Saturday, October 17, 2009

David on Conservatism

Last week I blogged on the difference between conservatism and libertarianism. David has brought up some good points, and I copy and respond to them as follows.

David on Conservatism

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.”

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”.

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.

My Response

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 1642. 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.

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 95% 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.

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. By 1835, within slightly more than 50 years of the country's founding, virtually all of the rights previously granted only to landholders had been granted to all Americans. And in the first place, it wasn't that hard to become a landholder in colonial times.

That the colonists emphasized rights and not the great chain of being was a matter of their choice. It was not a conservative decision. It was a libertarian one. 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?

Why is emphasis on the rights that were slowly being newly established "conservative" and emphasis on older 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"?

Conservatism as a concept is a major aid to socialism. By asserting they are are conserving something of the past (18th century liberalism) against something of the future (socialism) conservatives are saying that socialism is the future. But socialism is the past. It is the older and less successful approach. The conservatives do not conserve anything. they assert the new, radical and future value of freedom. In their hearts pro-bailout conservatives are very much in favor of socialism--the true conservatism.

Of course, unlike Jefferson 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. Also, I would guess a majority of Americans would oppose this on libertarian grounds.

While Americans believe in Christianity and Christian values in general, and there is no question that this was always a Christian country that espoused Christianity, 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. Moreover, this has always been the most tolerant country. The largest single denomination in the US is Catholic, who were tyrannized by the Anglicans and who also tyrannized the Protestants at several points. But Catholic, Protestant, Jew and Muslim can co-exist here if all accept liberty.

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 for the poor and then put in the central bank which was obviously a huge subsidy to the rich. They were just better Whigs.

Hence there is very little difference between New Deal 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.

As for the Federalists winning the first three elections, 1788, 1792 and 1796, that is not accurate. George Washington was not a Federalist. He tried to straddle the fence and appointed both Jefferson and Hamilton. He did veer toward the Federalists and then Jefferson resigned as Secretary of State. Washington won in 1788 and 1792 because of his immense popularity and prestige as commander in chief. There was no other reason than the his tremendous persona. His election was non-ideological. Adams did win in a close election, largely, I believe, on foreign policy grounds. His four years were troubled by the Federalists' unpopular Alien and Sedition Acts. Jefferson won in a landslide in 1800, and the Federalists essentially ended soon thereafter. The following thirty years are called the "era of good feelings" because the Federalists had been routed. The Democratic Republicans spawned the radical, Jackson, who was more extreme and liberal (in the true meaning) than Henry Clay, who was a supporter of big government. In fact, Jefferson and Madison were moderate individualists who did not in the end oppose the bank. Jackson was a radical decentralizer who abolished the bank. However, his ideas became dominant and were the ideology that the nation adopted in in its most successful period, from 1832 to 1908. Jackson's ideas were not conservative and they were not traditional. But laissez faire, widespread democracy, and the abolition of the central bank created the most vibrant, innovative economy in the history of the world. In contrast, the policies of the Progressives, the twentieth century's Pro-Fed socialist conservatives and the New Deal's socialist Democrats have been a pathetic failure since 1970, forty years of economic stagnation, mis-allocation, and stupidity.

A final point on the word liberal--it is simply a derivative of the Latin "liberalis" meaning "of freedom". It has always referred to the advocates of Lockean individualism and freedom. No competent historian or political scientist can dispute that. In the Progressive era the leading Progressive theorists began saying that their ideas were really "liberal" and the meaning of liberal as being for freedom was out of date. That is one of the earliest Orwellian reversals of meaning. But the root of the word is "of freedom", and the word continues to be used with the correct meaning in England and Europe. One example of the double talk surrounding the word liberal is Louis Hartz's book liberal tradition in America. The application of the word liberal first to Progressivism and then to socialism is just a form of deception and propaganda. "Freedom is slavery", "Liberalism is state activism", etc.

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