Notes of a Neolithic Conservative

1. For green grass and clean rivers, children with bright eyes and good color, and people safe from being pushed around—for a few things like these, I find I am pretty ready to think away most other political, economic, and technological advantages.

Some Conservatives seem to want to go back to the Administration of McKinley. But when people are subject to universal social engineering and the biosphere itself is in danger, we need a more neolithic conservatism. So I propose maxims like “the right purpose of elementary schooling is to delay socialization” and “innovate in order to simplify, otherwise as sparingly as possible.”

Liberals want to progress, that is, to up the rate of growth by political means. But if the background conditions are tolerable, society will probably progress anyway, for people have energy, curiosity, and ingenuity. All the resources of the State cannot anyway educate a child, improve a neighborhood, give dignity to an oppressed man. Sometimes the state can provide capital for people to do for themselves; but mostly it should stop standing in the way and doing damage and wasting wealth. Political power may come out of the barrel of a gun, but, as John L. Lewis said, “You can’t dig coal with bayonets.”

2. Edmund Burke had a good idea of conservatism, that existing community bonds are destroyed at peril; they are not readily replaced, society becomes superficial and government illegitimate. It takes the rising of a prophet or some other irrational cataclysm to create new community bonds. It is like a love affair or a marriage—unless there is severe moral disagreement or actual physical revulsion, it is wiser to stay with it and blow on the embers, than to be happily not in love or not married at all. The hard decisions, of course, are when people imagine that they are already in love elsewhere; but nations of people are rather cautious about this.

In his American policy, Burke was a good conservative; he was willing to give up everything else to conserve the community bonds. It is just here that phony conservatives become trimmers and tokenists and talk about “virtual representation” or “maximum feasible participation of the poor,” protecting their vested interests. A proof that the American Revolution was justified is that the British government did not take Burke’s and Pitt’s advice. Later, during the French Revolution, Burke was a sentimentalist clinging to the bygone, for after Louis tried to go over to the invaders, there were no community bonds left to conserve.

3. The problem is to avoid emergency, when dictatorship is inevitable and decent people sometimes commit enormities. There was the real emergency of Hitler, and we have not yet finished with the growth of the military-industrial that was rooted back there. But Woodrow Wilson foresaw the military-industrial in 1916 and we did get out of it. So long as ancient Rome had vitality, it was able to dismiss its dictatorships. We, however, have trumped up the …

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Letters

O Canada! June 18, 1970