Tibor R. Machan
As Edmund Burke, the most astute conservative of the modern era, put it, “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank of nations and of ages.” In other words, your and my mind just will not suffice to guide us through life, we need “the general bank of nations and of ages,” meaning tradition, custom, and law.
Now there is something here worth paying attention to but the idea also embodies a colossal mistake. Everyone must, in the end, choose between the innumerable traditions, customs, and even laws that he or she faces; that choice cannot be dodged by relying on yet another tradition to guide it. So, in the end, one is going to have to “trade each on his own private stock” with, of course, some help from what one has learned form the rest of humanity.
When Socrates proposed, according to Plato, that reason is a better guide than tradition, he realized that the traditionalist or conservative faced this problem—there are just too many competing traditions and no single super-tradition to use as one’s guide. Reason, then, had to come in. Each of us must use his or her mind to figure things out or we simply rely on the thinking of someone else. And that someone else needs to be monitored so we avoid being misguided.
The alternative to an impossible conservatism isn’t solipsism, making decisions in isolation from others. It does however leave us with the responsibility of needing to double check our ideas, or as Ayn Rand used to say, to “check our premises.” We just haven’t the luxury of avoiding the thinking required to figure things out—we can either take up the task or abdicate.
A clear current illustration of the paradox of conservatism is that in America a conservative tends to be individualist because, after all, the American founders were individualists—those unalienable rights to one’s life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, among others, pretty much affirm individualism in personal, social, and political philosophy. And conservatives in America, the likes of William F. Buckley, Jr., George Will, the late Barry Goldwater and so forth, want to maintain a basic loyalty to this individualism.
The radicals in America, in turn, tend to be those who promote socialism, communitarianism, or some other version of collectivism. They believe that America’s individualist tradition needs to be discarded and replaced with the “progressive” views they embrace. (Never mind for now that this “progressivism” is itself basically quite reactionary, re-elevating government to the all mighty position it had under monarchism.)
In contrast, the conservatives in Russia today are mostly communists who want to preserve the ideas and ideals of the Soviet system that had been the official public philosophy for over seventy years. The radicals there are those who want to embrace capitalism and individualism. They are the ones who promote a revolution in the legal system and public policy.
So it should be evident to any thinking person that conservatism cannot be a reliable guide to how a country should be organized, to its laws, its public policies, its diplomacy, and so forth. At the end of the day only some version of the radical individualism that the American founders advocated can serve as a dependable guide to how the country ought to be governed. Individual citizens must assume the responsibility of gaining a clear understanding of human community life, based on a deeper understanding of human nature and relevant elements of the nature of reality itself. As much as that job can never be finally finished—reality, after all, is dynamic and continues to develop and change—it is still the only source of solid understanding by which problems can be solved in both one’s personal and public life.
Conservatism can only be a cautionary stance, reminding us not to forget what has been tried and learned in the past. But it is individualism, the philosophy that requires us to think for ourselves, that promises the best solutions to our problems.