Stephen J. Tonsor, who in 1964 was teaching at the University of Michigan, contributed "The Conservative Search for Identity" to Frank Meyer's WHAT IS CONSERVATISM?
According to Professor Tonsor, liberals in 1964 were extremely confused, even conflicted. “The Liberal intellectual,” wrote Tonsor, “desires [social and political] movement but refuses to pay the price for movement; he desires nonconformity and creativity but refuses to tolerate the divergences of viewpoint and the frequent eccentricity which are the price of nonconformity. He wishes creativity but is uncomfortable with the messiness of failed experiments and failed lives which creativity produces. For the organic reconciliation of opposites, which is the measure of a healthy society, he has substituted the myth of ‘pluralism,’ the dream of a multitude of mutually exclusive and hostile social units and individuals which coexist, but which fail either to stimulate to action or to enrich the common group.”
All of which is why the time was right, in 1964, for conservatives to step up and take charge, except that “The blunt truth is that most conservatives do not know what manner of men they are; they have no clear conception of the society they wish to create, have no organic relationship either to the present or the past, hold no grand design, entertain no enduring principles, and are responsible to no whole and healthy vision either of man or society. Their discourse consists of the platitudes of political criticism, and, however salutary and necessary this may be, it is neither a substitute for principle nor a guide for action.”
Well—how very distressing: Clowns to the left of me, jokers to the right...Fortunately, Professor Tonsor had some ideas as to how to correct the situation. He suggested calling on the wisdom of Lord Acton and Alexis de Tocqueville, two nineteenth-century worthies who “reconciled, in their lives and their thinking, authority and freedom; anticipated the modern world with all of its problems; and worked towards viable and optimistic solutions. They both stood near the center of power; they both mistrusted power and spoke repeatedly of its corrupting influence…Both were deeply religious men, but both stood near the edge of heresy. Both suspected the worst of human nature, but optimistically hoped for the best…Both combined in their thought and in their lives such a devotion to both principle and freedom as ought to distinguish the contemporary conservative.”
So there you have it: as a conservative, just ask yourself, what would Lord Acton do? What would Alexis de Tocqueville do? And you’re on the path to conservative wisdom.
Professor Tonsor also emphasized the importance of religious liberty, a cause near and dear to conservative hearts these days. He recommended “Tax monies…be employed for the support of church schools” and that “nonsectarian religious education should be a part of the educational program of the public schools,” a dubious proposition that has been revived recently by Stephen Prothero. Tonsor advocated“faculties of theology [to] be associated with the state university systems. They will, by taking a large part of the educational structure out of the hands of the state, insure an area of liberty and nonconformity to the popular prejudices of Liberal secularism.” That last strikes me as incoherent; how would theology at state universities amount to "taking [education] out of the hands of the state”? In any case, good luck to anyone who attempts to implement such proposals; the fuss and furor over whose religion gets taught in public schools and how it gets presented will make arguments over school prayer or over the teaching of evolution look like a tempest in a sectarian teapot.
Professor Tonsor was careful to note that “just as certainly, the coercive power of the state ought not to be employed to enforce religion’s observation or to intrude itself into the realm of private as distinct from public morality. The enforcement of orthodoxy, even in the seemingly benign form of ‘blue laws,’ constitutes a danger to the individual’s freedom of conscience.” It would seem to follow, then, that religious objections to things like abortion, same-sex marriage, and contraception ought not be codified into laws that prohibit people with different religious beliefs (or none at all) from acting according to their conscience; in other words, freedom of religion is freedom to practice your beliefs, not freedom to impose them on others.
Tonsor’s overall theme was that, in modern times (post-Reformation), the elevation of the individual conscience into a position of authority had led to drastic social and political consequences (including the perils, both real and potential, of democracy). His most valuable observation, however, may have been this:
“Perhaps with the destructive…tendencies innate in democratic society, it were better to follow the advice of those conservatives who would halt the economic and social developments which have overtaken our society and, if not set back the clock, at least prevent the further democratization of our society. [But] conservatives who think in these terms…are living in a world of illusion. Conservatism, for good or ill, is the child of change as much as it is the child of tradition. From Burke to Buckley it has combined conservative ideas with revolutionary politics and economics. Capitalism and personal freedom are the two most revolutionary ideas in modern society. And, even more important, we live in a revolutionary society which will not be deflected from the course of change. Technologically and socially we are in the grip of vast and constant changes. There is no turning back. Indeed, there has been no turning back in our dynamic Western society since the tenth century. Democracy and increasing social and economic equality are the givens of the society in which we live.” [Emphasis added]
It's beyond refreshing to discover a conservative author acknowledging that the most unsettling forces of modernity are the very things that conservatives claim to prize. And then, the recognition that equality is and must be a central concern--what was Professor Tonsor, some sort of closet Jacobin? If so, perhaps so too were his heroes M. de Tocqueville and Lord Acton. Tonsor quoted de Tocqueville:
“Almost all the revolutions that have changed the aspect of the nations have been made to consolidate or to destroy social inequality. Remove the secondary causes that have produced the great convulsions of the world and you will almost always find the principle of inequality at the bottom. Either the poor have attempted to plunder the rich, or the rich to enslave the poor. If, then, a state of society can ever be founded in which every man shall have something to keep and little to take from others, much will have been done for the peace of the world.”
That sounds positively and dreadfully egalitarian! And, claimed Tonsor, “Lord Acton was no less certain of the necessity for a wide and just distribution of the material resources of life. He wrote, ‘There is no liberty where there is hunger…The theory of liberty demands strong efforts to help the poor. Not merely for safety, for humanity, for religion, but for liberty.’ Property, if it is a natural right, must be so broadly based as to fall to all men who make a genuine contribution to their society.”
Tonsor was here echoing the likes of Hillaire Belloc and G.K.Chesteron and their economic theory of “Distributism”. Dorothy Day had some affinity for the idea as well. Contemporary conservatives might learn some lessons from the Distributists (Pascal-Emmanuel Gobry has written on the subject); even if Distributism is unworkable as a system, it contains insights about the defects of capitalism (from a conservative view) that remain relevant.
Tonsor's conclusion on the subject of equality was this: "The theory of democracy requires an ever increasing degree of equality, and unless this can be achieved through the instrumentality of a market economy and an advanced technology, it will be achieved by the hand of the demagogue or the tyrant.”
While today's right-wing scaremongers will eagerly seize on the last part of that, Tonsor's point was that conservatives cannot afford not to deal with inequality; it cannot simply be chalked up to the vagaries of capitalism or blamed on the character defects of the “losers” in our competitive society; it must be, and it will be, rectified--one way or another.
I don’t want to misrepresent Professor Tonsor as some sort of redistributionist liberal (which he was assuredly not), so let me add that he concludes his essay with a powerful plea on behalf of the importance of religion:
“Religion is important to the democratic state not only because it preserves the fabric of society but also because it acts as the most important power to check the aggressive, centralizing, and totalitarian tendencies of the modern state. Without a strong religion, which remains outside and independent of the power of the state, civil liberty is unthinkable. The power of the state is, in part, balanced and neutralized by the power of the church. The freedom of the individual is most certain in that realm which neither church nor state can successfully occupy and dominate.”
In some ways, this is a version of “divide and conquer”: pit various institutional forces against each other, letting each neutralize or at least restrain the other, thereby allowing the individual free space in which to flourish. It's by no means a bad strategy, though it still requires that government keep watch to see that none of the private-sector forces become too dominant (while citizens and courts likewise keep watch against government overreach). Liberals and conservatives should be able to agree that the worst of all possible political worlds is one in which there is but one dominant power or in which all the dominant powers (State, Church, and Corporation) are allied together. If the twentieth century taught us nothing else, it should have taught us that.