I wasn’t really going to comment on the 3578734895723894569783th (give or take) debate on “real conservatism,” this time involving RS McCain, Dan Riehl, and Conor Friedersdorf, but after reading Friedersdorf’s take, I couldn’t help but think of that scene from Good Will Hunting.
WILL: Of course that’s your contention. You’re a first year grad student. You just finished some Marxian historian, Pete Garrison prob’ly, and so naturally that’s what you believe until next month when you get to James Lemon and get convinced that Virginia and Pennsylvania were strongly entrepreneurial and capitalist back in 1740. That’ll last until sometime in your second year, then you’ll be in here regurgitating Gordon Wood about the Pre-revolutionary utopia and the capital-forming effects of military mobilization.
CLARK: Well, as a matter of fact, I won’t, because Wood drastically underestimates the impact of –
WILL: “Wood drastically underestimates the impact of social distinctions predicated upon wealth, especially inherited wealth…” You got that from “Work in Essex County,” Page 421, right? Do you have any thoughts of your own on the subject or were you just gonna plagiarize the whole book for me? Look, don’t try to pass yourself off as some kind of an intellect at the expense of my friend just to impress these girls.
Look, I’m the last guy who is going to completely mock citing classical authors in an effort to bolster one’s argument, but simply bandying the names Kirk and Oakeshott around like it makes you some intellectual bigshot is a little off putting. Yeah, I’ve read those guys. And Burke. And Hayek. And Sowell. And Buckley. And on and on and on and on.
But you know what? Absent a critical analysis of what those guys said, all I’m doing is repeating a bunch of names. They get us no closer to a true definition of conservatism, if one really exists.
Also, this all misses the larger question: which voices are authoritative in the quest for arriving at a clear definition? Kirk laid down his six tenets, and while I am fundamentally in accord with them, does that mean that anyone calling themselves conservative ought to mindlessly ape Kirk as if he were the voice of God whose authority should not be questioned? Furthermore, these great (and they were great, all of them) voices of the right were hardly in agreement on all policy questions. I don’t think that Buckley was quite as isolationist as Kirk, for starters. Sure, they shared fundamental precepts, but we shouldn’t just gloss over their disagreements. Much as there is a danger in just speaking of the “Founders” as though they were a monolith, we have to clarify what elements of these thinkers we find so compelling.
There is a lot to admire in Russell Kirk, but he is not the be all end all of conservative thinking. I doubt Conor Friedersdorf thinks so either, but maybe he could offer up a little more substantive than name dropping a few guys who are going to make all the right people all tingly.