Equality as a Conservative Principle

Loyola of Los Angeles Law Review 8:471 (1975). Reprinted in How to Think About the American Revolution: A Bicentennial Cerebration (Durham: Carolina Academic Press, 1978).


That Conservatism should search for its meaning implies of course that Conservatism does not have the meaning for which it is searching. This might appear paradoxical, since a Conservative is supposed to have something definite to conserve. Unfriendly critics sometimes suggest that what we Conservatives conserve, or wish to conserve, is money. But since many of us, like Socrates, live in thousand-fold poverty, this is manifestly untrue. Yet our plight might be said to resemble that of a man with a great hoard of gold or diamonds. Suppose such a man suddenly awoke to find that his treasure was no longer precious, and that it held no more meaning for the rest of the world than sand or pebbles. How strange the world would look to that man! How strange that man would look to the world, vainly clinging to his pile of rubbish.

In today’s political vocabulary, Conservatism is contrasted with Liberalism and Radicalism. In this strange world, however, I cannot imagine Liberalism or Radicalism searching for meaning. Liberalism and Radicalism are confident of their meaning, and the world is confident of their confidence. Yet once upon a time, a Liberal was thought to be more diffident. He was someone who recognized the fallibility of human reason and its susceptibility to the power of the passions. He tended therefore to be tolerant of human differences. A liberal regime was one in which such differences were in a sense institutionalized. James Madison’s extended republic embracing a multiplicity of factions, in which no faction might become a majority or impose its will upon a majority, is the classic instance in the modern world of such a regime. But the New Liberal is committed to policies which tend not to recognize the propriety of differences. Consider the rigidity of such slogans as “one man, one vote,” “racial balance,” “affirmative action,” “guaranteed income,” “war on poverty,” “generation of peace.” All these imply a degree of certainty as to what is beneficial, which makes those who doubt appear to be obscurantists or obstructionists, standing in the way of welfare either out of stupidity or out of a vested interest in ill fare.

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