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A Magazine of Ideas

Enlightened Conservatism

Monday, February 18, 2013

A cause is to politics what fanaticism is to religion — a plague to be avoided at all costs.

On the night of November 25, 1882, Gilbert and Sullivan premiered their seventh comic opera at the recently finished Savoy Theatre in London. Unlike their previous collaborations, such as the “H.M.S. Pinafore” and “The Pirates of Penzance,” “Iolanthe” was a clear example of what we would today call political satire, poking fun at such venerable British institutions as the House of Commons, the House of Lords, and the Lord Chancellor. Yet Gilbert and Sullivan were no revolutionaries. They were not even interested in reforming the abuses that they so cleverly mocked. Indeed, if their work could be said to champion any political position, it was one that might best be called enlightened conservatism.

Today, as so many American conservatives debate the very nature of their identity, it might be helpful to review the basis of the cluster of ideas that make up enlightened conservatism, if only because it represents a political outlook that was as widespread in the past as it has become rare today. And no one has ever expressed this outlook more succinctly or humorously than Private Willis, one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s most inspired creations.

At the beginning of the second act of “Iolanthe,” we meet Private Willis, who, as the curtain rises, is standing as night sentry in front of Westminster. Dressed in the scarlet uniform and tall black shako of the Grenadier Guards, Willis explains to the audience — in a song, of course — that his long periods of silent guard duty provide him with a chance to “think of things that would astonish you.” And what he mainly thinks of is the peculiar nature of the political temperament, to wit:

I often think it’s comical — Fal, lal, la! 
How Nature always does contrive — Fal, lal, la!
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liberal
Or else a little Conservative.

There are several things to notice about Willis’s song.

First, whether we are liberal or conservative is a question decided before we are born. We come into the world either liberal or conservative, and whether we are one or the other is due entirely to the contrivance of Nature. We are born one way or the other. In short, our political inclination is a matter of innate temperament.

The enlightened conservative is willing to accept some measure of reform, though only when his refusal to accept it would endanger the order and stability that he holds so dear.

Second, notice the qualifier “little” placed in front of both “Liberal” and “Conservative.” Since Willis is talking about babies, and since all babies, both liberal and conservative, are uniformly little by nature, it is possible that he is using little here simply to mean diminutive. But I suspect that the word little in this instance is being used as a synonym of “somewhat.” This is a significant distinction, because it implies that, at least in Willis’s mind, we are not really born that far apart in our political temperaments. We are all just a little to the right or just a little to the left. In short, we are not born extremists in our political temperament, but come into the world essentially as moderates with only a minor inclination to conservatism or liberalism.

Third, Willis thinks the whole arrangement is “comical.” The comedy in all this is not of the belly-laugh kind, but of the happy-ending kind. After all, in a society where everyone is born only moderately liberal or moderately conservative, there is no danger to be feared from the stirrings of political passion. Furthermore, because nature has contrived to produce roughly the same number of moderate conservatives as moderate liberals, there will always be a nice balance between political parties. What is even better, there will be no need to have more than two political parties. On the one hand — the left — you need a party for those who are a little liberal. On the other hand — the right — you need a party for those who are a little conservative. But in neither case is the right hand very far from the left, so there will be no need for a party to represent extreme political positions.

And what about Private Willis himself, was he born a little conservative or a little liberal? The fact that Gilbert and Sullivan put their song into the mouth of a Grenadier Guard — a quintessential emblem of staunch British traditionalism — suggests that Willis is no political firebrand on the left. Yet his conservatism is obviously not of the knee-jerk variety either. Though no doubt “a little conservative” himself, Willis sees nothing wrong with those who are born a little liberal. And how could he, since Nature herself has contrived to bring about this state of affairs? Obviously Nature meant for there to be liberals, and the enlightened conservatism of Private Willis is prepared to accept this fact.

But what exactly is Nature’s objective in bringing about this carefully contrived balance of political temperaments? Though Willis does not explain this point himself, I think he might well have something like this in mind: those who are born a little liberal bring something to the table that those who are born a little conservative cannot. The temperamental conservative, because he is by nature suspicious of change, will often oppose even those changes that are clearly improvements. Without the liberal to egg him on, the temperamental conservative would fall easily into what is known as the “status quo bias,” defined as an irrational preference for the current state of affairs, both within one’s personal domain and the wider political arena.

The temperamental conservative, because he is by nature suspicious of change, will often oppose even those changes that are clearly improvements.

This is the point at which the enlightened conservative enters helpfully into the picture. He, too, is born a little conservative and is thus in a position to understand the feelings and sentiments of his fellow temperamental conservatives. But, like Private Willis, he is able to rise above his temperament. He does this by recognizing that the only way to keep his own inborn status quo bias from doing harm is to acknowledge it openly and to seek correction for it from the inborn counterbias of the liberally inclined, just as a nearsighted man will ask the help of the farsighted in reading a distant sign.

This recognition of his own inherent limits, however, does not mean that the enlightened conservative will not push forcefully for his own conservative views. Yes, he is aware of his own bias, but he is also aware that his conservative bias is a necessary corrective to the liberal bias of his political opponents. For if conservatives are naturally prone to exhibit status quo bias, liberals are just as naturally prone to what might be called “reformist bias,” defined as an irrational preference for change or, to put it more colorfully, for fixing what ain’t broke — a bias that has all too often led to disastrous and ill-fated experiments in social engineering.

Nowhere is this liberal bias more obvious than when liberals decide to champion a cause — usually a cause with a capital “C.” Liberals have always had a passion for causes — many sensible, others a bit daft. But all such causes tend to leave the temperamental conservative cold. You cannot espouse a cause, after all, without becoming an activist, and an activist, by definition, is someone who wants to alter the status quo, often quite radically. The born conservative, in contrast, sees nothing wrong with the status quo. Indeed, in his unenlightened state, the born conservative is an adamant foe of all suggested reforms and so-called improvements. He is a firm stand-patter, who would fully concur with Alexander Pope’s famous dictum: whatever is, is right.

Here the enlightened conservative begs to differ. He is willing to accept some measure of reform, though only when his refusal to accept it would endanger the order and stability that he holds so dear. Even then, he prefers the change to come gradually and by sensible increments, and not through revolutionary upheaval. It is his very sensible fear of the nasty consequences of such upheavals that prods him, however reluctantly, to accede to change at all. For example, Teddy Roosevelt was playing the role of the enlightened conservative when he argued that it is better to accept some economic reforms in the capitalist system than to leave it alone and thereby invite the triumph of socialism.

The enlightened conservative is aware of his own bias, but he is also aware that his conservative bias is a necessary corrective to the liberal bias of his political opponents.

Yet despite his willingness to accept some reforms, the enlightened conservative will — and should — remain deeply suspicious of all causes. As he sees it, a cause is to politics what fanaticism is to religion — a plague to be avoided at all costs. It is the Methodism run amok in the body politic, with its disruptive revivals, full of hysterical outbursts and much unnecessary agitation. Political causes, like religious revivals, aim to improve the human lot, but they have an unfortunate tendency to promise far more than they ever achieve. They stir things up for a while, but, for better or worse, eventually the stirring stops, and everything goes back to the way it was before — if we’re lucky.

This is why Private Willis’s enlightened conservatism is so relevant for American conservatives today. For we are living in an era in which conservatism itself is in danger of becoming just another cause — and a rather radical one at that. The Tea Party movement, for example, is a passionate cause, and it embodies the same kind of revivalist frenzy that the enlightened conservative has always feared and distrusted. Far from being victims of the status quo bias, Tea Party conservatives want to shake up the system and overturn the establishment. Fond of invoking the revolutionary ideals of our distant past, these strange new conservatives seek drastic change and sweeping reforms, and this alone is enough to arouse the misgivings of the old-fashioned enlightened conservative, assuming that there are still any around.

For the enlightened conservative, whatever else he may be, is no reactionary, dedicated to the cause of turning back the clock, and society along with it, to an earlier time. The cause of returning to an impossible past is no more alluring to him than the cause of advancing to an improbable future. Misguided romantic nostalgia can be just as dangerous to social stability, in his opinion, as the misguided flights of utopian fantasy. Thus his status quo bias, if it be a cognitive flaw, is one that saves him from fatal forays into political extremism, both right and left. For the enlightened conservative prefers the status quo not because he thinks it the best of all possible worlds, but because he knows there are many worse worlds possible. And he has a point, as Private Willis would no doubt agree, that we would all do well to remember.

Lee Harris is the author of The Next American Civil War, Civilization and Its Enemies, and The Suicide of Reason.

FURTHER READING: Harris also writes “Can the GOP Be Saved? The Myth of the Demographic Fix,” “What Does It Mean to Say That a Gun Law Is Tough?” and “The Trouble with Conspiracy Theories.” Andrew G. Biggs examines “Liberals or Conservatives: Who’s Really Close-Minded?” Jonah Goldberg asks “What is the Future of Conservatism?” Danjell Elgebrandt and Tino Sanandaji discuss “Competing for Elites.”

Image by Dianna Ingram / Bergman Group