Will the Real Conservatives Please Stay Where You Are?
Davey over at Theopolitical has a very sharp post up analyzing the epic (can I call it epic yet?) debate between Conor and Dan (well moderated by Br. Scott) here at the League over the nature and future of conservatism.
Frankly, Riehl’s assertions about the universally-accepted tenets of conservatism were historically myopic…Follow up posts from Conor and RS McCain reminded me of just how confused contemporary conservatism is about its own roots. McCain, for one, invoked F.A. Hayek and von Mises, alleging that Conor and his ilk were ignorant of basic free market teaching (to which Conor responded by revealing his Austrian creds). But the truly ironic thing about all this is that Hayek and von Mises were not conservatives. They said so themselves in no uncertain terms.
Honestly read the whole thing, it’s very good.
D goes on to point out that Hayek et. al were classical liberals–as they again made very clear. Hayek for example wrote a book essay entitled Why I Am Not a Conservative–emphasis on not. [ed: see will wilson’s comment #3 as an amendation.]
And what we now term conservatism (really Reaganite/movement conservatism) is essentially a form of modern liberalism.
The neocons were/are unrepentant liberals–even if domestically they now question state involvement as the primary means to promoting liberality (which they certainly still believe in in terms of foreign policy). The libertarian wing of course is the contemporary incarnation of classical liberalism.
National Greatness Conservatism was of this ilk. And reformo-conservatism of the Grand New Party variety I would say as well. The conservatism of slow organic growth (a la Burke) is just a variant on this trend with a slight twist. See Poulos’ essay here on Beaconsfield Conservatives.
All of them are modernist liberalisms that tend to emphasize an inner personal and/or cultural element: whether hard work, patriotism, pluck, whatever. What we had been the norm prior to the Reaganite revolution was a modern liberalism that had roughly all the same basic worldview assumptions but that felt that government exterior social effort was the primary means of achieving that liberality. First in terms of labor-government alliances, social insurance, etc. and then later with the rise of redistributionist economic policies and multicultural affirmative action policies/programs. We call that New Deal Liberalism (and later Great Society Liberalism).
Because the fight was dominated by discussion over the best way/mechanism to achieve those goals (and full of so much emotion), the deeper similarities of the two–e.g. belief in progress–were missed. And in fact continue to be so.
I’m not saying that this form of conservatism-cum-liberalism is a bad thing. Only that it’s caught in a very odd situation where it’s become more like Liberal Parties in Europe–meaning Classical Liberals. But they can’t use that term because they have spent (stupidly imo) the last 30 years vilifying the term liberal while all the time promoting a variety thereof. Again very odd semantically if not in many other regards.
The one riposte could be: Classical liberalism is quite old at this point–it is a quite well established tradition–and the fact that other forms of liberalism have evolved it could be argued make classical liberalism (compared to later iterations) conservative. Whereas compared to more traditional societies it still appears radically revolutionary and progressive (see neo-conservatism abroad). Even the farce surrounding a protest of David Letterman to support our gal Sarah is more a kind of “my people” neo-tribalistic narcissism out of the 60s Left playbook than any kind of respect for real tradition or traditional values (whatever those may be).
Whatever the terminology, the payout of all these various liberalisms has been I believe–along the lines laid out by Philip Bobbitt–the end of the nation-state and the rise of the market-state as the dominant reality of our time. The triumph of the Lockean contractualist self-made trajectory as Davey points out.
Clearing away all that rubble, Davey argues that true conservatism must come from Augustine:
Freedom is only free for the conservative if it is well-ordered toward love.
That definition of course to the liberals (of whatever strains) will beg the question of who decides what is well ordered and loving? And how does that order come to pass? On what scale? And what do you do when people dissent?
What is very helpful about this definition is that it clearly differentiates conservatism from liberalism–as opposed to the other forms of self-described conservatism that are in reality variants of liberalism.
Liberalism I think does succeed on a number of fronts and fails miserably along a whole swath of others. Mostly along the lines Davey points out referencing Augustine.
It’s really important to emphasize that conservatism is about a society well ordered towards love. Liberalisms of various stripes, being grounded in modern economics–an economics built out of a desire for mathematico-scientific precision and not as the older strain of economics was as a branch of moral philosophy–spend their efforts arguing about how society should be ordered to maximize human productivity. Not love.
What love to me brings is commitment. Liberaliism has no great power to evoke commitment I find to the choices–particularly in an age of the ability to create and re-create the self (the selves?) at near will. This is why right-wing liberals emphasize patriotism, family values, and civic religious purity symbols and left-wing liberals put so much into movements (abolition, populist, progressive, New Deal, Civil Rights, 60s Counterculture). All of those will the void that liberalism leaves: the desire for sociality where liberalism emphasizes the atomic isolated individual and the realm of emotion where liberalism is excessively heady.
My own out there quasi-anarchist view that attempts to synthesize the two (conservatism and liberalism) comes in the form of more de-centralized spheres of sociocratic (neither socialist nor democratic nor theocratic) forms of political practice.
The guiding ethos of such practice involves:
1. Free inquiry and transparency
2. Free choice–i..e no coercion. (from liberalism)
3. Deep commitment to the choices made (from conservatism)
via the practice of deciding by no strong, principled objection and the ability to re-view any decision at any time (#1).
This decision-making process includes all at the level at which the decision is made–as opposed to democracy which breeds factionalism. But it does not require everyone’s consent simply their non-objection. They can not however play a stay out (see #3) and veto by refusing to participate. Objections must be raised with valid reasons as to their objection and a desire to find a means to the objection’s resolution (or at least a place where the individual will feel comfortable allowing the process to continue and they let their objection go).
[Anyone interested in some of these ideas applied to the business world see here].
One of the main problems with conservatism in the modern era–the conservatism of Augustine not the liberalism masquerading as conservatism (basically liberalism with some throwaways to social conservatives)–has been one of scale.
I think this explains why conservatives have tended to emphasize localism and see all government as liberal (big gov’t/state). This is very speculative, but I’ve always wondered if it has to be that way and whether instead the form/practice of the government (qua big and factionalist creating and not integrating objections to it as part of its practice) is not the problem. Whether there could be a different mode–a mode of governance that integrates the conservative wisdom into the liberalism (or liberalism into conservatism if you like). I haven’t thought this all the way through, just putting it out there.