A call to conservative pessimism

Look no further than John Derbyshire's photo on the book jacket to know what's in his mind. The National Review contributing editor scowls above his bow-tie, his eyebrows narrowed in cartoonish dyspepsia. The countenance suits the mood of his humorous but deadly serious blast at Republicans: "We Are Doomed: Reclaiming Conservative Pessimism." In Derbyshire's world, America's future will be a lot brighter once conservatives reclaim their proper, pessimistic temperament. Embrace the audacity of hopelessness!

GUEST BLOGGER: John Derbyshire

We have recently emerged from a century during which great nations were laid waste, and immeasurable suffering caused, by utopian schemes of human and social perfection. Even in jurisdictions where these schemes did not completely capture public policy, the ideas that inspired them became lodged in the minds of intellectuals, significantly corrupting education, law, statecraft, and the mass media.

The American conservative movement has not been immune to the infection. Where conservatives have not actively collaborated in happy-face lies about human perfectibility, they have stood by silently while liberal policy-makers repeated, on a more modest scale, the nation-wrecking projects of socialism. The glorification of state power; the denial of core truths about human nature; futile social-engineering enterprises; adventures in Wilsonian paternalism abroad; the debasing of popular culture; abandonment of fiscal restraint; all these evils have been advanced by persons claiming, with straight faces, to be conservatives.

My book aims to return conservatives to their senses. The other party raises the banner blazoned "Yes, We Can!" We conservatives are here to say the opposite thing, adding, as necessary, "... because we can't afford it," or "... because human nature isn't like that," or "... because that's not the business of a commercial republic," or "... because it's not wise to impose dramatic change on something that works decently well."

To counter the argument that the United States is a fundamentally optimistic nation, I summon the Calvinists of old New England, who even managed to be pessimistic about the Afterlife. I further call on our nation's stoical, skeptical Founders, who believed that "There is danger from all men" (John Adams)," that "Few men have virtue to withstand the highest bidder" (George Washington), and that "Even under the best forms of government, those entrusted with power have ... perverted it into tyranny." (Thomas Jefferson).

I bring to the witness stand great gloominaries past and present: Juvenal and Dr. Johnson, Calvin Coolidge and Enoch Powell, Rudyard Kipling and Samuel Beckett, Samuel Huntington and Pat Buchanan. I claim Ronald Reagan for the cause of pessimism, too. Proper conservative pessimism is not incompatible with a sunny personality. Pessimism is for everyone!

Humanity is always capable of some moral and material improvement, and I do not want conservatives to shun all proposals for such. I do, though, want them to return to the true conservative understandings that those proposals need to be carefully scrutinized with a skeptic's cold eye, an accountant's pencil, and a true understanding of human nature; that only very rarely has government been a capable agent of improvement; and that even the best such schemes are subject to the law of diminishing returns.

That a too-conservative approach to public affairs might retard necessary progress, does not seem to me a pressing threat, to put it very mildly. We are not currently under-supplied with world-improvers and promises of universal blessings; we are under-supplied with doubt, restraint, and parsimony. It is for the conservative movement to make up the supply. Liberals, with their airy denial of human reality, can never do so.

How can conservatives reclaim successful pessimism? By mocking, refuting, and defying the world-savers.


By Steven E. Levingston |  January 22, 2010; 5:30 AM ET Politics , Steven Levingston
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