"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

Sunday, October 22, 2006

The Evolution of A Conservative: Should It? Can It? Will It?

Classical liberal attitudes about government have much in common with those of the American (i.e., constitutionalist) conservative, yet the self-nominated conservative tends to ask himself somewhat different questions about a proposed action of government:


  1. Is the proposed action properly authorized by the relevant constitution or charter?
  2. Given the context, does the government possess adequate power to make the proposal plausible?
  3. Can we expect the unintended consequences of the action to be bearable -- that is, given a "reasonable" extrapolation from present conditions, are they likely or unlikely to negate the gains expected from the action?


Many a good idea founders on one of those shoals.

Question 1 is central to the operation of a constitutional order. Granted that there have been liberal polities that have "done without" a formal constitution, such arrangements strike me as excessively dependent on the character and judgment of the governors. The American system, which sprouted from the soil of a revolution against such an order, emphasizes its constitutional foundation, even when the constraints imposed by the Constitution appear to stand in the way of a good idea, for it prevents the implementation, by well-meaning enthusiasts, of a far greater number of bad ideas.

Question 2 is often seen as a matter of practicality -- "how many guns do we have?" -- but is often more germane to constitutional constraints than to the weight of enforcement power. If the enforcement of a proposed law would transgress some constitutional guarantee of private rights, the state lacks the effective power to enforce the law without undermining its overall legitimacy, no matter how many guns it has. The War on Drugs is an excellent example of this sort of legitimacy trap.

Question 3 is one that applies to all human action, but which deserves particular attention from governments. The prevalent liberal attitude -- classical or social-welfarist -- is that a good idea deserves to be acted on: that if the Constitution and enforcement power permit, not to act to uplift society or ameliorate suffering is a form of political nonfeasance. The prevalent conservative attitude is that society is a complex web of relations and tensions, interference with which will have side effects and incentive effects that might not be easily damped, and that these should be pondered at least as deeply as the predicted gains from the proposal. That attitude militates toward a degree of caution about political and social change unappreciated by persons who don't share it.

No one is as smart or knowledgeable as he needs to be to redesign society. "In all societies, some description must be uppermost," wrote Edmund Burke. Therefore, the conservative, sufficiently aware of his limitations and of the history of human error to be humble, proceeds tentatively and with circumspection with even his best notions. For there are many things that, once done, one cannot undo; to set forth rashly on a scheme for re-engineering one's nation is to court disaster on a scale that could blot one's name for centuries to come, no matter how good one's intentions.

3 comments:

Tom Van Dyke said...

The lattermost, the Burke, is what all conservatives share.

But as to points one and two, is conservatism simply constitutionalism with a little prudence mixed in as to reasonable expectations of achievability?

As to classical liberalism, it gets a little squirrelier: is freedom the end of government? If so, how freedom different than hedonism?

Or is it after peace and prosperity? The relief of man's estate? Universal health care?

Francis W. Porretto said...

Freedom is an enabling condition. It has a value of its own, but it's more important as the framework within which one can pursue other values.

True conservatism must be constitutional at its foundation. No conservative attitude can make sense without a Supreme Law. It might not necessarily be perfect, but it will set limits on how rapidly and how radically things can change. A sensible conservative knows that change is inevitable; he simply seeks to exercise caution and get some sense of where a proposed change will lead his nation.

"Pure" classical liberalism tends to be less constitutionally inclined, and less prudent. But that's what one would expect of a philsophy of rightness in human relations, as distinguished from a philosophy of governance. The two scholia are good complements to one another. Without classical liberal principles, consevatives would reduce to enemies of change; without conservative attitudes, classical liberals are apt to experiment dangerously, heedless of the hazards that arise from too rapid a rate of change.

"Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it -- no matter if I have said it! -- except it agree with your own reason and your own common sense." -- The Buddha

Tom Van Dyke said...

We agree completely via Edmund Burke's conservatism---societies must grow or die, but neither would we want to throw the babies out with the bathwater.

But I'm uncertain as to what "pure" classical liberalism is in your mind.

If it tends to be less constitutionally inclined, it must be more, not less, prudent, in that Platonic philosopher-king sort of way.