Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

The "conservative mind" today

In an effort to define contemporary conservatism, Dartmouth professor emeritus Jeffrey Hart (no slouch, he) provokes. Aside from the typical critique of GWB’s "Wilsonian" foreign policy, there’s this about abortion:

Burke had a sense of the great power and complexity of forces driving important social processes and changes. Nevertheless, most conservatives defend the "right to life," even of a single-cell embryo, and call for a total ban on abortion. To put it flatly, this is not going to happen. Too many powerful social forces are aligned against it, and it is therefore a utopian notion.


Roe relocated decision-making about abortion from state governments to the individual woman, and was thus a libertarian, not a liberal, ruling. Planned Parenthood v. Casey supported Roe, but gave it a social dimension, making the woman’s choice a derivative of the women’s revolution. This has been the result of many accumulating social facts, and its results already have been largely assimilated. Roe reflected, and reflects, a relentlessly changing social actuality. Simply to pull an abstract "right to life" out of the Declaration of Independence is not conservative but Jacobinical. To be sure, the Roe decision was certainly an example of judicial overreach. Combined with Casey, however, it did address the reality of the American social process.

Get it? Asserting a right to life is "not conservative but Jacobinical." This from a man who insists upon the importance of "religion in its magisterial forms," which is to say something like the Roman Catholic Church, which I guess is "Jacobinical" in its magisterial pronouncements on abortion. I suppose that the Roman Catholic Church--or any other--should only assert its authority in a manner consonant with "the reality of the American social process." It shouldn’t stand athwart history shouting "Stop!", but perhaps only "Slow down a tad, would you please?!?"

Professor Hart also invokes the shade of William James, whose philosophy was "always open to experience and judging by experience within given conditions." But isn’t Jamesian pragmatism an "enemy of the permanent things"?

I could say much more, but this seems sufficient to provoke some discussion. Can Professor Hart have it both ways, appealing to the power of the magisterial religious traditions and accommodating to "the reality of the American social process"? Is prudence the equivalent of Jamesian pragmatism, or is it informed by high principle, attempting to instantiate and embody it in ways consistent with "the facts on the ground."

Update: Jonah Goldberg has some thoughts. For the source of Hart’s animus, one might consider this.

Update #2: There’s lot’s more at The Corner.

Discussions - 14 Comments

I see very little constitutional principle, no prudence, and much animus in Professor Hart’s recent and current diatribes and other literary efforts.

IIRC, the late Robert Nisbet wrote a very similar screed against the prolife movement years ago in "Prejudices: A Philosophical Dictionary."

I didn’t find Nisbet especially persuasive then, and don’t think Hart does any better now. I take a generally prolife view mostly on Socratic grounds: Nobody has ever convinced me that even a very young offspring of a human (and a human fetus is surely the offspring of a human) should be a complete nonsubject in the eyes of justice (reduction to nonsubject in the eyes of justice being what a policy of abortion-on-demand amounts to). As always seems to be the case with abortion arguments, it comes down to where you distribute the burden of proof. But Hart doesn’t reach this level of argument at all. He’s basically just complaining that prolifers are stubborn. OK, they’re stubborn. So what? And it seems to me that you don’t have to "pull" very hard to derive a right to life from the Declaration of Independence--it’s right there in the plain language of the text, so why does Hart use a loaded expression suggesting that prolifers are torturing the text somehow, like it’s a piece of taffy?

I totally agree with both of Lando’s thoughts. Nisbet is one of the great conservative thinkers, but he was wrong on abortion. Hart’s "Jacobin" comment is both wrong and stupid.

both ways...?

Haven’t Catholics and Black Protestants had it both ways since Roe in 1973? Economic issues to the former, and Civil Rights to the latter have always trumped the Roe card when played. To both Catholics and Blacks alike I have laid the abortion card before them at election time. Their response is always the same, "Oh, yeah": as in, "Gee I forgot about that one."

Oh, well.

Hart has one motivation: Christianity is false and Christians need to be stopped. Other than that, there’s no there there. Question: this isn’t how his columns used to read back in the 1980’s when he wrote, for example, for Human Events, is it??

Hart isn’t hostile to Christianity as such, just to evangelicalism, which he regards as merely emotional and lacking in intellectual depth. There are even evangelical intellectuals who would say this about much (but, I emphasize, not all) of American evangelicalism. But he’s also at odds with the deepest and most thoughtful strands of Roman Catholicism, as articulated by the current Pope and his predecessor.

The critique of Hart’s moral realism on the subject of abortion can be equally, if not better, applied to his critique of Bush’s foreign policy, which Hart dismisses as Wilsonian.

Conservatives may be opposed to idealogy but we still must adhere to principles. We can nitpick but Hart is essentially correct in that idealogy is a result of a utopian world view. Principles -- while usually tied to absolutes, whether religious or otherwise -- are to be adhered to despite, maybe because of, our recognition that this is and always will be a flawed world. That is, you can adhere to the principle of equality while recognizing the world will never be perfectly equal.

We can adhere to the principle of the right to life of all humans, including those unborn, while recognizing we will never prevent all abortion. Similarly, we can adhere to the principles of freedom, representative government, and self (national) defense while recognizing no human government will ever perfectly ensure freedom, equality, or security for its citizens. This is especially worth keeping in mind when the likely government will be even further from perfection than our own, as we see taking shape in Iraq.

Adhering to principles isn’t utopian. It just means you still believe in a right and a wrong.

Hart’s comments on the pro-life movement being Jacobinical are dead wrong - they would probably be more a reflection of the ancien regime if you want to use the ideas of the French Revolution. As for the Court, it should be bound by the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence’s natural law principles - the "apple of gold in the frame of silver" in Lincoln’s words. Hart’s comments are reflective of the "living Constitution" and pragmatic progressivism in which the Court needs to follow society’s changing mores rather than immutable principles. What if "experience" told us that slavery was justified under the law or repression of women or genocide?
After all, the ideas of a society can
change and the Court must keep up.
Be careful, sometimes the Weimar Republic can become Nazi Germany. History is not always progressive with the onward march of progress.

It is curious for Professor Hart to endorse the Burkean emphasis on the importance of prudence yet chastise pro-lifers and suggest that conservatives should accommodate abortion. I see nothing "prudent" about sucking an unborn baby’s brain out. To pretend that Burke would endorse such barbarism is rather more than one should have to tolerate.

Ultimately, Hart’s argument was an "inevitability" argument: "Nevertheless, most conservatives defend the "right to life," even of a single-cell embryo, and call for a total ban on abortion. To put it flatly, this is not going to happen. Too many powerful social forces are aligned against it, and it is therefore a utopian notion."

There was a time when conservatives also thought stopping the tide of New Deal liberalism was impossible.

Ultimately, Hart’s view is that of an Old Tory: That the purpose of conservatives is to make concessions as slowly and as gracefully as possible. Thankfully, anti-Communists like Ronald Reagan and small government conservatives like Rep. Mike Pence do not subscribe to this pessimistic and operationally suicidal view.

The pro-life view is not "utopian", it is practical. The demographic collapse of Western Europe, Russia and Japan should be sufficient warning about what happens when a society loses the will to propagate itself. The 1 million-plus abortions a year is nothing less than a civilizational suicide note. Such folly must be resisted.

In the earliest contribution to this series in the Wall Street Journal, the British conservative Roger Scruton made an excellent argument that conservatism is about conserving life. From this perspective, being pro-life should be at the center of every conservative’s moral universe.

Professor Hart wants to assert the inherent flexibility of conservativism, and that indeed conservatives understand and embrace gradual change. Such sentiments can be found in Burke. But what he overlooks is Burke’s notion that society is a pact between the dead, the living, and the unborn. Like Rousseau, Professor Hart privileges the living at the expense of honoring our traditions and securing the rights of the next generation.

In short, Professor Hart needs another lesson in true conservativism.

I haven’t read much of Hart, but from your summary Professor K, it sounds like he, like Burke, is afraid of bringing natural rights into the public square. Hence the reference to the French Revolution. Is that on target?

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"A controversy has exploded in the Blogopshere over Jeffrey Hart’s article in the Wall Street Opinion Journal and his attempt to summarize and define modern American conservatism...Joseph Knippenberg @ No Left Turns (check out the comments section)"

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