October 14, 2003


An interesting discussion over at John & Belle Have A Blog about Conservatism.

It's particularly interesting to me since I'm currently reading Hayek's The Constitution of Liberty which has an excellent essay at the end, entitled "Why I Am Not a Conservative". Back in 1959, Hayek raised many of the same points as are raised in the online discussion, including struggling with the term "liberal" in its classical vs. modern senses. Recognizing that in modern usage "liberal" had been distorted to mean social-democrat, he settles on "Old Whiggist" after rejecting "libertarian" as "singularly unattractive".

Anyway, Hayek is not a conservative because of conservatism's "propensity to reject well-substantiated new knowledge because it dislikes some of the consequences which seem to follow from it." He goes on to reject its "proneness to strident nationalism" and its anti-internationalism which is "frequently associated with imperialism" and "the mission to civilise" others.

But beyond that, it seems to me that the trouble that they're having in the online debate is with trying to group many disparate things together and talk about them under one category: conservatism. This suffers from several problems that all such ontological discussions tend to have.

First, it ignores the diachronic nature of the category, in this case conservatism. Since it is defined in reaction to change, conservatism is greatly dependent on the historical context in which the conservative lives. The "conservative" hard-liner in Russia may actually be a Communist pining for the Soviet era. In Afghanistan, a Taleban. So today in America, a free-market classical liberal can feel conservative when defending free (and dynamic) markets, because of the long-standing American tradition of economic liberty.

Second, it demands consistency when none is required. It's tempting to apply a single label to all of someone's positions. I think this has something to do with the desire to make the appropriate label depend not only the person's positions but also on their metaethical rationale for that position — how they got there, what (single) path they took to reach that position.

But often, people reach different conclusions in different spheres because of (not in spite of) their philosophical belief system. And thinking that rejecting change in one area (say culture) logically requires rejecting change in another (say economics) is starting from an assumption that they are and should be comparable. Something both devout Christians and social democrats might disagree with.

Third, it tries to project a multidimensional space onto a line or a plane. Many people, including the originator of the thread, have recognized that the traditional left-right spectrum is not really very useful (except for polarizing issues). Some have tried to address this by sticking with the liberal-conservative dichotomy, but breaking it out into moral and economic dimensions. Others have tried to come up with new linear systems, like Evil-Stupid. Other favorites are Individualist vs. Communitarian and Pessimist vs. Optimist.

Although these one-dimensional labels inherently undercharacterize political stances, some spectra are more relevant than others to the particular historical time in which they are applied. In fact, I think the one proposed by Virginia Postrel in her book, The Future and Its Enemies is particularly suited to this day and age.

Postrel argues for distinguishing between "stasism" and "dynamism". "Stasists" are characterized by their desire for a static future. Their visions of this future vary widely: from centrally-planned technocracy, to religious and moral traditionalism, to eco-sustainable utopianism. But they share a common assumption that the future can be planned, and moreover should be. And of course, some chosen group, whether the clergy, the bureaucracy, our ancestors, or elite intellectuals, knows best about what form that future should take. Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader on the same side.

"Dynamists" on the other hand believe the opposite. Unintended consequences bedevil any attempt at control. Utopianism is wishful thinking. Central planning fails. And the future is unknowable. Because our knowledge is increasing, we cannot anticipate what we don't know — we can't even predict what we'll desire, value, want in the future either, because our beliefs and our conception of the good change with the new knowledge. We're best off creating a system that safeguards liberty (simple freedom from coercion) and anticipating the likely (though never certain) gains from the ensuing increases in knowledge, culture, art, technology and material wealth.

After thinking about this for a while, it's interesting to listen to people's positions on issues and project them onto this new stasism/dynamism line instead of the tired conservative/liberal one. You probably have no trouble slotting me in one end or the other.

In all, though, an interesting debate. Where else would you get to read various and sundry philosophers weigh in on an issue like this?

Posted by richard at October 14, 2003 11:43 PM