Monday, January 29, 2007

In defence of what matters

There is a logic within liberalism by which what really matters must be made not to matter.

The reason for this runs as follows. Liberal modernity has been formed from a number of factors; one of them is the idea that our distinction as humans is that we are "self-authored".

To achieve a fully human status, therefore, we must create who we are from our own individual reason and will. There are impediments, though, to our achieving this aim.

If we are defined or guided by tradition or by biology, for instance, we are being influenced in an important way by what we inherit, rather than what we create for ourselves. Therefore, a strict liberalism will logically reject such influences.

The problem is that it's unlikely that aspects of the self would have been hardwired into us as part of our given nature if they weren't important. Similarly, it's unlikely that at least some aspects of culture, belief and identity would have survived in the long term as a tradition if they weren't important.

Liberalism, therefore, faces the task of making certain aspects of reality which matter most not matter.

Liberalism, for instance, must make our sex, our being a man or woman, not matter. It must make our membership of an ethny not matter. It must make uncontracted forms of authority, such as the authority of fathers, not matter. It must make external, objective or traditional moral codes not matter. It must make a singular, traditional form of the family not matter.

How does liberalism attempt to do this? One drastic method liberals use is to frame political debate in terms of an asocial, blank slate individual. This individual is "abstracted" to the point that the things which matter don't even have to be acknowledged within political discussion.

Liberals might also cast the things which matter as being oppressive restrictions on the self, from which individuals must be liberated. Negative labels might be applied; for instance, a belief that our sex matters might be harshly labeled "sexist" and a belief that our ethny matters might be condemned as "racist".

Liberalism also makes inroads by limiting political contest to second tier disputes within liberalism itself. If you have a liberal view of society as being made up of millions of competing, atomised wills, each seeking to enact their own will, you then have to explain how such a society might hold together.

Over the years, liberals have proposed a number of solutions. Some have put their faith in the idea that humans are naturally good and are only corrupted by faults within their living conditions which might be remedied. Some, in contrast, have looked to a state imposed rule of law to uphold social order.

There have been those who have hoped that an enlightened elite might act to manage such a society. However, there are two other suggestions for regulating competing wills which have dominated politics for the past century.

The first is the "right liberal" (or classical liberal) idea that individuals can behave selfishly for their own profit, but that the hidden hand of the free market will regulate such activity so that society as a whole will progress.

The second is the "left liberal" (or social democratic) idea that society can be regulated by the state via neutral expertise.

When we think of the political contest between left and right it's really about this "second tier" liberal issue of how to regulate competing wills. Right liberals will talk about preserving individual liberty through the free market and a small state; left liberals will put things in terms of liberation movements and social welfare and reform.

If the political contest is kept at this second tier level then it becomes easier to exclude a consideration of the things that matter.

So what do we do? It would take too long to attempt a complete answer. So I'll focus on one thing: conservatives need to disentangle themselves from a right-liberal politics.

This means being careful not to reduce a conservative politics to a belief in the free market. If our focus is just on the free market, then we are allowing political debate to remain at the second tier level I described above, so that it's difficult to raise the more significant first tier debate we need to have.

There's another problem with focusing our politics on the free market. A conservative might well make the case for a free market on a pragmatic basis of what works best for society. Right-liberals, though, are attached to the free market for reasons of political principle. For them, it's the big solution to a much larger issue of making a liberal society function.

This leads to free market politics being more absolute and ideological than it ought to be. For instance, as right-liberals see our economic activity within a market as serving much larger ends, they tend to focus excessively on "economic man". Also, an ideological commitment to the free market can lead right-liberals to support the free movement of labour, as a principle, overriding more practical concerns about the real-life consequences of open borders.

The effort to disentangle conservatism from right-liberalism also means exercising care when adopting "individual liberty" as a slogan.

Liberalism has been dominant for some time now, so when liberty is spoken of it is commonly understood in terms of liberal politics. This can mean that liberty is thought of, in right-liberal terms, as the freedom of an abstracted individual against the state or against any kind of collective. It can mean too that "liberty" is understood in more general liberal terms as a freedom from what matters: as a "liberation" from significant aspects of our own selves which aren't self-authored.

A conservative politics can't be based on liberty understood in these terms. If we are to be free, it must be as complete, non-abstracted men living as social beings within given communities.

But even if liberty were better defined, it still wouldn't be for conservatives a sole, overriding, organising principle of society. It would be seen as one important good to be defended amongst other important goods.

Our ancestors, for instance, would have considered other qualities to also be significant, such as honour, honesty, loyalty, integrity, piety, courage and nobility.

One important step, therefore, in defending what matters is for conservatives to reach beyond a right-liberal politics. The politics of the free market and individual liberty, as defined within right-liberalism, isn't adequate for our purposes.

We need to stake out a politics of our own and not attempt to conduct business within a theoretical framework established by liberalism.


  1. Excellent post, one of your best yet.

    There is a alot of conceit on the liberal right.

    Many make the assumption that all talented individuals will rise to the top in a multicultural society, and that the welfare state will wither away, leaving a just, ratonal libertarian state.

    However, what is just as likely to happen is that unstable states will develop where the government swings from populism to corrupt authoritarianism and where much of the population lives in poverty.

    This is the fate of most multi-cultural South American states, where incompetent populist governments are suceeded by authoritarian military juntas.

    Right-liberals never seem take into acount the possibility that the less sucessful ethnicities will happily accept subservient status, or that they themselves won't slide into the numerically dominant underclass.

  2. Brilliant post, Mark. You have summed up so many important core values in so little space.

    I wonder though, has the label ‘conservative’ been associated with right-liberalism for so long that it will be too difficult to ‘stake out a politics of our own’ using the term?

    Most self described conservatives just want to roll back the latest social democratic trend, while ignoring the hundreds that came before it. What one generation of conservatives fight against, the next just seem to accept as ‘Western values’.

    Isn’t what we’re advocating here really a kind of radical traditionalism – that challenges what has been ‘accepted truth’ for at least three generations?

  3. Yes, great post.
    You say a lot of things that I have tried to articulate, only you do it much more succinctly than I can.
    I agree that the word 'conservative' has been rendered useless for us, tainted by association with the current crop of 'conservative' politicians and hacks.
    Traditionalists suits me just fine, as long as that word does not become similarly discredited.

  4. Thanks for the comments. I do understand the points being made about the term "conservative". The alternative description of "traditionalist" seems to be gaining favour - both Jim Kalb and Lawrence Auster, for instance, seem to favour it.

    For the moment, I'll stick with the compromise term of "traditionalist conservative", but it's an issue I'm open minded about.

  5. Superb post.

    Certainly, in Britain, I'd like to see the word 'liberty' associated far more with Edmund Burke and the Glorious Revolution than with Menzies Campbell and his orange dove.