Wednesday, May 05, 2004

The confusion of right liberals

One of the mistakes conservatives make is to trust too much to the so-called conservative parties, such as the Liberal Party in Australia, the Conservatives in Britain and the Republicans in the US.

It would be better if we thought of these parties as being right liberal parties, as opposed to left liberal parties like the Australian Labor Party or the American Democrats.

The right liberal parties typically have three different elements to their politics. The first element is a core belief in liberal individualism. John Brogden, as NSW Liberal MP for Pittwater, identified himself with this core belief by stating that "Liberalism encourages progressive policy and creates equal opportunities for and removes barriers to individual success." Similarly Professor Peter Baume, in writing about the Australian Liberal Party, declared that:

For the philosophical liberal the individual is the focus, the individual is the basic unit and it is to effects on individual people that philosophical liberals look to see the consequences of any proposal.

If right liberals remain at this first, core level of right liberalism, they are typically called (in Australia) "small-l liberals". They are not averse to state intervention to provide the conditions for individualism to succeed. John Brogden, for instance, is happy to announce that "State government must ensure community safety, justice, health, education, economic advancement and environmental protection."

Peter Baume, in his turn, claims that "liberals welcomed measures, and continue to welcome measures, which empower people. Free education empowered young people... Anti-discrimination legislation empowered people otherwise powerless ... legislation to remove gender bias empowered women ... provision of age pensions empowered those who are elderly" and so on.

These small-l liberals are closest to the left liberals, and it isn't surprising that the Australian Democrats, a breakaway group of small-l liberals, moved gradually into the left liberal camp.

Most right liberals, though, add a layer of economic liberalism onto this core belief in individualism. They believe that individuals acting unimpeded within the free market is the best mechanism for meeting human desires and needs. Therefore, they focus heavily on the individual as an "economic unit" and tend to support economic deregulation. They are not as keen on state interference as small-l liberals.

Mark Birrell, as Liberal leader of the Victorian Legislative Council, neatly summarised the view of these economic liberals when he announced that "I enter this Chamber as a Liberal, committed to a philosophy that emphasises the freedom of the individual, acclaims the value of the free enterprise system and champions the rights of the citizen over the state." Notice that the core belief in individualism is still there, but is joined together with a belief in economic free enterprise.

Henry Bolte, the longest serving Liberal premier of Victoria (from 1955 to 1972) also fits into this "second camp" of economic liberals. He stated in 1955 that "We are going to prove to the people of Australia that fewer controls will mean greater advancement" (anti-statism); in 1959 he showed the tendency to view people as economic units by saying of his large-scale immigration policy that "We have many critics against the policy of attracting capital, in migrants and investment to Australia." As for economic deregulation, he extended bar trading hours with the claim that he was proud to be part of "the progressive Liberal Party" rather than "an old-fashioned Conservative mob."

Then there are those right liberals who add on a third dimension to their politics: an intellectual or conservative liberalism.

Sometimes this kind of "conservative" right liberalism seems to develop from the "anti-statism" belief of economic liberals. The idea is that if you want the state to be small, you have to protect the institutions of civil society and also uphold ideals of individual responsibility. Therefore, these kind of conservative right liberals might defend the idea of the independent family, or talk of civic responsibility or of ordered freedom.

It is also possible that some "conservative" right liberals are genuinely influenced by a conservative instinct or personal preference. However, this conservatism is rendered ineffectual because it coexists in a confused way with the first two layers of liberal individualism and economic liberalism.

A good example of this confusion is found in a speech given by Tessa Keswick to the British Conservative Party conference in 2000 concerning women and conservatism.

The speech begins with an enthusiastic endorsement of the development of feminism from the French Revolution to the present day. Tessa Keswick endorses this feminist progress because, like all right liberals, she believes in the ideal of liberal individualism: that what matters is that we should be autonomous and independent and able to choose for ourselves according to our own individual will and reason.

Therefore, she talks glowingly of the achievement of female economic independence; of the advent of birth control which enabled women to "make their own decisions about that central aspect of their lives" and by which women "became no longer dependent on men physically"; and of "liberated divorce laws". And she quotes approvingly the French feminist Simone de Beauvoir who proclaimed "I am interested in the fortunes of the individual as defined not in terms of happiness but in terms of liberty."

Tessa Keswick then goes on to demonstrate her economic liberalism. Her commitment to free enterprise and a small state is clear in her claims that feminism is unleashing "entrepreneurial talent" and that the Conservatives should criticise "the Labour Party's commitment to overregulation" and the "smothering, nannyish [approach] of the Blair Government, letting women make their own life decisions."

Then we get to the third layer of right liberalism. The logic of anti-statism comes out in her comments that the Conservatives have to uphold "the notion of obligations and duties" and "the Conservative sense of community based on the Burkean notion of the importance of locality and the small platoons", and must "attach more value to the family."

The terrible confusion of this kind of "conservative" right liberalism, though, is revealed in her final remarks. She is willing to confess that "central to all our fears is the very clear decline of the family."

Talking about the balance between work and family she goes on to note that:

"The horrible irony is that, in many ways, the female quest for independence has made it more difficult for some women to find that balance. In certain sections of society we are not finding a mature and sustained sharing of the burdens of parenthood by men and women, but, remarkably, an impulse to go it alone. Some are rejecting, it seems, the stable structures which would have made much easier an attempt to have elements of both worlds in our lives. The altogether admirable determination of women to stand on their own two feet too often seems to leave them reluctant to use marriage or even partnership as a platform for a life balanced between family and work."

What did she expect? If the aim is individual autonomy, then why would women forsake their independence by marrying? If young women are taught that history has been a march of progress of women toward independence, then why wouldn't they cling to that independence for as long as they could?

You can start to glean here why right wing parties like the British Conservatives, or the Australian Liberals, or the American Republicans have been so ineffective in opposing the progress of liberalism: whatever element of conservatism does exist in these parties is hopelessly compromised by a core commitment to liberal individualism and economic liberalism.

If conservatism is to be more successfully applied it needs to be carefully distinguished from right liberalism, and rank and file conservatives need to trust less naively in the right wing political parties.

(First published at Conservative Central, 12/05/03)

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