Home > General > Another Word for Wednesday Repost: Conservative

Another Word for Wednesday Repost: Conservative

July 26th, 2007

Conservative: As an antonym to ‘progressive’, the term ‘conservative’ is affected by many of the same confusions.

First, a conservative may be one who, like Burke, believes that that social change should be gradual and organic, rather than rapid, top-down and rationalistic.

Second, a conservative may emphasise obligations to society and community rather than, or as a counterbalance to individual rights . Since societies and communities tend to change more slowly than individuals, this is broadly consistent with the first definition. Closely related to this group are conservationists, who seek to conserve the natural environment often at the expense of short-term benefits to individuals.

Third, a conservative may defend more specific traditional institutions such as monarchy or private property.

Fourth, the term ‘conservative’ is used as the official name of some right-of-centre political parties and as a general descriptive term for right-of-centre politics

Given a historicist belief that history inevitably flows in a given direction, defined as ‘progressive’, a conservative is one who seeks to halt or slow down that flow. Assuming further that the trend of history is towards the political left, all these definitions fit together pretty well. Even in this case, a conservative of type 3 must gradually adjust to lost ground. A contemporary supporter of absolute or even limited monarchy in Australia and the UK would not be a conservative but a reactionary.

As with ‘progressives’, though the big problems emerge when the trend of history changes. Consider, for example, the role of trade unions. As long as trade unions were growing in power, conservatives of all types could join in resisting this trend. But now that unions are in decline, there is a sharp conflict between different types of conservatives.

On any abstract definition of conservatism, it’s clear that conservatives should support trade unions. They are traditional institutions dating back to the 19th century and beyond, they endorse conservative values of community solidarity and they are under attack primarily because they are seen as an obstacle to radical change. And of course this attack is being led by Conservatives in the sense of definition 4 and, to a lesser extent, definition 3.

However, whereas the problems with the term ‘progressive’ are, in my view, so severe as to render it useless as a description of political views, this is not true of ‘conservative’. The absence of any monotone linear trend does not invalidate conservatism in the sense of the first definition. Rather it strengthens it. If the policy trends of this decade may be reversed next decade, then in makes sense to move slowly and to distrust impressive-looking theoretical blueprints.

Having witnessed a massive reversal of policy trends in my own lifetime, and having been on the losing side for most of the past few decades, I am now a conservative in the sense of definition 1. I hope that, should the tide of policy debate turn in favour of social democracy once more, social democrats will avoid the hubris that characterized the Left before the 1970s and the Right thereafter, and will favor slow and careful change based on broad social support.

Update Coincidentally, Stephen Barton at Online Opinion has a piece headlined “Conservatism is not evil, stupid nor ignorant – it’s just misunderstood. ” Since he starts by quoting a member of Margaret Thatcher’s radical free-market government, he clearly does not refer to conservatism in the sense of definitions 1 and 2, despite the obligatory nods to Burke and Oakeshott. Rather he lists a number of conservative politicians and activists and asserts that, contrary to popular opinion, they aren’t “evil, stupid nor ignorant’, characteristics he instead attributes to people on the other side like Clinton, Whitlam and Keating.

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  1. July 26th, 2007 at 19:41 | #1

    “A contemporary supporter of absolute or even limited monarchy in Australia and the UK would not be a conservative but a reactionary.”

    This is the standard intellectually dishonest tosh of those who wish to rig such questions in advance.

    In case you hadn’t noticed, JQ, the currently existing situation is monarchy – in both those countries, and many more too. A supporter of the status quo is ipso facto not seeking a return or reaction to an earlier situation. Your attempt to substitute direction for position – without even establishing that direction – is dishonest over and above your own wish to define conservative. It is understandable that your own experience is all you have to draw on, and that that should yield a two dimensional caricature; but that is acceptable as a first draft in an enquiry such as this thread offers. However, it is going too far to try to do a bait and switch like that one just there.

    In case you are interested, G.K.Chesterton did a pretty fair job identifying the differences between republicans and monarchists (“royalists” was his term). If there is any interest I will look it up and post it. On conservatism, the most succinct definition was Viscount Falkland’s: [someone who believes that] when it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change. Disraeli clarified that a lot in practice. To that mindset, “progressive” runs the fatal risk – always eventually succumbed to – of losing the plot, of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Think of the “Yes, Prime Minister” scenario in which the most efficiently administered hospital was the one with no patients.

  2. owls001
    July 26th, 2007 at 20:37 | #2

    “Given a historicist belief that history inevitably flows in a given direction, defined as ‘progressive’”

    But it is NOT a “given”, historicism is the most discredited idea of the 20th century, and in scientific terms it is a dead duck, you cannot know the future, the future depends on the sum of knowledge that will be know then.

    BUT i have to admit JQ it explains your love of climate models

  3. owls001
    July 26th, 2007 at 20:43 | #3

    The current political framework in the West is govern by the the dominant schools of thought, at the moment there are two, classical liberalism and modern liberalism

    In short one is Left wing, Modern liberalism (post-modernism,relitivism, feminism, ect.) and the other is No wing.

    If you dropped in 1840s England and asked the locals if they where left or right wing, they would not understand the question.

    What Karl Marx did in short was to define the barriers between what is “right” and “left” wing. He defined what he saw to be “left” wing as his particular view on the world and everyone else who did not agree with him or fit in with that view as “right” wing. His view of the world was one of historicism, the belief that human history is always progressing.

    Of course this is paradigm, does not work, people and groups of people don’t fit neatly into one size fits all solutions. So the logic of this tells you that what we call “right wing” has never really existed except in the heads of people who call themselves “left wing”

    Marx got his philosophic principles from a movement called the romantics, and especially Friedrich Hegel . This was not the enlightenment at all but the counter enlightenment. In short the romantics believed their was a sort of blueprint for creating a man made paradise by reason on earth, a romantic view of reason, heroic reason banishing the old ways away if you will, as opposed to David Humes skepticism, which is based on the principle of causation or in short you can never ever know anything in absolute certainty. Hume is the founder of what we would call today “conservatism”

    Its worth noting that Spinoza thought all of us, in one form or another are trying to see the world without the need for concepts (such as language and logic ect) this in my opinion is a good definition of God, it also explains the irrationalism of Post-Modernism as well as their present and past fellow travelers from the counter enlightenment, including the church.

    Thus the split in the enlightenment at the point of the Romantic Movement is the split that separates Classical Liberalism from Modern Liberalism.

    The other distinction that is important is that of John Stuart Mill and his concept of negative liberty, (or, you can do what you want as long as it does not harm others) which is not as straight forward as it sounds, JSM also points out rightly, that freedom brings responsibility and duty, the “Left” and the counter enlightenment believe that you are a product of your social circumstances so reject the idea or concept of the sovereignty of the individual. For them its the state that acts for the good of the whole, not the individual. (a very dangerous idea, one that the 20th century pays for in blood)

    So what is Classical Liberalism?
    Ill let the great and the good fill you in better than I can do.

    At the heart of classical liberalism”, wrote Nancy L. Rosenblum and Robert C. Post, is a prescription: “Nurture voluntary associations. Limit the size, and more importantly, the scope of government. So long as the state provides a basic rule of law that steers people away from destructive or parasitic ways of life and in the direction of productive ways of life, society runs itself. If you want people to flourish, let them run their own lives.”

    Another American Scholar Leonard Liggio, puts a American perspective on the issue, which I think is very true.

    He says,

    “Classical liberalism is liberalism, but the current collectivists have captured that designation in the United States. Happily they did not capture it in Europe, and were glad enough to call themselves socialists. But no one in America wants to be called socialist and admit what they are.”

    This is interesting as David Hume, was one of the philosophical architects of the United States constitution. It’s great to see how ideas shape the world and shape us.

  4. July 27th, 2007 at 07:44 | #4

    actually, owls, louis 16 defined left and right when he put representatives of the people on the left (inferior) side of the theater.

  5. owls001
    July 27th, 2007 at 14:50 | #5

    only from the pov of the French enlightenment, (Marx gave it meaning)I am talking from the pov of the British enlightenment, the one that really matters……and why is it the British one that matters? because that one was built on protestant principles of freedom.

  6. owls001
    July 27th, 2007 at 15:26 | #6

    Its an interesting pre- Marx throwback of history that the Australian Conservative party is called the Liberal party is it not?

    My general point is that opinions dont really matter, be it mine or JQs ect ect, what matters is developments in schools of thought.

    I look from afar at Aussie politics and I see both Modern Liberalism and Classical Liberalism displayed in both of the main parties, as here in the UK too, politics is just the theatre or battlegroung where philosophical ideas slug it out

  7. July 27th, 2007 at 20:53 | #7

    If the policy trends of this decade may be reversed next decade, then in makes sense to move slowly and to distrust impressive-looking theoretical blueprints.

    Which is why I advocate the widespread application of sunset clauses. If a proposed law can get 75% support within parliament then let it be made permanent. However if it gets between 51-75% support then it should be assumed to be controversial and it should be sent back for amendment and only passed without the 75% super majority if it is subject to a 30 year sunset clause. Any law could still be repealed if 51% support a repeal. It would not be too technically difficult to embed such a sunset requirement in the constitution.

    Radicals could still get their ideas put into law but not forever and not without review. And the obscure laws that nobody has the time to remove or the inclination to defend would simply lapse.

    I outlined my thinking some time ago in a little more detail in the following article:-

    http://alsblog.wordpress.com/2006/10/28/weathering-away-old-rules/

  8. July 27th, 2007 at 20:57 | #8

    … I am now a conservative in the sense of definition 1. I hope that, should the tide of policy debate turn in favour of social democracy once more, social democrats will avoid the hubris that characterized the Left before the 1970s and the Right thereafter, and will favor slow and careful change based on broad social support.

    So no government owned phone companies, airlines and banks unless it’s popular in a way that is “broad”. Does that mean 51% support or something else?

  9. jquiggin
    July 27th, 2007 at 21:42 | #9

    So, Terje, does this apply to all changes from the present position? For example, no tax cuts unless 75 per cent approve, and all such cuts to lapse after the sunset clause expires ?

    Or do you imagine a situation where you get to nominate the default position?

    To respond to your question, I would certainly want more than 51 per cent support before I would think it a good idea to push through any substantial program of renationalisation of the kind you mention.

  10. mugwump
    July 27th, 2007 at 23:41 | #10

    “Nurture voluntary associations. Limit the size, and more importantly, the scope of government. So long as the state provides a basic rule of law that steers people away from destructive or parasitic ways of life and in the direction of productive ways of life, society runs itself. If you want people to flourish, let them run their own lives.�

    Perfect.

  11. July 27th, 2007 at 23:56 | #11

    John,

    I would envisage that many a tax cut could be achieved by repealing legislation. And in the proposal I outlined laws could be repealed with 51% support. So for instance they might achieve a tax cut by repealing the GST legislation or by repealing the fuel tax or some such thing. This is quite a broad approach to such reform but not to be discouraged.

    However lets take something more modest such as an income tax cut as an example. Lets say the government of the day wanted to reduce the top tax rate from 45% to 40%. They could approach this one of two ways.

    1. They could convince 75% of parliamentarians that it was a good idea and pass it that way. Given the historical convention that the opposition supports the governments budget then this would not seem to be too big an obstacle. None of the recent Howard tax cuts would have failed the 75% threshold for example.

    2. Assuming that the opposition was opposed to the budget reform then they could resubmit the reform with a 30 year sunset clause and then they could pass it with only 51% of parliament. So the tax cut would stand for 30 years and it could be renewed again in 30 years time if it was still considered important.

    The point of such a reform is that only laws that have broad support would endure automatically. Laws passed in haste by a government whilst being opposed by the opposition would not hang around past their used by date.

    The default position does not need me to nominate anything at all later on because it is built into the proposal up front. And the default is that only laws that are considered worthy by a super majority should linger long term.

    This measure would also ensure that parliaments spent more time thinking about which existing laws were worthy and which should be repealed and they would hense spend slightly less time dreaming up new rules for people to follow. It would help enforce some housekeeping on the statutes.

    Regards,
    Terje.

  12. jstrocch
    August 2nd, 2007 at 15:37 | #12

    Pr Q says:

    Conservative: As an antonym to ‘progressive’, the term ‘conservative’ is affected by many of the same confusions.

    I think I can solve the alleged contradiction between progressive and conservative.

    “Progress” implies movement towards a (generally desirable) goal. The correct antonym is “retrogress”.

    I suggest progress can be measured by an increase in the possible superior states achievable by typical individuals over time. The achievement of a superior state is revealed by preference.

    What counts as “superior” is vexed, but it surely implies that the individual should be willing and able to enjoy what life has to offer. That means the “individual subject” should be healthier and wiser over time. And the “insititutional objects” should generate more wealth.

    “Conservativism” means maintenance of traditional institutional processes. Roughly speaking it means social arrangements should not deviate from the default tried, tested and true path.

    The correct antonym should be “constructivism”, a drastic change from the default institutional position. That, at any rate, was Hayek’s position. He is a pretty good guide on the etymology of ideology.

    Obviously conservative/constructive is not identical to right/left. A rightwinger wants to maintain or improve the position of the high-status. A leftwinger wishes to maintain or improve the position of the low-status.

    Pretty obviously, left-wingers will tend to be conservative these days. They want to conserve the welfare and workfare state.

    Likewise, right-wingers can be constructivists, such as the Wall Street masters of the universe, constantly revolutionising corporate structures and financial instruments.

    Obviously someone can be conservative about process whilst still achieving progressive outcomes. That is, in fact, the situtation for conservative liberals who seek to maintain institutional processes that facilitate individual progress.

    This etymological debate becomes a little less arcane and abstract when it gets caught up in the Culture War cross fire. Left-liberal constructivists wish to drasticly “make over” the modern nation state, the fundamental cultural institution of modernity, as part of the transition to post-modern globalism.

    The evidence so far suggests that such constructivist changes will tend to lead backwards to pre-modern tribalism ie be retrogressive. The conservatives want to maintain the nation state because the evidence shows that this institution is generally progressive.

  13. jstrocch
    August 8th, 2007 at 17:57 | #13

    I think my constructive/conservative antimony also solves the “Hayek problem“.

    That is the contradiction b/w Hayek’s famous “progressivist” essay on “Why I am not a conservative” and his later much more conservative view expressed in “The errors of constructivism“.

    No doubt the fact that the “anti-conservative” essay was published in 1960 whereas the “anti-constructivist” essay was published in 1970 has something to do with his change of heart. Obviously a few years of campus rioting turned the aristocratic von Hayek off the value of social novelty per se.

    The two views of social change are based on differing philosophies of history. Conservatives explain social change through organic, bottom-up evolutionary process. “Nature does not make leaps”. Constructivists explain social change by mechanic, top-down revolutionary progress.

    The difference is brought out by the two types of institutional systems that humans have developed. The first type, termed “enterprise organization” by Oakshott, is a system consciously contrived by intelligent design with a special purpose, An example would be a firm or club. This is the domain of constructivist innovation.

    The second type, termed “civil association” by Oakshott, are “spontaneous orders” that evolved unconsciously for general use. Examples of this would be moral, legal and lingual codes. This is the domain of conservative rennovation.

    I think that this distinction is crucial for the three-dimensional understanding of social systems. This requires a philosophy of social organization accross space and social modulation through time.

    Obviously constructivists are better at Platonic theories of organizational formation. Whereas conservatives give a more Darwinian take on histories of associational reformation.

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