A Little Conserva-tive

By Albert Jay Nock. Originally published in Atlantic Monthly, October 1936.

I often think it’s comical
How Nature always does contrive
That every boy and every gal
That’s born into the world alive
Is either a little Liber-al
Or else a little Conserva-tive.
— W. S. Gilbert, Iolanthe [Note: This is the famed Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan.]

Gilbert’s lines recall Professor Huxley’s pungent observation on the disadvantages of going about the world unlabeled. Early in life, he says, he perceived that society regards an unlabeled person as a potential menace, somewhat as the police regard an unmuzzled dog. Therefore, not finding any existing label to suit him, he took thought and invented one. The main difference between himself and other people, as he saw it, was that they seemed to be quite sure of a number of things about which he not only was not sure, but also suspected that he never could be sure. Their minds ran in the wake of the first-century Gnostic sects, while his did not. Hence the term agnostic suggested itself to him as descriptive of this difference, and he accordingly adopted it as a label.

The great weight of Huxley’s authority forced the term into common currency, where ignorance promptly twisted it into a sense exactly contrary to its philology, and contrary to the original intention which Huxley gave it. Today when a person says he is an agnostic, it is ten to one he means that he knows the thing at issue is not so. If he says, for instance, as one of my acquaintances did the other day, that he is a thoroughgoing agnostic concerning the existence of God and the persistence of consciousness after death, he means that he is sure there is no God and that consciousness does not persist. The term is so regularly used to imply a negative certainty that its value as a label, a distinguishing mark, is false and misleading. It is like the hotel labels which unscrupulous tourists in Paris buy by the dozen and stick on their luggage as evidence that they have visited places where they have never been, and put up at hotels which they have never seen.

Something like this appears to be the common destiny of labels. It brings to mind the fine saying of Homer which I have so often quoted, that “the range of words is wide; words may tend this way or that way.” There are few more interesting pursuits than that of examining the common popular connotation of labels, and observing how regularly it runs the full course from sense to nonsense, or from infamy to respectability, and back again. For example, our voting population is divided into two major groups, Republicans and Democrats; how many of them know anything about the history of their labels? How many could describe the differentiations that the significance of these labels indicates, or could attach any actual significance whatever to them, except in wholly irrelevant terms, usually in terms which in the last analysis turn out to mean habit, money, or jobs?

The Republicans went into the pangs of parturition at Cleveland last summer, and brought forth a sorry mouse.* As one of my friends put it, about the only thing their platform did not do was to give the Democratic Administration a formal endorsement. As far as one can see, all their pledges amount to is a promise to do what the Democrats have been doing, but to do it better.

Similarly the new Russian constitution seems to show merely that Stalin thinks it is easier to run things the way Mark Hanna used to run them than the way they have been run in Russia hitherto. No doubt he is right about that; but meanwhile one wonders what the word Bolshevik will mean to the average Russian fifty years from now,** and how many voters in holy Russia will know the history of the word, or even know that it has a history.

Reflections like these make one quite doubtful about Huxley’s position concerning the balance of advantage and disadvantage in the matter of labels. His misfortune was in his honesty; he invented a label that precisely described him, and he could hardly have fared worse if he had worn none, for on the one hand ignorance at once invested it with an alien meaning, while on the other hand prejudice converted it into a term of reproach. I have had a curious experience lately which has caused me to ponder afresh upon these matters, and which I am now tempted to relate.

For more than a quarter of a century I have been known, in so far as I was known at all, as a radical. It came about in this way: I was always interested in the rerum cognoscere causas [learning the causes of things], liking to get down below the surface of things and examine their roots. This was purely a natural disposition, reflecting no credit whatever on me, for I was born with it. Any success I had in its indulgence brought me the happiness that Lucretius observed as attaching to such pursuits, and I indulged it only for that reason, never seeking, and indeed never getting, any other reward. Therefore when the time came for me to describe myself by some convenient label, I took one which marked the quality that I thought chiefly differentiated me from most of the people I saw around me. They habitually gave themselves a superficial account of things, which was all very well if it suited them to do so, but I preferred always to give myself a root-account of things, if I could get it. Therefore, by way of a general designation, it seemed appropriate to label myself a radical. Likewise, also, when occasion required that I should label myself with reference to particular social theories or doctrines, the same decent respect for accuracy led me to describe myself as an anarchist, an individualist, and a single-taxer.

On the positive side, my anarchism came mainly as a corollary to the estimate of human capacity for self-improvement which I had picked up from Mr. [Thomas] Jefferson. His fundamental idea appeared to be that everyone answering to the zoological classification of homo sapiens is a human being, and therefore is indefinitely improvable. The essence of it is that homo sapiens in his natural state really wishes and means to be as decent towards his fellow-beings as he can, and under favorable conditions will progress in decency. He shares this trait with the rest of the animal world. ***

Indica tigris agit rabida cum tigride pacem
Perpetuam; saevis inter se convenit ursis,

[Nock quotes Juvenal:
The Indian tiger bears no hate,
But keeps truce with its savage mate:
E’en fiercely-ranging bears agree
To live in general amity.]

— so long, that is, as irritating interferences, such as hunger, lust, jealousy or trespass, are kept at a minimum. Man’s moral superiority over the animal consists in an indefinitely cultivable capacity and will to deal with these interferences intelligently from the long-time point of view, and thus gradually immunize himself against their irritant influence.

Granting this premise, the anarchist position appeared logical to me, as it did to Prince Kropotkin and Bakunin. Putting it roughly, if all men are human, if all bipeds classifiable as homo sapiens are human beings, social harmony and a general progress in civilization will be far better brought about by methods of free agreement and voluntary association than by constraint, whether directly under force, or under the menace of force which is always implicit in obedience to law.

The negative argument for anarchism seemed quite as cogent as the positive argument. The whole institution of government, wherever found and in whatever form, appeared to me so vicious and depraving that I could not even regard it with [Thomas] Paine as “at its best a necessary evil.” The State stood, and had stood in history as far back as I could trace its existence, as little else but an instrument of economic exploitation, a mere mechanism, as Voltaire said, “for taking money out of one set of pockets and putting it into another.” The activities of its administrators and beneficiaries appeared to me as they did to Voltaire, as no more or less than those of a professional-criminal class. As Nietzsche calls it, “the coldest of all cold monsters,” the State’s character was so completely evil, its conduct so invariably and deliberately flagitious, that I did not see how society could possibly be worse off without it than with it, let the alternative condition be what it might.

My individualism was a logical extension of the anarchist principle beyond its narrow application to one particular form or mode of constraint upon the individual. The thing that interested me, as it interested Emerson and Whitman, was a general philosophy of life which regards human personality as the greatest and most respect-worthy object in the world, and as a complete end-in-itself; a philosophy, therefore, which disallows its subversion or submergence, whether by force of law or by any other coercive force. I was convinced that human beings do better and are happier when they have the largest possible margin of existence to regulate and dispose of as they please; and hence I believed that society should so manage itself as to leave the individual a maximum of free choice and action, even at a considerable risk of results which from the short-time point of view would be pronounced dangerous. I suppose it may be seen how remote this is from the bogus affair of dollars and cents which is touted under the name of individualism, and which, as I showed in last February’s issue of this magazine, is not individualism in any sense.

The single tax impressed me as the most equitable and convenient way of paying the cost of such matters as can be done better collectively than individually. As a matter of natural right it seemed to me that as individually created values should belong to the individual, so socially created values should belong to society, and that the single tax was the best method of securing both the individual and society in the full enjoyment of their respective rights. To the best of my knowledge these two propositions have never been successfully controverted. There were other considerations, too, which made the single tax seem the best of all fiscal systems, but it is unnecessary to recount them here.

Probably I ought to add that I never entered on any crusade for these beliefs or sought to persuade anyone into accepting them. Education is as much a matter of time as of anything else, perhaps more, and I was well aware that anything like a general realization of this philosophy is a matter of very long time indeed. All experience of what Frederick the Great called “this damned human race” shows beyond peradventure that it is impossible to tell anyone anything unless in a very real sense he knows it already; and therefore a premature and pertinacious evangelism is at best the most fruitless of all human enterprises, and at worst the most vicious. Society never takes the right course until after it has painfully explored all the wrong ones, and it is vain to try to argue, cajole, or force society out of these set sequences of experimentation. Over and above the impassioned outpourings of the propagandist for an untried way of salvation, however straight and clear that way may be, one can always hear old Frederick saying, “Ach, mein lieber Sacher, er kennt nicht diese verdammte Rasse.”

But while I have never engaged in any controversy or public discussion of these matters, or even in any private advocacy of them, I have spoken my mind about them so freely and so often that it would seem impossible for anyone to mistake my attitude towards them. Only last year, in fact, I published by far the most radical critique of public affairs that has as yet been brought out here. Hence I was mildly astonished to hear the other day that a person very much in the public eye, and one who would seem likely to know something of what I have been up to during all these years, had described me as “one of the most intelligent conservatives in the country.”

It was a kind and complimentary thing to say, and I was pleased to hear it, but it struck me nevertheless as a rather vivid commentary on the value and the fate of labels. Twenty, or ten, or even three years ago, no one in his right mind would have dreamed of tagging me with that designation. Why then, at this particular juncture, should it occur to a presumably well-informed person to call me a conservative, when my whole philosophy of life is openly and notoriously the same that it has been for twenty-five years? (1) In itself the question is probably worth little discussion, but as leading into the larger question of what a conservative is, and what the qualities are that go to make him one, it is worth much more.

It seems that the reason for so amiably labeling me a conservative in this instance was that I am indisposed to the present Administration. This also appears to be one reason why Mr. Sokolsky labels himself a conservative, as he did in the very able and cogent paper which he published in the August issue of the Atlantic. But really, in my case this is no reason at all, for my objections to the Administration’s behavior rest no more logically on the grounds of either conservatism or radicalism than on those of atheism or homeopathy. They rest on the grounds of common sense and, I regret to say, common honesty. I resent the works and ways of the Administration because in my opinion such of them as are not peculiarly and dangerously silly are peculiarly and dangerously dishonest, and most of them are both. No doubt a person who wears the conservative label may hold this opinion and speak his mind accordingly, but so may a radical, so may anyone; the expression of it does not place him in either category, or in any category of the kind. They mark him merely as a person who is interested in having public affairs conducted wisely and honestly, and who resents their being conducted foolishly and dishonestly.

With regard to Mr. Sokolsky, I may not, and do not, presume to doubt him when he says he is a conservative. All I may say is that I cannot well see how his paper makes him out to be one. If, now, he had said reactionary, I should have no trouble whatever about getting his drift, for my understanding is that he is in favor of a reaction from one distinct line of general State principle and policy back to another which has been abandoned. This is an eminently respectable position, and reactionary, which precisely describes it, is a most respectable term; but I cannot make it appear that this position is dictated by conservatism, or that holding this position justifies a person in calling himself a conservative.

Philology is a considerable help in these matters, but in guiding ourselves by its aid we must make an important discrimination which is set by the presence or absence of a moral factor. It is a commonplace of a language’s growth that the significance of certain terms, like certain interpretations of music, becomes deformed and coarsened by tradition. I once heard a performance of the Messiah in Brussels, and was amazed at finding it almost a new composition, so far away it was from the English traditional interpretation, which was the only one I knew. Similarly there is no doubt that terms like grace, truth, faith, held very different connotations for Christians of the first century and for those of the fourth and again for those of the sixteenth, while for those of the twentieth they seem voided of all significance that is relevant to their philology, much as our formula, my dear sir, means only that a letter is begun, and yours sincerely means only that it is ended.

In instances like these there is no moral quality discernible in a term’s passage from one meaning to another which has less philological relevancy, or to one which has none. There is no evidence of any interested management of its progress. In instances where this progress has been deliberately managed, however, the case is different. The term then becomes what Jeremy Bentham calls an impostor-term, because it has thus purposefully been converted into an instrument of deception, usually in the service of some base and knavish design.

It is notorious that a managed glossary is of the essence of politics, like a managed currency, and it is highly probable that the debasement of language necessary to successful political practice promotes far more varied and corrupting immoralities than any other infection proceeding from that prolific source. Thus terms like conservative, progressive, radical, reactionary, as they stand in the managed glossary of politics, are made to mean whatever the disreputable exigencies of the moment require them to mean. The term radical, for example, stands to account for anything from bomb-throwing to a demand for better wages. Again, we all remember Mr. Roosevelt’s culpable debasement of the term Tory to further an electioneering enterprise; and the manhandling of the term liberal into an avouchment for the most flagrantly illiberal measures of coercion, spoliation, and surveillance is surely well enough known.

The term conservative, which in the course of the campaign this summer we have heard applied to a curious medley made up of all sorts and conditions of men, suffers the same abuse. On the one hand, Mr. Smith is a conservative, and so is Mr. Raskob, Mr. Owen Young, the denizens of Wall Street, and the whole du Pont family; while, on the other hand, so is a majority of the Supreme Court, so is Mr. Newton Baker, Mr. Wolman, Mr. Lewis Douglas, and so, it seems, am I! What an extraordinary conjunction of names! On the day I wrote this I saw a headline which said that 53 per cent of the persons polled in a questionnaire or straw-vote conducted by some publication reported themselves as “conservative.” I read further, and found that when all comes to all, this means that they are against the Administration, and that their difference with the Administration is over the distribution of money.

In the glossary of politics and journalism, the commonest, nay, the invariable connotation of “conservatism” is in terms of money; a “conservative policy” is one by which a larger flow of money can be turned towards one set of beneficiaries rather than towards another, while a “radical” or a “progressive” policy is one which tends more or less to divert that flow. According to this scale of speech, the policies of Mr. Hoover and Mr. Mellon, which turned a great flow of money towards a political pressure-group of stockjobbers, speculators, shavers, were eminently conservative; while those of Mr. Roosevelt and his associates, which largely divert that flow towards a rival pressure-group of job-holders, hangers-on, single-crop farmers, unemployed persons, bonus-seekers, hoboes, are eminently radical. The designation follows the dollar. Even Mr. Sokolsky, whose valiant stand against the Administration I so much admire and so cordially approve, seems to associate his idea of conservatism rather over-closely with “prosperity”; that is to say, with money.

So one can imagine Mr. Justice McReynolds, for instance, surveying the rank and file of his fellow-conservatives with some dismay while he wonders, like the hero of French comedy, what he is doing in that particular galley. The thought suggests that it might be a good thing all around if we who are so indiscriminately labeled as conservatives should stand for a time on the windward side of ourselves while we examine this label and see whether or not we can properly take title to wear it. What is a conservative, and what is the quality, if any, that definitely marks him out as such?

This question can best be got at by considering an incident in the career of an extraordinary personage, about whom history, unfortunately, has had all too little to say. In a lifetime of only thirty-three years, Lucius Cary, Viscount Falkland, managed to make himself a most conspicuous example of every virtue and every grace of mind and manner; and this was the more remarkable because in the whole period through which he lived — the period leading up to the Civil War — the public affairs of England were an open playground for envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness. The date of his birth is uncertain; probably it was at some time in the year 1610; and he was killed in the Battle of Newbury, September 20, 1643, while fighting on the royalist side.

Falkland had a seat in the Long Parliament, which was divided on the specious issue of Presbyterianism against episcopacy in the Church of England. When a bill was brought in to deprive the bishops of their seats in the House of Lords, Falkland voted for it. He was all for puncturing the bishops’ pretension to “divine right,” and for putting a stop to the abuses which grew out of that pretension. The Presbyterian party, however, emboldened by success, presently brought in another bill to abolish episcopacy, root and branch, and Falkland voted against it.

Hampden, in a bitter speech, promptly taunted him with inconsistency. In reply, Falkland said he could see nothing essentially wrong with an episcopal polity. “Mr. Speaker,” he said, “I do not believe the bishops to be jure divino; nay, I believe them not to be jure divino; but neither do I believe them to be injuria humana.” This polity had been in force a long time, it had worked fairly well, the people were used to it, the correction of its abuses was fully provided for in the first bill, so why “root up this ancient tree,” when all it needed was a severe pruning of its wayward branches, which had already been done, and for which he had voted? He could not see that there was any inconsistency in his attitude. He then went on to lay down a great general principle in the ever-memorable formula, “Mr. Speaker, when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

Here we get on track of what conservatism is. We must carefully observe the strength of Falkland’s language. He does not say that when it is not necessary to change, it is expedient or advisable not to change; he says it is necessary not to change. Very well, then, the differentiation of conservatism rests on the estimate of necessity in any given case. Thus conservatism is purely an ad hoc affair; its findings vary with conditions, and are good for this day and train only. Conservatism is not a body of opinion, it has no set platform or creed, and hence, strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a hundred-per-cent conservative group or party — Mr. Justice McReynolds and Mr. Baker may stand at ease. Nor is conservatism an attitude of sentiment. Dickens’s fine old unintelligent characters who “kept up the barrier, sir, against modern innovations” were not conservatives. They were sentimental obstructionists, probably also obscurantists, but not conservatives.

Nor yet is conservatism the antithesis of radicalism; the antithesis of radical is superficial. Falkland was a great radical; he was never for a moment caught by the superficial aspect of things. A person may be as radical as you please, and still may make an extremely conservative estimate of the force of necessity exhibited by a given set of conditions. A radical, for example, may think we should get on a great deal better if we had an entirely different system of government, and yet, at this time and under conditions now existing, he may take a strongly conservative view of the necessity for pitching out our system, neck and crop, and replacing it with another. He may think our fiscal system is iniquitous in theory and monstrous in practice, and be ever so sure he could propose a better one, but if on consideration of all the circumstances he finds that it is not necessary to change that system, he is capable of maintaining stoutly that it is necessary not to change it. The conservative is a person who considers very closely every chance, even the longest, of “throwing out the baby with the bath-water,” as the German proverb puts it, and who determines his conduct accordingly.

And so we see that the term conservative has little value as a label; in fact, one might say that its label-value varies inversely with one’s right to wear it. Conservatism is a habit of mind which does not generalize beyond the facts of the case in point. It considers those facts carefully, makes sure that as far as possible it has them all in hand, and the course of action which the balance of fact in that case indicates as necessary will be the one it follows; and the course indicated as unnecessary it not only will not follow, but will oppose without compromise or concession.

As a label, then, the word seems unserviceable. It covers so much that looks like mere capriciousness and inconsistency that one gets little positive good out of wearing it; and because of its elasticity it is so easily weaseled into an impostor-term or a term of reproach, or again into one of derision, as implying complete stagnation of mind, that it is likely to do one more harm than it is worth. Probably Huxley was wrong, for while it may be that society regards an unlabeled person with more or less uneasy suspicion, there is no doubt that it looks with active distrust upon the person who wears an equivocal and dubious label; and equally so whether one puts the label on oneself, as Huxley did, or whether it is put on by interested persons for the purpose of creating a confusion which they can turn to their own profit.

This is true of all the terms that we have been considering, and therefore it would seem the sensible thing simply to cease using them and to cease paying attention to them when used by others. When we hear talk of men or policies as conservative, radical, progressive or what not, the term really tells us nothing, for ten to one it is used either ignorantly or with intent to deceive; and hence one can best clear and stabilize one’s mind by letting it go unheeded. It is notoriously characteristic of a child’s mentality to fix undue attention on the names of things, and in firmly declining to be caught and held by names one brings oneself somewhat nearer the stature of maturity.

By this, moreover, one puts oneself in the way of doing something to mature and moralize our civilization. Every now and then some prophet, like another Solomon Eagle, warns us that our civilization is at the point of collapse. We may regard these predictions as far-fetched, or we may say with Emerson, when an Adventist told him the world was coming to an end, that if so it were no great loss; or again, we may feel towards our civilization as Bishop Warburton felt towards the Church of England (2). But however much or little we may think our civilization worth saving, and however we may interpret its prospects of impending dissolution we may hardly hope that it can keep going indefinitely unless it breaks its bondage to its present political ideas and ideals.

We must observe, too, that it is held in this ignoble bondage largely, perhaps chiefly, by the power of words; that is to say, by the managed glossary of politics. Mr. Hoover and Mr. Mellon, for example, will be long in living down the scandalously misapplied term conservative, if indeed they ever do; and there is a vicious irony in the fact that Mr. Roosevelt and his associates will always be known as radicals or liberals, according as it is meant to hold them up either to blame or to praise.

The main business of a politician, as Edmund Burke said, is “still further to contract the narrowness of men’s ideas, to confirm inveterate prejudices, to inflame vulgar passions, and to abet all sorts of popular absurdities”; and a managed glossary is the most powerful implement that he applies to this base enterprise. We hear a good deal about inflation at the moment, and inflation is indeed a formidable thing. Our people have no idea of what it means, and I, for one, distinctly do not care to be around when they find out what it means, for I have seen it in action elsewhere, and have seen enough. But dreadful as it is, a far worse form of inflation, the most destructive that politicians and journalists can devise, is inflation of the public mind by pumping it full of claptrap.

The words we have been discussing are standard terms in the politician’s managed glossary. By recognizing them as such, and resolutely disregarding them, we should disarm the politician and journalist of much, perhaps most, of their power for evil, and thus give our civilization the one service of which it especially stands in need. If we are looking for an example of wisdom, insight, and integrity in their application to public affairs, let us find it in Falkland. Instead of permitting our attention to be caught and held by recommendations of person, party, or policy as conservative, liberal, radical, progressive, let us rather employ it in rigorously determining what the actual needs of the situation are, and then permit it to come to rest upon the simple and sufficient formula: “Mr. Speaker, when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change.”

(1) Mr. Ralph Adams Cram’s theory is that the human being is a distinct species, and that the immense majority of homo sapiens is not human, but is merely the raw material out of which the occasional human being is produced. I have already discussed this theory in the Atlantic of April 1935, in an essay called “The Quest of the Missing Link.” If this be true, the anarchist position would give way to the position of Spencer, that government should exist, but should abstain from any positive interventions upon the individual, confining itself strictly to negative interventions. I find myself inclining more and more towards Mr. Cram’s view, and shall probably embrace it, but not having as yet done so, I must still call myself an anarchist.

(2) William Warburton, bishop of Gloucester, 1760-1779. He said, “The Church, like the Ark of Noah, is worth saving; not for the sake of the unclean beasts that almost filled it, and probably made most noise and clamor in it, but for the little corner of rationality that was as much distressed by the stink within as by the tempest without.”

* The Republican presidential candidate in 1936 was Alf Landon, running against Franklin D. Roosevelt.

** It is ironic to note that 50 years after Nock wrote this article (1986) the Soviet Union was in turmoil and would fall in another two years.

*** Christians may be taken aback by this paragraph due to its seeming proposal of the “Men are Angels, not depraved” argument. But keep following Nock’s argument and you realize that he is not under the delusion that man is perfectible but that human cooperation is the general means of improving the lot of all mankind. Nock is not of the opinion that libertinism is correct either, because he clearly denotes the evil that men can perpetrate against other men.

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