New Power Line Series: The Basis of Left and Right, Part 1

The very long original draft last spring of my contentious and controversial “Modernizing Conservatism” essay in the Breakthrough Journal included a long digression about the deeper, philosophical ground of disagreement between liberalism and conservatism, and also a discussion of the many confusing ways the two sides of the political spectrum also overlap.  Although the editors and I decided to omit this entire section, I think parts of it might make a good series here on Power Line, like my multi-part series last winter about Progressivism 100 years ago and today.  I know that some Power Line readers like these excursions into political thought, and others don’t, just as some Rush Limbaugh listeners dislike his forays into football and golf.  (If you want, you can think of these offers as “The Power Line Institute for Advanced Conservative Studies”!)  If you’re not interested in some freewheeling political philosophy, please do skip over these.  For everyone else, here’s Part 1:

The divisions between left and right are fundamental and unbridgeable.  A frequent trope of political rhetoric is that everyone agrees about the ends; we merely disagree about the means.  Although this is often true at the level of a discrete policy issue (for example, how to broaden access to health care), it is wrong at the deeper level of what might be called the “tectonic plates” that drive the individual political battles.  Reducing left-right differences to disagreements only over means has a numbing effect on clear thinking, and is an obstacle to grappling with some of the larger problems that now need reform that goes far beyond the business-as-usual tinkering around the edges, such as entitlement spending.  Liberals tend to believe in old-fashioned leveling egalitarianism; conservatives do not.  (Much more on this point in due course.)  Rather than evade or gloss over fundamental differences, highlighting them is the vital pre-condition to finding any middle ground for possible compromise.

The late Jesuit philosopher John Courtney Murray argued that sometimes the best thing to do is to “achieve disagreement;” in other words, to understand with clarity and precision the sources and nature of ideological disagreements, because often what appears to be disagreement is merely confusion.  To accomplish useful disagreement it is best to put aside at the outset the immediate issues that dominate our political street theater and begin with the central theoretical questions.  There is a lot of confusion along with division about basic terms and perceptions of political life, starting with what is meant by “liberal,” “conservative,” “progressive,” and key ideas, especially the main axis of American politics, “equality” and “liberty.”  Once some of these theoretical aspects are outlined it may become possible to ascend (or is it descend?) to more immediate political questions.  The account that follows is far from comprehensive, but is hopefully useful in clarifying some basic problems.

John Stuart Mill

Start at the beginning.  In the broadest terms, what is liberalism, and what is conservatism?  My own shorthand definition is that liberalism is the view that individuals should be free to pursue their own self-chosen purposes, so long as their choices do not harm others.  This is no more than a one-sentence distillation of John Stuart Mill’s explication of the liberal idea in On Liberty, a rich and variegated argument which, ironically, contains many postulates for both left and right today.  But this raises the first conceptual difficulty: conservatives also favor individual liberty in some form; conservatives especially favor maximum economic liberty.  Liberals are for “rights;” so are conservatives—sometimes even the same “rights,” sometimes not.  Is conservatism merely a branch or dissident strain of liberalism, or does it represent a fundamental alternative to understanding and prescribing social life and political institutions?

Defining conservatism succinctly is not as easy as defining liberalism for precisely this reason, and it raises immediately the split within the political right between traditional conservatives who speak of “ordered liberty” and libertarians who believe “ordered liberty” to be oxymoronic; see especially Friedrich Hayek’s famous essay “Why I Am Not a Conservative,” in which he concludes that “I doubt whether there can be such as thing as a conservative political philosophy.”  William F. Buckley, Jr. found it impossible to define conservatism succinctly, and when pressed would “punish” inquirers with linguist Richard Weaver’s formulation that conservatism is “the paradigm of essences towards which the phenomenology of the world is in continuing approximation.”

Russell Kirk

This definition is not as ridiculous as it sounds, though it does need translation into plain English.  The broadest common denominator for conservatism may be a distillation of Russell Kirk’s six-part definition (from The Conservative Mind) into seven words—a belief in a transcendent moral order—with two caveats or qualifications.  First, it is not necessary to be religious or even a theist to embrace this premise; it can arise from purely secular origins alone (i.e., classical philosophy).  Second, this definition can comprise most libertarian thought, at least insofar as libertarians believe that social structures and market processes are bounded by the laws of nature, even if those laws are not clear or permanently fixed.

Edmund Burke

This last point brings us right to the crux of the theoretical divide, as libertarianism provides the bridge between liberalism and conservatism in the abstract.  Libertarianism embraces the freedom and innovation (social and otherwise) that modernization brings, while preserving fixed limits to how much or how far political intervention, or centralized knowledge, can go in shaping change.  The traditional conservative, who often comes to sight as a categorical opponent of change, is not necessarily opposed to all change in principle, but differs from the libertarian chiefly as a matter of degree rather than kind.  This is why the attempts to form a “liberaltarian” coalition were doomed to failure (liberals acknowledge few if any limits on the reach of political power to solve social ills), and why traditional conservatives and libertarians, despite differences on particular issues such as abortion or drugs, will generally remain politically allied.

Part 2 tomorrow will consider different understandings of human nature between left and right.

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