Conservatism and the Limitations of Self-Reliance

Published May 8, 2013

Commentary Magazine

In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Moore has written a review of Jesse Norman’s new biography on the man Norman refers to as “the first conservative,” Edmund Burke (h/t Peggy Noonan).

Mr. Moore’s review includes this elegant conclusion:

As his struggles for America, Ireland and Corsica showed, Burke was no automatic defender of existing authority. But what he understood, and expressed with immense rhetorical power, was how human beings stand in relation to one another. Although they are morally autonomous individuals, they do not – cannot – live in isolation. In our language, laws, institutions, religion, and in our families, we are part of a continuum.

Society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born’’. It is not society that keeps mankind in chains, but the pretence that now is the only time that matters. Almost every piece of rot you hear in politics comes from those who wish to lock man into what WH Auden called “the prison of his days.” It is comforting that the Burkean Jesse Norman is in the House of Commons to tell them when they are wrong.

It strikes me that this ancient insight–of how we do not live in isolation, that we are part of a continuum–has been a bit neglected by American conservatives in recent years. The emphasis one hears these days has to do almost solely with liberty, which of course is vital. But there is also the trap of hyper-individualism. What’s missing, I think, is an appropriate appreciation–or at least a public appreciation–for community, social solidarity, and the common good; for the obligations and attachments we have to each other and the role institutions play in forming those attachments.

It’s not exactly clear to me why conservatives have neglected these matters. It may be the result of a counter-reaction to President Obama’s expansion of the size, scope, and reach of the federal government, combined with a growing libertarian impulse within conservatism. Whatever the explanation, conservatives are making an error–a political error, a philosophical error, a human error–in ignoring (at least in our public language) this understanding of the richness and fullness of life.

Conservatism has never been simply about being left alone. It is not exclusively about self-reliance, individual drive and “rugged individualism,” as important as these things are. We need to be careful about portraying life in a constricted way, since our characters and personalities and sensibilities are shaped by so many other factors and forces and people all along the way.

Self-reliance surely has a place in our lives. But we also rely on families and friends–and for many of us, on a community of fellow believers–to help us walk through periods of doubt and hardship and failure, as well as to share in our joys and achievements and milestones. We are a part of the main. And I imagine most of us are far more dependent than we ever fully admit on the grace and generosity, the sacrifice and love of others.

Less often than I should, when recalling the most important and supportive people in my life–the ones who have left an imprint on me that will never fade and blessed me in ways I can never fully repay–I have thought back to the words of St. Paul, in his letter to the saints at Philippi: “I thank my God upon my every remembrance of you.”

The human loves, C.S. Lewis said, can be glorious images of Divine love. We depend on both, and we should probably say so more often than we do.

Peter Wehner is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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