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.