Lapham’s Straw-Man Conservatism

Lewis Lapham, the editor of Harper’s Magazine was on the Daily Show last night, and I happened to catch a bit of his interview. For someone who is ostensibly a member of America’s intellectual elite, I was shocked at his fundamental misunderstanding of the basics of conservative political philosophy. He made the argument that conservatism today was essentially "utopian anarchism", a charge that had me floored. Lapham’s view of conservatism could not be more incorrect – in fact, what he sees as conservatism is its diametrical opposite.

American conservatism is a philosophy that has its roots in the social contract theories of John Locke and the political theories of Edmund Burke. Neither of these men could remotely be considered anarchists. If anything, they believed that government was an absolute necessity for society. Locke is the one who best elucidates the need for government. He argues in his Second Treatise of Government that mankind in the state of nature is a state of perpetual war against one another. (Hobbes made the same argument in Leviathan, where he referred to the state of nature as "nasty, brutish, solitary, and short.") Locke argues that the only way in which to remedy the horrors of this state of nature is by instituting civil governance. It’s a tradeoff – the citizenry sign on to this hypothetical social contract by agreeing to follow the laws, and in return the state is obligated to provide protection from others. This is an agreement that can be broken by either side, and each side has an obligation to protect its end of the contract. Lockean language permeates the Declaration of Independence, which is a document that essentially nullified the social contract between Britain and the colonies and suggests that a new one must be formed. This social contract eventually became the Articles of Confederation and the US Constitution.

Conservatives are not anarchists by definition. They are liberals in the classical tradition of Montesquieu and Locke. Anarchists deny that there is any more justification for government. All taxation is theft, and so is private property. Even most libertarians would vehemently disagree with that idea. Conservatives acknowledge the legitimacy of government; they merely disagree on the scope and nature of government. Their disagreements are often based in a profoundly anti-utopian philosopher named Edmund Burke.

Burke was a member of the British Parliament during the American Revolution and wrote at some length on what he saw as the profoundly misguided French Revolution. His Reflections on the Revolution in France is by no means an easy read, but it is also one that every conservative should read at some point in their life. Burke argues that the glue that holds society together is tradition. Things like the church, the family, and the traditions of the culture are the "permanent things" necessary to create a good and just culture. He saw the attempts to wipe away the old social order in France as being a dangerous effort that would only lead to the tyranny of the ones who claimed to be bringing France to freedom. Burke was proved right as the Reign of Terror turned the self-proclaimed liberators of France into Inquisitors for their new order.

Another reoccurring theme in American conservatism that springs from Burke is a resistance to radical change. By definitions, conservatives are not utopians. Liberals in America are far more guilty of utopianism than conservatives. Conservatives argue that human nature is not perfectible, and that people will always tend to act in their self-interest. Therefore, one cannot count on a government functionary to always do what is right – sooner or later they will arrange the system so that it pads their own pocketbooks. This is the fundamental reason that conservatives fight the encroachment of government – government is a human and temporal institution that is no less self-interested than a business but is far less accountable and possesses far more power. Conservatives tend to be skeptical of the power of government, and therefore want to ensure that remains as small and accountable as necessary.

Now there is nothing here that a first-year political philosophy student couldn’t have figured out on their own. Lapham is creating a straw-man version of conservatism that bears little resemblance to anything that is even remotely conservative. One would think that a supposed intellectual would be able to crack open a few books on conservative political philosophy once in a while and actually have some idea of what he was talking about. Therefore, as a public service to Mr. Lapham, I’d like to suggest a few books that might enlighten him as to the real nature of conservatism:

The Portable Edmund Burke – A compendium of works (including the seminal Reflections on the Revolution in France) from one of Britain’s greatest statesmen and rhetoricians.

The Conservative Mind – Russell Kirk launched modern American conservatism with this book, which is critical to understanding the philosophical basis of conservatism for conservatives and non-conservatives alike.

Letters To A Young Conservative – A more modern and easier way to get a view into the underpinnings of conservative political philosophy. Dinesh D’Souza does an excellent job of explaining the basis of conservative political thought in this slim yet excellent volume.

The Second Treatise of Government – This is the work that influenced the foundation of our country. Every American should read it as a requirement of understanding basic civics.

2 thoughts on “Lapham’s Straw-Man Conservatism

  1. “Utopian anarchism” is a very unusual way of describing modern-day conservatism, considering its divide-and-conquer worldview it stands in complete contradiction to the concept of utopia, while the puritanical police state advocated by most conservatives in response to terrorist attacks and to contend with lifestyles they don’t agree with is at the polar opposite of the spectrum of governmental role than anarchism is.

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