A Conservative Vision for a Richer Liberalism

ChanegChaneg Torres outlines how conservatism can add to the Liberal Tradition.

‘But what is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.’ 
– Edmund Burke


What place does conservatism have in the classical liberal tradition? For many, conservatism is seen as merely reactionary; a liability to the electoral success of the liberal tradition, only capable of opposing progress and impotent to provide compelling vision for the challenges of today and the future. I argue that ‘conservatism’ is a disposition toward certain truth claims regarding the nature and end of the individual, the individual’s need for voluntary community and the individual’s relationship to political community. This disposition is necessary for a robust liberalism. It provides liberalism with presuppositions and a vocabulary that has a vision of inherent human dignity at its center and thus gives liberalism sufficient moral grounding and capability to present a compelling vision of the common good.

Classical liberalism has traditionally been understood as the belief in individual liberty. The individual for a liberal possesses natural, inviolable rights prior to any political association, articulated by Locke as ‘life, liberty and property’. Milton Friedman understood it to be ‘the intellectual movement that…emphasized freedom as the ultimate goal and the individual as the ultimate entity in the society. It supported laissez faire at home as a means of reducing the role of the state in economic affairs and thereby enlarging the role of the individual…(the) reduction in the arbitrary power of the state and protection of the civil freedoms of the individual.’ Thus the classical liberal claims that in order to flourish, individuals must be free to associate, voice their opinions and engage in enterprise. Inherent then is a preference for smaller government that gives room for the exercise of individual initiative and exists to protect, rather than to curtail, the liberties of individuals. Smaller government is less capable of coercing individuals into conformity, allowing individuals to pursue their own beliefs and happiness. Indeed, government must be small, because government is made up of flawed individuals who, despite the greatest of benevolence, have the propensity to miscalculate at best, or at worst use the coercive power of the state to impose what they deem to be their anointed vision on those who may find their vision unconscionable. Greater political and economic freedom, then, leads to greater material prosperity and individual wellbeing.

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Five Core Values of Australian Conservatism

Paul-McCormack Paul McCormack discusses the key conservative values in modern Australia.

Conservatism is both an attitude and a philosophy. Within the realm of political ideas, it is probably the least understood yet most valuable political tradition. Conservatism utilises many of the best aspects of liberalism and moderates it for the social context within which individuals live and work. To truly understand conservatism is to appreciate both its past and its future; what it has already given and what it always has to offer. Conservatism entails a healthy respect for the past and a positive outlook for the future.

These are my beliefs about the five distinct values of Australian conservatism. In detailing them, albeit briefly, it is acknowledged that not all of them are exclusively the preserve of conservatives. It is also acknowledged that those values of a liberal democratic society such as private property, freedom and equality before the law, which are not specifically outlined below, have naturally been embraced within the Australian conservative tradition.

Pragmatism: It is often said that politics is “the art of compromise.” To be a conservative is to understand this truth of political life. Our two longest serving and most effective Prime Ministers, Sir Robert Menzies and John Howard, were both recognised conservative leaders. Their achievements in governing the nation were largely due to their practical approach to political issues. Pragmatism, when guided by a principled approach to policy making, enables solutions to problems and improvements to people’s lives. This is the essence of good government.

Wisdom: Sir Robert Menzies asked the rhetorical question: “What are schools for? To train people for examinations, to enable people to comply with the law, or to produce developed men and women?”  The conservative approach, as Menzies insinuated, understands that the value of education is not solely in its ability to make people law-abiding but to foster the maturity of the whole person. The emphasis of knowledge is too often specific and detailed: one can be knowledgeable with computers but not with cars. In contrast, wisdom encompasses all things: one usually talks about a person being wise in general, not limiting the virtue to a specific area of their life. Wisdom is the most important asset for any Australian conservative because it leads to good judgment and good judgment leads to success.

Patriotism:  “There is a land where, floating free,
                       From mountain top to girdling sea,
                       A proud flag waves exultingly,
                       And freedom's sons the banner bear,
                       No shackled slave can breathe the air,
                       Fairest of Britain's daughters fair –

                                        (Song of Australia)

Australian conservatives believe that this great southern land is not just “the lucky country” but also the best country in the world. The Australian conservative recognises the first Australians, is a defender of our British heritage and the Constitutional Monarchy, supports Australia’s sportspeople and teams and loves to travel around the world but always feels proud to call Australia home.

Religion: Australian conservatives derive much of their moral insight from a faith perspective, especially an awareness of the dignity of the human person who is made in the image of God. The particular significance of Christianity and Christian charity organisations (eg. Salvos, Vinnies, Anglicare) in Australian society are held in high regard, not least because it reduces the welfare demands upon the government to care for the marginalised. Conservatives appreciate that there is objective moral truth which should guide their decision making, and that “man does not live on bread alone.”  Conservatives acknowledge that religion also teaches people the value of self-reliance and responsibility. Self-reliance, as Sir Robert Menzies explained, enables people to be “lifters” rather than ”leaners” whilst responsibility encourages people to realise that duties are equally as important as rights. 

Family: The traditional family occupies a special place in the heart of the Australian conservative. The family is regarded as the foundation stone upon which civic society is built. As John Howard stated, “marriage is the bedrock of our society.” Australian conservatives know that healthy, stable families actually reduce the pressure on the government because it results in less need for counsellors, mental health workers, reduced court cases and improved social cohesion and harmony. The stability and wellbeing of children is directly linked to their family relationships and conservatives therefore know that if the family unit is weak, then the social fabric of our nation will also be weak. This respect for the family has led Australian conservative governments to enact taxation measures (eg. Family Tax Benefits) which reflect the importance of families to our true prosperity as a nation.

Paul McCormack is a high school teacher in Wagga Wagga. He is often viewed as an Angry Conservative but he is actually quite a cheerful person.

Postmodern Conservatism

The left are wrong if they think conservatism is dead, writes Frederick Greene.

It is not obvious why a conservative would choose to call himself postmodern.  It is not obvious why anyone would call himself postmodern anymore.  Postmodernism is dated, thrown on the same garbage-heap as heliocentrism — its tenets are generally understood to be indisputable but not in the final analysis very useful to anyone.

Outside of a lit-crit bramble patch through which I do not wish to bushwhack, these tenets were actually quite simple: God is dead, war is hell, and Winston tastes good like a cigarette should.  Postmodern man saw through the smoke-(or was it the mustard gas of Ypres?)-and-mirrors of old-fashioned virtue and the deceptions of modern advertising, and he chucked the former and kept the latter because, although there may be neither meaning nor purpose in this vast, indifferent universe, we've still got Saturday night.  

All of which is not to say that postmodern folks don't believe in morality.  Far from it; by their lights, they have distilled it down to its essence — less hocus-pocus, more hugs.  The final product resembles actual ethics the way a model train resembles the TGV.

Not a bad way to leave things, what with the sex and rock'n'roll and everything.  In fact, the Left was so impressed with its new arrangement that it presumed the only reason conservatives weren't on board was that they hadn't noticed.  Who, having seen the man behind the curtain, could go back to believing in the Great and Powerful Oz?

Postmodern conservatives did notice that modernity happened, which is the reason we call ourselves that.  We enjoy poking needles into the Left's smug conviction that right-wingers are rubes in the city of the future.  The rubes still believe the just-so story that thunder is angels playing ninepins.  Postmodernists believe the just-so story that all traditions, articles of faith, and irrational loyalties are just-so stories.  Postmodern conservatives believe that some of them — like allegiance to family, love of God, and fealty to country — aren't.  And, because we blend in enough among other folks our age to "pass," they know we must have good reasons for being otherwise so reactionary.

The postmodern Left denies that conservatism has any credibility, either intellectual or cultural.  There are qualified economists in charge of proving that the Right really does have the former; pomocons try to reclaim the latter.  I am not suggesting that we trick out the old throne and altar in white Apple plastic — Apple plastic wouldn't suit them, nor would they suit modern society.  Neither do I think that traditionalism is the only kind of conservatism that could use a little more cultural cred.  Classical liberalism could use a makeover, too — the cigars can stay, but the top hats and robber-baron muttonchops have to go.  Postmodern conservatives want to prove that struggling actors with part-time waitressing jobs can believe in capitalism just as strongly as picket-fenced suburbanites, never mind titans of industry.  They prove it by doing it.

I once watched Duck Soup, the old Marx Brothers movie, with the DVD commentary on.  It was some film historian explaining the ways in which each slapstick joke was terribly historic and awfully relevant to American politics at the time.  Needless to say, it ruined the film.  Sometimes over-analysis kills the goose that laid the golden eggs.  But sometimes it doesn't.  Etiquette, when unpacked, reveals itself not to be a system of silly rules embraced by maiden aunts but a thing of enormous moral depth.  Religious ritual may seem arbitrary, but only in the same way that "you should share those toys with your sister" seems arbitrary to a five-year-old.  Pomocons deconstruct social institutions, like the good postmodernists they are, but then they build them back up.  To offer one final example: Capitalism can be justified with the pre-modern saw "I've got mine, so to hell with the other fellow," but it can also follow from a postmodern reading of "peace on earth and goodwill toward men."  Pomocons are just as mushy and class-conscious as your average leftist; the only difference is we've read Bastiat.

We take the Left's cultural verities and twist them to conservative ends — what could be more postmodern than that?

Frederick Greene is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, where he developed his passion for social and intellectual history. After Upenn, he spent two years at a Roman Catholic seminary before realising that his vocation was not to ordained ministry, although he is still involved with several Roman Catholic charities. Greene now teaches religious studies and history at an independent secondary school in New York City, and writes freelance articles for several conservative publications.

[Editors Note: Visit the Postmodern Conservative blog for more information on the Postmodern Conservative movement]