The nineteenth century English philosopher John Stuart Mill bequeathed to modern conservatism a lasting inferiority complex when he dismissed the conservatives of his day as "the stupid party." No one likes to be called stupid, as we can all agree, though Mill himself may not have understood this, since it is highly unlikely that anyone had ever called him by this disparaging epithet. In his famous Autobiography, Mill tells us that he was reading Plato in the original Greek when he was five, and by the time he was twelve, he was capable of discussing the fine points of economic theory with the leading authorities of his day—facts that may well have seriously skewed Mill's judgment about the intelligence of other people. Stupid, for Mill, may have meant those who only learned how to read Plato in Greek at the ripe old age of eleven, in which case the charge of belonging to the "stupid party" loses much of its sting.
Yet the sting of Mill's insult remains today, and it explains, in part, the conspicuous braininess of contemporary conservatism. Conservative think-tanks abound in PhD's and experts in every field imaginable, whose intelligence, as measured by IQ tests and academic credentials, is certainly a match for those of their ideological opponents. But has the emergence of a conservative intelligentsia proven to be an unmixed blessing? Or is the very phrase conservative intelligentsia an oxymoron?
Let's begin by noting that the eagerness to appear intelligent to others is a fairly recent development among conservatives. By and large, the English Tories whom Mill dubbed as the original stupid party did not share this desire in the least. If you read the delightful novels of Anthony Trollope, you will find them teaming with hilariously dim-witted Lords who feel no need to apologize for their mediocre minds, as long as they have their aristocratic pedigrees. Their stupidity, as many of them no doubt hazily realized, was their best defense against the inroads of clever madmen intent on turning their world upside down—men like John Stuart Mill, for example, to whom tradition meant nothing, and who was willing to throw out the solid heritage of the past in the pursuit of the latest fad, dubbed by him "experiments in living." Against the blueprints for a better world concocted by the brilliant they opposed the redneck wisdom encapsulated in the adage: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
Today, no self-respecting conservative wants to be thought stupid, not even by the lunatics on the far left. Yet there are far worse things than looking stupid to others—and one of them is being conned by those who are far cleverer than we are. Indeed, in certain cases, the desire to appear intelligent at all costs can be downright suicidal. Throughout history people have come along who were able to outtalk and outthink their neighbors, like the paradox-bearing sophists of ancient Greece or the mocking philosophes of the eighteenth century French salon. The bell curve virtually guarantees that there will always be those who can pull the wool over the eyes of the rest of us, and if we once begin to listen to their spiel, then we find that before we know it we have been taken advantage of. It is not easy to outfox the fox, and those who try often end up on the unpleasant end of the food chain. Thus, it is safer simply never to begin listening to them—or when you must listen to them, to force them to go so slowly that they despair of ever drawing you into their clutches, acting on the maxim: "Never let a good argument get the better of your common sense."
The intellectual conservative of our day excels in good arguments. His policy positions are reasoned and based on well-documented evidence. If he supports a cultural tradition, it is not because of his blind and irrational attachment to the tradition in question, but because he has come up with a solid reason for adhering to the tradition. This line of argument can be traced back to the great Jewish thinker, Moses Maimonides, who used his encyclopedic knowledge of contemporary medicine in order to justify the hygienic rationality of the Hebrew dietary code. Pork, for example, was forbidden because it caused trichinosis, a frequently fatal disease. Yahweh, in forbidding the Chosen People the flesh of swine, was not acting arbitrarily, but with prudent economy. Knowing, as he did, that the ancient Jews lacked sufficient medical knowledge to prohibit the eating of pork on the basis of reason alone, he supplied them with a revealed commandment: "Thou shalt not eat pork!"
But there is a problem with Maimonides' approach. As I argued in my Policy Review essay, "The Future of Tradition," those who seek to justify a cultural tradition by appealing to reason are unwittingly subverting the authority of the very tradition they are trying to bolster. When you defend a tradition as Maimonides did,
"tradition becomes merely a primitive method for doing what empirical science does better. Here we have one horn of the dilemma: If a tradition is reason in a somewhat garbled code, decipher the code and throw away the tradition through which it was transmitted. If pork should be avoided because of the dangers of trichinosis, simply state this as a fact, and those who can appreciate the value of scientific information and who can heed maxims of prudence will be able to make the proper judgments about the dangers and benefits of eating pork."
The stupid conservative, on the other hand, does not look for a higher authority than tradition itself. He is prepared to rest his case simply on traditional authority alone, without seeking to appeal to logic, or reason, or empirical data. For what reason gives, reason can take away. If hygienic rationality becomes the basis of our adherence to the traditional dietary laws, then scientific progress can easily provide us with a good reason to ignore these same traditional laws when they are found to conflict with the latest scientific findings. Pork, after all, if prepared properly, poses little danger to those who consume it. So why not amend the prohibition on the eating on pork to read: "Thou shalt not eat pork unless it has been prepared according to the modern hygienic standards?"
The same principle applies not just to eating pork, but to any of the traditional imperatives passed down from generation to generation. If traditional marriage needs to be defended by good arguments, then it stands or falls on the validity of these arguments, and where good arguments can be put forward to justify alternative "experiments in living," then the authority of tradition as tradition is overthrown, and whoever comes up with the best argument carries the day. The end result of this process is that intellectuals, trained to be good at arguing, inevitably gain an undue influence in the shaping of public opinion, while those who adhere to traditions simply because they are their tradition are left vulnerable to attack and ridicule because they have difficulty defending positions they have never found cause to question. In such a case, the traditionalist must either abandon his sacred ground, and learn to argue, or else he must be prepared to accept the derogatory label fixed upon him by the intelligentsia. In short, he must not mind too much being called stupid.
In a world that absurdly overrates the advantage of sheer brain power, no one wants to be seen as a member in good standing of the stupid party. Yet stupidity has been and will always remain the best defense mechanism against the ordinary conman and the intellectual dreamer, just as Odysseus found that stuffing cotton in his ears was his best defense against beguiling but fatal song of the sirens.