Thursday, June 15, 2006

Conservativism Doesn't Mean a Rejection of the Future

In "America's Romance with the Future," Martin Walker offers a warning that America may be losing its way based on his analysis of the current state of the national (and personal) debt, education and other factor. He begins and ends the piece with two anecdotes regarding the future of America:
The thing that got you into this classroom today is belief in the future, a belief that the future can be better than the present and that people will and should sacrifice in the present to get to that better future. That belief has taken man out of the chaos and deprivation that most human beings toiled in for most of history to the point where we are today. One thing will kill our civilization and way of life—when people no longer have the will to undergo the pain required to prefer the future to the present. That is what got your parents to pay this expensive tuition. That is what got us through two wars and the Depression. Future preference. Don’t ever forget that.

{Georgetown University professor Carroll Quigley, who taught future President Bill Clinton}
The prospect really does frighten me that they may finally become so engrossed in a cowardly love of immediate pleasures that their interest in their own future and in that of their descendants may vanish, and that they will prefer tamely to follow the course of their destiny rather than make a sudden energetic effort necessary to set things right.

{Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America, vol. I (1835)}
Both men, at different times, appreciated the American spirit, but saw danger on the horizon. But it is important to note that neither was saying that we should change for change's sake. Put another way, they aren't saying that a better future means the total dismantling of all that is good during the present.

Perhaps a little Edmund Burke would help. Burke also believed that we owed both our ancestors and our progeny more than what we had received.
One of the first and most leading principles on which the commonwealth and its laws are consecrated, is lest the temporary possessors and life-renters in it, unmindful of what they have received from their ancestors, or of what is due to their posterity, should act as if they were the entire masters; that they should not think it among their rights to cut off the entail, or commit waste on the inheritance, by destroying at their pleasure the whole original fabric of their society; hazarding to leave to those who come after them a ruin instead of a habitation--and teaching to these successors as little to respect their contrivances, as they had themselves respected the institutions of their forefathers. {Edmund Burke, "Reflections," Works, II, p.366-67 in Russel Kirk's The Conservative Mind, p.44--yeah, I cribbed it!}
Burke advocated prudent change and didn't think conservatism meant stasis and that life could be a permanent, antiquanarian bliss. "We must all obey the great law of change," he said, "It is the most powerful law of nature, and the means perhaps of its conservation." The type of change he advocated was gradual, one that moved slowly so as to neither cause resentment in those who had benefited--or were simply used to--the old ways nor to stoke the newly lit fires of power within those who gained from the change.

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