Monday, June 22, 2015

Misunderstanding Conservatism

There is, I think, a lot of misunderstanding as to what conservatism and liberalism are in the contemporary political landscape. Both terms have evolved over the centuries and mean different things today than they did two hundred years ago. Doubtless this is part of the reason for the misunderstanding, but there are other reasons as well. For instance, the popular misunderstanding is due in no small measure to the distortions of the media which seems to have the unfortunate ability to get almost everything that involves subtle distinctions wrong. It's also due, in part, to the fact that conservatism and liberalism are culturally relative. For example, as Jonah Goldberg at National Review Online, observes:
A conservative in America wants to conserve radically different things than a conservative in Saudi Arabia, Russia, or France does. Even British conservatives — our closest ideological cousins — want to preserve the monarchy, an institution we fought a revolution to get rid of. In the Soviet Union, the “conservatives” were the ones who wanted to preserve and defend the Bolshevik Revolution.
In Saudi Arabia the conservatives want to preserve a strict form of Islam. Indeed, ISIS is a conservative movement. In the antebellum South conservatives wanted to preserve slavery, and in modern Russia it's the conservatives who wish to return to the days of the Soviet Union. In the modern American context, however, conservatism is essentially the desire, as paradoxical as it may sound, to preserve classical liberalism. It's the desire to hold fast to what has been proven through the ages to work, religiously, politically, economically, morally, and socially. It's a reluctance to change just for the sake of change. It recognizes that if something ain't broke it's foolish to try to fix it, and if it is broke the fix is often worse than the original brokenness.

Goldberg elaborates on the relationship between conservatism and classical liberalism:
America’s founding doctrine is properly understood as classical liberalism — or until the progressives stole the label, simply “liberalism.” Until socialism burst on the scene in Europe, liberalism was universally understood as the opposite of conservatism. That’s because European conservatism sought to defend and maintain monarchy, aristocracy, and even feudalism.

The American Founding, warts and all, was the apotheosis of classical liberalism, and conservatism here has always been about preserving it. That’s why Friedrich Hayek, in his fantastic — and fantastically misunderstood — essay “Why I am Not a Conservative” could say that America was the one polity where one could be a conservative and a defender of the liberal tradition.
Classical liberals, unlike their modern progressive counterparts, stood for freedom - freedom of the individual to believe what he wished and to speak his mind without suffering persecution from an intolerant government or social institutions. They also believed in the ability of free markets to maximize economic well-being, in the deadening effect of taxation, and in the dangers of big government. They believed in the inherent tendency of men toward evil and, for the most part, in the salutary effect of Christian belief on man's most destructive impulses.

So, I join with Goldberg when he says at the end of his piece that "It’s also why I have no problem with people who say that American conservatism is simply classical liberalism. As a shorthand, that’s fine by me."