, prudent or cowardly, depends entirely on the state of the man's means."
>>
 
<< p. 56
They who plead an absolute right cannot be satisfied with anything short of personal representation, because all natural rights must be the rights of individuals' as by nature there is no such thing as politic or corporate personality; all these ideas are mere fictions of law, they are creatures of voluntary institution; men as individuals, and nothing else."
>>
 
<< p. 57
The collective wisdom of the species, the filtered experience of mankind, can save us from the anarchy of "the rights of man" and the presumption of "reason."
>>

<< p. 58
Social and political equality, he declared, do not fall within the category of the real rights of man; on the contrary, hierarchy and aristocracy are the natural, the original, framework of human life; if we modify their influence, it is from prudence and convention, not in obedience to "natural right." These are the postulates for his praise of natural aristocracy and his condemnation of leveling.
>>

<< p. 59
Majority rule is no more a natural right than is equality. ... If we appeal to the natural order of things, moreover, we will destroy majority rule, because this mode of decision is a highly elaborate artifice. ... Burke believe in majority rule, properly understood. ... Burke maintains that a proper majority can be drawn only from a body qualified by tradition, station, education, property, and moral nature to exercise the political function.
>>

<< p. 60
Sharing in political power is not an immutable right, but rather a privilege to be extended or contracted according to the intelligence and integrity of a population. "And I see as little of policy or utility, as there is of right, in laying down a principle that a majority of men told by the head are to be considered as the people, and that as such their will is to be law." If natural right be called into question, indeed, men do possess a natural right to be restrained from meddling with political authority in a fashion for which they are unqualified and which can bring them nothing but harm.
>>

<< p. 61
Burke's denial of ... the one-man, one-vote idea of democracy is at its most vigorous in an earlier passage from the Reflections: ... Political equality is therefore in some sense unnatural, Burke concludes an aristocracy, on the other hand, is in a certain sense natural.
>>

<< p. 66 - 67
Men are saved from anarchy by veneration of the divine and fidelity to prescriptive wisdom. They are saved by prejudice and gradation. ... But when veneration goes out of society, so much sinks with it, as Burke knew, that a cyclical process seems to be set in motion, insuring that mankind shall presently experience disaster, then fear, then awe, and at last resurrected veneration. Veneration may be the product of a patriarchal social outlook. When it is eradicated by sophistication, Providence has a way of returning us, rudely, to patriarchy.
>>

 

Note the similarities to fascism, where it seems the "state" replaces the "aristocracy." From the Modern History Sourcebook: Benito Mussolini: What is Fascism, 1932:

... Fascism combats the whole complex system of democratic ideology, and repudiates it, whether in its theoretical premises or in its practical application. Fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation, and it affirms the immutable, beneficial, and fruitful inequality of mankind, which can never be permanently leveled through the mere operation of a mechanical process such as universal suffrage....

...Fascism denies, in democracy, the absur[d] conventional untruth of political equality dressed out in the garb of collective irresponsibility, and the myth of "happiness" and indefinite progress....

... For if the nineteenth century was a century of individualism it may be expected that this will be the century of collectivism and hence the century of the State....

...The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone....


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