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Revisiting Conservatism

Conservatism by Jerry Z Muller, Princeton University Press, US $39.95, Pp 498, May 2020, ISBN 9780691037110

The intuitive way to define conservatism does not explain it fully. Listing the institutions which conservatives want to conserve in a given society at a particular time is not enough. Conservatives have, at one time and place or another, defended different forms of government including absolute, monarchy, constitutional monarchy, aristocratic prerogative, representative democracy, and presidential dictatorship. They have also tried to conserve different economic systems and policies including high tariffs and free trade, nationalism and internationalism, centralism and federalism, society of inherited estates, a capitalist, market society, and one or another version of the welfare state. In Conservatism by Jerry Z Muller says that there are, no doubt, self-described conservatives today who cannot imagine that conservatives could defend institutions and practices other than those they hold dear. Yet they might find, to their surprise, that conservatives in their own national past have defended institutions which contemporary abhor. And were they to look beyond their own national borders, they might find that some of the institutions and practices they seek to conserve are regarded as implausible or risible by their conservative counterparts in other nations. He says that they have defended religion in general, established churches, and the need for government to defend itself against the claims of religious enthusiasts.

It is sometimes said that conservatism is defined by the assumption that there exists a transcendent moral order, to which we ought to try to conform the ways of society. Muller argues that yet the notion that human institutions reflect some transcendent order predates conservatism, is shared by a variety of conservatism religious ideologies and is contested by some of the most significant and influential conservative thinkers. Muller argues that this is why it is crucial to understanding conservatism as a distinctive mode of social and political thought is the distinction between orthodoxy and conservatism. While orthodox defense of institutions depends on belief in their correspondence to some ultimate truth, the conservative tends more skeptically avoid justifying institutions on the basis of their ultimate foundations. The orthodox theoretician defends exiting institutions and practices because they are metaphysically true. The conservative defends existing institutions because their very existence creates a presumption that they have served some useful function.

Muller says that there are many recurrent conservative presumptions and predispositions — human imperfection, epistemological modesty, institutions, custom, habits and prejudices. He argues that a long-term trend in the development of conservative thought has been from the defense of particular institutions to the defense of institutions in general, and the replacement of arguments for the indispensability of particular institutions (such as the Church and Aristocracy), with functional arguments about the need for institutions as such.

Conservatism is a very insightful book. It provides new perspectives on what conservatism means in different societies and eras. Jerry Z Muller argues persuasively that conservatism is an ever-changing ideology that is rooted in time and space. Conservatism is shaped by the institutions and values of a society at a particular time that need to be conserved. Conservatism is a very scholarly collection of wisdom on the subject. Conservatism explains the evolution of conservatism in the Western thought since the time of David Hume. Even a high schooler will enjoy this brilliantly written book. Conservatism is a required read to understand the subject.

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