Matthew 9:16 “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. 17 Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined.
Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony have written a piece published at American Affairs entitled “What Is Conservatism?” They ask all of the right questions and draw many proper distinctions.
I am sure that you have guessed by their names the tribal roots of the two authors. They belong to perhaps the only tribe in the west that is allowed to hold on to and write openly about the value of common culture and tradition.
They begin by noting the great shift represented by two elections in 2016: Brexit and Trump. I would add to this the similar sentiments behind many national movements throughout the liberal West. They note that many of their conservative brethren decry this illiberal movement. This causes them to note:
These and similar examples demonstrate once again that more than a few prominent conservatives in America and Britain today consider themselves to be not only conservatives but also liberals at the same time.
How often have we said that these are merely two branches of the same tree, with no real differences to be found? Liberal conservatives such as these find their roots in John Locke:
It is to this tradition, they say, that we must turn for the political institutions—including the separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism—that secure the freedoms of religion, speech, and the press; the right of private property; and due process under law.
“Foul” cry the authors. Conservatism has its roots not in Locke, but in traditions that pre-date Locke by centuries.
Its advocates fought for and successfully established most of the freedoms that are now exclusively associated with Lockean liberalism, although they did so on the basis of tenets very different from Locke’s.
Locke’s freedoms were established well before Locke; more importantly, Locke’s foundations were drastically different and far more fragile:
Indeed, when Locke published his Two Treatises of Government in 1689, offering the public a sweeping new rationale for the traditional freedoms already known to Englishmen, most defenders of these freedoms were justly appalled. They saw in this new doctrine not a friend to liberty but a product of intellectual folly that would ultimately bring down the entire edifice of freedom.
The statement is worth reading twice.
Today’s self-described conservatives embrace this liberal foundation; there is no true opposing force. Assuming its proponents even desired to do so, today’s liberal conservatism is impotent to deal with many of the political challenges facing the west today; these challenges are difficult or impossible to oppose with this liberal doctrine:
…liberal principles contribute little or nothing to those institutions that were for centuries the bedrock of the Anglo-American political order: nationalism, religious tradition, the Bible as a source of political principles and wisdom, and the family.
All of the freedoms that today’s liberal conservative embrace have their foundation in traditions that pre-date Locke by centuries. And today’s liberal conservatives turn their backs – and even actively oppose – every institution that offered the only stable foundation for its principles.
In this essay, we seek to clarify the historical and philosophical differences between the two major Anglo-American political traditions, conservative and liberal.
The authors trace the roots to the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, beginning with men like Sir John Fortescue and Richard Hooker (although they offer that even these men had earlier influences). I have offered my version previously, here; in this, I trace these earlier roots to a time well before the Enlightenment.
The authors go on to contrast these earlier conservative traditions to the liberal tradition brought on by man’s reason.
Like later conservative tradition, [15th century Sir John] Fortescue does not believe that either scripture or human reason can provide a universal law suitable for all nations.
The cultural soil, apparently, matters. Different cultures develop differently and have different foundations. Of course, man cannot escape using his reason. In this traditional view, man used his reason to apply traditional law to modern problems.
We are pounded with the notion that [fill in your favorite political system] can provide a universal law suitable for all nations. Jefferson certainly believed this; today’s advocates for spreading democracy certainly believe this; communists believe this; many libertarians – especially on the left – certainly believe this.
For many centuries prior to Fortescue – I would argue at least ten – those who understood voluntary law never did believe this. If it was even considered, I suspect it would have been looked at as folly.
…Fortescue argues that a nation that is self-disciplined and accustomed to obeying the laws voluntarily rather than by coercion is one that can productively participate in the way it is governed.
There will always be governance in any civil society (note, I wrote “governance,” not government). Culture matters. The more cohesive a society is culturally, the less demand there will be for coercion in governing (i.e. “government”).
The authors move on to “the great seventeenth-century battle between defenders of the traditional English constitution against political absolutism on one side, and against the first advocates of a Lockean universalist rationalism on the other.”
The authors offer John Selden as “probably the greatest theorist of Anglo-American conservatism.”
Selden played a leading role in drafting and passing an act of Parliament called the Petition of Right…
In this petition, one will find many of the “rights” declared in the Bill of Rights – all before Locke was even born. These rights were not defended based upon some man-made concept of universal reason, but on traditions traced to the Bible and, I suggest, made manifest in European thinking during the Germanic Middle Ages.
… Selden argues that, everywhere in history, “unrestricted use of pure and simple reason” has led to conclusions that are “intrinsically inconsistent and dissimilar among men.”
Selden, like Fortescue before him, declares that a universal system of rights developed by man’s reason and applicable to all was impossible. How could it be otherwise? Is not our reason shaped by our environment, in the broadest sense of the term? Are we now to insist that all environments are created equal?
Selden looks to tradition and custom, but he does not hold to it blindly; in this, he carries on the idea of looking to law that is both old and good. The law develops through a system of trial and error over multiple generations; and each nation builds its own tradition based on its own experiences.
Note that law developed via trial and error; “error” being the key. This flies in the face of today’s law – which recognizes precedent and rarely discards precedent, no matter how damaging the precedent.
Attacks against these positions came from two sides: those who advocated for absolute monarchy (ultimately labeled “the right”) and those who advocated along the lines of Lockean liberalism (ultimately labeled “the left”). As is often the case, we find that there are not just two possible choices – after all, these two sides were “right” and “left” of something.
I find this observation by the authors very noteworthy and clarifying. I have for some time understood that libertarians and communists share some common philosophical roots, for example, regarding the dangers of authority; classical liberals and modern liberals share common roots as well, most notably in the dangerous phrase “all men are created equal.”
You are either an absolutist or a liberal; there is no possibility of a third way, of suggesting a return to the foundation – or even that a foundation exists. It is a view which allows today’s modern liberals to place Brexiteers and Trump supporters on the same side as Nazis.
In both cases (libertarian / communist and classical / modern liberal), are the two branches merely different reactions to the same foundation, that of conservatism as described in the subject essay?
The authors go on to examine why Locke’s liberalism was so troubling to those who held to the traditional view; they explain how Locke’s ideas were rejected at the time in England, but embraced in France (we saw how that turned out); we come to understand how Burke can be, somehow, embraced by both the left and the right (because Burke built on the traditions that existed before Locke to come to similar conclusions, but built on a more secure foundation).
The authors offer five principles that they find in traditional conservatism: Historical Empiricism, Nationalism, Religion, Limited Executive Power, Individual Freedom. The authors contrast these with today’s liberal world.
They go on to develop the continuing history. It is a history worth reading without my further efforts to summarize; further, the authors offer a damning critique for much of the dogma offered by those who propose that their political philosophy (whether social democracy, communism, or libertarianism) is applicable to all mankind.
There is much with which I take issue in the subject essay; this does not diminish its value regarding certain invaluably key points.
Locke poured new wine into old wineskins. That wineskin is finally bursting.