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Paleoconservatism vs. Neoconservatism

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Last week I argued that neoconservatism -- a popular political movement -- bears little if any continuity with conservatism -- an intellectual tradition.

The formal suppositions that inform the substance of the positions that distinguish neoconservatism as the entity that it is are not only distinct from those that have characterized the conservative intellectual tradition but, for the most part, diametrically opposed to them.

Neoconservatism is actually an expression of liberal rationalism, a worldview traceable to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century and in response to which classical conservatism emerged as an identifiable orientation.

So-called “paleoconservatives” have long denied the neoconservative’s claim to conservatism. And on this score they are correct. But is the paleoconservative’s own claim to conservatism any less illegitimate?

Whether the paleoconservative’s thought can rightfully be located within the tradition of conservatism depends not on the content of the positions he holds with respect to the issues of the day, but the sorts of reasons he supplies for those positions.

The Burkeian Tradition
The paleoconservative certainly at least appears to be significantly more familiar than his neoconservative counterpart with the work of Edmund Burke and other notable conservative thinkers.

Burke gave eloquent and passionate expression to the conservative’s disdain for the rationalist delusion that human societies can be arranged in accordance with the abstract metaphysical schemes of his own imaginings. Burke himself was incensed specifically over the doctrine of “the Rights of Man” that the French revolutionaries had invoked to justify their radical designs and that was beginning to gain traction in his cherished England. He also brilliantly articulated the concomitant idea that the well-being of both the individual and society vitally depends upon the extent to which the “little platoons” of family, neighborhood, and community -- local attachments or institutions that are intermediate between the individual and government -- are permitted to flourish.

The “little platoons” invest the individual’s life with identity and purpose while simultaneously curbing the power of government. In short, these concrete, personal, local relationships are indispensable to the only freedom worthy of the name, for they constrain the appetites of both individual citizens of the State as well as the politicians who rule it.

Self Governance vs. Global Democracy
Paleoconservatives, though acutely aware of the necessity of war in some circumstances, have staunchly rejected the neoconservative’s call for a potentially global crusade for “Democracy,” as well as the metaphysics that underwrite it. The neoconservative, let us recall from last week, holds that the United States is a “proposition nation,” that is, a nation “founded” on “the idea” that all human beings are in possession of “inalienable rights.” It is this belief that he has conscripted as a justification for “ending tyranny in our time.”

In stark contrast, paleoconservatives recognize that no human society could be erected on an “idea,” “ideal,” “principle,” or “proposition” and that America in particular, far from being the offspring of such a bloodless abstraction, came into being because of the activities of a specific group of people sharing the same race, ethnicity, religion, language, and cultural heritage.

When paleoconservatives, by appealing to the historically and culturally-specific character not just of the United States but of all peoples, argue against the neoconservative’s crusade for “Global Democracy,” his support for potentially unlimited legal immigration from non-Western societies, and/or his unqualified support for Israel just because of the latter’s democratically constituted government, they indeed reason as conservatives.

Free-Markets vs. Capitalism
Similarly, though they generally support free markets, paleoconservatives share none of their neoconservative or libertarian counterparts’ unbridled enthusiasm for “capitalism.” Yet unlike leftists who denounce capitalism because of the “inequalities” it engenders, paleoconservatives are wary of it because of its inherent egalitarianism. And far from supporting “the status quo,” as leftists maintain, paleoconservatives tend to think that capitalism, inasmuch as it both engenders rapid change and inspires an inexhaustible succession of desires on the part of would-be consumers, is a revolutionary phenomenon that stands as a constant threat to social order and the “little platoons” that reconcile that order with freedom.

Thus, free markets there must be, but unless crucial pre-market conditions are satisfied, turmoil is bound to ensue.

The Ruling …
My verdict, then, is that paleoconservatism is indeed a form of conservatism.

This being said, though, and while I certainly consider myself a conservative, I am hesitant to declare myself a paleoconservative. There are reasons for this, however, that will just have to remain unaddressed until some future time.

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