Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Conservative Temperament

The conservative temperament means accepting the constraints imposed by the current state of the world. Social change is possible, but activists need to acknowledge human nature if they are going to succeed. A plan that involves dissolving the nuclear family or eliminating humanity's selfish instincts fights against millions of years of evolution. It's bound to fail.

Conservative philosophers understand the path-dependency of human culture and the cost of working against it. You will never find a conservative activist calling for a 10 day week or eliminating religion, even among the atheists! Rather, conservatives push for the development of social institutions that work harmoniously with human nature to increase our well-being, including market economies and property rights.

This is why conservatives are not social liberals. All human societies with some amount of social equality have settled on the traditional nuclear or extended family as its smallest unit of organization. Logic does not prevent an enterprising young person from doing a little erotic theorizing to invent novel romantic arrangements, like polyamory. But the conservative's private life isn't some puzzle to be optimized. He knows that people are happiest in long-term monogamous relationships. He knows that being married is the best way to live longer, to stay out of poverty and prison, and to provide a healthy home for his children.

The conservative temperament holds some influence over me. It makes me careful to design my policy recommendations to sell to real human beings, with all their limitations and biases, and not logical robots. But I am too much a libertarian to use the law to support social arrangements that I think are good for people, as conservatives often do. I believe in the primacy of individual liberty as the basis of human dignity. But conservative thought makes me less eager to support or recommend novel social arrangements than many libertarians. It at least leads me to question the libertarian orthodoxy that says we can be happy by living however we want.


  1. Violating rights produces misery, but obviously there are countless things you can do to make yourself miserable without violating rights. This is why Spooner drew the proper distinction between types of moral faults: Crimes are actions which harm others, vices are actions by which one harms oneself. Libertarianism is properly only concerned with crimes. It has nothing to say about vices, with which anyone can of course ruin their life.

  2. So libertarians know that the libertine life ends in misery, they just refuse to do anything to speak against it?