The Basis of Left and Right, Part 2: (Human) Nature, Convention, and Liberty

Continuing the series I began a few days back exploring the philosophical divide between Left and Right, herewith installment #2.

Continuing right where I left off, what libertarians understand about the defects of traditional conservatism is that it has difficulty applying the appreciation of a “transcendent moral order” to the practical world of modernization that constantly undermines authority, tradition, and existing orders of things, whether it be WalMart supplanting the shopkeepers of small town Main Street, working women changing the structure of both workplace and home, or the prospect of gay unions.  A conservatism more serious about confronting the maelstrom of modernity would modify the previous definition and attempt to understand itself as attempting to defend the unchanging ground of changing experience.

At this point a crucial fault line between left and right begins to come into focus, and it corresponds to the classical distinction between nature and convention.  Conservatives harken to nature, especially human nature, which they we understand to be mostly fixed in important respects.  The relative fixity of human nature prescribes limits to human freedom and bounds to social structures.  These limits and boundaries are neither self-evident nor unchanging, but must be discovered, a slow process not easily understood or modified at will.  Conservatives see authority and tradition as guardians of hard-won knowledge—knowledge not always susceptible of explanation or restatement, whose origins are often half-forgotten or completely forgotten.  G.K. Chesterton’s remark that “tradition is the democracy of the dead” is the essence of Edmund Burke rendered in journalistic shorthand.

Right away a significant difficulty arises.  While conservatives seek to anchor social structures in harmony with a transcendent moral order as manifested in human nature, tradition and authority are mostly conventional things.  And liberalism can also make a valid claim on human nature as its home ground, too; the contemporary concepts of human rights or individual rights first develops as natural rights in the 17th and 18th centuries.  The liberal differs from the conservative in his emphasis on challenging conventions or conventional constraints to individual self-fulfillment—an imperative that derives equally from the logic of human nature.  This difficulty explains why the Declaration of Independence can be read as both a liberal and as a conservative document; the Declaration justifies revolution (“the right of the people to alter or abolish” forms of government) but also advises moderation (“Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes”).  Like literal fault lines, the fault line between nature and convention runs in both directions.  Is there a way of sorting this out more intelligibly?

The left-right divide begins to become more comprehensible when differing understandings of individual liberty and its political postulates are probed further.  The starting point of liberalism offered here (individuals should be free to pursue their self-chosen purposes) leads liberals to challenge conventions that constrain individual autonomy—to “question authority” in the popular graffiti.  The logical consequence of the imperative to expand the domain of individual autonomy naturally compels liberalism to be reformist, to embrace progress as the essential process to accomplish reform, and to employ reason to guide the progressive reform process.  Above all, the imperative of individual autonomy necessarily places the principle of equality at the center of liberal thought.  Conventional social structures that maintain artificial or arbitrary inequalities between individuals attract the most ire from reform liberalism, because such inequalities constrain or reduce the sum total of individual self-fulfillment across society.  These four postulates of liberalism find their apotheosis in the impressively argued synthesis of John Rawls.

The conservative has strong reservations about each of these postulates, and sometimes rejects them outright, partly because at root the conservative believes there are more inherent limits to individual autonomy than the liberal.  This is one reason some conservatives use the term “ordered liberty” to distinguish a conservative perspective on individual freedom.  Thomas Sowell’s serviceable shorthand for this distinction between right and left (in his book Conflict of Visions) is the “constrained” versus “unconstrained” vision of how the world works.  At its purest or most extreme form, liberalism tends toward the belief that all or most constraints on humans are artificial and therefore illegitimate.  The conservative is not sure reform necessarily represents progress, and is doubtful in any case that progress or reform, however understood, can be produced primarily through reason.  John Dickinson, author of the famous “Letters from a Pennsylvania Farmer” at the time of the American Revolution, expressed the conservative disposition aptly:

Experience must be our only guide. Reason may mislead us. It was not Reason that discovered the singular and admirable mechanism of the British Constitution.  It was not Reason that discovered or even could have discovered the odd and in the eye of those who are governed by reason, the absurd mode of trial by jury. Accidents probably produced these discoveries, and experience has given sanction to them. This then was our guide.

Abraham Lincoln’s similar formulation follows closely: “What is conservatism?  Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?”

More on the subject of reason and equality in the next installment.


Notice: All comments are subject to moderation. Our comments are intended to be a forum for civil discourse bearing on the subject under discussion. Commenters who stray beyond the bounds of civility or employ what we deem gratuitous vulgarity in a comment — including, but not limited to, “s***,” “f***,” “a*******,” or one of their many variants — will be banned without further notice in the sole discretion of the site moderator.