Saturday, October 10, 2009

Conservatism versus Libertarianism

David writes in the comments section with respect to my post on libertarianism:

>The accounts of Burke, American history, and its values posed here seem terribly flawed.

Conservatism in America pertains to the CONSERVATION of the nation's fundamental values, which inform its governmental structures, the substantive law, and the use and scope of rights. Burke himself said the American Revolution wasn't a complete revolution in the sense that the colonists were merely perpetuating English norms.

Furthermore, your account seems unable to explain the fact that 19th Century members of all parties (Dems, Repubs, Whigs) referred to themselves as dividing along 'liberal', 'moderate', or 'conservative' wings. What were these labels in reference to? True, the Dem-Repub and Federalist parties do not fall along those lines (one couldn't call the Federalists "conservative", but rather pro-business), but their demise still puts the generative period of Left and Right nearly 100 years prior to the stated era, i.e., the end of Jacksonian rule.

Even to say "there is no American conservatism because American institutions are rooted in flexibility and change" is to appeal to a discernible norm subject to alternation, replacement, or complete conservation (as conservativism may inform the nature and degree of alteration).

It is Libertarianism that has a more modern foundation. For example, how, pre-incorporation doctrine thinking, could a libertarian explanation account for some states actualizing their right to a state church?

My response:

The word liberal in the 19th century DID NOT mean what it means today. The current meaning was a bastardization by John Dewey, Herbert Croly and others in the early 20th century. Liberal in the 19th century meant what we call today "libertarian". It meant a more radical commitment to freedom.

There's a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote where he says that there are two kinds of personalities. One, the "liberal", is robust, the other, "conservative", is phlegmatic. I read that in college and wondered for years what he was talking about. It wasn't until I read Capitalism and Freedom by Milton Friedman that I realized that the meaning of "liberal" was the opposite in the 17th to 19th centuries. Liberal meant belief in freedom, the ideas of Jefferson and Jackson. Conservative meant retaining the old world approach, the state church and monarchy. Hamilton and Adams were more along these lines.

Neither Democrat nor Federalist was conservative in the sense that Burke described it. Nor was Burke correct that Americans retained the institutions of England in the most important ways. It is true that the common law was maintained, but key areas of change were in the much greater degree of liberty of the colonists than England had ever known. The colonists "ran wild" for two centuries, established their own government on republican grounds and really lacked the training to perpetuate English institutions in detail.

In the 16th to 18th centuries, as Bertrand de Jouvenal makes clear in On Power, the English kings had centralized power considerably. Henry VIII and later kings were ruthless in their oppression of religious dissent, frequently using horrific torture and murder. These are the institutions that conservatives would need to say that they are preserving if they are to take Burke's advice. The history of the English centralization of power by the kings and Oliver Cromwell involves several early mass murders, especially of the Irish and of the Irish Protestants, who should have been on the Tudors' side.

I would most certainly call the Federalists the "conservative" party. They opposed the French revolution for economic reasons, but Hamilton was very much in favor of the economic ideas of David Hume, who today would be called a Keynesian, and supporting business. That is not libertarian and it's not socialist. He favored privilege for the rich, which is the closest tradition to the British.

The historical pattern of privilege for aristocracy arose from barbarian conquest. The British "aristocracy" were just the descendants of brute barbarian savages who had occupied Britain, killed the British king and took over land through violence. There is no moral significance to their holding power. The significance is in how the power was overcome by Cromwell and then evolved into greater laissez faire due to the work of Cobden and Bright. As well, the English had the most internal strife of any country, with the War of the Roses leading to the Tudor dynasty. In turn, the killings in Ireland that went on, the religious wars, wars with the Scots, all lead to intensified decentralization and loss of centralized power. England was the butt end of Europe until the 17th century. But the decentralization and lack of central control lead to enhanced experimentation, greater freedom and hence the industrial revolution.

I don't claim to be a great historian. But history too often suffers from extreme left-wing bias, to the point where it frequently is ideological.

In the 18th century Jefferson said that there should be a revolution every 20 years. Unless conservatives reject Jefferson, who did not say this once but virtually every day, I do not see how you can say that there is an American conservatism. The country was based on country farmers who had their own ideas, local churches, a weakly associated culture (Virginians referred to their state as "their country") and religious diversity.

Libertarianism evolved over time, reaching a climax in the 1830s, but continuing on in fairly robust form to McKinley. It is true that John Winthrop and the Puritans who ran Boston would have rejected libertarianism. But it was Jefferson who wrote on his grave the three things he did that he was most proud of (and being President of the United States wasn't one of them):

1. Author of the Declaration of Independence
2. Author of the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom
3. Founder of the University of Virginia

Note the second. I'm curious whether you believe that the author of the Declaration believed in a state church, or that someone who says that this country had a national church is anything but a crank?

It is true that the states had established churches. But they knew that perpetuation of English quarrels and murder over religion would result from establishment. So they ended it over time.


david said...

Part I

Thank you for your response. It is appreciated. I do, however, feel obliged to reply.
Burkeans do not believe in preserving all norms, mores, and institutions that have existed in the past, simply because they existed in the past. They believe in preserving what has proven to be good and excising what has proven to be bad. The cutoff point for your account of English history is premature, as 1688 marks the birth of Parliamentary Supremacy and the monarchy’s steady decline in influence and power. The Founding generation said they were fighting for their rights as Englishmen. As Paul Johnson aptly put it, many Americans may not have been literate, but they could tell you what their rights were. The Bill of Rights of the Glorious Revolution is copied almost verbatim in some of the US Constitution’s passages (e.g., excessive bail, excessive fines, cruel and unusual punishment), and re-articulated in many others (e.g., individual gun rights, which I like to yell at liberal, collective rights 2nd Am revisionists about). It is predominantly, I think, to that historical period, its lessons, political corrections, and norms that one ought to refer in order to make sense of the American claim of preserving English rights. Though they also had in mind the Magna Carta and other English inventions from prior periods, it certainly does not follow, as you claim, that “[t]hese [centralized monarchical power, torture of dissidents, etc.] are the institutions that conservatives would need to say that they are preserving if they are to take Burke's advice.”

david said...

Part II

I must also disagree that the colonists “ran wild” for two centuries before the Revolution, given their faith in English rights, in Blackstone and the Common Law (which was adopted without much, if any, theoretical tweaking to fit the new republican regime), and in their fidelity to regional political structures. By non-complete revolution, Burke did not just mean English rights, but also that, although radically transformed into sovereign countries, the government constructs, i.e., the provinces, were preserved intact as states. While the federal political architecture is Polybian-Montesqueian-Lockean, the above mentioned factors are heavily indebted to English institutions. From the fact that the colonists had more freedom (and lived better) than their English cousins, or that they couldn’t replicate the sophistication of English institutions (due to low populations, education, the vagaries of colonizing a new land, etc.) it does not follow that certain (neither I, nor Burke, said ‘all’) critical English institutions were not preserved “in the most important ways”.

david said...

Part III

Your account of Jefferson appears wholly accurate (I am nowhere near an expert to judge properly), and I read his letter to Madison where he expressed the notion of generational revolutions. However, I must admit to finding your account insufficient, since I question using Jefferson as the sole and representative mouthpiece for the Founders in order to prove a lack of conservativism within that group. This is not to say that I or conservatives generally reject Jefferson, but certainly one need not subscribe to everything he says. He was dead wrong about France because of the nature of its revolution, not just economics. He was also wrong about Black people. Adams and Franklin certainly did not agree with him on many issues, and famously influenced the change in language in the Declaration of Independence concerning unalienable rights. Why are their views not given equal consideration when considering the group’s set of values (even if Adams was a loudmouth and not well liked)? Did Madison agree with Jefferson’s suggestion? The Federalists also won the first Presidential election after GW. Did the people of the northern states who voted for them harbor old-world, monarchical sentiments?. To my mind, that Jefferson did not speak for all or even most of the Founders when it came to the Establishment clauses is evidenced by the fact that it took decades for the official state churches to be eradicated. In other words, one may find your explanation for the eventual eradication of said churches both completely true and insufficient to justify your claim that all, or even most, Founders were libertarians. Why did it take them so long to do it? I still don't understand why, under your account, why they did allow for it in the first place given their willingness to do ban hegemonic churches at the national level in 1787. So, as for your questions, do I believe Jefferson believed his “wall of separation” speech? Yes. Do I think all or even most of the other Founders agreed that that is the Establishment Clause meant, rather than merely prohibiting a national church like that in England (or Rome)? No. I am not religious and do not have a bias in favor of any church or increased church-state relations. I’m a right wing Jew and would rather die than see a synagogue have an official role anywhere in America (especially given the probability of such a body’s pinko proclivities). Now, you may say that libertarianism evolved unto the 1830s to a point where Jefferson’s view became dominant, but this would require further evidence than you’ve provided, and would need to call into play a larger cast of historical characters. If we do not take Jefferson's word as strictly representative, his call for periodic revolutions is in no way a proof about the Founders as a group.
That the word “liberal” had a different meaning than it does today is true insofar as it now means social welfarist or open-minded (a question begging predicate). That “conservative” is a personality type is perhaps true. However, your claim that it simply meant Freedom in the Jeffersonian tradition while “conservative” meant deference to Old World, pre-democratic thinking is not borne out by the fact that there were liberal and conservative Whigs. THAT distinction is not what divided them. Nor the early Republicans. Nor the late 19th Century Democrats, who believed in decentralization.

Mitchell Langbert said...

1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments. They are helpful. I have read about 3 books on the Whigs and have not come across the "conservative/liberal" continuum that you mention and I would be interested in where/who uses that terminology and the context. The Whigs were in large part a response to Jackson, the prototypical libertarian. The use of terminology like conservative/liberal in the 1840s/1830s may have been specifically in reference to either slavery or banking, which were the chief issues of the day. Note that the Whigs were NOT what we would call "conservative" in reference to slavery--it was the Jacksonian Democrats who were the more racist of the two groups. That is one the tragedies of American history and libertarianism, that it was associated with slavery and racism (the trail of tears and the Dred Scott decision were both products of the Jacksonian Democrats). Yet today, many who call themselves "conservative" are closer to the Jacksonian views of Chief Justice R. Taney than they are to the Whigs.

There were radical abolitionists and radical opponents of the Bank of the United States. Also, people may have been considered "conservative" who favored established privileges like monopolies. None of these are likely positions of conservatives today, except some may believe themselves to be defenders of privilege.

The examples of English history that you are using are not reflective of conservatism. Rather, they were changes that were made in the 1500s and 1600s as royal advocates of the Catholic and Anglican church fought with each other and with Parliament and as Parliament wrested power leading up to 1648. These were truly progressive changes to, not preservation of, institutions. You are saying that conservatives base their conservatism on these changes. But that's not conservatism. That's a belief in change.

Mitchell Langbert said...

2. There is a radical shift that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries. Between 900 and 1500 the society believed in "the great chain of being". That is the idea that the monarch is the most important, the aristocracy second, the landed gentry third and the commoners last. Since 99.5% of the population was commoners, that relegated virtually everyone to fourth-class status. A true conservatism would have to accept some variation of the great chain of being. In fact, no American conservatism accepts any such idea (with the exception of academics who believe in a hierarchy of institutional prestige, Harvard first, etc.). American conservatives reject the great chain of being, so their conservatism begins with the 16th century. Before then, rights were an issue of conflict between the aristocracy and the king. This is also true of Cromwell. He was a member of the landed gentry, and even in the 17th century commoners were not much of a part of the Civil War.

It is true that decentralization was a by-product of barbarian conquest, and that we ought to preserve that (and perhaps in that sense we can be conservative as we can with protection of freedom), but the Great Chain of being is a concept antithetical to all American thought save at the fringes.

Mitchell Langbert said...

3. The term conservatism crops up at times when some favor the wealthy and are reminded of the Great Chain of Being and the medieval belief that the descendants of the conquering Normans were more important than the descendants of the conquering Angles, who were more important than the descendants of the Celts and other tribes and the Roman conquerors occupying England when the Angles arrived. But no American conservatism claims this.

The Americans emphasized rights that had been established in conflict between king and parliament, and make no mistake about it--the parliament was composed of higher gentry and above, the top five percent of the country. The house of commons was a house of non-nobles, not the average person. You had to own a good chunk of land just to vote. The cost of travel alone would have prohibited most Englishmen from serving in Parliament.

That the colonists emphasized rights and not the great chain of being was a matter of their choice. Lockean rights talk was new at that time. Like the great chain of being, communism had existed throughout Europe, including England, in the form of the common field since the earliest days of Christianity and before. The colonists explicitly chose to reject that approach. They were told to adopt it by the companies that sent them here, and they refused. Conservative?

Mitchell Langbert said...

5. Why is emphasis on the radical rights that were slowly being established "conservative" and emphasis on communism and the common field, or the Russian Mir considered "progressive"? There is no logic there. It is the ideas that the colonists were adopting that were novel and radical. Communism was associated with the manorial system, with Christianity (as in the monasteries) and with the Zealots of ancient Judaism. There was nothing new about communism. It was the 18th century liberalism that you say conservatives focus on that was new and radical. So why call the newer thing "conservative" and the older thing "progressive"?

I do not doubt that many in the founding generation favored state churches. But a national church was not feasible. Many states today are larger and more diverse than the entire United States in 1776 (population three million). As a practical matter, a state-level church today would create similar problems to a national church in 1800, and probably worse.

While conservatives can say that they believe in Christianity in general, establishment of a state level official church would lead to the same problems that caused the colonists to come here in the first place. That is why the state churches ended. The largest single denomination in the US is Catholic, who were tyrannized by the Anglicans and who also tyrannized the Protestants at several points.

The way that the colonists had state-based churches was that they had deviant beliefs but still considered themselves affiliated with the Church of England. But if they had gone back to England as Puritans the Church of England would have burned them at the stake. So the idea of any kind of established church was, even then, impractical once the colonies grew to any significant size and level of diversity.

Whigs could have been "liberal" in the sense of being abolitionists (for instance, Henry David Thoreau was a libertarian Whig abolitionist who opposed the Mexican War and subsidies to business). Jacksonian Democrats could have been "conservative" in favoring state banks and "liberal" in favoring abolition of state banks. I'm not sure how these terms were used. I'd be interested in hearing where and how they were. They probably would have had very different meanings in the 1830s than in the 1780s. There was no great debate between "liberals" and "conservatives". Conservatives today would often be closer to the Jacksonian Democrats, who favored democracy, limited government, opposed the central bank, opposed monopolies, and were on the wrong side of the race issue. Whigs were for government-paid projects, central banking, big government, tended to be more racially tolerant and more tolerant of immigrants, and were more interested in government privilege for business.

Today, "progressives" would be much closer to the Whigs--they favor big government, centralization and central banking just as did the Whigs. The title of Gabriel Kolko's book "Triumph of Conservatism" is very much a reminder that the Whigs were the central banking party and that their and the Federalists' emphasis on central banking was also emphasis on privilege for the rich. The fact is, the New Deal democrats were able to convince everyone that they are poor and then put in the central bank which was obviously a huge subsidy to the rich. They were just better Whigs.

Mitchell Langbert said...

6. Hence there is very little difference between New Democrats and "conservatives". Both are Whigs. The Democrats are Whigs who claim to help the poor, and the conservatives are Whigs who do not claim to help the poor. Otherwise, they agree.

The closest ancestor to today's Democratic Party is the Federalists. They favored big government, specifically the Bank of the United States. The Whigs and then the Progressives also favored big government and the Bank of the United States. The difference between the New Deal democrats and the Progressives is that they advocated more aggressive social programs but more aggressive privileges for the central bank than any previous party. Thus, they were able to do what the Roman emperors did--provide bread and circus (social security) to the masses but greater privileges to the wealthy via the Fed. In this, they are very much in the Whig tradition, as are the so-called "conservatives" who advocate use of the anti-trust law (as did Taft) to regulate big business, who favor state and banking subsidies to business. The two are different in advertising and tone but not substance. The Democrats say they are for the poor and subsidize the rich, while the Progressive (conservative) Republicans say they are for the rich and are for the rich.