Friendly days. Donald Trump and China's Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit in Hamburg on July 8. Photo: Reuters/Saul Loeb
Friendly days. Donald Trump and China's Xi Jinping at the G20 Summit in Hamburg on July 8. Photo: Reuters/Saul Loeb

We are about to discuss conservatism. Why? Because two of the most important decision-makers in today’s world are President Donald Trump of the US and President Xi of China.

At this moment, they are composing joint actions in respect of North Korea, that nation led by a man, Kim Jong-un, who seems opportunistic, yet is quite malleable when he is in the hands of players who, if they work together and are willing to share responsibility, can unalterably control his behavior and eventual fate.

The two presidents operate in ways different from one another to be sure, but yet might both be called “conservative.” Their mutual actions over the next year or so will affect the welfare of the rest of the world. Perhaps discussing the core ideas shared by almost all conservatives will help us uncover what is common to both presidents and to foresee the outcome of the present confrontation among those three players.

A friend of ours, a university professor of philosophy, who in common parlance would be called a “conservative,” sent us a note claiming that standard conservatism is “incoherent.”  We are tempted to say to him, paraphrasing poet/philosopher Walt Whitman: “Yes, we (assuming for the moment that we are OK with being called conservative ourselves) contradict ourselves –so what – we are large, we contain multitudes.”  This is a recognition by us that beliefs about deeply embedded social/political institutions are complex, as are the intuitions themselves.  Simple Yes/No attitudes cannot be demanded from serious people when asked whether or not they “agree with” (eg) free markets or not – or whether conservatism is coherent or not.

Perhaps all our friend means by the word “incoherent” is that the two figurative “clusters of ideas” that represent the operating rules followed by Trump and Xi are made up of different individual “grapes” taken from the same hybrid/conservative “grapevine” but do share the same root system.

Worldwide, the entire spectrum of political parties, belief systems, economic policy debates is shifting, merging and evolving at a rate rarely seen in the modern history of political philosophy

So, the issue raised by our colleague is not merely a faculty club debating point.  Worldwide, the entire spectrum of political parties, belief systems, economic policy debates is shifting, merging and evolving at a rate rarely seen in the modern history of political philosophy. For example, even the terrorists who murdered over 3,000 innocent people on September 11 are called members of a conservative religion. Trump’s opposition to what passes in the real world as “free trade” was a classically Republican conservative policy in the early middle of the 20th century. So is the language of “America First.”

“Core Leader” Xi has that title since he heads the Chinese state, the governing Communist Party, and the Chinese military as well.  Those “headships” are recently extended without any clear endpoint; so, one might say his status revives and conserves the old idea of an emperor who allows subsidiary bureaucrats and local officials substantial leeway while keeping control at the top.  The left-leaning Brookings Institution says: “Xi’s approach is … politically conservative and economically liberal [they mean “market-supporting”]” Brookings mentions Xi’s goal of “an innovation-driven economy: … [support for] Chinese think-tanks… Xi’s own economic team consists of many US-trained financial technocrats … he urged the party leadership to recruit foreign-educated returnees.”  The word conservative is elastic.

Our purpose is to discuss conservatism in a manner that is proof against the criticisms of our friend and shows why the two presidents might find it mutually beneficial to work together.

First, we quote from the note of our friend.  “‘Conservatism’ … has a plethora of meanings. … one element, … is that we should not try to change the social, economic, and political order with radical changes if the current arrangements have stood the test of time. This principle, … applies … across times and cultures, … [it]… maintains [our reason is] limited and cannot devise social, economic and political policies that radically change the existing arrangements. The complexities of our social, economic, and political orders … [are] too complicated to “figure out” what is best. Change … should be incremental.”

We agree so far.  But the philosopher goes on to say: “… this “brand” of conservatism [is] incoherent. … [such]  conservative(s)… are strong supporters of the American republic and constitutionalism. But the American revolution was a radical change to the existing order. … British monarchism had withstood the test of time … not only the American Revolution, which was a radical change, so too was the end of slavery, the introduction of Christianity into the Western world, making marriage into a sacrament, even the market economy and the end of guilds. [Conservatives say] …  there are better ways of achieving [such] … policies. This … is incoherent, since it [favors] … “radical” policy … devised to replace what has withstood the test of time.”

We interpolate at this point our understanding that Xi (despite his recent undertaking of multiple key roles inside of China’s governing apparatus) has wisely taken note of the time-tested failures of Mao’s revolutionary ideas and has avoided any repetition of classical communism’s dreary history of smash and kill.

To go on with our discourse motivated by our colleague:  We quibble with our friend’s history. He can have his story, but not history.  The changes he cites were not radical in so far as they were not abrupt, all-encompassing, undiscussed or immediately adopted.  European Christianity took 500 years and more to supplant the Roman system. Bringing the Cross to the multi-god pagans of the Northern Tribes took longer.  Even then, according to good conservative Gibbon, the cost was the dark ages. As Thomas Jefferson eloquently put it in the Declaration of Independence , the Americans were merely reclaiming the sovereignty they had “lent to” the king and parliament in order to “rotate back, revolve back” to the extant political and social rules long since developed and refined by the colonists, several generations prior to the English monarch’s “illegal” (under natural law) actions.  The founding fathers undertook a conservative return to the tried and true practices of their past.  That extraordinary hybrid past was in part self-taught and in part a careful selection of the best parts of England’s Runnymede traditions. The king’s radical and illicit actions broke a common law, abrogated contract, defied tradition and so invited resistance.  There was a need to restore an order that was being disturbed by the out-of-control magistrate.

The American experiment was no revolution in the sense of the French or the classic communist versions seen in the 20th century.  In 1789, the red caps said; “Burn the chateau, desecrate the church and behead both king and queen.”   The magnificent cathedral that was the constitution of the old regime lay in ruins.  The rabble said to a horrified world: “Now that priest, father, and mother are dead, we may build in the rubble …  Oh hh, zut alhors! – all is lost, it is irretrievable, lost forever.” What is lost? (To paraphrase the inimitable, incomparable Burke) lost is the glory of Europe, the duties of honor, the commandments of chivalry, the obligation that ten thousand men of virtue must draw their swords in sworn opposition to barbarism and in defense of tradition.

The tragedy of the French version of revolution is that the leading citizens of the old order failed (out of an inappropriate sense of personal guilt at not meeting the “moral” standards demanded of them by the parricide and regicide vandals who were their opposition) to meet their true obligation, which was to preserve what was good in the traditions inherited from 100 generations of elders, and then reform what was faulty. Such a counter-revolution would erase the blot on the noble character of France and so rescue Western civilization from the contagion of later. Imitative, utopian, matricidal innovators.  Alas for all the West, Robespierre’s version of the French enlightenment was instead allowed to evolve and give rise to his metaphorical descendants, Stalin, Mao and the rest.  And thank God for the parallel family history, Washington’s “children” who learned their lessons from the book of the Scottish Enlightenment.

Xi is too politically correct to openly condemn Mao as did the Russians who, once the Soviet empire was defeated, owned up to Stalin’s terror. But then again, he certainly has not repeated the concentration camp model of post-1949 China. He has encouraged the outward flow of hundreds of thousands of the best young brains in China. They go off to study all sorts of ideas taught in the finest Western universities, and afterwards are invited “back home” to teach and to help build a new, most likely reformed (at least in time) China, where if nothing else, the old-time version of top-down, authoritarian, arbitrary mis-government will be avoided and replaced, all in a relatively moderate way, with a system partly reminiscent of old China. Confirming by actions if not by words, Xi (and his immediate predecessors) has practiced a kind of “reformist” strategy, bringing China back into the family of more or less cooperative nations.

Our friend’s history is mistaken in his various examples of incoherence.  In fact, in both East and West, reformist change takes place after a long, often slow-moving process of first, second and even third thought. Slavery was under discussion, recognized as incompatible with American devotion to liberty from the time when John Locke said slavery was “vile and miserable” all the way to the Civil War. (Locke, Second Treatise of Government, 1689).

Even though it has been under attack for centuries, monarchism is far from over. There is enormous popular support for it, or at least for its trappings. The proof is the recent worldwide media extravaganza over the UK royal wedding between 33-year-old Prince Harry, sixth in line to the UK throne, who is the possible son of a horse trainer, currently enamored with a 36-year-old, biracial, divorced pop celebrity.

Marriage is indeed still a sacrament. The aforesaid joining of the now proclaimed Duke and Duchess of Sussex was formally approved of by the queen, the official head of the Church of England (even though four of her own children’s marriages ended in divorce).  Yet the traditional rites, words, promises and costly traditions of the ancient institution of marriage every day prove their worth, as shown in the statistics in support of the fact that intact marriages produce better social and private outcomes than is the case for “families” where the life-long promises are not kept.

Tom Velk and Jade Xiao

Tom Velk is a libertarian-leaning American economist who teaches and lives in Montreal, Canada. He is the chairman of the North American studies program at McGill University and a professor in that university's economics department. Jade Xiao is a McGill University graduate.