The Four Pillars of Conservatism: it is not as Incoherent as it seems

by Bruce Webb

Family values/patriarchy; Property rights/inheritance; Public order/tradition; External defense/xenophobia.

Taken individually and in combination I think they serve to explain the essential unity of the various divides of modern conservatism into paleo-Cons, neo-cons, social values Cons, religious Cons, and perhaps most for my purposes the alignment of top level economic strata: bankers and factory owners with what are in economic terms their natural enemies: shopowners, small farmers, and even those factory workers. If we were all at heart Homo Oeconomicus, each seeking to maximize our our own self-interest, why would those groups accept an economic system openly rigged against them. (It is not like at any point in history or high or popular literature that bankers have been popular figures, instead they are Snidely Whiplash tying Sweet Nell to the tracks so as o get her property.

More below the fold.

First I don’t think that these four principles though perhaps are not exhaustive can be denied to be common among all conservative movements, although the stress falls at different levels. The question is whether there is a historical model that supplies an underlying unity here? I suggest there is, with the caution that it may only apply to the European and American models, though personally I see it as fairly explanatory in Asia as well.

This model was set out out by Fustel de Coulanges in his 1864 The Ancient City (1 MB). As a sourcebook for history it is not much consulted anymore, we know stupendously more about the religion of the classical and pre-classical era than we did in 1864, a date when when modern arcaheology and classical philology were still in their veritable infancies, and the discipline to which it actually best fell, that of Sociology, was not yet in formal existence as such. But examined with fresh eyes it offers a powerful key.

For Fustel the central unit of the society was the Household, the familia, the family, which was centered physically and spiritually around the hearth, the family fire. The hearth was not only the source of light and heat, it was the abode of the family spirits, in Latin the Lars and Penates, and it and them had to be propitiated by private family rites, to which the head of household was the Priest. Fustel meant this literally, that every family religion was in principal different, though of course the Family in the larger senses, the Kin, would naturally share most elements by inheritance from common ancestors.

Now it is a common feature of most world historical religions that they require precision in prayer and ritual, any error in recitation or performance potentially causing failure or worse, This is one reason why our oldest surviving languages are sacral in nature: Latin, Biblical Hebrew, Old Church Slavonic, Sanskript all survived in unchanged form among the priests and rabbis even as they spun off multiple modern descendants. For the Household change in these prayers and formulae were not just bad they were potentially disasterous, ‘new and shiny’ was fine for the children, ‘tried and true’ was the rule for the Householder.

But as crucially important as was the hearth, the center, equally important, and subject to its own set of religious and cultural practices were the household boundaries, first the threshold to the house, then the yard, typically marked by a wall or hedge. Each dileneated an area of special authority for the Householder, in Old English his ‘mund’ or ‘guardianship’, in origin related to I.E. ‘man-‘ hand.

These concepts are not obsolete today, we have a variety of sayings and concepts that incorporate them ‘hearth and home’ (in America mostly used to sell fireplaces, but a feature of British literature and poetry), ‘a man’s home is his castle’ and the age long rule that raising your fist to anyone in your host’s home is a direct insult to that host, he had extended the protection of the household over his guests, you can take your fighting off premises.

Anyway I could extend examples endlessly and will in comments, but I think this provides a pretty powerful explicatory model. Conservatives start with the principle of protecting the household. First and foremost that requires maintaining the traditions, particularly the religious ones, they are what provide continuity of the Family as a whole. Second that requires maintaining the authority of the Householder over the Family both as people and as fixed areas of building and land. Third while the obligation of obedience flows up, the Householder equally shares the obligation of maintance to all under his protection, and do what he can to secure that after he dies to at least enough family members to preserve the Family. Fourth the Householder is under obligation to defend the gate to his yard. But while a man may be king of his own castle, it is rarely an island, there are a lot more people outside the gate than inside.

The solution here is as age-old as the Family itself, it is the collective protection offered by the Tribe. And in Fustel’s model we have a simple replication. The Tribe will itself have its central hearth (just as each medieval village will have its smithy and bake oven), it will have it own set of religious practices, it will have its own yard whose terminus or limes will typically be marked by a wall which all householders are pledged to defend in time of need. And tribal leadership however constituted will extend its own mund over all that are withing those limes, just as the householder does over his guests, and woe to those who would violated either threshold, a ‘gate-crasher’ is not committing a innocent jest, instead that is a serious and even deadly crime.

Unflinching commitment to these four pillars; Primacy of Family/Property Rights/Tradition/External Defense can give rise to some outcomes that seem repugnant to those of a Social Democratic lean. In particular there are no natural obligations to any outside your Family or Household as defined by its Yard, simple humanity or the existence of a current surplus may lead you to feed the starving or cloth the freezing but not at expense of the Family, where that interest is decided and controlled by the Householder. On the other hand paying dues to the lord or taxes to the king is just the cost of paying them to organize the exterior defense of the town/tribe and/or not loot you directly, either way it serves to protect the integrity, physical and otherwise of the House and Family. Under this over-arching world-view the Other and the stranger are always a threat, at least potentially, to your House, and the borders of your Tribe or Village are literally sacrosanct, and marked by such at annual rituals.

Why would fairly low income conservatives oppose inheritance taxes even when they know they would never be exposed to them? Because they are a violation of pillar two Property Rights/Inheritance, each Householder has his own obligation which should not be impinged on externally. Why do conservatives loudly defend individual liberty in principle but endorse strict patriarchal control by the Householder? Because such liberty belongs to the Family and to family members outside the gates, once in the gate, and even more through the threshold and in the presence of the hearth, the Head of House takes control.

Social Democracy takes its organizing principle along the lines of “We are all on this Earth together” to which the Conservative replies “The Hell we are, Family first”. And before Liberals and Social Democrats rise ourselves up in indignation, we might remember that rich kids in Sweden almost certainly have better ski trips and summer vacations in Spain than do poor kids, even in the best of Social Democratic societies the tradeoffs between Family and Society only go so far.