David Frum and the Failure of Conservatism


David Frum reversed his position on gay marriage. Conservatives would have you believe that the case for or against it requires a review of evidence.

In framing his reversal this way, he’s misrepresenting his previous position, and glossing over the deeper question: is conservatism capable of producing coherent policies in a nation whose foundational values include equality, justice, and union?

Conservatism has been wrong on the most fundamental questions of human rights. The questions of slavery, women’s right to vote and interracial marriage were not decided by weighing evidence, and neither is the question of gay marriage.

David Frum, a conservative columnist, recently admitted “I Was Wrong About Same-Sex Marriage.”

In linking to his article on my facebook page, I stated:

“Oops! David Frum tries to backpedal his previous opposition to gay marriage. What he doesn’t understand is that this is an indictment not just of his previous position, but of conservatism generally.”

A friend asked about my strategy of chastising a person who has come to agree with me on one of my core issues. “Why not just pat him on the back and welcome him into the tent?”

David Frum didn’t invent his opposition to gay marriage ex nihilo; his core principle, conservatism, predictably led him to make this fundamental mistake.

In his reversal, Mr. Frum states:

“…the case against same-sex marriage has been tested against reality. The case has not passed its test.”

Frum’s conservatism seems to suggest an evidence-based requirement of change, and yet his position is not now nor ever was informed by evidence.

In his former arguments, Mr. Frum wasn’t asking that gay marriage be tested; quite the opposite. He and most other conservatives have viciously fought any attempt to grant rights to homosexuals.

To claim now that gay marriage has been tested and found innocuous is to subtly, but importantly, misrepresent the prior position. What is more important, it’s an attempt to ignore the core problem, which is the philosophy of conservatism.

Once upon a time, I was in Frum’s wingtips: conservative and firmly opposed to gay rights. I have a visceral memory, at age 12, when my elder half-brother revealed he was gay. I felt sick, wondering how this evil came to our family. I’d been taught that homosexuality was among the darkest sins.

As strongly as I felt then (my brother was disowned by my father and I’ve not seen him since), this moment set into motion a long unraveling of my ties to conservatism. Ten years later, when another brother emerged from the closet, I was in a better position to ask the foundational question: was my philosophy broken?

At first, I concluded that conservatism was sound, but was in error on this single issue. With time, I found that answer unsatisfying.

Conservative ideology has been wrong on the most fundamental questions of human rights: slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights, and gay rights. These errors are not discreet outliers in an otherwise sound philosophy; rather, they are direct evidence of the fundamental flaw of conservatism.

The inability to correctly answer basic questions of human equality is a key indicator of the poverty of a philosophy that seeks to build a democratic nation founded on equality.

The inability to correctly answer basic questions of human equality is a key indicator of the poverty of a philosophy that seeks to build a democratic nation founded on equality.

There’s no measure by which supporting slavery, denying the right of women to vote, disenfranchising black citizens or ridiculing homosexuals should lead a rational observer to conclude that conservatism has proven itself a worthy captain of democratic values.

Why Conservatism Fails

Scottish philosopher David Hume advanced the idea that reliance on the past as a predictor of the future is a shaky foundation; a house built on sand.

Conservatism places value on past knowledge, emphasizing culture, history and authority (god, religion) as the source of knowledge. Conservatism suggests the status quo has been earned, and change should be resisted.

In his previous anti-gay arguments, Mr. Frum suggested the foundation of the family was weak and that allowing gay marriage would further its decline. Leaving aside the absurdity of indicting gay marriage, which didn’t exist, for the then failure of heterosexual marriage, his primary error is that he was asking for evidence for change that he didn’t require of the status quo. Gay marriage had to prove itself. Heterosexual marriage, which by his own admission was in tatters, needed no proof.

David Frum had no rational basis for his position previously; it wasn’t a question of being persuaded by data, so it’s irrational to claim that his new position is data driven. Simply put, his previous view is now so unsustainable that he must change or become irrelevant.

What About Data?

In 1967, the United States Supreme Court ruled that laws barring interracial marriage were unconstitutional. The Justices of the Supreme Court didn’t commission a scientific study on the merits of interracial marriage, nor is their opinion based in analysis of data. From their decision:

Marriage is one of the “basic civil rights of man,” fundamental to our very existence and survival…. To deny this fundamental freedom on so unsupportable a basis as the racial classifications embodied in these statutes, classifications so directly subversive of the principle of equality at the heart of the Fourteenth Amendment, is surely to deprive all the State’s citizens of liberty without due process of law.

The justification for gay marriage is not found in a weighing of scientific evidence. The right to choose one’s own family is a fundamental human right.

Did Conservatives suddenly change their view on interracial marriage because the data suggested that it wouldn’t trigger armageddon? Of course not, and to make an argument for that change in social policy based on the weight of data would be ridiculous.

The errors of conservatism follow necessarily from the philosophy; they are not an aberration, but a predictable outcome to an authoritarian, patriarchal based understanding of the world that requires no evidence for what is, only for what might be.

To pat Mr. Frum on the back now would be to miss an opportunity to ask him and others in the conservative movement to critically examine the utility of their philosophy. If they don’t, then they’ll continue to deny justice and equal rights to their fellow citizens, and we’ll all miss out on the opportunity to experience a more perfect union.

  • Shawn

    Nicely put, Tim. I recall having a similar feeling after reading his reversal. I didn’t go quite as deep analyzing it but I definitely felt like the whole, “it’s been tried and proven safe” thing didn’t feel honest. I also felt like if his real protest originally had been, “we need to do a proper scientific experiment before moving forward,” then it seemed like he’s basing his findings on a pretty short and uncontrolled experiment. I totally agree with you that the experiment is entirely unnecessary but if you’re going to pretend like what you needed was an experiment then you might want to be a little more scientific about the whole thing. Which is to say, after reading his reversal I was pretty sure something else actually caused it but this explanation would help him keep his conservative cred until the rest of them caught up with him and it was safe to admit that he (as a conservative) thinks the ban on gay marriage is just flat wrong without being labelled a bleeding liberal (which would kill his career).

  • Timothy, I fully concur that strict conservatism does not offer a basis for implementing intentional societal change. But I’ve never met a strictly strict conservative. The conservatism I’ve encountered is always alloyed with other philosophies, approaches, or practices, whether abstract ideology or scientific empiricism or something else.

    It’s been a while since I ventured to original texts, but my recollection of Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France is that not even he advocated unalloyed conservatism (i.e., “never change anything”). Instead, the core of his argument was that (1) there is value and intelligence embedded in culture/society/government as it exists today (which I think of as a bit different from “the status quo is earned,” but perhaps they boil down to the same thing), (2) the extent of that value or intelligence is often more intricate and extensive than we realize, and (3) in order to avoid inadvertently losing the value and intelligence embedded in the status quo, we should require some relatively strong showing that a particular change is needed and beneficient before imposing it on society.

    As I recall, where I could no longer follow Burke’s reasoning was in deciphering how to apply his “strong showing” requirement before moving toward change. It seemed to me that for those areas where I wanted change to occur, the showing required by those more conservative than me was too high, while for those areas where I thought that the proposed change would be for the worse, the showing required by those less conservative than I seemed too low. IOW, I don’t quibble with Burke’s basic point about intelligence and value being embedded in innumerable aspects of society, but I find his philosophy indeterminate — it offers little useful guidance in deciding how to resolve in any given case.

    If my recollection of Burke is correct, even his notion of conservatism did allow it to be overcome in specific instances. He did not, initially at least, oppose the ideological basis for the French Revolution. I imagine that he was equally willing to allow rational argument, based on empirical evidence, to overcome various embedded practices in the social fabric, as well. But he certainly advocated starting from a position of conservatism: “there’s likely something here in the integral fabric of society that may be lost if we implement change; what might it be, what’s it’s value, and how might change affect it?”

    I note that it is not in matters of politics and law alone that Burke’s basic point holds true. Hippocrates taught his disciples the basic guideline to first do no harm to their patients. That was, as I understand it, a tacit acknowledgement of the intelligence and value embedded in the basic form of the human organism that Hippocrates’ disciples needed to be reminded of as they contemplated potential treatments. In everyday language, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” expresses the same basic idea.

    I think that it is abundantly clear that prohibiting marriage by persons of the same gender is a part of society that is, indeed, “broke” and needs fixing. But with regard to this blog post, I understand that that is beside the point. Even Mr. Frum, whose writing you critique, agrees with that point.

    As I read your post, you conclude that “fundamental human rights” determine the question entirely, without regard to evidence or competing societal objectives. As far as I can parse the meaning of “fundamental human right,” it is a conclusion applied to a solution that we use other equations to derive. Those other equations may include ideological appeal, personal experience, emotional sensibility, intuition, empirical data, and application of rational analysis. But all of them can factor in, despite your criticism of Mr. Frum’s doing so explicitly.

    I think that the process is easier to see when it is applied to something that is *not* uniformly agreed upon. I believe you and I have previously discussed one of my favorite examples of this kind of dilemma — what is termed “animal rights.” There is a group of people who are 100% convinced that owning, killing and eating animals are morally corrupt and morally corrupting practices. Their ideology is clear that there are “fundamental rights” that inhere in all sentient beings — not just in humans. They advocate, as you might expect, that society and government should implement laws that recognize and honor those rights, prohibiting the killing, ownership, or even mistreatment (let alone the roasting and eating) of sentient beings. In evaluating such proposed changes, Burkean conservatism would argue, I imagine, that the dependency of human welfare on the consumption and utilization of non-human lives is greater than we might imagine, and that before implementing the changes (some would call them “radical changes”) to society that would be necessitated by such legislation, we should first seek to understand those dependencies more clearly. To the extent that it is possible to arrange for “test cases” of limited scope to see how the changes might affect society at large, a Burkean might suggest that it would be wise to conduct those test cases. Similarly, a Burkean might suggest that such changes, if they are to be implemented, might better be implemented incrementally, rather than all-at-once. An animal rights advocate would respond to each of those conservativism-inspired arguments, “No — society should be governed not by conservative incrementalism, but by ideological recognition of fundamental rights, and those fundamental rights inhere in all sentient life, whether human or not.”

    Despite the use of the term “rights” or even “fundamental rights,” and despite the fact that I generally agree with those advocacy positions, I don’t disparage those who cling to the value they find in their current exploitation of non-human sentient beings. I think it not unreasonable for them to ask, essentially, “what’s in it for me?” Part of answering that question entails persuading them that they won’t starve if they stop eating cheeseburgers. So there’s an empirical component. The bigger task, of course, is lowering their resistance to change. Some of that will be accomplished by education — once people see clearly how intelligence and sentience is manifested in non-humans, they tend to identify more closely with those non-humans. I take it that my task in this situation is to work to help them see how they relate to sentient beings of all kinds and to help them soften the sharp lines they draw between their “self-interest” and the interests of other beings.

    Once they come around to my way of seeing, the question of “what’s in it for me?” will answer itself. And once it does, I’ll wager that at least some of them will label their conclusion a matter of “fundamental rights,” rather than a rational, pro/con evaluation.

  • Thanks for the comments, Sean. I have met a strict conservative; a man, about my age, whose religious beliefs inform him that in the Garden of Eden, knowledge was perfect, and human understanding has been deteriorating since.

    I agree that many don’t hold such a pure view of their own political philosophy, mixing in ideas and desires from disparate sources; still, I think it matters to tease out the underlying foundational arguments that are most frequently used to defend given positions.

    Relative to communal law, I’d argue that knowledge improves over time in at least two distinct ways: 1) humans are improving our systematic analysis of data & 2) our individual desires exist in the context of now, and are therefore better served by laws that take now into account.

    Conservatism grants a priori preference to the past, accepting at face value the “intelligence and value” embedded in culture. However, in a world where we are better at gathering data and better situated to understand present desire, it is dangerous to give too much weight to past understanding.

    I work everyday in the legislative process in a major City. The notion that building codes, as an example, were better 40 years ago then they are now, or even 10 years ago, would elicit a chuckle from nearly everyone involved in the process of reviewing building codes. This holds true for most nuts & bolts legislative actions; the world changes, our understanding changes, and therefore, law should change.

    As for basic human rights, I do not require evidence for the free right of association. Our shared, foundational values require us to grant wide latitude to individuals to shape their own lives. We are to be in Union with those whose desires are different from our own; if we can’t accommodate the disparate desires of others, then our union fails, as it should. There should be no a priori granting of my desires over your desires.

    Which brings me to your example of animal rights. We have agreed upon governing documents that grant both specific (narrow) and abstract (expansive) rights to “people.” At this point, I don’t understand our joint governing agreements to include a similar view of rights for animals. I may be persuaded to such a view, and if so, we’ll need to amend our Constitution to include animal rights.

    Either way, a progressive view of communal law will allow for that change much more readily than will a conservative view.

    See my previous article: Foundational Values: A More Perfect Union

  • As has often been the case in discussions between us, I think we both see things relatively similarly, though our specific foci of attention and emphasis differ. In these exchanges, I sometimes struggle to identify actual (rather than semantic) differences.

    One point of departure, perhaps: you appeal to “agreed upon governing documents” and your (and impliedly “our”) understanding of those documents as a reason to require persuasion that non-humans (note: not “non-people”) should be treated differently. That, to my eye, is a relatively conservative position; it is appealing to a status quo that embodies enough value and intelligence that you are unwilling to accept without more my assertion that non-humans merit the same “fundamental rights” that you afford humans.

    From my perspective, there’s nothing wrong with the recognition of value and intelligence being embedded in what is, nor in the acknowledgement that that value and intelligence may be greater than I consciously understand and recognize. I take that as the essence of Burkean conservatism. A super-strict form of conservatism strikes me as delusional, especially when it results in the insistence either that (1) objectively, nothing ever changes, or (2) normatively, nothing ever should change.

    So it may be that I see things I’d label as essential conservatism that you would not. Again, I doubt that we are actually seeing the same things differently. But I’m willing to be proven wrong about that.

  • Sean, re animal rights. My point is simply that in the abstraction of human communal relationships, there is enough that naturally divides us that we simply must first appeal to that which unites us. A large part of the project I’ve undertaken here is to tease out those foundational values that are shared among us.

    I am persuadable that animals deserve rights, and I acknowledge that my position may be uninformed and simply conservative. In my appeal to progressivism, I don’t make the claim that a progressive will make no mistakes, but simply that a progressive is better equipped to overcome mistakes in thinking, and the example you raise is salient. Granting rights to animals would be a radical transformation of the union we now think of as protected by the Constitution.

    The difference as I see it, and here I’ll draw the analogy back to Frum and his conversion on the question of gay marriage, is that I would not argue that animals don’t deserve rights simply because that’s how we’ve done things in the past, I hope my appeal would be based in questions of ability to grant consent, to take oaths of citizenship, etc. In other words, where I charge that Frum is being disingenuous over his now appeal to data in resolving the question of rights for gay individuals, I may be delusional in a belief that my lack of advocacy for animal rights is rooted in actual data.

    But, if I’m wrong…I look forward to rectifying my position as soon as possible. I’m teachable. I don’t hold a dogmatic view based on historical legacy. I expect the world to be different tomorrow than it is today, and that I’ll need to apologize for wrongs I’ve committed that I don’t yet understand.

    A final note on conservatism; I don’t believe that we need to point our analysis at pure conservatives in order to criticize the position. It think the net result of granting honor to historical positions “just because’ is quite damaging to humanity.