Monday, December 28, 2009

Conservatism

I've recently read a substantial part of the life of Lord Salisbury, written by his daughter. Then I re-read a short life of Edmund Burke by John Morley. I keep thinking of A.J.P. Taylor's suggestion that conservatives are people who wait until the other side goes swimming, and then steals their clothes. In other words, from the moment liberals or progressives suggest a new program, it is just a matter of time until conservatives adopt it, even if this comes after years or decades of bitter denunciation of the idea as hostile to our way of life, immoral, etc. Certainly in 19th century British politics, to which I keep returning for some reason, conservatism was largely defined by issues that gradually disappeared.

To be a Tory meant opposing free trade. Tariffs helped the good old farmers (supposedly not only rich landed aristocrats), close to the ancestral soil, tied by habit and instinct to our traditions, etc. Robert Peel as a new, non-landed, kind of urban mercantile conservative, was considered to be taking a bold step in adopting free trade after an election campaign in which he allowed the impression to stand that he would oppose it. Disraeli led a rebellion by "die hard" Tories, but as soon as the dust settled, Disraeli told his followers that protection by means of tariffs was "not only dead, it was damnable." The economy was booming, and free trade was popular, end of story. Protection would pop up again from time to time, pretty much always from Tories. Joe Chamberlain bizarrely brought it up in the 20th century, when it made trouble for Balfour as Tory PM. Balfour tried to come up with a compromise, but failed. Only a few years later Tory PM Baldwin campaigned on some kind of tariffs. When he was defeated, that was the end of it--a hundred years after Peel.

Tories were supposed to be for the established Church of England--even in Ireland and Wales, which didn't want it, and didn't want to pay for it. Gradually this part of the establishment faded away to a considerable extent. Tories were supposed to fight "Reform"--expansion of the franchise to somewhat poorer people, and equalizing constituencies in a way that would weaken some of the gentry. In 1832 the Duke of Wellington persuaded his fellow Tory Lords to back down. In the 1860s Salisbury broke with his leader Disraeli--Salisbury taking the anti-Reform view that the ordinary people, admitting that they were in the majority in the country, should not have unchecked power in government any more than any other narrow group should. Funnily enough, the Tory party benefitted hugely from the Reform in the late 19th century; without good polling or anything comparable, no one could have predicted this. Everyone ended up as one happy family.

So: is there such a thing as a conservatism that can be stated in at least relatively unchanging principles, or are conservatives always simply saying "not yet."

Burke worked harder at this than Disraeli or Salisbury. To paraphrase: a political community has institutions that are functioning more or less well at a particular time. This includes "establishments" (plural, not just one Establishment as those stupid old hippies would suggest), but it also brought a way of life, a home, a set of habits and traditions, for ordinary people. None of this should necessarily be regarded as completely fixed or unchanging, but the better it is working, the more hesitation there should be in changing it, especially by threatening violence. Burke was especially concerned at a kind of intellectual conceit that new ideas should be introduced willy-nilly, to see what would happen, even if the risk of violence was more or less inadvertently raised. One might say Marxism in the twentieth century was an extreme example of this tendency.

Burke was all for the American Revolution, dedicated to the rights of man, which Burke would be the first to say was a relatively new doctrine in history, and largely confined, as a working philosophy, to the English-speaking world. Why would he not oppose what might seem an extension of this doctrine, bringing with it the direct threat of violent revolution, in the American colonies? Burke said the Americans were defending ideas, but more importantly daily practices and habits, that had become well-established among them. Proposed British laws affecting the colonies were going to hurt them, restrict business, force them to curtail the plans and decisions, all arguably beneficial, that they had been in the habit of making. Given all the typically New World talk about the frontier, and tomorrow always being better than today, it may have been hard to find as aggressively entrepreneurial group of business people anywhere as one found in the American colonies. In this sense, aggressive capitalism was something to be defended there, but probably not in India, a very different and, Burke would probably say, more backward place. Burke actually said it was the British government that was introducing a novel doctrine in America, with the idea that Parliament was more supreme over American business people than it was over those in Britain. Instead of allowing them more latitude, as their organic situation may have demanded, Lord North and King George III were trying to force them to accept less. This all reminds me that my late father used to say the American Revolutionaries were demanding the rights of Englishmen. Tocqueville says, no doubt partly because of the relative lack of violence, that the American Revolution was hardly a real revolution.

Burke was a Whig, who may have become more of a Tory with age. He wanted to protect liberalism where it had been established (very few places), and extend it where possible (possibly even fewer places).

Burke famously was opposed, one could almost say violently opposed, to the French Revolution. He suggested the whole mess, even before it became really violent, was the deliberate destruction of organic traditions by a few trouble-making intellectuals. As Morley says, Burke never admitted that some of the reformist measures of the early days of the Revolution were hugely popular, and reflected the actual suffering of the ordinary people in their organic, communal daily lives. The Revolution was not simply hostile to tradition--it was partly inspired by, and consistent with, the traditions of the country and the people. Burke might have said that the pre-revolutionary actions of the King and aristocrats of France were just as revolutionary or bellicose, even if carried out in the name of tradition, as the actions of George III and Lord North before the American Revolution.

Does Burke provide us with any way of telling in advance whether progressive and even revolutionary ideas are "good" or "bad"? Perhaps one can say: the more revolutionary they are, the more they are to be discouraged, but Burke as a Whig surely defended the English Glorious Revolution as the timely establishment of a just and lawful regime that provided a peaceful solution to the religious wars and other issues. Leo Strauss' essay on Burke suggests he moved away from "natural rights" modernity to "history." Somehow big-H History, like a divinity, can decide and let us know the outcome.

The American regime has a conservative character compared to social democratic regimes in the 20th century. For some Republicans and so-called libertarians, if an idea was not in fairly widespread circulation in the 1780s, it can be discounted and perhaps rejected. So: no welfare state--not even public education or pensions, perhaps very limited public or government provision for the poor. The Swedish welfare state began with labour market programs--ensuring that there is work, and workers move to the work, but also that there is unemployment insurance. Perhaps Americans have always believed in government works that employ people, even if they are make-work projects. Capitalism understood as creative destruction--ultimately affecting the family and everything else--does not seem very conservative, but it was definitely well understood by American merchants in the 1780s. A standing army was definitely regarded as an evil to be avoided, even if there were odds and ends of people who wanted to make trouble for you; today's libertarians seem to embrace the Pentagon, possibly the largest and most wasteful bureaucracy that has ever existed, but that is another story.

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