Letter from a Traditional Conservative

21 Dec

From Professor James Matthew Wilson from The Front Porch Republic:

You are right that most people do not know of what they speak when they deploy the two major terms of our political lexicon; as those terms are used, they have no permanent content, but rather serve as euphemisms for Republican or Democrat.  But a few things are worth establishing to correct this evisceration of meaning.

 Contemporary American-style conservatism and liberalism are merely two faces of that intelligible beast, (Eighteenth Century) Classical Liberalism.  Its vision says the substantive unit or entity in politics is strictly the individual, and the freedom of the individual is the primary good after which society and government seek.  Since, therefore, the term “society” indicates nothing more than a numerical aggregate of the individuals in a given area, then the only purpose of government must be to defend the potentially infinite number of “private” interests of these loosely gathered individual freedom-maximizers.

 American-style liberals and conservatives simply emphasize two distinct elements intrinsic to this vision: one insists that the “right” to unlimited wealth accumulation follows naturally from the freedom of the individual and that this right is only expressible if certain other freedoms are limited so that the literal place of the market can be stable and reliable (and therefore a relatively predictable place in which wealth — the value of a dollar — can be relied upon); the other insists that the individual’s freedom consists primarily in self-fashioning and that the self can only enjoy this free play — its individuality — if it can know that society is stable, ”equal,” and reliable enough that the products of the individual’s free play (the self made by the pure, autonomous will of the individual) will not have any material consequences.  The apparent differences in these positions arise specifically because their different advocates assume, but do not discuss, the first principle of individual equal freedom and attend only to particular questions in isolation from each other.  The advocate of “free markets” applies his first principle to certain questions and these prompt him to withhold its application in others; the same must be said for the “civil libertarian.”  Were either to apply his first principle in equal measure to everything, he would appear not merely as a libertarian but as a libertine anarchist — a libidinous monster convinced that the mad must be set free from the asylum, the murderer from his prison, and the self from the cage of society.

 Neither of these visions is “conservative” in any true sense.  They are both simply expressions of the basic tenets of bourgeois classical liberalism.  Generally, when someone says, “I’m conservative on some issues and liberal on others,” what he really means is that he is just a more consistent classical liberal than American-style conservatives and liberals, i.e. he has traced out more fully the consequences of the individual as the sole entity in politics and the individual’s protected freedom as its end.

 The Bush and Obama administrations have proven this model consistent in spades.  For, if the individual is the sole entity in society, he will always feel weak, relatively powerless, isolated, and alienated from the means to secure the future for himself.  Therefore, the liberal individual will trust no one but the State to secure his freedom, for only the State is large enough to do such a thing, and only the State is “real” enough to do it, since the liberal individual sees any other kind of supra-individual entity as an illegitimate one whose exercise of authority will always appear to him as oppression (e.g. the authority of a church, of a social class, of a sex, of an elite association or club, and finally even of the family).  The most liberal phrase of indignation is always, “What gives so-and-so the right to tell me what to do?!”  As such, it only makes sense that the “weak individuals” with interests in business would seek (as they have regularly since the Nineteenth Century) to harness the state to advance their unlimited wealth production and accumulation.  And, in an inevitable reaction, the “weak individuals” whose sense of freedom is bound up more in the free play of consumption and self-fashioning now turn to ask the State for the securing of their material equality and the administered stabilization of every aspect of their lives (except those few little places where “self-fashioning” needs to be most free, i.e. on the level of taste, consumer goods, and sterile copulation).

Read the rest here

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