What is Conservatism?

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Austin Bramwell, Who Are We?:

Whatever the difficulties of conservatism, surely one can improve upon the typical performance of those who take it upon themselves to explain it. In place of the conventional accounts, try this one: Conservatism is the defense of legitimacy wherever it happens to exist. “Legitimacy” here is defined in the empirical, Weberian sense: that is, an institution is legitimate if and only if the opinion has become widespread that it is right (for whatever reason or lack thereof) to obey it. The conservative, in short, cultivates obedience to existing institutions. This definition, I submit, has all the advantages of the conventional definitions, none of their defects, and some important advantages of its own.

To some extent I think one might make the case that Liberalism is the inverse of Bramwell’s definition of Conservatism; what was Liberal in 1920 might be viewed as quite Illiberal today, and what is Liberal in 2008 may seem rather Illiberal in 2028. In any case, I would add that though I don’t agree with Bramwell much of the time I’m always impressed with the breadth of his erudition and his good faith attempt to argue rather than scream. Unfortunately most political and social commentary is much closer to the level of morons like Kevin James. Even when one dodges the rank stupidity of someone like James the “punditry” on offer is generally grounded in the incestuous circle-jerk of CW as opposed to facts.

Back to Bramwell’s point, if you read this blog regularly you know that I have an amateur interest in antiquity, particularly the period of the Roman Empire. Today we assume that Christianity and the Christian clergy are the Conservative party at prayer.1 But if you focus on the 4th and 5th centuries, when Christianity went from being a marginalized sect to the established Church of the Empire, you encounter the fact that the Christian religion was fundamentally one perceived as radical and deeply undermining the legitimacy of the ancients (who were pagans after all).2 In the late 4th century you have powerful pagans such as Symmachus making arguments defending tolerance and subsidy for the ancient faith based on reverence for the institutions and precedents of the past and the ancestors. Fundamentally deeply Conservative reasoning arguing for the legitimacy of what has become before. By the late 5th century the pagan historian Zosimus had become quite dyspeptic toward the new dispensation, bemoaning the fall of the older order and observing the decline of his civilization all around him due to the abandonment of the old gods (Zosimus flourished in the years following the Western Empire’s fall). To a great extent Zosimus reminds me of modern Conservatives of a Christian bent, who seem pessimistic by constitution when observing the decline of Christendom and the repudiation of its truths.

Today I would suspect that post-Christian Liberals would not necessarily align themselves with radicals for change such as St. Ambrose or rationalist refuters of the relevance of the pagan past such as St. Jerome; rather, their sentiments might be with the pagans who were on the losing end of the march of history because of their current quarrels with Christianity. Similarly, of course Conservatives in the West who are Christian or Christian sympathetic would admire the pugnacity of St. Ambrose and other Church Fathers in overturning thousand year old traditions & customs. The axioms of Christianity made such a rejection of the past eminently rational. And yet if temperament was the guide toward affinity I do not think that this would hold. Church Fathers who admitted pagan learning into the canon offered reasons of utility, as such wisdom might be useful toward Christian ends. A convinced pagan would not have to make such an argument because the classical canon was simply part of the customary education of the non-Christian elite; it was received tradition which needed no reflective analysis and justification. In the 4th century Christian intellectuals dreamed of a new world transformed and shorn of the dead weight of the past with its irrational and unnecessary traditions. Nearly two thousand years later the shoe is on the other foot….

1 – Despite the emergence of Leftish Christian movements such as Christian Socialism or the Social Gospel, I think one can make a strong case that on the balance Christianity has been more associated with Conservatism than Liberalism since the French Revolution and the emergence of a modern politics.

2 – Obviously the influx of classically educated men such as St. Augustine and the Hellenic patina which accrued to the religion moderates this judgement.



  1. I think conservatism tends to look to the past rather than the present, even if sometimes it’s an idealized past. For instance feminism is mainstream today yet conservatives are genrally anti-feminist, evolution paradigm is mainstream, yet many conservatives prefer it would not be, acceptance of homosexuality, preservatives or even some drugs are common today, yet conservatives are often against all that. So basically conservatives try to reinject the past into the present and therefore are normally bound to be a drag but also somewhat powerless, as societies and their cultural evolution don’t stop just because of some ideology.  
    In Europe at least, the opposite of conservative is not liberal but progressive (in the sense of “social progress”, not mere “industrial” or “techological progress”), more often associated with the social-democrat, socialist and ecologist (and, of course, somewhat anti-patriarchal or feminist) options that in the USA would be tagged as “liberal”.

  2. the liberal thing is semantic; in the united states liberals include within them social democrats (e.g., ezra klein). i think the past vs. future orientation isn’t unfair. this might reflect the empirical/inductive bent of conservatives and the rationalist/deductive bent of liberals. the former trusts experiments that worked in the past, while the latter puts faith in projecting social models into the future….

  3. the above comments apply to intellectual people btw. most people are stupid and probably conform to family or just go along with their personality bias. even among “intellectuals” i’m not sure there’s a lot of reflection on where their orientations come from.

  4. This definition only works if you exclude libertarians and “socially liberal” conservatives. There’s no way you could classify homosexuality or divorce as “legitimate” under this definition. Similarly, laissez-faire economics oppose institutions such as government-granted monopolies, guilds, etc. which were widely seen as legitimate until their demise (and even long after that).  
    In fact I suspect that very few readers of this blog would qualify as “conservatives” in this sense, even among self-professed conservatives. 
    the former trusts experiments that worked in the past, while the latter puts faith in projecting social models into the future…. 
    Again, libertarians and other laissez-faire enthusiasts stand out as a glaring exception.  
    I would suggest that opposition between empiricists and theorists cuts through political lines.

  5. This definition only works if you exclude libertarians and “socially liberal” conservatives.  
    libertarians are philosophically liberals ultimately; the disagreement with left-liberals/social democrats is about tactics in terms of attaining the optimal utilitarian calculus (market vs. gov. in terms of maximizing hedonic satisfaction and security, etc.). also, we’re not really that numerous. though perhaps more than the norm among intellectuals?

  6. A good definition of conservatism from razib ( Luis is wrong, as usual), although it is generally called Burkean conservatism over the pond. Free Market sentiment can be opposed to real conservatism, as it may destroy anicent bonds etc.- and conservatists by their nature cannot be universal. 
    US conservatives often wonder why the British Tories are pro-NHS and here is the answer: it’s there, it’s well loved, it’s insitutional, it generally works, it has legacy. The imposition of American conservatism on the UK would be revolutionary, not conservative. I would generally call myself conservative these days, for one thing I belive that if it aint broke dont fix it – I would not accept an constitutional monarchy imposed on a republic, if the republic were pre-existing it would seem like a dictator in fancy garb – but with the monarchy already there, I would fear it’s collapse. What social forces ( far-right, and left) would fill the void? 
    Morality trumps conservatism, of course, you cannot justify slavery with tradition. Nevertheless although I am pro-homosexual rights, pro-abortion ( although with regret) etc. I would still see myself conservative but these laws now exist, mostly, and this society the type of society worth defending. About multi-culturalism I am dubious, because it is clearly radical, and clearly a break with tradition. this makes me conservative. So be it. The left seeks heretics, the right seeks converts.  
    The other problem with “progressives” is that they never seem satisfied, there is no form of society they would wish to conserve, it is always churn. A conservative in Holland who wished to preserve dutch tolerance may consider immigration a threat, with reason. The progressive, however, would be on the side of the Other, always, lest he seem to be conserving the most liberal/libertine society in the world’s history, and be conservative. This is exactly how Pim Fortuyn was described. ( or,if not conservative/right wing then fascist). 
    What Luis is talking about is pretty much reaction. Which is different.

  7. “This definition only works if you exclude libertarians and “socially liberal” conservatives.” 
    I get the exclusion of the former, particularly in European sense economic libertarians are revolutionary and certainly not conservative, but if “social liberalism” gains legitimacy over time – which it has in many European countries – then it is conservative to conserve that against reactionaries – indigenous or non-native.

  8. Perhaps one should look at policies one by one, as well as general outlook. Policies often have mixed effects. For instance, the most dramatic extension of democracy in Britain was the Great Reform Act of 1832, but it also abolished the female franchise in those constituencies that had had it.

  9. Maybe there’s a good point implicit in that ramble of mine: the female franchise was abolished in the cause of Uniformity; conservatives might prefer that reform, however grudgingly accepted, should at least have left (some) women with the vote in those constituencies where it was the tradition, on the grounds that it was thereby evidently Legitimate. Am I right in thinking that Uniformity – often under the contentious banner “fairness” – is rated by Liberals above other virtues?

  10. @Razib: 
    the liberal thing is semantic; in the united states liberals include within them social democrats 
    I know, I just wanted to express the quite natural semantics of the conservative-progressive dichotomy. If you use liberal or socialist, the meaning is not so evident.  
    i think the past vs. future orientation isn’t unfair. this might reflect the empirical/inductive bent of conservatives and the rationalist/deductive bent of liberals. the former trusts experiments that worked in the past, while the latter puts faith in projecting social models into the future… 
    Yah. And the dialectic is operating all the time, with some wanting to experiment faster, others wanting to restore past idealized glories, and what we could call the center, keeping the balance. In fact, most of the time neither conservatives are too extreme (reactionary) nor progressives are either (revolutionary) precisely because the common sense (people is not as stupid as you think) tends to a pragmatic center. Sometimes the balance breaks up though and extremists from either side take over.  
    libertarians are philosophically liberals ultimately 
    Right wing libertarians, that have taken over the term in the USA lately (“libertarian” here usually refers to anarchists, anti-state commies), are classical liberals of an extremist kind: zero state all private property. Their problem is that with no state to defend property, the only non-communist solution is private armies. Their “utopy” was actually in practice in Somalia for many years, with quite dubious results, until the Islamists took over.  
    Luis is wrong, as usual 
    Free Market sentiment can be opposed to real conservatism, as it may destroy ancient bonds etc.-  
    If you read Deleuze and Guattari’s masterpiece, The Anti-Oedipus, you’ll find more or less the same thought. They describe it in psychiatric terms as an schizoid trend (decodification caused by Capitalism, or market economy if you wish) and a paranoid reaction (conservatism, fascisms in the extreme), quite powerless in the long run but somewhat estabilizing at times. Commies are out of this game, they just want to play with different rules. But in the long run… the unstoppable schizoid trend may favor them by bringing the system to an untenable situation, after having exhausted all the potential from the paranoid reactionary field.  
    What Luis is talking about is pretty much reaction. Which is different. 
    What you are talking about is about the center. In Europe you’d be liberal, because liberals are generally the center here (and they favor personal freedoms as you seem to do).  
    Conservatism, like the progressive factions too, have to play near the center… while the system is stable. When it’s not, most conservatives allign with reaction (it happened with Hitler, it happened with Franco…). And even in the current rather stable situation you see those trends badly dissimulated. Some are more politically correct (centered) but others like Berlusconi clearly show what I’m talking about.  
    The case is that the pragmatics of both fields know they cannot be too radical pushing the brakes (in the conservative case) or speeding up (in the progressive case). But sometimes this kind of pragamatism becomes sidelined by reality.

  11. In Europe you’d be libera 
    My vote floats, but in Europe – where I am – i describe myself as conservative, albeit socially liberal, but specifically in the Burkean sense, which is clearly not free market. To give an example – the reduction of European subsidies to farmers has much free market logic, and some moral logic ( since prices may go down) but it may well have devastating effects on market towns and villages, thus I oppose – no doubt earning the distrust of both the Socialist Workers Party and the Libertarian nuts at Samizdata. Well, if they knew. However, as I said morality trumps tradition so my ideology is a close run thing. And if food prices were to rise further.. 
    i am dubious about Deleuze and Guattari’s masterpiece since it seems to come from a long line of left wing attacks on the opposition using ( the pseduo-science) of physiatric terminology. Generally it turns out that marxists are sane, and everybody else mad ( Group Evolution physcology come to the exact opposite conclusion, by the way).

  12. Generally it turns out that marxists are sane, and everybody else mad 
    Ever doubted it? ;) 
    Seriously: it’s a dissection of the social reality. They don’t analyze any marxists, nor actual conservatives or whatever. What I wrote above is more like my own loose interpretation of their analysis than their actual ideas. Only the schizoid-paranoid dialectic and the association of Capital with the schizoid pole is genuinely theirs. 
    They do emphasize though that Capital uses and corrupts every kind of value or institution (hence its schizoid decodifying nature), including apparently those re-created by the Paranoid pole.  
    I only mentioned it because it was strangely coincident with your own observations above anyhow. Even from different viewpoints, you seem to have arrived to similar conclussions, what is interesting in itself.  
    My vote floats, but in Europe – where I am – i describe myself as conservative, albeit socially liberal, but specifically in the Burkean sense, which is clearly not free market. 
    Ok. If it’s not free-market oriented you’d surely would not be considered liberal, except maybe in Britain (unsure).  
    In any case the black-and-white conservative-progressive dychotomy is necesarily an oversimplification.

  13. I may be naive, but the current flux that US conservatism/liberalism is currently undergoing might be something of a benchmark by which most any dichotomous notions of “conservatism” could be measured. There seems to be an emerging portrait of the kind of universal conservatism of the kind that J Derbyshire has spoken of – simply the better position on a dichotomy of civilization and barbarism. 
    I think the schisms on either traditional pole in the US already suggest a movement more mature sense of “conservatism” that speaks to concern for mechanism over mere end-state. I think this is generally what Von Mises attempted with his praxeology but had little institutional support in the way of a mature scientific apparatus. Yet, it is also what Marx exploited with his iconoclastic hero myth, in the absence of the same. So has gone the mechanism of rent-seeking in the US when either inchoate dogma has been put to experiment through legislation over the last century or so, when the vast majority of the populace has little capacity to articulate optima beyond class or race aggregations. 
    I think the thing to remember about any political dogma or allegory is that they are provisional, and should be understood to depreciate like any other intangible thing of value. Every inductive update from the ambience generally dilutes yesterday’s investments, and so goes the current arguments about political “brands.”  
    In a construct of fundamental notions of “natural” rights and ownership, then, I think the practical dilemma with any contemporary revision of party or platform will always be a matter of equity in the waste and salvage. In the US case, the grotesque evangelism and civil tantrum coming from the delinquent/peasant apparatus are a liability for both “conservative” and “liberal” enterprises. For any enthusiast of facts and data looking to get into left-right politics, whether one would want to invest in either label exclusively at this point is probably the more critical question. Most indicators here would suggest the outcome frontier for those already vested is much grimmer. Does this not apply to other regions equally, or at least very closely, as it does in the US? 
    It’s been a while since the last behavioral economics thread. What say the gentlemens and gentlewomens of this thread of the prospects of behavioral economics for, say, a conservatism premised on equity-efficiency optima in policy? My apologies I’ve missed the overall trajectory of the discussion.

  14. reasonable comments so far. let’s keep it civil so that we have the thread going for a bit before i close it…. (politics tends to bring the kevin james out of intelligent people at the end of the day after all) 
    i would note one particular thing about being american and my own political orientation: i would call myself conservative on cultural issues, but i’m liberal on hot-button issues to a great extent. so what gives? what eoin is talking about to some extent, and derb’s distinction between civilization and barbarism…that is, i have a fixation on the processes and ultimate norms of american civilization as opposd to specific inferences from those norms derived via those processes.

  15. The majority of U.S libertarians are not anarchists. However, it is a point in the anarchists favor that Somalia improved without government. As merely an extreme minarchist I would say that was because Somalia’s previous government was sufficiently harmful that even anarchy was superior.

  16. However, it is a point in the anarchists favor that Somalia improved without government. 
    That site doesn’t look Anarchist to me. It’s all the time talking about the goods of free market. Right-wing libertarian, I’d say.  
    Anarchism is about libertarian communism. No state (but grassroots assembleary organization) and no (or very limited) private property. But this would be another discussion.  
    The issue with libertarian capitalism and the Somali example is that property can only be upheld manu militari. If there is no state and property and market still exist, then private militias (neo-feudalism, mafia-rule) are the natural outcome.

  17. Well those right wing libertarians would say that the state is the great VIOLATOR of property rights, not its defender, so sans the state it is ONLY property and market that exist. 
    A “grassroots assemblary organization” would still be a voluntary (of course, it’s anarchy) organization of people pooling property in their own bodies to democratically decide upon what to do with their collectively owned property in whatever external objects they decide to manipulate. Call it what you want, perhaps a less “possessive individualist” form of property arrangement, but a PROPERTY scheme nonetheless.

  18. The specific liberal vs. conservative standoff is pretty recent (since 1800 or so) and pretty much limited to the English-speaking world. There’s a different configuration on the continent, to say nothing of the rest of the world. 
    Since the US was institutionally almost entirely liberal by 1968, it can be argued that liberals are the real conservatives according to your definition. For that reason it’s also easy enough for conservatives to pose as radicals (e.g., Grover Norquist). Since 1968 liberal institutions have been weakened and modified, but not replaced or destroyed. 
    American conservativism is only weakly linked to traditional conservativism. Free-marketism is a form of liberalism, and the religious right is populist and anti-elitist (conservativism is elitist and anti-populist). Bush’s adventurism is also unconservative, and so is the way he’s converted government into an old-boy network glued together by graft.  
    Authoritarianism, nativism, militarism, and nationalism are conservative, however. Conservatives accept hierarchy, too, though they’ve tended to be leery of predominantly plutocratic hierarchies like ours.  
    Someone more radical than I am would argue that the worst traits of the Bush administration are indeed conservative, and that the high-minded philosophical versions of responsible conservativism are fake — just cover stories.

  19. Nationalism isn’t fundamentally conservative. National liberation movements of nations that do not have their own states tend to include leftists as well, even far leftists (many of those European independence movements that blow up bombs every once in a while are Marxist). Once a nation gets that state, the leftists find other causes and nationalism ends up a right-wing thing, maybe even a conservative thing (something to be defended instead of a distant, utopian goal calling for struggle against prevailing norms). 
    A century or two ago the equivalents of conservatives were often monarchists or imperialists while nationalism was the radical, progressive ideology. Nationalism is even embedded in Marxist-Leninist theory as an inevitable step in the historical development of societies towards socialism and Lenin even (partly) stayed true to his word once in power of a country with many separatist minority nationalities. 
    Even today we see leftists who dislike Western nationalists eagerly supporting nationalists of small non-Western nations. Nationalism of small nations is a fundamentally anti-imperial ideology. (Of course, those people rarely realize that the opposites of nationalism, like “multiculturalism”, are really good building blocks for an imperialist ethos and thus certain to not produce the unwarlike societies they imagine themselves to be building.)

  20. There is the nationalism of the big (imperialism by other term) and nationalism of the small (anti-imperialism). But the fine line between the two can be crossed too easily.  
    You have also a point on multiculturalism being potentially an imperial building block, Jaakeli.  
    But, in my experience at least, right-wing nationalism tends to exclussion (we Spaniards vs. all others; we Europeans vs. all others; we Christians vs. all others, etc.), while left-wing nationalism is a lot less exclusivist (rather inclusionist) and tends to internationalism. Nevertheless some presumpt leftists hide behind internationalism to justify the nationalism of the big, that’s often called Jacobinism.

  21. Actually, any of the qualities I named (Authoritarianism, nativism, militarism, and nationalism) could be either leftist or conservative. By and large they’re illiberal, though.

  22. I have to read Bramwell’s piece, so perhaps he addresses these concerns and you can slap me for commenting before I know what I’m talking about. However, that definition of conservatism seems woefully inadequate. How do institutions ever change and by what criteria would a conservative judge the change? It seems like a receipe for moral relativism. One of my favorite stories of the British Empire comes by way of Roger Kimball, who tells us how 
    “in the 19th century by General Charles Napier when dealing with sutte, the Indian custom of burning a widow on her husband?s funeral pyre: ?You say that it is your custom to burn widows. Very well. We also have a custom: when men burn a woman alive, we tie a rope around their necks and we hang them. Build your funeral pyre; beside it, my carpenters will build a gallows. You may follow your custom. And then we will follow ours.? 
    I think Emerson is spot on with his description of American conservatism being very different from how most of the rest of the world, especially continental Europe. Since England decided to ditch Catholicism, the Anglo-American tradition of conservatism has always been friendly to change (Burke, who people forget was a Whig, supported the American revolution), although it has also been deeply religious and nationalistic. 
    I do have to stand up for my homeboy President Bush…it is silly to describe his Administration as some sort of “old-boy network glued together by graft.” That sounds like the default position of government, unless policed by republican checks and balances. Do you have any data that indicates more federal bureaucrats and/or contractors were indicted for fraud in the Bush Administration than previous Administrations? 
    I just want to end by saying Razib is one of the most interesting bloggers I have ever read and I urge you to keep up the good work.

  23. You couldn’t tell it by TV, but many more Bush people have been indicted and convicted than Clinton people were, just as the Clinton budgets were balanced and the Bush budgets not. My understanding is that Republican Congressional discipline was bought at the cost of graft and enormous deficits. Little-government Republicans who actually care about these things are appalled and are starting to realize that they were suckered.  
    Often when people talk about Democratic corruption they’re talking about machine politics in the 50s and 60s, and Jimmy Hoffa — who wasn’t even a Democrat and who was prosecuted by Democrats.

  24. John Emerson, agreed on the others, but why would nationalism be illiberal? In what sense? Classical liberals were largely nationalists. Remember, the question was whether states would need to be based on a national identity. There was no Austro-Hungarian identity or ethos that would’ve covered everyone from Italians to Ukrainians; empires like that just included every bit of land they could grab. A liberal was far more likely to agree with the idea that states with an a identity basis would be preferable to states that just existed to grab and rule. Today liberal nationalism is such an essential part of the Western worldview that we forget to point out that we’re nationalists… 
    Calling nationalism illiberal sounds a lot like anglospheric myopia. In large nations it’s possible to believe that eschewing international co-operation or walling yourself behind trade barriers would make sense, but in small nations it’s obvious that it would be suicide and you don’t see many nationalists of the chauvinist/isolationist type. Ethnic nationalism is far less exclusionary outside states like the US where ethnicity is considered to be a pure bloodline issue rather than something you could even join. So on…

  25. Agreed with Jaakeli. We tend to forget that all our “Western” concepts (or most of them) are essentially liberal. That includes the concept of nation-state.  
    The American revolution was liberal and nationalist, the French revolution was maybe more varied but can widely be considered the same thing, the Latin American revolutions were nationalist and liberal, the revolutions of 1948 (excepting maybe the Paris commune) were liberal and nationalist, etc. Even the older burgueoise revolutionary processes in England, Switzerland or the Netherlands shared that dual nationalist-liberal thingy.  
    Though the liberal concept of “nation” is more as in “republic” than as in “ethnicity” maybe.  
    Capitalism (as autonomous economical force) is internationalist though.  
    Burke, who people forget was a Whig… 
    Good point. Unlike in the States (where liberal became synonimous of leftist), in Europe the line between conservatism and liberalism eventually became tenuous. All early 19th century Spain was ruled by two different corrupt “liberal” parties, both pretty much conservative in fact. Nowadays in many countries, specially where bipartidism tends to dominate, liberals and conservatives often are in the same political parties/blocs.  
    That’s because, once the feudalist old regime was fundamentally overturned, the only thing left to conserve was the liberal burgueois system. So you could be liberal and conservative all at once and liberalism had almost nothing to claim beyond that point.  
    Nowadays I guess you can even be social-democrat and conservative too (social-conservative?).

  26. Nationalism and liberalism are independent properties. Throw history altogether into an average, and the nationalism correlates more strongly with pattern of ethnic claims, claims of indigenous privilege. That’s illiberal. See 19th century Germany, just to start. And pipsqueak continental nations pay their rent to the Holy Romans anyway. It’s a matter of juxtaposition in a claim for rights or resources that makes our hindsight track “liberal” or “conservative.”  
    Personally, at the ideal level, I still think of the Hobbesian “state of nature” as the principle driver of modern “conservative” leanings, and the “noble savage” fantasy a staple of liberal leanings. Superimpose this how we may on whatever opposition or status quo we can find in history, the Hobbesian worldview actually bears the preference for government. 
    The term “legitimate” begs the question, as does the splendid Kimball quote above, of a certain spectrum of attitudes toward the law of the land, that is the land wherever one might find oneself. In seemingly every narrative of developing nations or civilizations, I sense an opportunity cost driving the demand for jurisdiction.  
    The anecdotal data on this shouldn’t be all that difficult to find.  
    “It would be as if in a hundred years we asked the English to please take us back.” 
    In fact, this generally works for me. Flight from anarchy to order is the spectrum of liberalism to conservatism. Any point in history can be argued in terms of some hypothetical optimum. 
    Today, I think most individuals yearn for minarchy and tilt libertarian, even as few would wince in horror at the mere statement on a government charter the intention to “promote the general welfare.” After all, the nature of popular revolt in any society, under any charter, at any time in history, rather excludes the consideration of prior government (or academic) approval. It is probably very reasonable then to consider that governments, universally, are themselves free and natural reflections of market demand, qualified at any given time only by their performance.

  27. I once read Ludwig to have said, “Action is an attempt to substitute a more satisfactory state of affairs for a less satisfactory one. We call such a willfully induced alteration an exchange.” The fact that some substituted “states of affairs” end up failures, or are themselves substituted, isn’t determinative. 
    The acknowledgment of graft in the current Bush administration is germane. There may be no better case than the current state of US politics to demonstrate why 20th-century notions of “free markets,” in addition to certain cultural talking points, can be said to be as liberal as anything in history that ever deserved the appellation. Yet in terms of the record, the party responsible for these outcomes calls itself the opposite (conservative.) The matter of “approval ratings” should only reinforce the idea of legitimation as a commodity in itself; Whatever one calls his or her passion, the political ideal is still simply a service package with a price and an threshold expectation of delivery, as it always has been.

  28. Here are a couple studies that I can’t seem to get to, although the abstracts state conclusions concisely enough:  
    “The rise of inequality aversion coincides with the increasing perception of high income being due to corruption and other unfair processes.” 
    “When contributions are unobservable, agents act as if they were purely selfish. However, when contributions are made transparent at an interim stage, agents exert higher efforts in the first period and adjust their efforts according to the interim information in the second period. This form of peer pressure reduces free-riding and thus, more efficient outcomes are attained.” 
    The difference between conservatism and liberalism in attitudes toward government in the west, then, in aggregate, may very well be just the entailments of attitudes toward transparency and accountability. Practically no difference at all, from individual to individual. Beyond that, the details by region or subject would seem to befit a cultural anthropology scrapbook. I’ve been out of school for a while…Is “political science” still a subject in which one can earn a “degree”? 
    Regarding hyperlinks, let me apologize and request tolerance on this occasion. I just learned how to do it. Also, if anyone knows precisely what the word limit is on these, please advise so I can plan ahead? May God Bless this thread forever, and all those who have typed on it.

  29. John, 
    I went to that link you provided and discovered that at least Reagan’s Administration was more “corrupt” than Bush’s! Seriously though, the article claims there was only one Clinton Administration criminal conviction, Webster Hubbell. But a quick Google search lead me to this link which tells a different story: 
    Just a quick excerpt: 
    “47 individuals and businesses associated with the Clinton machine were convicted of or pleaded guilty to crimes with 33 of these occurring during the Clinton administration itself. There were in addition 61 indictments or misdemeanor charges. 14 persons were imprisoned. A key difference between the Clinton story and earlier ones was the number of criminals with whom he was associated before entering the White House.” 
    As I say, I think the default position of people in power is corruption and historically in America, there isn’t much difference at the federal level between Democratic and Republican administrations.

  30. If one really wants to get into what ‘conservative’ means in some sort of general sense, a political conservative is someone who likes political things the way that they are and a what is or is not conservative is determined by circumstance. The NYT had great fun when the USSR was going down calling the commie dead enders ‘conservatives’, and will so again if the govt of Iran ever implodes. 
    The opposite of a conservative isn’t a liberal, it’s a radical, or someone who thinks that the present arrangements stink and wants to replace them. 
    I don’t have a link, but I remember reading somewhere that conservatives in the US were happier than liberals (radicals), and that’s just what one would expect. A bad conservative I suppose, is one who likes things the way they are and, and as far as lots of other people being dissatisfied, has a rather let them eat cake attitude. 
    A bad radical is someone who mistakes whatever his heart is enduring badly as something kings or laws can cure. Lots of them around too. 
    Per liberal, that’s not relative to a particular country, but is a distinct theory of what the role of the state is, at least per ‘domestic policy’, which is to enforce property rights, and also enforce some, usually non universal, list of possible private contracts. This leads to laissez faire as to the division of property. The opposite of that, is not laissez faire, or no private property, or no private contracts, though this can differ in degree as to how far one goes.

  31. The opposite of a conservative isn’t a liberal, it’s a radical, or someone who thinks that the present arrangements stink and wants to replace them. 
    Makes some sense but I’d rather use here the terms conformist and either reformist or revolutionary (depending on the scope of the changes promoted). Revolutionary and radical could be synonimous but only as long radical is used in its etymological sense (from radix=root, going to the root of the problems or wanting to change things at root/fundamental level) and not in the usual sense of extremist. One can be a an extremist conservative (a reactionary).  
    Nationalism and liberalism are independent properties.  
    Yes and not. The rise of the nation-state is intimately linked to liberalism – that can hardly be denied. True that nation-states are not necesarily the same as nation-peoples but “nationalism” has both meanings. Ethnical nationalism (even if in an ill-structured manner) is probably much older than liberalism but political nationalism is essentially liberal and opposed by both classical conservatism (claiming adherence to monarchy and church instead) and socialism (claiming adherence to humankind or working class above ethnicity or polity).  
    Sure that many ancient monarchies got recycled as nation-states, often somewhat forcedly (see the ethnic mess that are Western European states), and that they even had some more or less solid national character before. But this recycling (or creation from scratch in other cases) into ethnically defined states was almost always a liberal/burgueoise policy.  
    Of course, once the genie is out of the bottle… it takes life of its own.  
    See 19th century Germany, just to start. 
    You mean late 19th century Germany… when the liberal “way of life” was already mainstream, even among conservatives. German unification under Prussia only happened in 1871, what is rather nearing the 20th century.  
    In 1932 and 1948, maybe the more classically liberal revolutionary epysodes of all, German liberals demanded unification and were crushed by the conservatives, Prussia included, who wanted tradition and the status quo. Eventually Prussia realized it was letting a good opportunity slide and changed sides – but they were initially quite reluctant.  
    You can anyhow always argue that Prussia was more liberal than Austria (not much maybe but more anyhow). And in the almost parallel epysode of Italian unification, certainly it was the liberals (both the “moderate” Cavourists and the “radical” Garibaldists) who did it, while the conservatives were supporting (including my Italian ancestors at, who worked for the Habsburgs) the traditional monarchic papist non-national status quo. 
    Prussia then, anyhow, had the traditional support of “liberal” Britain. It only vanished later on, in the 20th century, when Britain realized that unified Germany was growing faster than themselves and threatened their hegemonical position. Then London switched sides and alligned with weaker France, their traditional rival, that had been isolated diplomatically by Bismark.  
    Personally, at the ideal level, I still think of the Hobbesian “state of nature” as the principle driver of modern “conservative” leanings, and the “noble savage” fantasy a staple of liberal leanings. 
    Makes sense: conservatives then think that people is intrinsecally evil (social-pessimism) and liberals (in the past) and socialists (in the present) would tend to think that people is intrinsecally good (social-optimism). A little too simple but makes some sense.  
    And I again see in this the paranoid-schizoid dychotomy: irrational fear vs. irrational freedom, obsession with control and obsession with discontrol.  
    Anyhow, as one of those “people”, I prefer to be percieved as intrinsecally good than evil. And I think I’m actually closer to that, though very imperfectly, of course.  
    It also makes me think of that Spanish adagio: “the thief thinks all are like him”. So I suspect (deduce) your Hobbesian tories are actually quite evil and know it intuitively at least, extending that introspection to the rest, with or without reason. ;)

  32. Erratum: In 1932 and 1948 should oviously be 1838 and 1848. :D

  33. That was really thin, Jeff. No details, no names. “Number of persons associated with the Clinton Presidency”? Sounds like the Clinton death list.  
    The Bush people being convicted are elected officials, Republican party operatives, and Bush appointees. 
    I’m going to let this drop. For several years now the all-purpose Republican defense has been “The Democrats are just as bad”, which is what you said. It’s not really true.

  34. Thanks Luis: Refining my own mess of text above, I?ll use j mct?s more succinct account of liberalism as simply an expression of latent dissatisfaction with conditions, growing to radicalism in frustration of the delivery of desired changes. Leaving out my identification of liberalism with the economic waste product of any given status quo, and sticking simply to the issue of taxonomy, I still think historical classifications of conservatism/liberalism need to consider margins. As a very cheap abstract way of explaining, I might consider the case of a geometric progression where X < Y < Z, with the rule Conservative > Liberal. If we only select X and Y, then Y is ?Conservative.? But only the appellation for Y changes as the frame advances; the value stays fixed. Clearly everyone already gets that; I?m just reinforcing the concept that the scale of one?s historical focus can make agreement look like something else.

  35. On that note, the history of 19th Germany, not to mention the Weimar era, is one hell of a can of worms that, as much as I might believe I know a little about, I can?t imagine anyone resolving without some kind of giant matrix. I will submit that the continental Renaissance and Enlightenment was fundamentally subversive to both orthodox Judaism and the Romanism that controlled most of the above-ground politics through the middle ages, and in that sense there was a constant convection of liberalism and conservatism happening there prior to the Unification. Industrialism, which is generally the condition most historians consider sufficient in cases of modern European nationalism, didn?t fail to arrive concomitantly in Prussia, et al., as it did in western nations. So, if we drain away the slurry of de facto serfdom, lutheran/calvinist ascetism, and mercantilist protectionism still irrigating the ditches of the German Confederacy in the mid-late 19th century, then yes, the nationalism movements of the early part of the century are generally liberal. 
    Yet for the most part 19th century Germany, Unified or not, agitated by crude social-democratic, labor and guild institutions, or not, was still fundamentally a syndicate of militarist vassal-states, fueled by ethnic and religious remnants, pervaded with dynastic privilege, and varnished with thick cameralism at the executive level. It was precisely that high-level conservative nationalism that stunted its eventual Unification, even after the industrial republics of the West had been trailblazing for a century. Once 1871 passed, it is important to note that even though the new Empire?s liberal parties drank merrily when Bismarck yielded to various constitutional reforms, and the Kulturkampf had the splendidly iconoclastic effect of enraging the Pope, we are still talking about a nation whose net political action for the next 70 years after the Unification remained a fairly wretched melodrama of militarism, reactionism, and fiat. 
    The other instances of late nationalism resulting in right-wing baits-and-switch regimes seem sufficient enough for me to conclude nationalism and liberalism are independent properties without considering mechanism, but I can?t say I?ve read enough about Italy, Spain, or eastern bloc nations to place bets on my superficial suspicions. And my suspicion is that whatever liberal clothing these fascist juntas wore to their inaugurations, the underlying character and motivation doesn?t match other 19th-century cases of nationalism. I find the clear marriages of liberalism and nationalism in England, France, and the U.S. compelling, but not indicative of a mutually necessary relationship. 
    Further, I am considering the source of that “nationalism is illiberal” comment. I have witnessed Emerson argue before about the nature of framing foreign histories in retrospect of western liberalism ? his lens tends to seek ground effects while many accounts are satisfied to derive from authority; his verdicts thus often come as counterintuitive to those of us who may just as soon take the official record as sufficient. Yet I agree in this instance; I tend to consider my own personal upbringing in a rust belt town, where petty bourgeois activism and union-man belligerence may very well get ?liberal? appellations in posterity, but those of us who have actually tread the territory know very well how real people tend to march at variance from their apparent affiliations. Again, a useful definition of conservative would seem to have some accommodation of scale and perspective built-in. 
    Maybe the best case I can think of is the Meiji Restoration, in which nationalization, capitalism, and industrialism were implemented in an ostensibly revolutionary manner, and yet the concept of ?liberalism? had about as much to do with it as horsefeathers and pigfins have to do with nutflaps and bongotits.

  36. I don’t think recent German history is so complicated if you read a little bit about it and, specially (Marxist current of historiography) focus in the economical circumstances rather than the individual personalities or abstract ideal categories (as Conservative historiography often does). 
    Prussia was already a large power after the Napoleonic Wars and included not only traditionalist Eastern Germany but also much more progressive and industrialized Rhineland. It continued expanding in Northern Germany later on. Eventually, it saw its chance of growing even bigger thanks to German nationalism and, after some anti-revolutionary reluctance, eventually accepted the opportunity.  
    This would eventually cause a major reallignement of alliances, not just because of german unification itself but because Germany showed to be a very dynamic power with a growth that soon surpassed the economic stats of Britain. By the time of WWI they were the largest European power in GNP per capita and the second largest of the World, after then isolationist USA. They had some problems in getting colonial products but had largely overcome it by associating with the Ottoman Empire and benefitting from the more open markets out of colonized Africa, South Asia and Oceania (Russia, Iran, China, Latin America).  
    They had a problem though: their desired allies were (after snubbing Britain) Russia and Austria, and these were conflicting in the Balcans.  
    Getting back to the topic, by then conservatism was already more like a moderate or authoritarian form of liberalism and German nationalism (instead of classical Prussian or local monarchism) was totally assumed. Even the more traditionalist areas of Prussia were not anymore the grain-exporting feudal regions of the past. That role had been transfered further East to mostly underdeveloped and totally autocratic Russia, that was struggling to cope with the liberal (and more radical socialist) demands… and eventually collapsed in 1917.  
    The other instances of late nationalism resulting in right-wing baits-and-switch regimes seem sufficient enough for me to conclude nationalism and liberalism are independent properties without considering mechanism 
    You are ignoring the necessary adaptation that even conservatives need (and specially needed in the troubled 19th century) to accept. This adaptation (reform) is not a conservative trait but a lesser evil for them. The radical conservatives often tried to restore the monarchist past (Spanish Carlists for example) but they were doomed. The pragmatic conservatives had to accept some level of reform and would eventually become the most staunchly supporters of something that their predecessors would have spitted upon.  
    It’s the nature of conservatism: the world changes around them and they have to adapt or become reactionaries. Guess that’s why in Europe the terms conservative and liberal are not so different nowadays. Because liberalism (and to some extent social-democracy too) is the paradigm to conserve now – ironically enough.  
    I find the clear marriages of liberalism and nationalism in England, France, and the U.S. compelling, but not indicative of a mutually necessary relationship. 
    Modern France and Spain at least were largely created by the liberals. The conservatives and reactionaries actually benefitted from local resistence to these centralization trends. Resistence that cannot still be called nationalism. Basques may have constituted the backbone of Carlist militias (and a proto-nationalism may be found in what inspired them) but the ideology was deeply clerical and monarchist, the slogan was “God, Fatherland, Autonomy and King”. The autonomy dated from the 13th century and was being erased by the Spanish nationalist liberals. Fatherland meant Spain. The movement was once about to be subverted when Basque Carlists offered the “crown of Navarre” to their most famous general, Zumalakarregi. But he was conveniently dispatched after suffering a minor injury by the pretender’s physicians. 
    Basque nationalism as such only arose in the last decades of the 19th century, when Carlism had been twice defeated (self-defeated largely) and was obviously exhausted. It was created as one of the first Christian-Democratic parties in Europe, as liberalism had rather bad press – but it can perfectly be considered liberal contextually and burgueois in any case. Meanwhile in Spain proper, the Liberals had been experimenting with a new Italian dynasty, the republic, the federal republic and even Swiss-like cantonalism… only to end again in the hands of Bourbon constitutional monarchy of moderate liberal tendencies.  
    The trend is complex but from a historical perspective the rise of nation-states almost everywhere is a liberal creation. Sure that conservatives joined the pack once the new system was consolidated but that’s all. Conservatives always walk behind reality. But they move anyhow. 
    In he opposite side, liberals or otherwise reformists also need(ed) often to pact with a more conservative reality. That’s what I meant before by the center tendency, the so common “moderation” process of both historically opposite poles. Except in revolutonary circumstances, the extremes have little to do. 
    …real people tend to march at variance from their apparent affiliations. 
    Sure. Things are never just black and white. And personal motivations are surely much more complex than whatever abstract terms we may ever dicuss. The map is not the territory.  
    Maybe the best case I can think of is the Meiji Restoration, in which nationalization, capitalism, and industrialism were implemented in an ostensibly revolutionary manner, and yet the concept of ?liberalism? had about as much to do with it as horsefeathers and pigfins have to do with nutflaps and bongotits. 
    It’s a very special context. In many sense it resembles more the pre-liberal (but also proto-liberal at times) absolute monarchies of Europe, that instituted reforms from upside down.  
    Where there is no burgueoise class, it’s maybe the only way to modernization. And, curiously enough, Socialist regimes in places like Russia or China have not in the long run done anything different: they have basically created a modern liberal (or quasi-liberal) country and a burgueoise class from scratch, by means of decrees and quinquenal plans. But this deals more with modernization, industralization, than with nationalism that was already more or less pre-existent in the form of authoritarian unified regimes and the corresponding ethno-national feeling among the majority of the people. Nationalism has anyhow been useful for those “exotic” processes of liberalization/modernization. 
    A problem here may be the Anglo-Saxon perspective. Since the 18th century, Britain first and the USA later have been on top of the global power relations and had a privileged access to gobal markets. But from the viewpoint of other nations that is not necesarily a developement force and here is where nationalism plays a role, often having to embrace less liberal (protectionist, socialist, autocratic) policies – for the very sake of local liberalism (burgueoise economy) though. Otherwise they would never advance from the semi-colonial status. They need to act that way not be always underdeveloped and dependant on foreign investments and whims.  
    This is something that the Anglo-Saxon viewpoint tends to miss. Because they (mostly) never needed those kind of policies (though some protectionist and socialist practices have also been in use most of the time anyhow). France is no exception and only was able to develope via protectionism and state intervention (and active colonialism), like almost all other countries that can be considered industrial or post-industrial.

  37. Conservatives walk behind reality. 
    Well put. You go on to describe a certain path-dependency effect that encumbers late nationalist movements in a degree not suffered by Anglo liberalism, historically by case. I think there are ways to deal with that in policy that are not entirely new, but just need some maintenance, some updating. Some conservation.

  38. I’m not sure I understand well the rest of your comment (too cryptic) but in what regards to my quote it was (more in full): 
    Conservatives always walk behind reality. But they move anyhow. 
    What actually seems to be, I realize now, an unconscious plagiarism of the alleged phrase of Galileo after his forced retraction: but it moves anyhow. And that’s exactly what happens: conservatives, like Galileo’s Pope, can try to hide it, can build walls of concrete or propaganda… but cannot prevent Earth from moving in fact, neither the planet as such nor the human societies and economies that thrive on it, nor the ethereous realm of ideas they create and modify every day. Eventually, like the Catholic institutions of this so good historical example, they have to accept reality. Catholic teologists today do not anymore argue Geocentrism, they now try to insert the Big Bang in their traditional belief system. They walk behind (but they walk anyhow). 
    But walking ahead, like Galileo, is not easier nor magically exempt of errors anyhow. Moving with the pack (being more or less at the center) is normally the easiest thing to do. And that’s what most tend to.

  39. I didn’t take it to mean conservatives are simply slow to negotiate new ideas. Your comments about creating liberal industrial nations “from scratch” and nationalism as “useful” for initiating the modernization process in many cases. You then intuitively credit some pre-existing condition to nations that didn’t have to resort to the radical nationalism found in non-Anglo modernization efforts. That’s generally an acknowledgment of path-dependence effect, which I would agree with. 
    I think the dilemma for American conservativism, then, is how one conserves liberalism, or more specifically how one allows for the benefits of modernization and industry to flourish without advocating fascist liberalism. 
    We can now agree that nationalism was liberal in most 18th and 19th century contexts, including and most preeminently the nationalism of England and the US. But throughout the 20th century, we don’t conjecture some fundamental reversal of principle to explain that US-global flyswatting was directed at nationalist regimes. At some level the American ?conservatives? behind Cold War policies knew what distinguished ?viable? liberalism from other forms, most notably Marxist communism, even as most modern liberal movements would acknowledge a certain progressive, dialectic quality to the course of historical events. Analytically, that is walking behind reality and seeking principled decisions, I think what Cold War American conservatives ultimately relied on to distinguish ?legitimate? liberalism from the doomed variety ? Goldberg?s ?liberal fascism? ? regimes was indeed an abstract ideal, a principal component without which an emerging nation could be reliably expected to stall, and backslide into barbarism. This view, which in its 20th-century revivalist form might be called Straussian, was a direct refutation of the secular rationalism underlying the entire Enlightenment project, and a direct refutation of the practice of historicism itself in legitimating “liberal” political claims.

  40. I think looking under the historical taxonomy is necessary to discover what conservatism really is. Further, if politics is viewed strategically, the accuracy and cost to identifying allies and enemies (intelligence) becomes important. Another cheap abstraction to throw in here might be the case of convergent evolution, which highlights the strategic inadequacy of nominalism as an account of historical relationship. The emergent reality for conservatives to walk behind certainly includes the endurance of an occasional revolution, path-clearing quakes and deluges, to be sure. But the mere identification of nationalism with liberalism would not account for a flourishing liberal democracy like the US being able to distinguish Ally from Axis, or acts of God from acts of unspeakable human evil. 
    That the territory, in fact, matters as much as the map when evaluating policy, is the principle that ultimately “won” the Cold War under a largely ?conservative? banner, even as today?s American conservative agenda claims to promote and protect liberal democracy around the world. At the highest levels American conservatives knew that the ?sticky tar? of historicist dialectics was incompatible with a sustainable liberal society, regardless of how wide-open the path to utopia appeared in the euphoric aftermath of revolution. When every foreign relationship counts as an investment, analysis goes to the heart of how ?natural laws? are posited in a nation’s social covenants. The difference between a winner and a loser is in the mechanism to power; Where continental liberalism got stuck in the tar of rationalism, anglo liberalism tempered all its logic with a deliberate agnostic spirit. The reason is the huge opportunity cost of its absence; It’s what caused the Icelandic anarcho-capitalist experiment to collapse, and every failed liberal enterprise since. A gradual, cumulative overflow of waste that eventually reaches socially untenable levels.

  41. I think this is the general disappointment with Marx to this day, namely that he was a natural empiricist-inductivist, but compromised his entire project for sake of activation, i.e. clearing a path through thickets of rationalism and religion with hegelian messianism. The best part of today?s US conservative project, which I consider conservative on the Hobbes-Rousseau continuum, is certainly a study of conserving ?legitimate? democratic liberalism by avoiding such massive self-defeating programs. In practice, it is intimately the study of these fatal romances with pyrrhic victory that Marx, among others, have exemplified ? usually in massive culminations of phantasmagoric horror and crimes against humanity ? in past practice. At some point in 20th century American history, the stated goals of western political conservatism converged rather well with the better goals of science itself: Inuring to the mechanism of reality, as opposed to simply a schedule of wishes. Is this not still recognized as the difference between science and mere metaphysics, as it was once the difference between an open society and its enemies?

  42. The question now in the US, then, is how did this ?conservative? movement derail? Bad students? Bad management? Sure. Somewhere along the line, these conservatives lost their bearings to the schizophrenia of American democracy; The same way, in my rough estimation, that continental liberals lost their bearings to relativism, and eastern liberals lost their bearings to Bolshevism. It surely looks to me that too many shares were issued to the barbarian elements during the initial public offering, to where the question of clearing a new path has become one of dissolving the brand entirely.

  43. We shouldn’t forget in all this talk of progress and conservatism being a force maintaining the status quo that often what is called “progress” is detrimental. Let’s not let the victors always write history. Some of the things sold as “progress” have been disasters. One could argue that the former communist countries all had so much “progress” that they ended up “regressing” in the end. A victory for conservatism. Therefore conservatism can be viewed positively as an embodiment of a precautionary principle, and let’s not forget that often IT GETS IT RIGHT. Let’s not just remember all the things that were touted as progress and succceeded, but also all the things that were supposed to be progress but ended up utter failures.