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Conservatism and Gratitude

Monday, June 24, 2013

Upon accepting one of the four Bradley Foundation prizes on June 12, Ethics and Public Policy Hertog Fellow Yuval Levin spoke about conservatism and gratitude. Excerpts from his speech follow.

Like every American, I’ve had the privilege of living in a country made better by the causes that Bradley champions — from welfare reform to school choice to the intellectual defense of American ideas and institutions: the conservation and the strengthening of America’s promise.

I want to say a few words about that project of conservation and strengthening. For some of us, it’s a project that goes by the name of conservatism and has an eye on politics and policy. For others, it may be first and foremost a cultural project, to secure the preconditions for human flourishing and renewal. For others it might be above all a moral calling — to defend the defenseless and help those in need. For others still it’s an educational cause, instilling civic virtue and a sense of history and purpose in the next generation.

Many conservatives do all of that at once, because these different facets are deeply connected, and these different names for the work we are engaged in are all ways of expressing the sentiment that drives so much of what we do but that we don’t often enough name: gratitude.

To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.

You need both, because some of what is good about our world is irreplaceable and has to be guarded, while some of what is bad is unacceptable and has to be changed. We should never forget that the people who oppose our various endeavors and argue for another way are well intentioned, too, even when they’re wrong, and that they’re not always wrong.

But we can also never forget what moves us to gratitude, what we stand for and defend: the extraordinary cultural inheritance we have; the amazing country built for us by others and defended by our best and bravest; America’s unmatched potential for lifting the poor and the weak; the legacy of freedom — of ordered liberty — built up over centuries of hard work.

We value these things not because they are triumphant and invincible but because they are precious and vulnerable; because they weren’t fated to happen, and they’re not certain to survive. They need us — and our gratitude for them should move us to defend them and to build on them.

That’s not to say that conservatives are never outraged, of course. We’ve had a lot of reason to be outraged lately. But it tends to be when we think the legacy and promise we cherish are threatened, rather than when some burning ambition is frustrated.

Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it. You need both . . .

Conservatives often begin from gratitude because we start from modest expectations of human affairs — we know that people are imperfect, fallen, and weak; that human knowledge and power are not all they’re cracked up to be; and we’re enormously impressed by the institutions that have managed to make something great of this imperfect raw material. So we want to build on them because we don’t imagine we could do better starting from scratch.

Liberals often begin from outrage because they have much higher expectations — maybe even utopian expectations — about the perfectibility of human things and the potential of human knowledge and power. They’re often willing to ignore tradition and to push aside institutions that channel generations of wisdom because they think we can do better on our own.

This can sometimes leave conservatives feeling like we are the brakes on American life, while people on the Left hold the steering wheel. They push for their idea of progress, and we just want to go a little more slowly. But that’s a serious mistake.

The American idea of progress is the tradition that we’re defending. It is made possible precisely by sustaining our deep ties to the ideals of liberty, equality, and human dignity expressed in our founding and our institutions. The great moral advances in our history have involved the vindication of those principles — have involved America becoming more like itself.

And in any society, the task of sustaining those kinds of institutions for the next generation is the essential task — the irreplaceable precondition for everything else. That is the work first and foremost of families and communities. It can also be the work of educators and legislators. The work of democratic capitalism and of our constitutional order.

They are all connected by the need to sustain the great gift that is our country, and when we fail to see them as connected — when, for instance, we think we can advance our economic agenda at the expense of our concerns about the culture — we risk losing that gift altogether.

Of course, it is sometimes essential to push the envelope of those traditions when they become stifling, and to make sure that the past is not an undue burden on the future. But that is always a reactive or oppositional effort. It is never the essence, and it could never be more important than the work of making sure that the foundations of American life — our free society, economy, and government; our culture of virtue — are sustained.

Without those, there is no future. The work of preserving them is therefore not passive work, it’s not restraint; it is the active work of keeping our society alive and thriving. It’s not a brake, it’s the very engine of the American story. That’s the work so many of you do; the work of active gratitude.

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the editor of National Affairs.

FURTHER READING: Levin discusses “Recovering the Case for Capitalism” in the 2010 Bradley Lecture Series. Lee Harris writes “Enlightened Conservatism” while Michael M. Rosen tells us to “Pity the Progressive.” Karlyn Bowman and Andrew Rugg wonder “Is America Still a Center-Right Country?” Peter Wehner eulogizes another towering conservative intellectual in “James Q. Wilson’s Moral Sense.” Daniel Hanson asks “How Should the Conservative Movement Evolve?” Jonah Goldberg analyzes “The Myth of the Good Conservative” and inquires “What Is the Future of Conservatism?” Arnold Kling describes "Tribal Politics in the 21st Century."

Image by Dianna Ingram/Bergman Group

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