The tension between conservatism and classical liberalism began with the Enlightenment’s insistence on the freedom of inquiry necessary to advance science. And science in turn was to empower man to dominate nature—learn its secrets and turn it to man’s will. Francis Bacon saw this free inquiry as creating prosperity, lengthening life, and ultimately perhaps forestalling death.
This core tenet of the Enlightenment poses profound difficulties for conservatism. It unleashes technology as a driving force in human affairs, continually upsetting the status quo and requiring the reworking of human conventions. Some of these conventions are social, like the sense of settled hierarchy that was dissolved by the markets that freedom and technological innovation generated. Other revolutions were even more profound, because they reversed conventions that defended an understanding of what was natural in man. For instance, technologies that separate birth from reproduction are the heart of the rise of family reordering and even identity politics.
But the challenge to conservatism is deeper than the new realities that technology creates. Conservatism posits that man should in some sense live in accordance or harmony with nature. Bacon’s view, in contrast, is that man should plunder nature for energy, for longevity– for everything that man desires.
Minds uploaded into new bodies; lifetimes encompassing vast eons; the merging of man with machines—these prospects, held out by transhumanists, might be dismissed as the fantastic notions of a few Silicon Valley denizens too much influenced by Hollywood. But to dismiss as simply outlandish the transhumanist project of transforming man through technology would be a grave mistake, says Charles T. Rubin in his new book, Eclipse of Man: Human Extinction and the Meaning of Progress. Rubin, in weighing the moral significance of transhumanism, argues that it is no fringe phenomenon but a “grand vision” that demands a serious response. He offers…
In most democratic nations around the world, coalitions of the mainstream right include both classical liberals and conservatives. Depending on the voting rules of the nation, that coalition takes place informally within a single party, as in the United States, or formally across parties, as in the proportional parliamentary systems of Western Europe. These two fundamentally different political sensibilities are drawn together by a common enemy—the social engineering of the left. Both classical liberals and conservatives value personal responsibility, which is often undermined by the grand plans of big government. Social engineering also requires a scope of collective authority that trenches on the liberty valued by classical liberals and unravels the social traditions valued by conservatives. The happy result is fusionism—the united front of both classical liberals and conservatives against socialists and social democrats.
Technological acceleration could threaten fusionism. First, it may speed up the rate of social change, making traditions hard to maintain through civil society. Conservatives may be tempted to think that the state can provide a bulwark against social transformation. Fast technological change has created tensions between conservatives and classical liberals before (witness Tories versus Manchester liberals in nineteenth century England), but the rate of change today seems to me faster than ever and the possibilities for division between classical liberals and conservatives correspondingly greater.
More importantly, technology is beginning to permit personal re-engineering, pitting values of autonomy against values of a more tradition-bound (and frequently religiously based) view of what it means to be human.
Libertarian futurists such as Tyler Cowen and Brink Lindsey sometimes write as if the point of all our remarkable techno-progress—the victory of capitalism in the form of the creative power of “human capital”—is some combination of the emancipatory hippie spirit of the 1960s with the liberty in the service of individual productivity of Reagan’s 1980s. Cowen says “the light at end of the tunnel” is the coming of a world in which we will have plenty of everything, and all the time in the world to play enjoyable games. Lindsey writes that Karl Marx’s view of communism was wrong in only one respect: In order to live in a world of bohemian enjoyment, we’ll need to remain productive.