Saturday, November 06, 2004

Is the Bolter conservative?

Why is it that liberalism has triumphed in the West? Why hasn't the conservative opposition had more success?

When I decided, some years ago, to look into these questions, I found the answer both easier to find and more startling than I had imagined.

What I found was that liberalism has been so dominant in English speaking countries, at least since the 1700s, that even the "conservative" opposition has operated within the framework of liberal first principles.

What this means is that mainstream "conservatives," both of today and yesteryear, will nearly always turn out to be conservative liberals, rather than straight-out conservatives.

I want to give as an example the case of "the Bolter," as Andrew Bolt is called on Melbourne talkback radio. Andrew Bolt is a very influential journalist in Australia, having guest appearances on radio and TV, as well as a regular page in the Herald Sun, Australia's largest selling newspaper.

He is also arguably the most conservative of Australia's mainstream journalists. He frequently demolishes left-wing opponents with well-researched articles on the arts, Aborigines, multiculturalism etc.

Yet even Andrew Bolt operates intellectually within the framework of liberalism. Liberalism started from the idea that what makes us human is our freedom to create ourselves in any direction through our own unimpeded reason and will.

In the last two weeks Andrew Bolt has written columns which make clear his support for this philosophy. In one column (22/9/03), he explained why he supports Christianity as a religion in spite of his own agnosticism:

Here we come to the nub of why I defend Christianity: If people must believe in some religion, which one would I rather it be?

I happen to think the philosopher Karl Popper was right: our humanity is best realised when we are free and we reason.

But I've also seen that freedom and reason alone can leave us lonely, disjointed from each other, rudderless and afraid.

Or, more positively, there is a yearning in us to feel part of something bigger and better than ourselves.

This can be lethal. See how people buried their individuality in big causes like fascism and Communism, which just crushed their freedom and reason - and their very humanity.

He then talks of the kind of Christianity he admires,

... the Christianity that, unlike many other religions, has evolved so that you don't have to surrender your reason or freedom to believe. The religion that is no enemy of science.

What Andrew Bolt is arguing here is that Christianity is best not because it represents a religious truth but because it is the least harmful to secular liberalism: it least impedes our individual reason and will.

Note too the idea that if you lived under fascism or Communism, in losing your freedom of will and reason your very humanity is threatened.

Most significantly, note the attitude to the atomising effects of liberal individualism. For Andrew Bolt this is primarily a problem because of the potential threat to liberalism itself: alienated people might join causes injurious to free will and reason. He seems less concerned to defend what has been lost; in other words, what has been removed to leave individuals alienated in the first place.

The second column in which Andrew Bolt has recently written in liberal terms concerns Australian Rules Football (2/10/03). The Australian Football League (AFL) is organised so that the worst performing teams are favoured in the recruiting season.

Andrew Bolt condemns such a system, comparing it to socialism. He writes,

It is true that many famous socialist leaders, from Lenin to Castro, have seen society as a bit like an AFL competition, instead of as a field in which anyone can play anything they like, as long as they don't hurt anyone else.

This is a principle we often hear from liberals: I should be able to do whatever I want, provided it doesn't hurt anyone else. It hits the right note for liberals because, in theory at least, it means that our will and reason are unimpeded to the largest degree (in practice, society is so run down by the principle that we lose the choice to do the things that are most important to us).

I don't want to make a lengthy criticism of the liberal principle itself here, as this has been done in other articles on this site. The point to be made is that even the most conservative of mainstream journalists in Australia is very much committed to an underlying liberal philosophy.

I don't point this out in order to condemn Andrew Bolt, as I find much to admire in his work. We shouldn't be surprised, however, when mainstream journalists and politicians, even those of the right, ultimately fail to uphold the values and institutions that we conservatives support.

Their failure is not because they are traitors, or that they have sold out, or have been captured by other interests. It's because they have always held to liberal first principles, and understandably do not wish to act against these principles.

Conservatives will start to have a chance of long-term success when we act on our own principles, rather than being merely a wing of liberalism.

(First published at Conservative Central 03/10/2003)

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