Hit & Run

Jonah Goldberg Searches His Conservative Soul

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Jonah Goldberg reviews Andrew Sullivan's The Conservative Soul in the most recent National Review, and I had a few chuckles at this line:

Once a voice of restraint and reason, Sullivan now specializes in shrill panic: mercurial ranting full of operatic arguments, steeped in bad faith, aimed at people he once praised (including yours truly). Agreement with Sullivan bespeaks courageous enlightenment, disagreement advertises that you are a knave or ideological lickspittle.

Live by the shrill, die by the shrill, Jonah. I like Sullivan, and his writing has many virtues, but as I'm scarcely the first to note, the sense of doubt and fallibilism he's now advocating as central to conservatism has not always been one of them. When he was a booster for this administration and the Iraq war, Andrew was (in print, if not in person) at least as willing to suppose that people who disagreed were moral dunces at best, a threat to civilization itself at worst. He hasn't changed styles; he's changed sides.

As for the main argument of the book, Goldberg has two main beefs. The first is that "evil is rarely defeated by people who are unsure they are right," which Goldberg takes to mean that a "conservatism of doubt" will be too anemic to combat the enemies of liberal modernity: He mocks the idea of a "serious political movement" founded on the slogan "We're not sure!" But I think this misapprehends one paradoxical aspect of the relationship between doubt and confidence. I know, for example, that science proceeds haltingly, that its conclusions are always open to revision, and indeed, that many of the scientific beliefs of the past have been either rejected or developed to accommodate new facts. And this is precisely why I can be so confident in the scientific enterprise in the aggregate: Because I know there are scores of intelligent and skeptical researchers constantly testing and refining its conclusions. I can be fanatical in my defense of liberal societies, not because (like Islamists) I'm sure they have discovered the One Best Way of Life, but because they embody a process that allows fallible people to seek continual improvement.

Second, Jonah takes issue with Andrew's "divinization of conscience," which he casts as an arrogant rejection of tradition. And this brings us back to what I regard as the misreading of Hayek that keeps Jonah in the conservative camp—a point that Nick Gillespie tried to make when they debated a few months back, but I don't think Jonah fully grokked. First, to say we should "rely on tradition" doesn't actually relieve us of the responsibility for making our own moral judgments, for much the same reason the argument that the argument that we need religious texts as a guide to morality doesn't go through. There are multiple traditions to choose from, and multiple strains within each tradition, so an apparent "deference to tradition" always still involves the exercise of one's own judgment. (In the same way that you may outsource your health decisions to a doctor, but you're still responsible for finding a wise doctor.) Moreover, recall that Hayek's argument is meant to show why tradition's evolved rules are likely to produce better results than a wholesale constructivist rationalism. But this argument actually depends on people making use of critical reason, which is quite different. In effect, Jonah wants to say: Look what cultural evolution has produced—great, freeze it! But evolution works because of mutation, variation, and selection, and it's still going on. A tradition that can't accommodate that kind of variation is unlikely to stay adaptive for long.