Traditionalism and Statism

In his post “Conservatism and the Paul Krugman Paradox,” Kelse argues that traditionalist conservatism must necessarily devolve into one of two positions: 1) a coherent philosophy that is bound by its own terms to accept certain unsavory parts of the political culture (i.e. Statism); or 2) an incoherent philosophy that in reality is not traditionalism at all, but a front for some other set of beliefs (i.e. Libertarianism or Statism). The variant of traditionalism depicted by Kelse is indeed deeply flawed, but there is another articulation of traditionalist conservatism, drawn from the philosophy of Edmund Burke, that is much more tenable and that is able to resist the growth of the state on its own terms.

Despite the way he is often presented, Burke was far from being a slave to the predominant cultural and political impulses of his day. In particular, Burke was willing to go against short-term political and cultural trends if they threatened the stability of a much deeper tradition. In cases such as today where the governing political system is fundamentally at odds with the greater historical tradition, Burke would have no trouble in abandoning the current instruments of government.

It was in this vein that Burke supported the spirit of the 1689 Glorious Revolution. When James II was actively undermining the basic constitutional structure, his overthrow became a matter of traditional continuity. Burke also argued passionately for the impeachment of Warren Hastings, Governor-General of India, on charges of corruption and mismanagement. In one of the most well-known speeches of his long career, Burke argued, in part, that Hastings’ actions had threatened the valuable cultural traditions already present in India. For Burke, it did not matter that British imperialism was at its zenith and that an appreciation for traditional Indian culture was not exactly on the political horizon. His foremost goal remained protecting the larger tradition.

What does this mean for traditionalist conservatism today? Among other things, it means that the traditionalist need not accept parts of the current political order that are in opposition to the greater tradition. If he apprehends that certain contemporary political institutions- for example, the modern welfare state- are in tension with the greater part of the old Anglo-American tradition, he is obliged to decry those institutions as aberrations and work to overthrow them.

Tradition, as here described, is much deeper than merely the aggregate of all changes over time. The value of a tradition is not merely that it tells us the things that have been done in the past- the value of the tradition lies in what it tells us about universal truth. We see the way that people have organized and conducted themselves over many generations and thereby discover some truth about human nature. The fact that people in recent decades have become accustomed to having a much larger federal government says absolutely nothing about the older tradition- the two are completely incommensurable. In comparison to the greater Anglo-American tradition, the modern state is easily seen as an aberration from the older tradition, not a further development of it.

It is important to note too that, the goal of the traditionalist is not merely to resurrect dead aspects of the older tradition. Because of his attention to history and cultural context, the traditionalist understands better than anyone that antiquated formulations of the tradition cannot be replicated without losing their original effect. Rather than attempting to replicate the past instantiations, the goal of the traditionalist is to find the eternal truths that are conveyed within the old tradition. Once a tradition has been abandoned, the traditionalist must set about trying to find some way to fit the truth found within the tradition to a new historical context. In other words, he must find new ways to instantiate the best aspects of the old tradition. As a consequence, the traditionalist does not attempt to return to a previous instantiation, even if it is one that he personally has some affinity for.

The traditionalist may at times feel like an anachronism- yet if he is to succeed in reinvigorating the tradition, he must find a way to make the valuable parts of the old tradition accessible to a new generation that he feels quite distant from.

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Categories: Traditionalism | Tags: , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “Traditionalism and Statism

  1. Pingback: Not Taking the Easy Way Out « Beyond the GOP

  2. Pingback: Replicating American Libertarianism « Beyond the GOP

  3. Pingback: President Oakeshott « Beyond the GOP

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