Making the Philippines right: some books on conservatism

was my Trade Tripper column in the 20-21 August 2016 issue of BusinessWorld:

An aspect of Philippine politics that needs maturing (there are many but let’s focus on one) is the need for competing political philosophies. The Left at least has been admirable (let’s grudgingly admit) for their consistency, effort, and determination in pushing for their beliefs. Confused and unworkable those beliefs may be. But it’s far better than the alternative, which practically does not exist. Or if it does, is an incoherent mishmash of religiosity and emotion.

It would be good then to have a streamlined Conservative thought serving as counterweight to the insanity prevailing in our politics.

Probably because of its name, “conservatism” (the different strands of which we’ll try discussing in future articles) seems static or merely interested in the status quo. Which is false. If there’s one thing conservatism truly stands for it is freedom -- personal freedom correctly understood.

Hopefully, the following books discussed here, mentioned in no particular order, help in spreading conservatism in the Philippines.

Admittedly, conservatives and liberals both want the same things; the difference is the means of achieving them. Conservatives work with reality.

As John Finnis (of the brilliant Natural Law and Natural Rights) points out in one occasion: “Reality is known in judgment, not in emotion. In reality, whatever the generous hopes and dreams and thoughts [will always have to give way to what is actually there].” For conservatives, as for Thoreau: “any truth is better than make-believe.”

For progressives, borrowing the words of Roger Scruton (from his book How to be a Conservative), unfortunately, the “fictions were far more persuasive than the facts, and more persuasive than both was the longing to be caught up in a mass movement of solidarity,” with the end that their “solutions” are actually but “dreams.”

You can tell if a writing is done by a conservative or liberal: the latter’s are mostly incomprehensible academic gibberish (Scruton describing it as when the “nonsense machine began to crank out its impenetrable sentences, of which nothing could be understood except that they all had ‘capitalism’ as their target”). And there’s a reason. Again, Scruton: “Intellectuals are naturally attracted by the idea of a planned society, in the belief that they will be in charge of it.”

The foregoing was from his magisterial Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left. His delicious eviscerations of left-wing thinkers like Lacan, Derrida, or Habermas alone make the book worth reading and rereading. Had he included targeting Rawls, this book would have been perfect.

Which is therefore one of the reasons why Robert George’s Conscience and its Enemies is necessary reading. Aside from critiquing Rawls (on the way to describing Finnis’s work), George makes a strong push for the traditional family institution:

“When my liberal colleagues in higher education say: ‘You guys shouldn’t be worried so much about these social issues, about abortion and marriage; you should be worrying about poverty,’ I say: ‘If you were genuinely worried about poverty, you would be joining us in rebuilding the marriage culture.’ Do you want to know why people are trapped in poverty in so many inner cities? The picture is complex, but undeniably a key element of it is the destruction of the family and the prevalence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies and fatherlessness.”

Another fundamental area differentiating conservatives from liberals is regarding truth. For conservatives, the seeking of truth is the raison d’être of education and knowledge. Liberals, generally, believe there are no absolutes, that truths are unprovable, relative, or inexistent. Hence, Scruton’s perfect response for students vis-à-vis their relativist professors: anyone “who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.”

Speaking of truth, of course, no one beats Joseph Ratzinger: “The truth is not decided by popular opinion.”

For that matter, his Truth and Tolerance (though he himself would refuse the political label of “conservative”) is obligatory. To those proclaiming belief in God but not in religion, this is his response: “the concept of Christianity without religion is contradictory and illusory. Faith has to express itself as a religion and through religion.”

Which leads us to the great William F. Buckley, Jr. (God and Man at Yale): “I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.”

And he was prophetic in 1959’s Up From Liberalism: “Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.”

Ultimately, what makes a conservative (per Russel Kirk, A Conservative Mind) is intellectual humility -- that man cannot know, should never presume to know, all the answers; thus, the “belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience. Political problems, at bottom, are religious and moral problems.”