Social-conservative theory, an oxymoron?

[6 March 2008]

By Rob Horning

I’ve wondered for a while now whether conservative theory could ever experience a vogue in the soft humanities (literature, cultural studies), not because of any intrinsic merit in the material but because it would supply a new niche for graduate students to exploit, fresh territory on which to stake a claim. Maybe this is already happening, or already happened: First, a tentative survey of the literature from a critical perspective: an examination of the tropes of conservative discourse, say, and how they have evolved—something like Hofstedter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Then, a deconstruction that shows conservative thought (something like Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom or Schumpeter’s Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy) is actually liberal thought. Then, an actual embrace of the reimagined or rehabilitated conservative works, and their use to explicate the raw material of humanities courses—Bronte novels and the like. I want to see the Hayekian reading of Jane Eyre, dammit!

Anyway, relevant to this fantasy, there’s been some discussion in the econoblogosphere, prompted by this Tyler Cowen post, about the dearth of conservative works of theory that stand the test of time. Cowen’s central claim about 20th century conservative political theory books seems right to me: “I opined that none have held up particularly well, mostly because they underestimated the robustness of the modern world and regarded depravity as more of a problem than it has turned out to be.” In other words, social conservatism is purely reactionary and history (the modern world’s robust ability to encourage tolerance) leaves such people behind.

Jacob Levy restates the problem this way: “there’s no modern work to teach alongside Theory of Justice and Anarchy, State, and Utopia that really gets at what’s interesting about Burkean or social conservatism…. The problem isn’t… that the conservative temperament isn’t easily reduced to programmatic philosophical works…. One of the problems is that history keeps right on going—and so any book plucked from the past that was concerned with yelling ‘stop!’ tends to date badly to any modern reader who does not think he’s already living in hell-in-a-handbasket.”

Brad DeLong sees no problem in this. He thinks we need to stop kidding ourselves that social conservatism has any theoretical component: “I say cut the Gordian knot. THERE ARE NO ATTRACTIVE MODERN CONSERVATIVES BECAUSE CONSERVATISM SIMPLY IS NOT ATTRACTIVE. DEAL WITH IT!!” He then uses Burke as an example to illustrate that “conservatism is a sometimes useful rhetorical weapon, not a set of principles.” There’s no point pursuing some kind of equal time for conservative theory to teach alongside libertarian or liberal theory because there isn’t any.

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