Skip to content
It’s Complicated
Go to my account

It’s Complicated

Society is complex, and it’s best governed by simple rules.

Dear Reader (including Pablo Escobar’s hippos because hippos are now people too), 

A few times a year, someone tells me I should write a book on conservatism. I like the idea, but not enough—at least not yet—to actually do it. For starters, until fairly recently, I never really saw the need. The basic outlines of what conservatism is were largely settled on the right. Sure, there were arguments about what conservatives should prioritize—politically, philosophically, and even metaphysically. But these arguments were for the most part well within some fairly clear borders. Think about this way: I think there’s a broad and identifiable consensus about what it means to be a Christian, but that hardly means Christians of different stripes don’t argue about what Christians should do all the time.

The free market guys largely owned the definition of economic conservatism. Everyone agreed to some version of limited government. Religion was more contested in the realms of theology and theory, but as a practical matter most folks read from the same hymnal, as it were (this is the beauty of classically liberal theories of religious freedom). Foreign policy was more contested, to be sure. But I’ve never believed that conservatism has a lot to say about foreign policy to begin with.

Now, that consensus is over (for the time being at least). This is one of the few things I agree with the “New Right” about these days. Of course, it’s axiomatic; if a bunch of people say the consensus is over, the consensus is over. Those of us in the remnant of the old consensus can lament the breakdown, but there’s not much to be gained by denying it.

When I am in a hopeful mood—which I will, confess, isn’t as often as I would like—I fall back in my confidence in conservatism itself. You see, I’m a conservative—in the fusionist, old consensus, Anglo-American sense—first and foremost because I believe conservatism is correct.

Saying something is “correct” is not automatically or always synonymous with saying something is “true.” Two plus two equals four is both correct and true. But saying, “It’s wrong to lie” is a correct statement, even if it’s not always true. I believe the conservative worldview is correct because, given the alternatives, I think it’s the best way to think about and arrange things.

“The facts of life are conservative,” Margaret Thatcher liked to say. I agree with that in my bones. The more grandiose, ornate, or complicated your theory about how to organize society, the more likely you are to be proven wrong by reality. Lincoln’s definition of conservatism as “adherence on the old and tried versus the new and untried” won’t always steer you right, but it will serve you better than adherence to the new and untried.

Life is supremely complicated at scale. What I mean by that is that in the little platoons of life, friends, family, workplace, church or synagogue, neighborhood, etc., things can be pretty complicated—people are weird—but it’s manageable, because you deal with people more or less face to face. It’s made all the more manageable if you stick to a few general, small-c conservative rules of good conduct. But once you move beyond what Friedrich Hayek called “the microcosm of family and friendship,” things become incredibly complicated; too complicated for any one person or group of people to actively manage. This is the nexus where different kinds of (my kind of) conservatism meet. The free market guys understand economic planning doesn’t work. The limited government guys understand you can’t (and shouldn’t!) successfully boss people around indefinitely. The religious conservatives understand that the state cannot do what religion does without corrupting both.

The American revolution, Irving Kristol argued, was a successful revolution precisely because it recognized the limits on politics dictated by human nature. It didn’t seek to impose a one-size-fits-all theory of life on everybody for the simple reason that one person’s definition of happiness is another person’s definition of misery. Russell Kirk’s second canon of conservatism holds, in part, the conservative has an “affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems.” Kirk had some views I disagreed with about how to organize society, but he was also content to find his own slice of happiness living his life the way he liked. He didn’t say everybody had to retire to their own hobbit Shire and write ghost stories. Kirk liked to quote the historian Keith Feiling. “Every Tory is a realist,” Feiling said. “He knows that there are great forces in heaven and earth that man’s philosophy cannot plumb or fathom.”

The closer to the ground you are, the more true this will be, particularly when the risks are high. If everyone stuck to the time-tested rules on the set of Rust, Alec Baldwin wouldn’t have shot someone. If everyone stuck, as best they could, with the basic bourgeois values of honesty, industriousness, thrift, delayed gratification, marital fidelity, and self-sacrifice for the benefit of your kids, most of our societal problems would be solved—or not exist in the first place.

Societies that try to impose some grand unified field theory of social justice or the common good eventually run into the fundamentally conservative facts of life. Take, for example, the famous story about Phil Gramm talking to some voters. It goes something like this. He was asked by a woman what his views on education are. He said (paraphrasing), “Well, I start from the assumption that nobody loves my kids as much as my wife and I do.”

The woman replied, “That’s not true! I love your kids as much as you do!”

To which Gramm said, “Oh really? What are their names?”

It is a fundamentally conservative view—regardless of your partisan passions—that Gramm is right.

Hillary Clinton once said, “As adults we have to start thinking and believing that there isn’t really any such thing as someone else’s child. … For that reason, we cannot permit discussions of children and families to be subverted by political or ideological debate.” The conservative instantly recognizes this as nonsense.

Not only is this idea not correct, it’s not true. Anecdotes about evil or crappy parents notwithstanding, there has never been a society anywhere or anywhen—shut up, I say it’s a word—in which parents didn’t favor their own children over the children of strangers. One of the reasons Terry McAuliffe’s campaign is floundering is that he said the quiet part out loud, arguing that the state’s ideological enterprise shouldn’t be hindered by the input of mere parents.

This is a small example of why I am hopeful. The competing theories of social justice and common good conservatism both start from a shared view that adults are like children and the state is their parent. These neo-gnostics of the left and right believe they know how you should define happiness, how you should live your life, and how your institutions should be arranged. And we’re going to make it happen. We have special knowledge about how you should live. And if given power, we will put that knowledge to work. 

Of course, I have theories about how you should live your life, but that doesn’t make me a hypocrite, because my definition of conservatism has limiting principles about how far I can go—even if I were a dictator—in imposing them or making them a reality.

Feel free to stop reading here, if you haven’t already. But I started this “news”letter with a long discussion of Occam’s razor, then wrote myself into a ditch and started over. So let me see if I can duct-tape it to this conversation.

I’ve always loved Occam’s razor. In fact, I’ve just noticed I’ve been writing about it for at least 20 years. (Rereading that 2001 piece, I think I learned that this is the first piece I ever wrote that used a variation of my phrase “spend money like a pimp with a week to live.” Ah, memories.) One of the things I love about it is that it’s a shorthand for a philosophical principle—“keep it simple”—that lots of people, including Occam, try too hard to make complicated. Reading the Wikipedia entry is like huffing CO2 from an upside down can of Reddi-wip in two ways: You shouldn’t do it at the 7-Eleven, and it gives me a headache. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s section on it is better, but it’s still pretty highfalutin and I want to keep things mediumfalutin.

Still, the phrase “ontological parsimony”—one of the standard interpretations of Occam’s razor—is so euphonious I can’t help but use it. One way to think of ontological parsimony is to think of it as a killing word that causes mice to explode under laboratory conditions like in Rock ‘n’ Roll High School. But that would be wrong. Another way to think about it is that you should give preferences to theories that make the fewest unprovable or unlikely assumptions.

But basically, even if it’s not wholly faithful to Occam’s meaning, the colloquial or conventional understanding of Occam’s razor is the best: “The simplest explanations tend to be the most accurate.” Doctors often say—at least in TV shows about doctors—“When you hear hoofbeats, think horses, not zebras.” The point being that, unless you’re on an African savannah (or in suburban Maryland), if you hear hoofbeats it’s most likely horses are responsible for the sound, since it would be really weird if there were zebras nearby.

The reason I bring this up is that I’ve always thought of Occam’s razor as a fundamentally conservative—small-c conservative, to be sure—tool. Wildly novel or ornate theories tend to be wrong. Look at it like this: The conservative tends to be the person in the room that says some new idea won’t work or is otherwise wrong. From this fact alone, in the great intellectual Olympics of history, conservatives deserve the gold medal, because most truly new ideas are wrong. It’s just a numbers thing. If you say, “It won’t work” to every spit-balled or brainstormed idea, you’ll be right at least 80 or 90 percent of the time.

Parents know this is a fact, because most little kids go through a phase where they spout new ideas every five minutes. And it’s a well-established fact that little kids are not very well read or knowledgeable, so they usually don’t know what they’re talking about. So just as a matter of math, most of their new ideas are going to be wrong.

For instance, when I was still in my single digits, I learned that diamonds were made from coal being subjected to intense pressure and heat (or being squeezed by the hand of Superman). So I took a piece of coal, put it on our kitchen stovetop, and pressed down on it really hard with a fork, thinking I could make it a diamond. It didn’t work, damn it.

Okay that’s as far as I got on Occam’s razor before I tangoed around my writer’s block. I blame it on trying to make a point about Bayesian probability and getting a nosebleed from trying to understand it again.

But I can see why I got the idea to start the way I did. Kirk loved to quote H. Stuart Hughes’ claim that “conservatism is the negation of ideology.” I don’t think that’s quite true if you deflate the term “ideology.” I have an ideology—it’s a checklist of principles, or rules of thumb, some of which are often in conflict with others. The fusionist believes in both liberty and order, freedom and virtue, and is constantly questioning which should have the upper hand in a specific situation. This is why I have long argued that the epistemological essence of conservatism requires a certain degree of comfort with contradiction. This is a fancy way of saying we understand that life is about tradeoffs, because all resources—time, money, passion, focus—are ultimately finite and scarce.

But on Kirk’s terms, he was right. Ideology, as he meant it, is a form of reducing the infinite variety of life to a single model or theory. Occam’s razor is a wonderful tool for dismantling such models or theories, but it has its limits. Because while you can use it to clear the brush of abstraction and theoretical assumptions about how the world works or how it should work, it’s useless for providing its own theories about how things work.

Save in one regard.

There’s an old saw, attributed to various people, about how to sculpt an elephant: “Take a block of marble and remove everything that isn’t an elephant.” Occam’s razor removes everything overly theoretical about why humans do what they do, leaving the elephant in the room ignored by every group of radicals and ideologues who think they know how to design society on a drawing board: human nature. But human nature cannot be reduced to a single “keep it simple” theorem because humans are complicated, particularly at scale. Which is why a complicated society should be governed by simple rules.

Canine update: We are very proud of Zoë. As longtime readers know, she never got great grades for “plays well with others.” It makes her hard to board with other dogs (save for Pippa and a few close friends) and kennels are just impossible. She particularly dislikes small, yappy dogs, and even the ones she likes are in peril around her because she plays very rough. But the other day, Kirsten had a cockapoo she couldn’t bring home on the midday adventure. She was rightly nervous about introducing her to Zoë and kept a close eye. But the old girl did just fine and was quite friendly to the little critter. She’s growing. 

In other news, the girls were very excited for the return of the Fair Jessica. Alas, so far the antibiotics don’t seem to be fixing Pippa’s joint issues. But it’s still early. Otherwise, Pippa’s still a happy girl, Zoe’s still a demanding one, and Gracie still has it all figured out.


And now, the weird stuff

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.