November 02, 2019

Is caution basic to conservatism?

The most distinctive thing about the Left/Right clash in the world today is liberty-loving conservatives versus an authoritarian Left.

Authoritarianism goes to the heart of Leftism. What Leftists believe and advocate is constantly changing but a belief that they have a right to tell others what to do never changes. They want to make us do things we do not want to do and stop us doing things we would normally do. The extreme authoritarians of C20 (Stalin, Hitler, Mao) were all extreme socialists and socialists elsewhere are constrained only by what they can get away with. To get their jollies, socialists in a democracy have to invent stories that will convince a large slice of the population that restricting their liberty will do some good. Global warming is a great story of that kind, hence its total resistance to disproof. The black heart of Leftism is a furious hunger for power and domination over other people but authoritarianism is the everyday manifestation of that

So what is the heart of conservatism?  Is it a love of liberty?  Any libertarian will dispute that.  Unlike libertarians, conservatives do permit some infringements on individual liberty -- with taxation being the prime example of that. Taxation is unavoidably authoritarian.  It is ultimately enforced on unwilling people by police and the courts.  So why do conservatives resist the authoritarian initiatives of the Left?  What makes the difference between a good law and a bad law to conservatives?  The difference is obviously one of degree but what is the criterion that guides what is acceptable and what is not?

Throughout history, conservatives have always been seen as more cautious and that is what I see as the deep level of conservatism.  It is caution that limits what laws will be accepted and which will not be.  Leftist laws are deliberately aimed at being destructive in some way -- despite their alleged benefits.  The vast costs imposed by the global warming myth are an example of such destruction.  And it generally takes little for thinking people to foresee the destructive impact of Leftist laws.  So cautious conservatives reject such laws.  Conservative caution leads conservatives to resist initiatives that will destroy their society in various ways. Conservative caution means that conservatives value stability in their world. Stability is safety. If something must be changed, there has to be good evidence that it will be beneficial on the whole.

So we come to an objection to that account.  A reader has written to say that caution is an insufficient explanation for what conservatives do and value.  His email follows. It was written in response to my claim that a cautious disposition was more basic than the Heritage list of conservative principles:

1) "The Heritage Foundation list of of conservative principles would be met with broad agreement by the people who founded the American Republic, yet they were violent revolutionaries. They had radical ideas, not the least of which was that ordinary people should be free to conduct their lives as they saw fit. The vast majority of mankind for the vast majority of human history lived under significant constraints by church and state and most people thought that is the way it should be.

2). In my opinion because America was founded on limited government, private property, rule of law and individual freedom, conservatives often appear seeking to preserve the status quo or go back in time. Yet if America started as an unlimited monarchy I think many people who count themselves as conservatives would be liberals (in the old sense, arguing for more individual liberty) even though that would be disrupting the way things were and are.

3). Voltaire would find a lot to agree with in the list of conservative principles and he was a great disrupter.  The conservative you describe seems more to me like Confucius who lived in a time of social decline and sought to preserve past glories and stability no matter the political content."

My Reply:

1).  I have long maintained something that is anathema to most American conservatives.  I won't go over the whole grounds for it here but it seems clear to me that the war of independence was in most ways a typically Leftist revolution.  You really just have to read the Declaration of Independence to see that.  It starts out with the flowery language that most people know but the body is a series of complaints that the king has inhibited the powers of the colonial legislators. He has limited what they can enact and has on occasions overruled them.

The revolutionaries wanted the King's powers for themselves and they had to tell a good story to get that. The colonial grandees had to tell a story good enough to get ordinary Americans to take up arms on their behalf.  They did that by convincing people that they would give the ordinary man more rights than the King did.  Not everyone was convinced.  New York, for instance, was almost wholly against the revolutionaries.  But the  revolutionary promises were lapped up by enough people to win the day.  Lenin, Hitler and Mao also came to power via great promises to their people

The difference between the American revolutionaries and the European socialists was that the Americans were led by grandees who already had their own well-established parliaments and legal systems so, rather than wanting to upend everything, they just wanted to remove constraints on their existing powers and authority. Which they did. So there is a sense in which the American revolution was a conservative revolution -- in that it reinforced the existing American power structure rather than overturning it.  There was substantial stability in the arrangements before and after the war.

The revolutionaries did in fact claim that their revolution was a conservative one -- in that the list of rights and privileges that they offered did have substantial continuity with traditional English liberties as understood by Burke and others.  They claimed that the King was not respecting those liberties and they, the revolutionaries, were restoring those liberties. It was a good line, good propaganda

And note that the Mayflower founders were communists.  They based their communism on religion rather than politics but they were such fanatical communists that a third of them had to starve before they reverted to traditional ways. So the thinking they left to their successors was heavily laden with Leftist suspicion of the status quo and belief in their own righteousness.

So it is no surprise that the American revolutionaries were typical Leftists in many ways.  That the high-flown radical  principles that brought them to power have since become widely admired does not detract from their origin as war propaganda.

So my reply to point 1 is to agree that the revolutionaries were neither cautious nor conservative.  The conservatives, mostly from New York, were defeated in that war.

2).  The second point above is undoubtedly correct.  Conservatives have never felt unable to resist restrictions on their liberty.  Having other people in power over you is dangerous and it is perfectly cautious to want to reduce dangers.

3). It flows from point 2 that conservatism is not necessarily passive.  It can be active and strong in defence of its liberties.  And indeed it needs to be.  Leftist energies never seem to tire so conservatives have to act constantly to resist that.  Stability needs to be continually fought for.

Readers who are interested in continuing the discussion about  the Leftist influence throughout American history will find a serial discussion of that here, here and here, including some substantial disagreements with me.

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