August 18, 2010


Brink Lindsey on Traditional and Liberal Conservatism (Jonathan Rauch , 15 August 2010, Five Books)

I think liberals, of both a libertarian, classical, liberal stripe and a more modern egalitarian stripe, see John Stuart Mill as a common ancestor, but he’s not really in the conservative pantheon. Indeed it was Mill who said, ‘While not all conservatives are stupid, all stupid people are generally conservative.’ So he was not only a liberal political theorist but a liberal Member of Parliament, and definitely not a Tory.

Liberal in the European sense, ie libertarian?

He strays from the contemporary libertarian line in a number of respects. But the reason I selected him is that there is a brief passage in On Liberty (in the second chapter on defending liberty of thought and discussion) where he lays forth what I think is the best concise explanation for why there is a left and a right – and why there always will be. Why, even though he wasn’t a conservative and didn’t think much of conservatives, he thought conservatism was a necessary and wholesome part of political life. Let me quote a sentence or two: ‘In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away. Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.’

I think the typical view of politics from inside a partisan mindset is to see politics as a battle of the good guys versus the bad guys. Maybe the good guys are on the left, maybe the good guys are on the right, but it’s this Manichean struggle and the way to get progress is for the good side to win and impose their will. Mill sees through that and sees that, in fact, politics is a dialectical process. At any given time truth is partly on one side and partly on the other. It’s more a battle of half-truths and incomplete truths than of good versus bad. The excesses of each side ultimately create opportunities for the other to come in and correct those excesses. Liberalism, in Mill’s view and in mine, provides the basic motive force of political change and progress. It will go astray, it will have excesses, it will make terrible mistakes – and a conservatism that is focused on preserving good things that exist now will be a necessary counterweight to that liberalism.

...but the picture becomes more complex when "progressives" are able to achieve excesses, at which point, they become the conservatives in this equation, while the traditional conservative party--which seeks to ameliorate the problems created--becomes the reformist movement. This is our situation now, where the Right complains that its leaders are liberals and the Left that its are conservative. The complainants on the Left are correct that a Clinton and a Blair are not seeking to extend the Second Way, just to preserve what they can of it while making it more efficient. Those on the Right are correct that Thatcher, Bush, Harper, Howard, Cameron, etc. are not trying to restore the First Way but to apply its methods to the Second. It leaves true believers on the two wings thoroughly dissatisfied--to the point where they tend to bring down their own governments--but they appeal to the electorate, which is why they obtained power in the first place.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at August 18, 2010 6:30 AM
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