'A Little Conserva-tive'

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essay first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in October 1936.

I often
think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liber-al
Or else a little Conserva-tive.
~ W. S. Gilbert, Iolanthe

lines recall Professor Huxley’s pungent observation on the disadvantages
of going about the world unlabeled. Early in life, he says, he perceived
that society regards an unlabeled person as a potential menace,
somewhat as the police regard an unmuzzled dog. Therefore, not finding
any existing label to suit him, he took thought and invented one.
The main difference between himself and other people, as he saw
it, was that they seemed to be quite sure of a number of things
about which he not only was not sure, but also suspected that he
never could be sure. Their minds ran in the wake of the first-century
Gnostic sects, while his did not. Hence the term agnostic suggested
itself to him as descriptive of this difference, and he accordingly
adopted it as a label.

The great
weight of Huxley’s authority forced the term into common currency,
where ignorance promptly twisted it into a sense exactly contrary
to its philology, and contrary to the original intention which Huxley
gave it. To-day when a person says he is an agnostic, it is ten
to one he means that he knows the thing at issue is not so. If he
says, for instance, as one of my acquaintances did the other day,
that he is a thoroughgoing agnostic concerning the existence of
God and the persistence of consciousness after death, he means that
he is sure there is no God and that consciousness does not persist.
The term is so regularly used to imply a negative certainty that
its value as a label, a distinguishing mark, is false and misleading.
It is like the hotel labels which unscrupulous tourists in Paris
buy by the dozen and stick on their luggage as evidence that they
have visited places where they have never been, and put up at hotels
which they have never seen.

like this appears to be the common destiny of labels. It brings
to mind the fine saying of Homer which I have so often quoted, that
“the range of words is wide; words may tend this way or that way.”
There are few more interesting pursuits than that of examining the
common popular connotation of labels, and observing how regularly
it runs the full course from sense to nonsense, or from infamy to
respectability, and back again. For example, our voting population
is divided into two major groups, Republicans and Democrats; how
many of them know anything about the history of their labels? How
many could describe the differentiations that the significance of
these labels indicates, or could attach any actual significance
whatever to them, except in wholly irrelevant terms, usually in
terms which in the last analysis turn out to mean habit, money,
or jobs?

The Republicans
went into the pangs of parturition at Cleveland last summer, and
brought forth a sorry mouse. As one of my friends put it, about
the only thing their platform did not do was to give the Democratic
Administration a formal endorsement. As far as one can see, all
their pledges amount to is a promise to do what the Democrats have
been doing, but to do it better.

the new Russian constitution seems to show merely that Stalin thinks
it is easier to run things the way Mark Hanna used to run them than
the way they have been run in Russia hitherto. No doubt he is right
about that; but meanwhile one wonders what the word bolshevik will
mean to the average Russian fifty years from now, and how many voters
in holy Russia will know the history of the word, or even know that
it has a history.

like these make one quite doubtful about Huxley’s position concerning
the balance of advantage and disadvantage in the matter of labels.
His misfortune was in his honesty; he invented a label that precisely
described him, and he could hardly have fared worse if he had worn
none, for on the one hand ignorance at once invested it with an
alien meaning, while on the other hand prejudice converted it into
a term of reproach. I have had a curious experience lately which
has caused me to ponder afresh upon these matters, and which I am
now tempted to relate.

For more than
a quarter of a century I have been known, in so far as I was known
at all, as a radical. It came about in this way: I was always interested
in the rerum cognoscere causas, liking to get down below the
surface of things and examine their roots. This was purely a natural
disposition, reflecting no credit whatever on me, for I was born with
it. Any success I had in its indulgence brought me the happiness that
Lucretius observed as attaching to such pursuits, and I indulged it
only for that reason, never seeking, and indeed never getting, any
other reward. Therefore when the time came for me to describe myself
by some convenient label, I took one which marked the quality that
I thought chiefly differentiated me from most of the people I saw
around me. They habitually gave themselves a superficial account of
things, which was all very well if it suited them to do so, but I
preferred always to give myself a root-account of things, if I could
get it. Therefore, by way of a general designation, it seemed appropriate
to label myself a radical. Likewise, also, when occasion required
that I should label myself with reference to particular social theories
or doctrines, the same decent respect for accuracy led me to describe
myself as an anarchist, an individualist, and a single-taxer.

On the positive
side, my anarchism came mainly as a corollary to the estimate of
human capacity for self-improvement which I had picked up from Mr.
Jefferson. His fundamental idea appeared to be that everyone answering
to the zoological classification of homo sapiensis a human
being, and therefore is indefinitely improvable. The essence of
it is that homo sapiens in his natural state really wishes
and means to be as decent towards his fellow-beings as he can, and
under favorable conditions will progress in decency. He shares this
trait with the rest of the animal world.

tigris agit rabida cum tigride pacem
Perpetuam; saevis inter se convenit ursis,

– so
long, that is, as irritating interferences, such as hunger, lust,
jealousy or trespass, are kept at a minimum. Man’s moral superiority
over the animal consists in an indefinitely cultivable capacity
and will to deal with these interferences intelligently from the
long-time point of view, and thus gradually immunize himself against
their irritant influence.

Granting this
premise, the anarchist position appeared logical to me, as it did
to Prince Kropotkin and Bakunin. Putting it roughly, if all men
are human, if all bipeds classifiable as homo sapiens are
human beings, social harmony and a general progress in civilization
will be far better brought about by methods of free agreement and
voluntary association than by constraint, whether directly under
force, or under the menace of force which is always implicit in
obedience to law.

The negative
argument for anarchism seemed quite as cogent as the positive argument.
The whole institution of government, wherever found and in whatever
form, appeared to me so vicious and depraving that I could not even
regard it with Paine as “at its best a necessary evil.” The State
stood, and had stood in history as far back as I could trace its
existence, as little else but an instrument of economic exploitation,
a mere mechanism, as Voltaire said, “for taking money out of one
set of pockets and putting it into another.” The activities of its
administrators and beneficiaries appeared to me as they did to Voltaire,
as no more or less than those of a professional-criminal class.
As Nietzsche calls it, “the coldest of all cold monsters,” the State’s
character was so completely evil, its conduct so invariably and
deliberately flagitious, that I did not see how society could possibly
be worse off without it than with it, let the alternative condition
be what it might.

My individualism
was a logical extension of the anarchist principle beyond its narrow
application to one particular form or mode of constraint upon the
individual. The thing that interested me, as it interested Emerson
and Whitman, was a general philosophy of life which regards human
personality as the greatest and most respect-worthy object in the
world, and as a complete end-in-itself; a philosophy, therefore,
which disallows its subversion or submergence, whether by force
of law or by any other coercive force. I was convinced that human
beings do better and are happier when they have the largest possible
margin of existence to regulate and dispose of as they please; and
hence I believed that society should so manage itself as to leave
the individual a maximum of free choice and action, even at a considerable
risk of results which from the short-time point of view would be
pronounced dangerous. I suppose it may be seen how remote this is
from the bogus affair of dollars and cents which is touted under
the name of individualism, and which, as I showed in last February’s
issue of this magazine, is not individualism in any sense.

The single
tax impressed me as the most equitable and convenient way of paying
the cost of such matters as can be done better collectively than
individually. As a matter of natural right it seemed to me that
as individually created values should belong to the individual,
so socially created values should belong to society, and that the
single tax was the best method of securing both the individual and
society in the full enjoyment of their respective rights. To the
best of my knowledge these two propositions have never been successfully
controverted. There were other considerations, too, which made the
single tax seem the best of all fiscal systems, but it is unnecessary
to recount them here.

Probably I
ought to add that I never entered on any crusade for these beliefs
or sought to persuade anyone into accepting them. Education is as
much a matter of time as of anything else, perhaps more, and I was
well aware that anything like a general realization of this philosophy
is a matter of very long time indeed. All experience of what Frederick
the Great called “this damned human race” shows beyond peradventure
that it is impossible to tell anyone anything unless in a very real
sense he knows it already; and therefore a premature and pertinacious
evangelism is at best the most fruitless of all human enterprises,
and at worst the most vicious. Society never takes the right course
until after it has painfully explored all the wrong ones, and it
is vain to try to argue, cajole, or force society out of these set
sequences of experimentation. Over and above the impassioned outpourings
of the propagandist for an untried way of salvation, however straight
and clear that way may be, one can always hear old Frederick saying,
“Ach, mein lieber Sacher, er kennt nicht diese verdammte Rasse.”

But while
I have never engaged in any controversy or public discussion of
these matters, or even in any private advocacy of them, I have spoken
my mind about them so freely and so often that it would seem impossible
for anyone to mistake my attitude towards them. Only last year,
in fact, I published by far the most radical critique of public
affairs that has as yet been brought out here. Hence I was mildly
astonished to hear the other day that a person very much in the
public eye, and one who would seem likely to know something of what
I have been up to during all these years, had described me as “one
of the most intelligent conservatives in the country.”

It was a kind
and complimentary thing to say, and I was pleased to hear it, but
it struck me nevertheless as a rather vivid commentary on the value
and the fate of labels. Twenty, or ten, or even three years ago,
no one in his right mind would have dreamed of tagging me with that
designation. Why then, at this particular juncture, should it occur
to a presumably well-informed person to call me a conservative,
when my whole philosophy of life is openly and notoriously the same
that it has been for twenty-five years?(1)
In itself the question is probably worth little discussion, but
as leading into the larger question of what a conservative is, and
what the qualities are that go to make him one, it is worth much

It seems that
the reason for so amiably labeling me a conservative in this instance
was that I am indisposed to the present Administration. This also
appears to be one reason why Mr. Sokolsky labels himself a conservative,
as he did in the very able and cogent paper which he published in
the August issue of the Atlantic. But really, in my case this
is no reason at all, for my objections to the Administration’s behavior
rest no more logically on the grounds of either conservatism or radicalism
than on those of atheism or homoeopathy. They rest on the grounds
of common sense and, I regret to say, common honesty. I resent the
works and ways of the Administration because in my opinion such of
them as are not peculiarly and dangerously silly are peculiarly and
dangerously dishonest, and most of them are both. No doubt a person
who wears the conservative label may hold this opinion and speak his
mind accordingly, but so may a radical, so may anyone; the expression
of it does not place him in either category, or in any category of
the kind. They mark him merely as a person who is interested in having
public affairs conducted wisely and honestly, and who resents their
being conducted foolishly and dishonestly.

With regard
to Mr. Sokolsky, I may not, and do not, presume to doubt him when
he says he is a conservative. All I may say is that I cannot well
see how his paper makes him out to be one. If, now, he had said
reactionary, I should have no trouble whatever about getting
his drift, for my understanding is that he is in favor of a reaction
from one distinct line of general State principle and policy back
to another which has been abandoned. This is an eminently respectable
position, and reactionary, which precisely describes it,
is a most respectable term; but I cannot make it appear that this
position is dictated by conservatism, or that holding this position
justifies a person in calling himself a conservative.

is a considerable help in these matters, but in guiding ourselves
by its aid we must make an important discrimination which is set
by the presence or absence of a moral factor. It is a commonplace
of a language’s growth that the significance of certain terms, like
certain interpretations of music, becomes deformed and coarsened
by tradition. I once heard a performance of the Messiah in
Brussels, and was amazed at finding it almost a new composition,
so far away it was from the English traditional interpretation,
which was the only one I knew. Similarly there is no doubt that
terms like grace, truth, faith, held very different connotations
for Christians of the first century and for those of the fourth
and again for those of the sixteenth, while for those of the twentieth
they seem voided of all significance that is relevant to their philology,
much as our formula, my dear sir, means only that a letter
is begun, and yours sincerely means only that it is ended.

In instances
like these there is no moral quality discernible in a term’s passage
from one meaning to another which has less philological relevancy,
or to one which has none. There is no evidence of any interested
management of its progress. In instances where this progress has
been deliberately managed, however, the case is different. The term
then becomes what Jeremy Bentham calls an impostor-term,
because it has thus purposefully been converted into an instrument
of deception, usually in the service of some base and knavish design.

It is notorious
that a managed glossary is of the essence of politics, like a managed
currency, and it is highly probable that the debasement of language
necessary to successful political practice promotes far more varied
and corrupting immoralities than any other infection proceeding
from that prolific source. Thus terms like conservative, progressive,
radical, reactionary, as they stand in the managed glossary
of politics, are made to mean whatever the disreputable exigencies
of the moment require them to mean. The term radical,for
example, stands to account for anything from bomb-throwing to a
demand for better wages. Again, we all remember Mr. Roosevelt’s
culpable debasement of the term tory to further an electioneering
enterprise; and the manhandling of the term liberal into
an avouchment for the most flagrantly illiberal measures of coercion,
spoliation, and surveillance is surely well enough known.

The term conservative,which
in the course of the campaign this summer we have heard applied
to a curious medley made up of all sorts and conditions of men,
suffers the same abuse. On the one hand, Mr. Smith is a conservative,
and so is Mr. Raskob, Mr. Owen Young, the denizens of Wall Street,
and the whole du Pont family; while, on the other hand, so is a
majority of the Supreme Court, so is Mr. Newton Baker, Mr. Wolman,
Mr. Lewis Douglas, and so, it seems, am I! What an extraordinary
conjunction of names! On the day I wrote this I saw a headline which
said that 53 per cent of the persons polled in a questionnaire or
straw-vote conducted by some publication reported themselves as
“conservative.” I read further, and found that when all comes to
all, this means that they are against the Administration, and that
their difference with the Administration is over the distribution
of money.

In the glossary
of politics and journalism, the commonest, nay, the invariable connotation
of “conservatism” is in terms of money; a “conservative policy”
is one by which a larger flow of money can be turned towards one
set of beneficiaries rather than towards another, while a “radical”
or a “progressive” policy is one which tends more or less to divert
that flow. According to this scale of speech, the policies of Mr.
Hoover and Mr. Mellon, which turned a great flow of money towards
a political pressure-group of stockjobbers, speculators, shavers,
were eminently conservative; while those of Mr. Roosevelt and his
associates, which largely divert that flow towards a rival pressure-group
of job-holders, hangers-on, single-crop farmers, unemployed persons,
bonus-seekers, hoboes, are eminently radical. The designation follows
the dollar. Even Mr. Sokolsky, whose valiant stand against the Administration
I so much admire and so cordially approve, seems to associate his
idea of conservatism rather over-closely with “prosperity”; that
is to say, with money.

So one can
imagine Mr. Justice McReynolds, for instance, surveying the rank
and file of his fellow-conservatives with some dismay while he wonders,
like the hero of French comedy, what he is doing in that particular
galley. The thought suggests that it might be a good thing all around
if we who are so indiscriminately labeled as conservatives should
stand for a time on the windward side of ourselves while we examine
this label and see whether or not we can properly take title to
wear it. What is a conservative, and what is the quality, if any,
that definitely marks him out as such?

This question
can best be got at by considering an incident in the career of an
extraordinary personage, about whom history, unfortunately, has had
all too little to say. In a lifetime of only thirty-three years, Lucius
Cary, Viscount Falkland, managed to make himself a most conspicuous
example of every virtue and every grace of mind and manner; and this
was the more remarkable because in the whole period through which
he lived – the period leading up to the Civil War – the
public affairs of England were an open playground for envy, hatred,
malice, and all uncharitableness. The date of his birth is uncertain;
probably it was at some time in the year 1610; and he was killed in
the battle of Newbury, September 20, 1643, while fighting on the royalist

Falkland had
a seat in the Long Parliament, which was divided on the specious
issue of presbyterianism against episcopacy in the Church of England.
When a bill was brought in to deprive the bishops of their seats
in the House of Lords, Falkland voted for it. He was all for puncturing
the bishops’ pretension to “divine right,” and for putting a stop
to the abuses which grew out of that pretension. The presbyterian
party, however, emboldened by success, presently brought in another
bill to abolish episcopacy, root and branch, and Falkland voted
against it.

Hampden, in
a bitter speech, promptly taunted him with inconsistency. In reply,
Falkland said he could see nothing essentially wrong with an episcopal
polity. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “I do not believe the bishops to
be jure divino; nay, I believe them not to be jure divino;but
neither do I believe them to be injuria humana.” This polity had
been in force a long time, it had worked fairly well, the people
were used to it, the correction of its abuses was fully provided
for in the first bill, so why “root up this ancient tree,” when
all it needed was a severe pruning of its wayward branches, which
had already been done, and for which he had voted? He could not
see that there was any inconsistency in his attitude. He then went
on to lay down a great general principle in the ever- memorable
formula, “Mr. Speaker, when it is not necessary to change,
it is necessary notto change.”

Here we get
on track of what conservatism is. We must carefully observe the
strength of Falkland’s language. He does not say that when it is
not necessary to change, it is expedient or advisable not to change;
he says it is necessarynot to change. Very well, then, the
differentiation of conservatism rests on the estimate of necessity
in any given case. Thus conservatism is purely an ad hoc affair;
its findings vary with conditions, and are good for this day and
train only. Conservatism is not a body of opinion, it has no set
platform or creed, and hence, strictly speaking, there is no such
thing as a hundred-per-cent conservative group or party – Mr.
Justice McReynolds and Mr. Baker may stand at ease. Nor is conservatism
an attitude of sentiment. Dickens’s fine old unintelligent characters
who “kept up the barrier, sir, against modern innovations” were
not conservatives. They were sentimental obstructionists, probably
also obscurantists, but not conservatives.

Nor yet is
conservatism the antithesis of radicalism; the antithesis of radical
is superficial. Falkland was a great radical; he was never for
a moment caught by the superficial aspect of things. A person may
be as radical as you please, and still may make an extremely conservative
estimate of the force of necessity exhibited by a given set of conditions.
A radical, for example, may think we should get on a great deal
better if we had an entirely different system of government, and
yet, at this time and under conditions now existing, he may take
a strongly conservative view of the necessity for pitching out our
system, neck and crop, and replacing it with another. He may think
our fiscal system is iniquitous in theory and monstrous in practice,
and be ever so sure he could propose a better one, but if on consideration
of all the circumstances he finds that it is not necessary to
change that system, he is capable of maintaining stoutly that it
is necessary not to change it. The conservative is a person
who considers very closely every chance, even the longest, of “throwing
out the baby with the bath-water,” as the German proverb puts it,
and who determines his conduct accordingly.

And so we see
that the term conservativehas little value as a label; in fact,
one might say that its label-value varies inversely with one’s right
to wear it. Conservatism is a habit of mind which does not generalize
beyond the facts of the case in point. It considers those facts carefully,
makes sure that as far as possible it has them all in hand, and the
course of action which the balance of fact in that case indicates
as necessary will be the one it follows; and the course indicated
as unnecessary it not only will not follow, but will oppose without
compromise or concession.

As a label,
then, the word seems unserviceable. It covers so much that looks
like mere capriciousness and inconsistency that one gets little
positive good out of wearing it; and because of its elasticity it
is so easily weaseled into an impostor-term or a term of reproach,
or again into one of derision, as implying complete stagnation of
mind, that it is likely to do one more harm than it is worth. Probably
Huxley was wrong, for while it may be that society regards an unlabeled
person with more or less uneasy suspicion, there is no doubt that
it looks with active distrust upon the person who wears an equivocal
and dubious label; and equally so whether one puts the label on
oneself, as Huxley did, or whether it is put on by interested persons
for the purpose of creating a confusion which they can turn to their
own profit.

This is true
of all the terms that we have been considering, and therefore it
would seem the sensible thing simply to cease using them and to
cease paying attention to them when used by others. When we hear
talk of men or policies as conservative, radical, progressive or
what not, the term really tells us nothing, for ten to one it is
used either ignorantly or with intent to deceive; and hence one
can best clear and stabilize one’s mind by letting it go unheeded.
It is notoriously characteristic of a child’s mentality to fix undue
attention on the names of things, and in firmly declining to be
caught and held by names one brings oneself somewhat nearer the
stature of maturity.

By this, moreover,
one puts oneself in the way of doing something to mature and moralize
our civilization. Every now and then some prophet, like another
Solomon Eagle, warns us that our civilization is at the point of
collapse. We may regard these predictions as far-fetched, or we
may say with Emerson, when an Adventist told him the world was coming
to an end, that if so it were no great loss; or again, we may feel
towards our civilization as Bishop Warburton felt towards the Church
of England(2). But however much or
little we may think our civilization worth saving, and however we
may interpret its prospects of impending dissolution we may hardly
hope that it can keep going indefinitely unless it breaks its bondage
to its present political ideas and ideals.

We must observe,
too, that it is held in this ignoble bondage largely, perhaps chiefly,
by the power of words; that is to say, by the managed glossary of
politics. Mr. Hoover and Mr. Mellon, for example, will be long in
living down the scandalously misapplied term conservative,if
indeed they ever do; and there is a vicious irony in the fact that
Mr. Roosevelt and his associates will always be known as radicals
or liberals, according as it is meant to hold them up either to
blame or to praise.

The main business
of a politician, as Edmund Burke said, is “still further to contract
the narrowness of men’s ideas, to confirm inveterate prejudices,
to inflame vulgar passions, and to abet all sorts of popular absurdities”;
and a managed glossary is the most powerful implement that he applies
to this base enterprise. We hear a good deal about inflation at
the moment, and inflation is indeed a formidable thing. Our people
have no idea of what it means, and I, for one, distinctly do not
care to be around when they find out what it means, for I have seen
it in action elsewhere, and have seen enough. But dreadful as it
is, a far worse form of inflation, the most destructive that politicians
and journalists can devise, is inflation of the public mind by pumping
it full of claptrap.

The words
we have been discussing are standard terms in the politician’s managed
glossary. By recognizing them as such, and resolutely disregarding
them, we should disarm the politician and journalist of much, perhaps
most, of their power for evil, and thus give our civilization the
one service of which it especially stands in need. If we are looking
for an example of wisdom, insight, and integrity in their application
to public affairs, let us find it in Falkland. Instead of permitting
our attention to be caught and held by recommendations of person,
party, or policy as conservative, liberal, radical, progressive,
let us rather employ it in rigorously determining what the actual
needs of the situation are, and then permit it to come to rest upon
the simple and sufficient formula: “Mr. Speaker, when it is not
necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

Mr. Ralph Adams Cram’s theory is that the human being is a distinct
species, and that the immense majority of homo sapiens is
not human, but is merely the raw material out of which the occasional
human being is produced. I have already discussed this theory in
the Atlantic of April 1935, in an essay called “The Quest
of the Missing Link.” If this be true, the anarchist position would
give way to the position of Spencer, that government should exist,
but should abstain from any positive interventions upon the individual,
confining itself strictly to negative interventions. I find myself
inclining more and more towards Mr. Cram’s view, and shall probably
embrace it, but not having as yet done so, I must still call myself
an anarchist.

William Warburton, bishop of Gloucester, 1760–1779. He said,
“The Church, like the Ark of Noah, is worth saving; not for the
sake of the unclean beasts that almost filled it, and probably made
most noise and clamour in it, but for the little corner of rationality
that was as much distressed by the stink within as by the tempest

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