Conservatism: Its Meaning and Prospects

Conservatism at bottom is resistance to the technocratic project, the modern attempt to turn the social world into a sort of universal machine for the maximum satisfaction of preferences.

That project has been growing up for a long time. It comes out of an understanding of knowledge and the world with its roots in the early modern period, an understanding that emphasizes measurement and mathematics and accepts as real only individual subjectivity and objects of the kind studied by modern physics. The project is also closely associated with modern forms of social organization: the modern state, with its extensive bureaucracy and unlimited claims, and modern capitalism, with its energy, innovation, and global reach, and its flexible organization that combines infinite complexity with clarity and simplicity of basic principle. Its alliance with those forms of organization gives it a position of tremendous power.

The effect of the project has been continuing radical reconfiguration of social life. That process has involved replacement by technology of tradition, religion, and natural law, which are now considered arbitrary impositions on a world composed of atoms, the void, and human sensation. Instead of piety and inherited ways, we rely on innovation, marketing, organizational science, and therapy.

As the process has extended itself, older understandings have been pushed to the margins and come to be considered irrational, oppressive, and presumptively violent. The result has been an ever-greater tendency to declare opposition to the extension of technocratic principles irrational and evil. That’s how the Supreme Court came to assert that the only real reason for wanting to keep the traditional and natural definition of marriage is a desire to injure people who prefer connections of other kinds. That is a reasonable interpretation if the social order is simply a construction for the purpose of helping people achieve whatever goals they happen to have.


Conservatism is recognition that there’s something wrong with the technocratic project. Reason is not simply a matter of adapting means to ends, and the world can’t be understood as a system composed solely of atoms, the void, and human sensation. The attempt to do so wipes out the possibility of meaning, and with it rationality and the possibility of a humane social order.

Human society can’t ultimately be based on individual satisfaction, since it can’t exist without willing acceptance of sacrifice. Nor can it flourish while denying natural forms and particular ties, like sexual complementarity and common history, culture, and loyalties, as a basis for durable functional relationships. And in any event, people aren’t satisfied by satisfaction of desire simply as such. Man lives by understandings as well as feelings, so he wants to know that his desires are justified, and his satisfactions genuinely good. He needs to see himself as a participant in the order of things rather than an amoeba ingesting nutrients.

The liberal form of technocracy has dealt with that basically religious need by turning rejection of higher goods into a higher good. Devotion withers if individual fulfillment is the highest goal, but if equal promotion of individual fulfillment is made the goal some degree of loyalty and sacrifice is possible. The solution works reasonably well for those who guide the system, whose position and activities it seems to justify. However, it does not allow the people at large to have an ideal goal in life, since the system achieves its ends by centralizing control. The result is that their lives go downhill in the way described by Charles Murray and Theodore Dalrymple.

Nor does the solution work for conservatives. Its illogic rankles, and it seems a poor substitute for older more coherent commitments such as patriotism and traditional religion. For that reason they view what liberals call social progress as a betrayal of everything they love.

They are usually people who feel strong concrete ties to family, faith, and community, so their opposition has usually emphasized symbols, practices, and institutions rather than theory. At their least theoretical they have simply proposed moderation. Others have had more particular demands. Free market conservatives have tried to limit the state. Populist conservatives have tried to limit the power of large rationalized institutions in general. Social conservatives have tried to maintain the strength and influence of traditional informal institutions like the family.

All have failed, in part because the trends have been so adverse, but in part because they have underestimated how comprehensive the problem is. Free market conservatives seem to be an exception to the rule of failure. The overall effect of their victories, however, has been a more refined socialism in which overall administrative supervision and control is retained, but extensive reliance is placed on exchange, profit, and crony capitalism as organizing mechanisms. The result, as illustrated by the ability of politically-connected real estate developers to use public authority to take other people’s property for their own use, is a regime in which private property may profit its owners but does not limit state power.

Other conservatives, with a somewhat better grasp of the depth of the problem, have paid more attention to basic principle. Religious conservatives have emphasized the continuing relevance of what is sacred, literary and philosophical conservatives that of intellectual and spiritual concerns that rise above technocracy.

They’ve lost too. One problem is that their approach still hasn’t gone deep enough. Religious conservatives are loyal to heritage. When their political and social heritage is fundamentally liberal that’s a problem. God, America, and freedom get all mixed up together, and the easy way to deal with difficulties is to gloss them over and focus on symbols and rhetoric. Literary and philosophical conservatives are politically and intellectually isolated, and tied by their professional position to an academic world that has become, in the form of American higher education, a half-trillion dollar industry providing training, expertise, and propaganda for technocracy. As such, it’s not a place where conservative thought can maintain itself.

Not only have conservatives lost all the battles but it seems they’ve lost the war. After the Supreme Court declaration that opponents of “gay marriage” are enemies of the human race, and Obamacare, with its all but universal mandate to provide contraceptives and abortifacients, and given the principle of inclusiveness combined with that of everlasting mass immigration from everywhere, there is very little room left in America for any recognition of the roots of social order in nature, transcendent principle, or particular history and culture.

Appearances are deceiving, however, since the triumph of technocratic liberalism means its destruction. It is based on a defective understanding of knowledge and the world that eventually destroys common sense and good judgment. It depends on popular acquiescence, and secures it by promises it will not be able to keep. Most basically, perhaps, it needs its ideals, since it depends on loyal and somewhat dedicated ruling elites, and the ideal of equal freedom that inspires them will grow steadily less believable as the years go by and the system becomes less free and more divided by class, with the top tier ever more dominant and the people at the bottom ever worse off. Nor is a coherent and public-spirited elite likely to survive in a diverse multicultural society in which there’s ever less social trust and more and more of the elite’s members view themselves as entitled recipients rather than disinterested providers of social protections and benefits.

The predictable result of such trends is a radically cosmopolitan and therefore deeply fragmented society that lacks a common faith and with it any basis for free cooperative public life. In such a society public reason and the technocratic project cannot continue, so the basis of rule is likely to become some combination of dynasticism, cronyism, deceit, bribery, and force. The outlook for liberalism is therefore no better than that for conservatism.

The question for us today, then, is how to promote developments that favor a better social world. Experience shows that it does no good to tinker with institutions or push for a bit more religion in public life when the basic presuppositions are so radically defective. Those who want better things must look for a fundamental transformation of outlook. They should be conservative not in the sense of maintaining existing trends and arrangements, but in the sense of valuing what those trends and arrangements reject: history, human nature, and the patterns and attachments, like family, religion, and particular culture, that are necessary for normal social functioning.

They also need to recognize that a normally functioning society must have particularistic as well as universal elements. A network of institutions and way of life can’t function without reference to a particular people whose institutions and way of life they are. The American people is complex, so if American society is to function normally it must function as a complex of societies corresponding to the regional, local, ethnic, and religious variations found in American life. It must be federal and local rather than national and all-inclusive.

So a better America would have to allow a variety of religious, historical, and cultural tendencies to maintain and develop themselves within a common political and civilizational order. That is a difficult task. Christendom once allowed something of the kind, but local variations of devotion, cult, and eventually confession did not amount to absolute differences of religion. Something like that limitation seems inevitable, though, since a political society with a complex system of fairly free cooperation needs a common understanding of ultimate matters to make productive discussion of basic issues possible. The distinction between Christ and Caesar once enabled such an understanding to coexist with sharp differences in customs and social institutions. Nothing else on offer seems likely to have that effect.

The best hope for the future therefore appears to lie with a renewed if no doubt incomplete Christendom. The alternative seems to be reaction to particular events that fails to deal with basic issues and so accepts current tendencies. Christendom may seem an unrealistic goal, but technocratic liberalism won’t last forever, nature abhors a vacuum, there is no rule for what comes next, partial or local success is better than none, and the outlook and way of life that best accommodates human needs and aspirations seems likely to have a comparative advantage in a time of increasingly radical disorder.

James Kalb


James Kalb is a lawyer, independent scholar, and Catholic convert who lives in Brooklyn, New York. He is the author of The Tyranny of Liberalism: Understanding and Overcoming Administered Freedom, Inquisitorial Tolerance, and Equality by Command (ISI Books, 2008), and, most recently, Against Inclusiveness: How the Diversity Regime is Flattening America and the West and What to Do About It (Angelico Press, 2013).