Libertarian History/Philosophy

Brink Lindsey on the Classics of Conservatism–Traditional and Liberal Varieties

|

Reason Contributing Editor Brink Lindsey has some interesting perspectives over at the great "Five Books" site on five important books of conservatism, writ large–and not necessarily the American 21st century kind, which, you will recall, Lindsey is not so fond of.

Lindsey sees John Stuart Mill as a non-conservative who nonetheless understood and explained why we always need conservatives in public life, leading to Lindsey's own conclusion that "you can see the interplay of left and right correcting each other, fixing each other's excesses and deficiencies in a way that neither side ever intended but works out better than either side ever would have done for itself." (This idea plays out in Lindsey's July 2007 Reason magazine cover story, hooked off his book The Age of Abundance.)

Lindsey goes on to talk interestingly about Jonathan Haidt on the distinctions between the modern liberal and modern conservative's moral imagination. "When liberals talk about morality they are almost always talking about two different basic intuitions – intuitions about harm and care," but conservatives have "the sense of hierarchy and the sense that everything should be in its proper place. The leaders should lead and the followers should follow, people should know their station in life. The in-group out-group is just the solidarity of the tribe…Then there is the perception of the world as divided between the sacred and the profane: a sense of elevation and holiness about some things and a sense of revulsion about others."

The always-interesting social science researcher Ronald Inglehart gets plugged as well. Inglehart consistently finds in surveys that as people "become more autonomous in this complex, rich world – choosing where they live, who their friends are, who they marry and what job they have – their values change in predictable ways. In particular, they get a lot more focused on personal fulfilment, self-realisation, quality of life – and they get a lot more sceptical about any kind of authority that stands between them and personal fulfilment and self-realisation and quality of life."

Lindsey nods to Hayek's Constitution of Liberty, in which he famously distances himself from the conservatives who embraced him in the 1940s and '50s yet still, as Lindsey notes, Hayek's

case for a free society is one that resonates very well with the conservative imagination and easily lapses into a conservative sensibility. His main case for liberty rests on our ignorance. The fact that any one of us knows only a tiny fraction of the things that affect our life, that we are all dependent on the actions of millions of other people whom we don't know, whom we'll never know, that we live under social rules that we didn't create and that we don't understand. So, for anyone to presume that he has the knowledge to plan everything rationally from the centre is engaged in a massive act of hubris that Hayek later called the 'fatal conceit.' In making this point, Hayek stresses the importance of traditional ways of doing things and the fact that many of the rules under which we live and that have allowed us to achieve this wonderful prosperity and all the opportunities of modern life are rules that no one planned or designed

He also explains why the decidedly anti-conservative Ayn Rand is nonetheless loved by them, and for understandable reasons:

there's also a streak in Ayn Rand that is very right-wing and explains in part why, despite her atheism and despite the obviously anti-conservative elements of her thought, nonetheless there are deeper elements that are very appealing to the conservative mind. Those are, firstly, her absolutism and secondly, her attempt to ground the case for liberty in nature. It makes sense for any party of order and stability to be very focused on order, to be drawn to the idea that there is black and white and right and wrong and absolutes and also to be attracted to the idea that there is a natural order of things. That no matter what anyone is saying, no matter what ivory-tower intellectual's schemes for reform and social improvement are, there is an unchanging human nature, there is a transcendent moral order and for anyone who tries to defy these things, it's like trying to defy gravity.

Those interested in the interplay between modern libertarianism and conservativism will want to read the whole interview.

Advertisement

NEXT: How Is Smoking Pot Like Beating an Old Lady?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Lindsey’s last sentence is a beauty.

    “I think they over-read their mandate and they summoned up the Tea Party backlash in a dialectical fashion ? and that’s constrained them to a considerable extent.”

    Really? How have the Democrats been constrained and what have the Tea Parties accomplished beyond drive the liberal media nuts?

    Lindsey is such a twit. How is that whole Liberaltarian thing working out for you there Brink?

    1. Ever heard of Death Panels?

      The existence of the Tea Party has strongly discouraged Dems in conservative districts from following the lead of their party leaders. The problem the Dems had is the same problem Alexander had — they expanded so far into enemy territory that they couldn’t hope to hold it all.

      1. And Death Panels sure stopped Obamacare didn’t it? The Tea Parties may have a great effect come this November. But up until now they haven’t done much of anything other than probably get Scott Brown elected.

        1. Don’t get me wrong, in that case I think the Tea Parties were a good thing. They haven’t really done anything to directly influence elections so far, but they’ve certainly had an indirect effect.

        2. Which is exactly how our system was supposed to make sure elected officials actually represented the people between elections — by instilling the fear of being thrown out of office in their hearts.

          Unfortunately, 225 years later, such threats of electoral defeat are classified as “terrorism” by our betters.

          1. I see what you are saying. Yeah they are having an affect of some sorts. But I don’t see how the Democratic Congress if very restrained.

            1. But I don’t see how the Democratic Congress if very restrained.

              Hard to pass cap and trade when half you party is shitting bricks over the threat of loosing their jobs.

              Also you cannot say it was the elected republicans who got the public option removed from health care. That was all the Tea Pirates doing.

    2. Brink Lindsey is a homo-tarian.

  2. we are all dependent on the actions of millions of other people whom we don’t know, whom we’ll never know

    The hell. Give me a year.

  3. conservatives have “the sense of hierarchy and the sense that everything should be in its proper place. The leaders should lead and the followers should follow, people should know their station in life. The in-group out-group is just the solidarity of the tribe…Then there is the perception of the world as divided between the sacred and the profane: a sense of elevation and holiness about some things and a sense of revulsion about others

    I fail to see how this distinguishes conservatives from liberals.

    How many exhortations have we heard to “Let Obama do his job” (i.e. “Leaders should lead”) and that Republicans should stop obstructing legislation (i.e. “know their station in life.”).

    How many times have the Obama supporters taken on the role of the “morally upright” vs. the “greedy”, “racist” or “ignorant” opponents?

    1. And I have yet to hear any conservative advocating that people should “know their station in life”. That is one of the dumbest things I have ever read. I am constantly amazed that anyone takes this guy seriously or that he got a job at CATO.

      1. And I have yet to hear any conservative advocating that people should “know their station in life”.

        Look up Florance King.

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Florence_King

        and read this:

        http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Traditionalist_conservatism

        But you are correct. The majority of mainstream Conservatives today really do not follow this. Still it exists and is part of conservative history.

        1. John and Josh–I think you are both underestimating the reality of that mindset, even if in most cases moderns are too embarrassed to put it that way. I think a lot of right-wing anti-antiwar thinking is roughly grounded in what Lindsey points to there, for one example.

          1. …but also, he is not always talking about “21st century Americans who call themselves conservative” in this mini-intellectual history; he’s discussing the history of trad and lib-leaning conservative thought writ large.

            1. That is true, but there’s a whole host of people who call themselves “liberals” who would be social democrats in other countries, and they have a real affection for tradition and hierarchy. I don’t find what you referred to as the “distinctions between the modern liberal and modern conservative’s moral imagination” as being nearly as large as Haidt and Lindsey claim.

              Libertarians are different, but most “modern liberals” in the US aren’t even “social liberals” in the European sense, only an influential minority.

            2. He’s not always talking about that, no, but when he cites Haidt he is, and I have enormous problems with Haidt’s work.

          2. Which conservatives are you talking about?

            1. It’s not a movement that has a large number of intellectuals, unlike the others, though I’d argue that Andrew Sullivan’s influence Oakeshott could be one. Aspects of the Jacksonian tradition have respect for experience and old age, as Walter Russell Mead has mentioned.

              But the traditionalist appeal-to-authority conservatism is associated with Toryism and specifically paternalistic Red Toryism or One Nation Toryism. In a lot of ways it’s related to the New England strain of Republicanism in the US, Rockefellerism and Andrew Sullivanism, and other such beliefs. David Orchard in Canada, long before that anti-free trade John MacDonald in Canada or the anti-Peelite Tories (including Disraeli, though Disraeli was just too opportunistic), bleeding into Patrick Buchanan’s reinvention (after the 70s and early 80s.) It leads to protectionism, to environmentalism, to support for the poor, and other various “wet” Tory issues.

              1. I think you are confusing appeal to traditional authority with social stratification. Russell Kirk is an appeal to authority kind of conservative. But he is talking about moral and civic values. That to me seems different than saying “people should know there station”. That to me seem like the kind of cheap slander than Lindsey often engages in.

                1. It’s a somewhat pejorative way of summarizing the argument, I agree, particularly for a libertarian.

                  Just as saying that “people should respect the accumulated wisdom tested through real world experience” is a more positive way to say it. And you can even frame it, like the fusionists, as being similar to initially respecting the results of the free market, with more care.

                  Lindsey’s simply showing his bias here, sure, but of course everything he writes is with one idea towards his political project.

                  1. Just what is his political project beyond annoying everyone on both sides?

                    1. Hoping that liberals will become more libertarian, because they seem like his sort of people.

            2. So what I’m saying is that that strand of conservatism includes both some of the Religious Right (the Social Gospel types) and the “moderate” New England Republican votes that the GOP has been losing for a while. In some cases they have different authorities and traditions that they’re upholding, but it’s simply not the case that they’ve formed a united political bloc in the US (really ever, as they were Bourbon Democrats in post Civil War US) the way that they did the MacDonald Tories in Canada or the One Nation/Red Tories in the UK.

          3. I think a lot of right-wing anti-antiwar thinking is roughly grounded in what Lindsey points to there, for one example.

            I don’t know. I can see a few conservative intellectuals buying in this. But the reaction to the anti-war movement seemed to me more like political pollsters looking at the numbers and thinking how they can fight it.

            Perhaps Team Bush pulled a few dusty volumes from the shelves to fill in the rhetoric of selling the war to the public, but it appeared to me more like a gimmick. Much like the left calling anyone who disagrees with Obama a racist.

            I am sure there is a ton of past left wing writings supporting this…but JurnoList only borrowed it cuz it worked.

          4. I think you’re conflating deference to leaders and deference to tradition. The conservative position is deference towards tradition. This does mean that when politically ascendant conservativism will tend to develop a deference towards authority – long standing institutions and their leaders definitely tend to accumulate political power. But when political power is being used to alter or overturn existing traditions and social arrangements, conservativism just as easily leads to a skepticism of leaders and distrust of authority.

            The conservative foreign policy stances under Bush seemed to have stemmed from 9/11 being interpreted as a rival cultural tradition throwing down the gauntlet, hence the emphasis on the conflicting traditions (“Clash of civilizations”, “They hate us for our freedom” etc) and widening of the conflict towards anti-western sentiment in the Middle East in general. Oppressive regimes that actively express a contempt for American and western traditions trigger a hostility that other repressive regimes don’t.

        2. Joshua,

          Kings love of all things traditional is about mores and manners. That is a long way from the kind of monarchist social strata that Lindsey seems to be talking about.

          1. King is a monarchist.

            1. She is also an open bi-sexual. So much for the traditional values. And I think your reading her as a monarchist is missing all of the irony and humor in her writing. She is not a monarchist, she is a curmudgeon.

              1. She is not a monarchist, she is a curmudgeon.

                Can’t she be both?

                But yeah Misanthropy: with charity towards none is an awesome book and it is funny as hell…but i got the feeling she was not being ironic.

                1. With Charity Toward None: A Fond Look At Misanthropy

                  I have GOT to get a copy of that book.

                  1. I would recommend, alternatively, the DVD of her and Clare Booth Luce that has been circulating on Booble… It is in green “night vision” but compelling action is compelling action, prisms aside

                    1. of course I meant Boothe!!! with an e

                      There goes that “John Wilkes” theory on my home chalkboard

                    2. A little lesbianism can make even homely girls seem kind of sexy.

                    3. A little lesbianism can make even homely girls seem kind of sexy.

                      My theory on the whole thing is that any ass that gets in way that is not a mans will always be better.

                      Fundamentally, to a hetro sexual male, other women are not seen as rivals. A hot woman kissing is hot but if it is with a man it sort of ruins it. “That jerk is getting what i want!” With another woman you get the best of both worlds you get to see the hot woman kissing and no rival to mess it up.

                      It isn’t so much that lesbians are more hot. Only that they are not less hot.

                  2. That book is the only reason i know who Ty Cobb is.

                    Plus i think she has a bit about Ayn Rand being a misanthrope in there.

                    But yeah it is as good as the title sounds and even a bit better.

      2. I am constantly amazed that anyone takes this guy seriously or that he got a job at CATO.

        Why are you amazed?

        He is a world class Koch sucker which is the only skill need to work at CATO.

  4. IMHO, On Liberty is a classical text for social liberalism, the liberalism of Rawls & Co.

  5. her attempt to ground the case for liberty in nature.

    As someone who has not read one word she has ever written i feel i have the authority to point the flaw in this.
    Rand’s argument for liberty was one of morality. A morality that surpassed utility. Even if it does not work out for the best (ie what nature will allow) liberty is moral and therefore superior. At least that is my understanding of her arguments.

    Note: I do not agree with her. Morality is formed because of its utility. Liberty is moral because it works. If it did not we would be ants living under a perfect tyranny that allows us to survive and prosper and we would not give a shit about or liberty and there would be no reason to be arguing this.

    1. Joshua–You are mistaken. Rand’s morality was what it was because she believed it was grounded in the objective facts of man’s nature.

      1. For love of god do not tempt me into reading one of her books.

    2. He actually got that part right. Rand’s morality is informed by her understanding of human nature. Liberty is good for people because they are rational, autonomous beings. If they were different kinds of beings, liberty would be not so good. It’s an argument not unlike Aristotle and Kant.

      Consequentialism, OTOH, is just dumb.

      1. Rand’s morality is informed by her understanding of human nature. Liberty is good for people because they are rational, autonomous beings.

        That’s more of a misunderstanding of human nature. Rational, autonomous beings? You’re kidding, right?

        1. I was describing Rand’s position.

  6. Hmmm–that sucked! I feel as if I “became an instant expert” on Brink Lindsey though! “Moral imagination”, “moral buttons”–was it not once said, that:

    “We aren’t nothing but mammals /
    Well, some of us are cannibals /
    Who would rather rip people open like cantaloupes [subtle Us3 reference!]

    But, if we can hump dead animals and antelopes, /
    Then there’s no reason that a man and another man can’t elope”

    —-

    Here’s my top 5, produced after a comparable level of deep, deep introspection, of “The Conservatism of Now”–they are all available at Borders!!

    5. Gettysburg Address
    4. “Giger’s Alien” (foreword by Timothy Leary, 1981)
    3. “Russell Kirk: Collected Chinese Laundry Receipts, 1973-1988”
    2. Ann Hart Coulter, “How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must)”, abridged audio 4-CD set
    1. “Second Thoughts on James Burnham” (1946)

    1. Excellent call on Russell Kirk. Actually met him a couple times, heard him speak. I think he’s a giant of US conservative thought.

      Coulter…lulz!

  7. Is he trying not to mention Edmund Burke or Adam Smith?

  8. ” but conservatives have “the sense of hierarchy and the sense that everything should be in its proper place. The leaders should lead and the followers should follow, people should know their station in life.”

    I don’t think this is true at all. Conservatives strongly believe in an indviduals ablity to change his station in life.

    1. “Conservative” in the american political sence has different components. It is not necessarily a philisophically conservative definition.

      1. philosophically consistent?

  9. Oh my god i just figured out who Brink Lindsey is.

    There is a video that has him, Some conservative dude and the freedom works guy at some reason function debating.

    Essentially Lindsey was bitching about the lack of a libertarian movement and then got in a debate about it with conservative. Both of then crying and crying about it the whole time the freedom works guy was not acknowledged by the audience or Lindsey and only lip serviced by the conservative using his existence to his own fucked up ends, was ignored. The whole time the freedom works guy was right fucking there!! The only one who actually got off his ass and made a movement happen!!

    The video in general was sickening. Lindsey and his triumphalism for getting the reason crowd to talk about “who are libertarians” or some bullshit only made it worse.

    That guy is a total d-bag.

  10. Brink’s attitude seems to agree with his favorite quote from Mills

    ” Indeed it was Mill who said, ‘While not all conservatives are stupid, all stupid people are generally conservative.?

    Which just goes to prove want an ignorant biased douche bad this peice of shit is.

    Then again he is a CATO fella.

  11. i love you not because of who you are, but because of who i am when i am with you.

  12. You don’t love a girl because she is beautiful, but she is beautiful because you love her!

  13. there is an unchanging human nature, there is a transcendent moral order and for anyone who tries to defy these things, it’s like trying to defy gravity.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.