So The Reactionary Mind has made it into the New York Times for a third time. Writing in The Stone, the online section of the Times dealing with issues in contemporary philosophy, Gary Gutting, a philosopher at Notre Dame, weighs in on the debate the book has spawned:
Corey Robin’s new book presents conservatives as fundamentally committed to stopping “subordinate classes” from taking power from the ruling elite. Conservatism, Robin says, holds that “the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, to govern themselves or the polity.” Mark Lilla, however, has argued that Robin misrepresents the tradition of conservative thought.
Robin cites Edmund Burke: “The real object” of the French Revolution is “to break all those connections, natural and civil, that regulate and hold together the community by a chain of subordination.” Conservatism derived from the fear that the liberal project of democracy would destroy all the traditional privileges of men over women, employers over workers, rich over poor, educated over uneducated, whites over other races, etc.
We are all today liberals in the sense that we accept universal political inclusion. But we also tolerate and even support various forms of inequality, which amount to different degrees of political power. Differences in wealth, education, job, gender, race and age all in fact correspond to differences in power. Hardly anyone thinks all of these differences are bad, but conservatives on the whole think we have gone far enough or even too far in eliminating them, while liberals think that we are still far short of a proper distribution of power.
Many claim that the liberal-conservative division is over the role of government, with liberals supporting government intervention and conservatives opposing it. But the real issue is not so much whether government should intervene as on which side it should intervene. For the most part conservatives are, for example, quite in favor of government’s regulating the behavior of labor unions and limiting the ability of consumers to sue businesses, whereas liberals are generally opposed to these sorts of government interference.
I can’t quite tell if Gitting thinks he’s agreeing or disagreeing with me, but aside from some particulars, most of what he says in this passage is the basic argument of my book. And while I don’t agree with his conclusions at the end of the piece, I’m pleased by his framing of the issue. What it signifies is that we may at last be having the debate I was hoping to have about the meaning of conservatism and what the disagreement between the right and left is really all about.