Thursday, January 04, 2007

What Does 'Conservative' Really Mean?, Part 4

I think there is at least one more basic principle of conservatism that I left out in Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3: this involves a distrust of 'direct' or 'plebiscitary' democracy. Ryn, in America the Virtuous (p. 50-1), wrote, "Plebiscitary democracy aspires to rule according to the popular majority of the moment.... The American Framers... had a very low opinion of what they called 'democracy' or 'pure democracy.' They associated it with demagoguery, rabble-rousing, opportunism, ignorance, and general irresposibility.... While envisioning broad popular participation in politics, they sought to shield most of those charged with making decisions from the momentary popular will."

This mistrust of direct democracy may be in part a corollary of the first principle mentioned: since humans are subject to base motives it would be dangerous to trust too much in direct democratic decisions that were not sifted through a system of representation, division of powers, and checks and balances; the latter would increase the liklihood that prudence and moderation would prevail. Again, a problematic tension is created by recognition that governments are frequently more servile to privileged classes and may tend to ignore the less privileged. If a representational system, with division of powers and checks and balances were significantly unfair to less privileged groups and gave little opportunity for change, problems of justice and fairness would likely be created. Such a system might protect against the baser motives of the less privileged while facilitating the selfishness, greed and will to power of the privileged. Indeed, it has been argued that the American Constitution itself was created by and for the more privileged classes of the 1780s (see Charles A. Beard's "An Economic Interpretation of the Constitution", first published in 1913 and still very readable and interesting; of course, as might be expected this book was savagely criticized by others who thought it was 'un-American'; but see Robert A. McGuire's "To Form a More Perfect Union: A New Economic Interpretation of the United States Constitution", 2003; apparently some still believe that Beard's thesis had merit. For an interesting case study of the privileged classes taking advantage of the less privileged in Massachusetts under the Articles of Confederation see Leonard L. Richards' "Shays's Rebellion", 2003.)

1 comment:

KyoshiWLA said...

I very much appreciate your blog and particularly your posts about true conservatism vs. the pseudo-cons. It helps to put the current state of affairs in this nation in proper perspective. While I vote for Democrats, I feel I live a very conservative life and embrace conservative values, especially as articulated in the posts you've written on this topic. It's a great service you do and it allows me to rebut the virulent nationalism and consumerism that people in my circles espouse under the name of Conservativism or, laughably, Republicanism. Thanks!