Being conservative doesn’t make you a “Conservative”, and being liberal doesn’t make you a “Liberal”

Political parties in Canada use names that, at one time, were attached to political philosophies. This is not something you find in many other places.

It’s also deeply confusing from time to time, for you end up with people like me, who claim the philosophic roots of the small-c conservative yet aren’t at all part of the “Conservative Party”.

So today I shall try and deal with the philosophy underlying the labels.

The Classic Conservative

The classic conservative begins by considering his or her actions as situated in time, a time that binds him or her to a traditional inheritance worthy of respect and not readily to be compromised and to future generations for whom he or she is the steward, or guardian, passing that inheritance on.

Classic conservatives do not eschew change — the best of traditions can, at the very least, require institutional reform to return to traditional values in the face of hypocritical subversion of the institution to personal human agendas, and no human tradition has managed to anticipate the future fully even where its institutions are not in need of reform — but there is a presumption that change should not be undertaken without due consideration, and that the change should “do no harm”.

Note what’s missing from this. Nothing about any particular religion. Nothing about capitalism, free markets, corporate “rights”. Nothing about low taxes.

Note as well that whatever the society is will be preserved, more or less, by the classic conservative. This means that if your society has a state religion, it will be preserved. If it has an aristocracy, it will be preserved. If it has a caste or class system, it will be preserved.

On its own, therefore, the classic conservative tradition holds much from being upended to pass on to future generations — but it is not very good at weeding out parts that are merely long-established from that which the traditional society really requires for its future.

The Liberal Conservative

One great failing of classic conservatism occurs when the tradition in question pays insufficient attention to the life and liberty of individuals.

Liberal conservatives therefore tend toward a more open social structure, making of many matters an ethical consideration but not a legal one. The state, in other words, is to prefer to leave the individual alone — full stop.

There was rather more honesty in labelling in the nineteenth century than today in 2010: Sir John A. Macdonald and Sir Georges-Étienne Cartier named their party “Liberal Conservative” in the pre-Confederation Province of Canada, and in the new Dominion post-Confederation, precisely because they were liberal conservatives as given here.

The Liberal Conservative, by adding the individual’s liberty to the mix, has acquired the “engine” to distinguish between traditional strengths and traditional weaknesses, at the price that community may be put in peril if individual liberty is taken too far. As a mid-point between conservatism and liberalism, it also requires constant work to stay in balance with itself. You need thinkers to be liberal conservatives, not just people who learnt something and react to it.

Classic Liberals

The liberal conservative is the “middle term” between the classic conservative and the classic liberal.

The classic liberal believes and acts to remove traditional restrictions on the liberty of the individual, considering these sufficient reason for change (in other words, where the conservative questions and tests whether to make a change looking for potential harm to future generations, the liberal looks at potential harm to the current generation).

I am at haste to point out that the classic liberal is not engaged in a free-for-all destruction of traditional inheritances, but there is a presumption that a “more perfect society” can be created — and that (and this is the key point) that any error in judgement is reversible.

Would that any change that didn’t work out could be so easily undone!

A Digression into Complex Adaptive Systems

Today the science of complexity has given us insight into how unjustified this classic liberal presumption actually is.

Human societies are complex adaptive systems. In complexity, taking an action — even discussing an action — changes the system.

The “experiment”, in other words, can neither be “rolled back”, or “replicated”.

In other words, the reversibility of a mis-step does not exist in reality. All that one can do is introduce a new change, which does not restore the starting condition but establishes yet another new set of conditions that contain the effects of both changes.

This is why I am a liberal conservative as opposed to a liberal: I put the principle of precaution ahead of making change because “something’s wrong”, knowing the change is irreversible, yet, at the same time, I do call into question certain restrictions inherited from the tradition that may no longer be warranted, without placing new restrictions in their place.

In many cases, classic liberals are what we know today as libertarians. The classic liberal has no room for “society” or “community”: it is all about individuals, and maximising their freedoms. The classic liberal is also not wedded to particular policies, therefore, for society: today’s programme can be undone tomorrow.

Radical Liberals

Taking the classic liberal’s belief that changes are “safe” by virtue of reversibility — that which complexity shows us isn’t possible in the real world — and mixing in a healthy dose of the notion of perfectibility and we get another middle-term motif, the radical liberal.

Radical liberals are willing to set aside, in addition to the notion of a traditional inheritance to be forward in stewardship to future generations, the notion of the individual as inviolate. Instead, individuals’ liberties can be set aside in order to redress what are seen as imperfections.

This can run the gamut from social order imposed from above “for the good of people” (or “to satisfy the demands of a group”), to economic order imposed from above “to equalize the market” (or “to satisfy the demands of a group”), to change the beliefs of people (“to satisfy the demands of a group” or “because it would be better if people didn’t believe that”).

You may think I am being hard on the notion of satisfying groups. Consider, for a moment, who wins when the desires of an individual are put up against the desires of a number of individuals expressed in common! This is what a “group” is.

You may also think I am making an odd claim by pushing on “perfectibility”. Hold that thought: I did say this was another “middle term” — and we are about to meet the term that is part of this one we haven’t met yet.

The Radical

At the end of this journey through political philosophies, we find the radical.

I really can’t call them “traditional radicals”, if only because in most cases a radical denies the future validity of a tradition! — other than the form of tradition that they uphold. That form is the notion of the “perfect society”.

There are formal theories of this sort — Marxist thought in its many derivations is just one such — and there are ones splintered together from fragments deemed to collectively form “a perfect outcome”.

We see this in radical environmental thinkers, who range from fragments such as carbon taxation, cap-and-trade markets, etc. as “tools” for perfecting environmental outcomes, to those who explicitly put formal theories of planning and restriction forward, with a “perfect society” in mind.

The radical’s primary loyalty is not to the individual — as in classical liberalism, from whom it borrows the idea that any change can be safely made! — nor to the traditional inheritance of society — for it denies the worth of conserving the past due to its imperfections. Rather the radical gives his or her loyalty over to the imagined society — what was at one time called a Utopia — that is deemed to be theoretically perfect.

By now it should be clear that twenty-first century political parties are integrally radical, despite their names. They all believe in perfecting society through imposing actions upon it, at the cost of individual liberty.

On to the parties…

So, for those of us (as with Canadians) who are blessed (or cursed) with parties named Conservative and Liberal, what kind of parties are these?

It should be clear that neither of these — nor the NDP, BQ nor Greens — are classic conservatives or liberal conservatives. Neither are any of them parties of classic liberals. What they are is all either radically liberal parties, or radical parties.

This is why I’ve repeatedly talked about neo-conservatives as being neo-liberals. They just aren’t conservative in any philosophic sense. They speak of perfecting the world, or perfecting society.

Think of “Project for a New American Century” Republicans, or the rules of “Obamacare” imposed by the Democrats [mandates that are less about health care and more about extending an insurance monopoly]. There are radicals of the left side, and radicals of the right side, and radicals of the “turn the clock back” side, and how many classic conservatives, liberal conservatives, or classic liberals?

In Canada, think of old-Reform and Canadian Alliance social conservatives with law & order and social mores legislative proposals as examples. Or think of Trudeau ripping up our traditional common law and Parliamentary traditions. Or Chrétien signing up to world transformation via Kyoto, or Martin going beyond our basic NATO commitment with the Kandahar mission.

So, on a good day, all our parties are radically liberal or purely radical, regardless of their labels.

Classic liberals, liberal conservatives and traditional conservatives in Canada are homeless, as they generally are in the United States as well.

What they aren’t — despite the fact that if they have opinions expressed to others there will be no shortage of people accusing them of one political adherence or another (and blaming them for its faults), and that if they vote they, like the rest of us, probably choose from one of the “named” parties when voting for their candidate — are Conservatives or Liberals.

One Last Note on “Progressive”

You may have noted, if you’ve made it this far, that I haven’t used the term “progressive”.

Not in connection with the Progressive Conservatives, nor in its usual sense today of “all the people who want to improve things”.

If you look back at the origins of the term “progressive”, you see that, in both Canada and the US, “progressives” were radicals — and often, radicals in a hurry.

But “radical” sounds dangerous, and “progressive” sounds friendly. That’s why the term is used. Philosophically, clarity doesn’t come about by playing word games.

So I’ll call them the radicals that they are, in the terms of “radical” given above.

As for Canada’s Progressive Conservative parties, these are, by and large, now living up to their name, whether by shifting closer to radical liberalism as in Alberta, or by being outright neoliberal radicals as in Ontario.

I used to call myself a progressive conservative. Indeed, when I moved to the United States and was asked the inevitable “Democrat or Republican” (one would be spit out and the other savoured, but which was which depended on the person asking the question), that’s how I’d answer it.

But no more. I have learned through hard philosophic study that what I actually am is a Liberal Conservative.

As a concerned citizen and passionate observer in my country, I’ll take stands to support or oppose individual initiatives or political figures. But I am without party.

That is as it should be. For if we are to restore communities we’re going to need people who see past labels and can defend a long course against the attempts to tug it one way or another that would make it unable to be successful or sustained in time.

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5 Comments

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  1. A very good summation of the political world out there. Should be included in any textbook on Canadian politics …

    • Thank you, Werner. I know the standards you maintain in explaining your own positions, so a “very good” from you is not a casual comment.

      I spent several hours in the stacks at the University of Toronto Robarts Library about six months ago seeing what had been written on Canadian politics, and couldn’t find anything like this anywhere within my reading.

      There was just a general set of assumptions: the labels meant what they said, and that “progressive” was somehow on the side of the angels. This was true even of studies of Canada’s right.

      The other big piece that was missing was recognising the difference between older (Macdonald > Borden > Bennett) Liberal-Conservatives, mid-modern (Diefenbaker > Stanfield) Progressive Conservatives, modern PCs (Mulroney) and today’s Conservatives (Manning > Harper, or here in Ontario Harris > Hudak).

  2. Where can I find one of these tests you mentioned that will show me “where I stand” politically? I would really like to try one of those out.

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