Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Tony Abbott: conservative words, liberal policies

Tony Abbott is one of those Liberal Party types who seriously believe that they are representing both the liberal and conservative traditions.

This attempted marriage of liberal and conservative thought doesn't work. In practice, the shift is always toward liberalism.

Abbott gave a speech on the weekend to the Young Liberals convention in which the mixture of genuinely conservative thought and radically liberal policies was especially gruesome.

Here is the Burkean conservatism:

As conservatives, we have Burke’s sense that a successful society involves keeping faith with those that came before and those that will come after us. Our instinct is to respect and cherish our country and its institutions because they have helped to make us what we are ... We never lightly change the things that really matter and, when change is necessary, try to change as little as possible.

This would be great if it were reflected in Liberal Party policy. But it's not. It's not reflected in the Liberal Party immigration policy which Abbott supports. Nor is it reflected in Abbott's view on family:

Similarly, we can’t be judgemental of people who are trying to make the most of the circumstances they find themselves in. Supporting families shouldn’t mean favouring one family type over others. We have to resist yearning for “ideal” families and “traditional” mothers. Every family is a source of nurturing and security for its members. All parents are striving for the best for their children. There can be no antediluvian thoughts linking childcare and women neglecting their children during the working day. Whether formal or informal, for parents in the paid or the unpaid workforce, at least some childcare is the absolutely essential means for most parents to give their children a decent standard of living and to have a fulfilled life.

I wouldn't mind if Abbott had simply said that we shouldn't be judgemental toward people who find themselves in less than ideal circumstances, that there is a place for childcare and that many single parents work hard for their children and so on. He's gone much further than this, though, and endorsed the radical position which claims that there are many family types, each as good as the other. ("Supporting families shouldn't mean favouring one family type over others ... Every family is a source of nurturing and security for its members ...")

Abbott has effectively committed himself to the idea that fathers are not essential to family life, and that the connection between mother and baby is not as important as it was once believed to be. These are ideas which don't make for a stability of family life nor for a determined commitment to parenting (if my role as a father makes no difference to the quality of family life, then why would I make such an effort?).

Abbott has rejected a defence of a traditional culture of family life, in favour of a brave new world of more fluid relationships. Yet he still claims the mantle of Burkean conservative:

Today’s anxieties are less that Australia might become an economic backwater but that we know the price of everything and the value of nothing. The next successful prime minister will tap people’s yearning to be a community as well as an economy; to belong as well as to succeed. A Liberal who understands the importance of the social fabric and the part Burke’s “little platoons” play in it is more likely to provide this than a Labor leader addicted to bureaucracy.

Again, fine words, but to set people the task of "belonging" after the natural forms of community have been torn away is probably not what Edmund Burke had in mind.

So what has gone wrong in Abbott's politics? Why has his reading of Burke done so little good?

One problem is that Abbott still takes as his central principle the liberal ideal of "freedom". In the liberal philosophy, freedom is understood to mean the unimpeded individual will. We are supposed to be, within the limits of order, free to choose in any direction.

In this view, individuals are free when they are unencumbered by ties of ethnicity, or by traditional family roles, or by the authority of fathers, or by ideals of masculinity or femininity.

I don't accept this understanding of freedom, and so I can't cheer on Abbott when he says:

Because we place our faith in the common sense and decency of every human being, we think that people should be free. This preference for freedom would be almost revolutionary in the Labor Party but it is an article of faith for us. We are the freedom party but it is freedom on ethical foundations that we support, in the tradition of Edmund Burke and Adam Smith, because it offers the surest path to a better society.

Abbott has written elsewhere that "The Liberal Party’s animating principle is freedom". Once you accept "freedom", understood in terms of liberal philosophy, as the "animating principle" of your politics, then the things that matter aren't likely to be upheld, no matter how much Burke you read.

Which brings me to a final point. If Abbott lived at a time when the unspoken understanding of things was conservative, rather than liberal, then Burkean conservatism might have led to something better. But, as Lawrence Auster has pointed out, a Burkean reverence for a received understanding of things has radical consequences when liberalism has begun to dominate as a tradition.

Here is Auster writing about the British columnist Theodore Dalrymple:

I gather that what Dalrymple wants to bring back is an appreciation of non-conceptual Burkean prejudice, the wisdom of the accumulated experience of society, adherence to habit and tradition. The problem is that this Burkean outlook can only work in a society that has a sound and functioning tradition. In a society that has been transformed by leftist ideological radicalism, as Britain has been, Burkeanism is worse than useless, because the received habits and prejudices that it seeks to preserve are the habits and prejudices of the dominant left. It is for this very reason that British "conservatism" has been so helpless to hold back the ever advancing tides of cultural leftism since World War II and particularly in the ruinous period of Blair. Indeed, under the leadership of David Cameron, conservatism has defined itself as simply a type of left-liberalism, which is the natural destination of Burkean conservatism under a left-liberal order.

Read the newspaper columns of even the best conservatives in Britain today. They are unable to wage an effective intellectual and moral battle against the forces of destruction, because of that same British/Burkean dislike of first principles to which Dalrymple appeals--that distaste for conceptual thinking and clear distinctions that renders the conservatives so weak and watery.

Only a conceptual, rational conservatism, a conservatism that attempts to discover and articulate the essential truths of man and society, can fight back effectively against the dominant leftist ideology and its false principles.


  1. Nooooo!

    This is worse than when Milli Vanilli were exposed.

    I had just one hero in parliament. Now he has been ruined for me as well.

  2. It's not enough today to be conservative, because we would be conserving the Liberal Revolution. One must be a counter-revolutionary, in attack mode trying to restore something worth conserving.

    I wonder if that's why Samuel Francis was interested in Antonio Gramsci? Leftists like Gramsci overturn what exists in favor of some ideas. We need to strive to overturn what exists--but not entirely, just the dominant badness--and restore what was once there; perhaps Gramsci's methods would work?

  3. If "we place our faith in the common sense and decency of every human being" then we radically misunderstand human nature and ignore a pillar of true conservative thought.

  4. Re: 'This attempted marriage of liberal and conservative thought doesn't work. In practice, the shift is always toward liberalism.'

    This reminds me of O'Sullivan's First Law of Politics: 'All organizations that are not actually right-wing will over time become left-wing.' (John O'Sullivan, 'O'Sullivan's First Law' National Review, 27 October 1989)

    Looks like the Coalition has lost my vote. Now I have to find out who my local Family First candidate will be. And now that the UK Tories have moved decisively to the left, all that remains for us to look to for Western leadership and pride is the United States, right?

    Wrong: 'A candidate who effectively cuts out any key element of the Reagan coalition — be it social conservatives, business conservatives, or national-security conservatives — is doomed to failure.' (Stanley Kurtz, 'Original Sin' National Review Online, 30 January 2008)

    NB: McCain won the Florida Primaries.

    The wailing and gnashing of teeth among American traditionalists has begun: 'Readers Comments on Florida' View from the Right (30 January 2008, 01:06 AM).

    Sad but true.

  5. "They are unable to wage an effective intellectual and moral battle against the forces of destruction, because of that same British/Burkean dislike of first principles to which Dalrymple appeals--that distaste for conceptual thinking and clear distinctions that renders the conservatives so weak and watery."

    I think you've hit the nail on the head as to why US conservatism is stronger than its British counterpart, British anti-intellectualism.

    Even Rodger Scruton, who as far as I can tell, is about the best UK conservative commentator, is still reluctant to tackle a lot of key conservative issues.

    It's quite interesting following the development of the BNP party, which is now having to think seriously about policies without much of an intellectual foundation to draw upon.

  6. Please find a quote from a profoundly conservative (but not right wing) Spiritual Philosopher.

    "At the present time, there is less and less true civilization left in the world. The truly civilizing principles are, more and more, being abandoned for the sake of the reductionist gross-"realism" so called "culture" in which human beings are now everywhere participating.

    The civilizing principles that allow human functioning to demonstrate the disposition of prior unity hasve already been destroyed---especialy as a result of the terrible course of the twentieth century, and beginning with World War I in particular. World War I and World War II were, effectively, the self-destruction of global civilization. As a result of these two happenings, and everything associated with those happenings, the self-prganizing, self-correcting, and self-rightening principle of humankind was destroyed. Now nothing but grossly bound ego-culture remains, and the consequent devastation.

    The present-time human world is fragmented and stupidified, utterly misled by the grossest kind of deluded thinking about "reality". The mass populations of the world are being seduced by the absurdities of "consumerism".

    The current tribal disunity simply cannot be allowed to go on any longer---or humankind will self-destruct. That is what humankind does in its disunity. It objectifies virtually everything and everyone, tries to control virtually everything and everyone, and (then) will destroy everything and everyone. The "objectification-game" happened long ago. The "control-game" is already in motion. And the "destruction-game" is now in process. At some advanced moment, not necessarily too far into the future, the destruction phase will come to a terminal point---unless this dreadful cycle is stopped."

    Altogether the author points out that the above is the INEVITABLE result of the drive to total power and control at the root of the entire Western "cultural" project.

    The so called "culture" that so called "conservatives" loudly champion everywhere. The "culture" produced in the image of both dim-witted (reductionist) exoteric religiosity and reductionist scientific materialism (SM). SM is entirely and only about power and control.

  7. According to this quote this seems to be the normal case for Conservatism:

    "It may be inferred again that the present movement for women’s rights will certainly prevail from the history of its only opponent, Northern conservatism. This is a party which never conserves anything. Its history has been that it demurs to each aggression of the progressive party, and aims to save its credit by a respectable amount of growling, but always acquiesces at last in the innovation. What was the resisted novelty of yesterday is today one of the accepted principles of conservatism; it is now conservative only in affecting to resist the next innovation, which will tomorrow be forced upon its timidity and will be succeeded by some third revolution; to be denounced and then adopted in its turn. American conservatism is merely the shadow that follows Radicalism as it moves forward towards perdition. It remains behind it, but never retards it, and always advances near its leader. This pretended salt bath utterly lost its savor: wherewith shall it be salted? Its impotency is not hard, indeed, to explain. It is worthless because it is the conservatism of expediency only, and not of sturdy principle. It intends to risk nothing serious for the sake of the truth, and has no idea of being guilty of the folly of martyrdom. It always, when about to enter a protest, very blandly informs the wild beast whose path it essays to stop, that its “bark is worse than its bite,” and that it only means to save its manners by enacting its decent role of resistance. The only practical purpose which it now subserves in American politics is to give enough exercise to Radicalism to keep it “in wind,” and to prevent its becoming pursy and lazy from having nothing to whip. No doubt, after a few years, when women’s suffrage shall have become an accomplished fact, conservatism will tacitly admit it into its creed, and thenceforward plume itself upon its wise firmness in opposing with similar weapons the extreme of baby suffrage; and when that too shall have been won, it will be heard declaring that the integrity of the American Constitution requires at least the refusal of suffrage to asses. There it will assume, with great dignity, its final position.R. L. Dabney. “Women’s Rights Women