Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Have conservatives been captured?

Most intellectuals are liberals of one stripe or another. So much so that it's possible to speak of liberalism as being the orthodox belief of the modern West. Professor John Gray recognises this when he writes that,

We are all liberals nowadays ... It sometimes seems as if the spectrum of ideas in political life ranges from the sovereign consumer of the neo-liberal right to the sovereign chooser of the egalitarian left. ("What liberalism cannot do", New Statesman, 20th September 1990)

Professor Alasdair MacIntyre puts it this way,

Contemporary debates within modern political systems are almost exclusively between conservative liberals, liberal liberals, and radical liberals. There is little place in such political systems for the criticism of the system itself, that is, for putting liberalism in question. (Whose Justice? Whose rationality?)

How did liberalism become an unquestioned orthodoxy? In part, by capturing what was supposed to be the conservative opposition. What John Stuart Mill recommended as a liberal strategy back in 1840 has been effected. Mill didn't think it practicable to persuade conservatives to identify as liberals. So he suggested that conservatives be encouraged to believe that liberal opinions were themselves conservative.

What could be done about the conservative classes of society? Mill wrote that his fellow liberals should,

ask themselves if they are content that these classes should be, and remain, to a man, banded against them; and what progress they expect to make, or by what means, unless a process of preparation shall be going on in the minds of these very classes; not by the impracticable method of converting them from Conservatives into Liberals, but by their being led to adopt one liberal opinion after another, as a part of Conservatism itself. (On Coleridge)

What we see today in mainstream politics is a captured conservatism, just as Mill wanted it to be, one that is unfit to provide a principled opposition to liberalism.

It's no use, therefore, simply supporting conservatism or conservative parties as they are. If we're serious about challenging liberalism, the first thing we have to do is to return to a clear point of distinction between conservatism and liberalism.

In other words, we have to answer this question: what political beliefs would make someone a principled conservative rather than just another member of the liberal orthodoxy?

I'd suggest the following. First, a principled conservative would want people to be free as they are really constituted, namely as men and women, as members of distinct communities and traditions, and as moral beings. He would not accept the liberal idea that we are made free through a radical autonomy in which we self-create who we are.

Second, a principled conservative would not accept that freedom is the one, reductive, organising principle of society. He would consider freedom to be one important good to be held in balance with other significant goods, such as love and loyalty, family and country, courtesy and charity, beauty and grace, and honour and courage. These virtues are not always to be sacrificed to the good of individual freedom.

Third, a principled conservative would recognise the existence of a common good. He would not see society just as an immense set of individual goods needing to be harmonised with each other. He would recognise the importance to individuals of the distinct community and tradition they belong to; therefore, he would accept as a significant common good the well-being of his own community and tradition and the common purpose of maintaining their existence through time.

If I have struck in the right places a serious liberal would flinch when reading the above. And the point should be to strike in the right places - not in order to shock or deliberately offend liberal sensibilities (that would be unserious), but to find the most effective point of distinction to finally drag conservatism out of the liberal orthodoxy.


  1. Those last 4 paragraphs are perfect.

    But, how do you morally defend these beliefs? They are all about "the good". Liberalism is about what is right. Although on a personal level people work toward their own good, any intellectual defense of that will just sound like selfishness. That's why Liberals have to constantly make use of what Lawrence Auster has named "unprincipled exceptions".

  2. 'Common good' is where conservatives get caught out.

    Free constitutions happen naturally when humanity is left to its own devices. But once a common good is imposed from above (central planning) it inherently usurps natural constitutions and falls under the liberal nuance of equality and freedom (which axiomatically it must do to avoid discrimination).

    The republic and not representative democracy is where conservatives need to place the divide.

  3. 'Common good' is where conservatives get caught out.

    "Free constitutions happen naturally when humanity is left to its own devices. But once a common good is imposed from above (central planning) it inherently usurps natural constitutions and falls under the liberal nuance of equality and freedom (which axiomatically it must do to avoid discrimination)."

    It's difficult not to have some government central planning, even if it's only at the local level.

    For example, trade protectionism is a form of government interventionism, so anyone opposed to central planning on principle must also oppose trade restrictions.

    You make a good point, however that interventionism can open the door to left-liberal social engineering.

  4. Anonymous, why does a common good have to be imposed from above?

    Let's say that I recognise as a common good the existence of my own tradition through time.

    I will then have to think about the conditions that will enable this common good to be realised.

    There are a large number of such conditions. It will be important, for instance, that people form families and have children - otherwise my tradition won't survive.

    How might this aim be achieved? It's considerably up to individuals to cultivate the qualities required for marriage and parenthood. It's also important for intellectuals both secular and spiritual to foster a culture of family life. The state too could chip in by rewarding those who marry and have children in various ways.

    If the goal is widely accepted as a common purpose there would be contributions from many levels.

    Also, given that most people have a pre-existing instinct to marry and have children, the attempt to create the best conditions for this to happen doesn't have to be an act of state coercion.

    And if we follow liberals in only recognising a multitude of individual purposes? We know from experience that this leads to an intrusive statism.

    If you think that the good in life is the pursuit of individual purposes, then you have to achieve a situation in which everyone is equally able to pursue their own individual purpose unhindered.

    How do you do this? In part you do it through state intervention to try and make the influence of factors like gender and ethnicity not matter. Hence anti-discrimination laws, affirmative action measures, speech codes and the imposition on society of political correctness.

    These are particularly coercive because they are an ongoing suppression of core aspects of human identity.

    Also, because there are no common goods, then it's no longer possible to maintain traditional standards of manners and morality. The state will then have to step in to deal with the effects of social dysfunction.

    The natural constitution of man is one in which common purposes are recognised within a human community (in fact, I don't see how human society could have developed over time without such recognised common purposes).

  5. Mark,

    Don’t you think using the word “liberal” in this discussion is too broad? Isn’t Ethical Egoism a better definition?

    By the way, your comments are very much in line with my views on this matter. However, I am a minimalist therefore I think the word “naïve” would sum up every argument against Ethical Egoism.

  6. Free constitutions create 'common goods'. Once a common good is socialized or institutionalized through subsidization it usurps natural relationships. For example childcare and pre shcool (subsidized to a large extant) abnegates motherhood and nurturing.

  7. Where does Mr. Richardson differ from Mill in his critique of marital laws in Victorian England for instance?

    Or his assertion that freedom cannot exit in a multi-racial society? Or on the "The Negro Question"?

  8. The idea that a society can survive without taking into account the common good is a libertarian one, not a conservative one.

    A sovereign country with a distinctive culture can't survive without taking into account the common good to some extent.

    Trade policy, foreign policy, immigration and fisheries laws for example have to be regulated by the state, in terms of the interests of the majority of citizens, there's no practical way around this.

    The only real issue is how far the state should go in terms of promoting the common good and what methods it should use, and that varies according to the tradition and circumstances of the country in question. Australian and European conservatism is more Bismarkian than US conservatism, for example.

    US conservatives need to bear in mind that Mr Richardson is trying to establish some internationally applicable principles that can apply to conservatism in all countries. How conservatives in different countries apply these principles is up to them.

    Since the US has a more classical liberal tradition in terms of its history and constitution, US conservatives tend to oppose direct government intervention in areas like welfare, and prefer intervention to be restricted to sovereignty issues like immigration and trade. In the 19th century for example, the US prefered to use protectionism rather than welfare to encourage the growth of the country and moderate economic inequality.

    If conservatism is only concerned with individual rights, then how can it restrict immigration from other countries or make sure the legal system isn't captured by special interest groups claiming to champion individual rights?

    Also if minimising the role of the state was the be all and end all of containing left liberalism then why were the neoliberal reforms in English-speaking the 1980s followed by yet another wave of left-liberal social reforms and anti-western self-loathing in the media and the education sector?