Monday, January 03, 2005

Is Melanie Phillips conservative?

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author, perhaps best known for her columns for the Daily Mail. She has recently established her own website which features a statement of her political beliefs. This allows us to judge whether she is at heart a liberal or a conservative.

First principles

The first principle of liberalism is a belief in individual autonomy, in which individuals are left unimpeded to create themselves in any direction according to their own individual reason or will.

Conservatives prefer to uphold important attachments or forms of connection against the liberal principle of individual autonomy.

So, which principle does Melanie Phillips prefer? The liberal one of autonomy or the conservative one of attachment?

In her statement of belief she makes her preference clear. She criticises the prevailing idea that the "individual had to be free from all attachments to family, culture, nation, institutions, and traditions that might fetter freedom of choice."

Similarly she voices disapproval of "this radical individualism" which "worships autonomy and deems obligation to be oppressive."

She asserts that "Values dismissed as conservative are actually universal: attachment, commitment to individuals and institutions, ties of duty, trust and fidelity."

And she writes of people having a "fundamental need for attachments" and of liberty being "threatened by the relativistic pursuit of autonomy and rights."

In criticising a radical individualism which worships autonomy, and in defending attachments, such as those to family, culture and nation, Melanie Phillips is clearly a conservative in terms of her first principles.

Second principles

Given that her first principles are conservative, you would expect that Melanie Phillips would also tend to adopt the follow on principles of conservatism.

Which in fact she does. For instance, she rejects the liberal idea that human nature is malleable and perfectible and that therefore a utopia can be created by large-scale socio-economic changes.

She supports instead the conservative view that,

Human nature is not perfectible. It is neither intrinsically good or bad. Instead, human beings are capable of both good and bad deeds ...

... Small incremental steps are the most secure way of bringing about beneficial change. Radicalism or revolution are likely to implode and leave us worse off than before.

The liberal version of equality is also clearly rejected by Melanie Phillips. She observes that,

The trump card played by all group rightists is 'equality', the claim that all they ask is to be treated the same as everyone else. This, though, is another debasement of the language ... (equality) has come to mean ... identical means and outcomes. Yet people are not identical. Their behaviour and circumstances are very different from each other. To treat them as identical may therefore be unfair or harmful.

Finally, Melanie Phillips is also a critic of liberal attitudes to progress. She complains that "progress has been reduced to a hedonistic selfishness" and that,

it has become a positive merit to stand for nothing since this means that nothing can stand in the way of change ... The term progress has become vacuous, meaning merely change for change's sake. All tradition thus becomes a suitable case for disposal ... The idea that all pre-existing traditions or values are by definition just so much unprogressive baggage is as philistine as it is risible.


However, despite the obvious affinity with conservatism, Melanie Phillips continues to label herself as a liberal progressive.

She does so by drawing a distinction between liberalism and libertarianism. For her, the focus of authentic liberalism is on moral obligation, whereas it is only libertarianism which has recklessly pursued individual autonomy.

As she puts it, "we have to rescue progress from the so-called progressives. We need a liberal, not a libertarian, social order with deeper values than contract and other criteria for progress than material advances. Moral restraint is the glue that provides social cohesion."

The problem with this approach is that historically all the major liberal thinkers assumed that autonomy─the freedom to do what we have a will to do─was the fundamental principle to be achieved.

It's true that some liberal thinkers believed that to maximise this kind of freedom it was necessary to apply some limits (such as laws or voluntary moral restraint) in order to prevent social chaos.

The Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, for instance, believed in the establishment of laws, by consent, for the protection of life, liberty and property. For this reason he asserts that "Freedom then is not what Sir Robert Filmer tells us, a liberty for everyone to do what he lists, to live as he pleases, and not to be tied to any laws." Instead, "the freedom of men under government is ... a liberty to follow my will in all things, where the rule prescribes not."

Note, though, that the only limitation is the need to obey laws which protect individual rights; apart from this liberty is still conceived to be "a liberty to follow my will in all things."

The pursuit of autonomy was therefore a core feature of Enlightenment liberalism, rather than a later libertarian deviation.

Nor can the average liberal of today really be described as a libertarian. Most mainstream liberals still believe in the legitimacy of government restrictions on the individual (whether economic or social) in a way that libertarians don't.

Liberals, for instance, might want softer drug laws, but libertarians go further and reject the idea that government has any place in regulating such matters.

Therefore, it's hard to support Melanie Phillip's notion that our society of today has been created by libertarians rather than genuine liberals. It's truer to say that we have reached an advanced stage of liberalism, in which there is much less emphasis on voluntary moral restraint than in previous generations.

To go back to an earlier stage of liberalism, in which there was more of an effort to distinguish "true liberty" (autonomy with moral restraint) from "wild license" (no restraints) would no doubt be an improvement on the current situation.

But it would leave the overall dynamic of liberalism in place, and not prevent a gradual return to the way things are now.

Melanie Phillips is, I believe, a conservative at heart, but she wants politically to be a conservative liberal (or more exactly an older style liberal). It will be interesting to read in her columns exactly which of these tendencies proves the strongest.

(First published at Conservative Central 16/11/2003)

Update: 28/03/2008 I had hoped that Melanie Phillips might move toward a traditionalist conservatism but she hasn't. She has remained closer to a right liberal politics.

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