It’s a blessing to have smart readers, and I’ve profited from the string of comments about the differences between conservative and liberal mentalities.
Some point out that the Bush administration had its share of ideological blindness, especially with regard to policies after the invasion of Iraq. There seemed to have been an altogether pat and complacent assumption that freedom was like swine fluit would infect and transform Iraq on its own accord.
To the list I would add the very destructive economic theory that underwrote the so-called Big Bang in Russia after the fall of communism. We’ll be ruing that particular failure of free market ideology for a long while.
Other readers cite the simplistic rhetoric of the Bush administration: Operation Infinite Justice, and so forth. Here we need to be moderately cynical. It’s a simple fact that our media culture forces American politician to oversell their policies. Could you imagine the tut-tutting of the pundits if Bush had said that the invasion of Iraq may have made American marginally safer? We should forswear reference to sound bites as relevant to serious discussions of political philosophy.
In my own thinking I try to distinguish the conservative political coalition in contemporary America from what I take to be the conservative outlook. Milton Freedman was not a conservative. He was a nineteenth century liberal irked by the betrayal of liberty in twentieth-century liberalism. In contrast, a modern conservative has a substantive view of the common good, which includes a presumption in favor of order. Thus the classic phrase of the Rightordered liberty.
It’s not easy to know when the social mores and establishment power that create order unnecessarily suppress liberty and sustain injustices. As a result, conservatives should always recognize that their array of public policies and political alliances arise out of prudential, all-things-considered judgments, judgments that can be wrong. They were wrong in the 1950s on the question of civil rights. But because most conservatives recognized the intrinsic contingency of their political judgments, they could repent of their errors and still continue as conservatives.
Today, I think that the alliance of social conservatives with libertarian, free market types is sensible. Modern liberalism is both authoritarian and antinomian at the same time: it wants to use the hammer blows of the courts and other instruments of state power to achieve its ideals, which treat the human person as an abstraction.
But I may be wrong. A friend regularly harasses me with the quite plausible observation that free market capitalism also treats the human person as an abstraction, and is thus a great solvent of traditional culture. He may be right, which is why I don’t dismiss his observations.
My point is that conservatism as a disposition toward politics that is based on moral and social principles given concrete form in what one hopes are informed prudential judgments. Conservatism involves muddling along as best one can, which is why entertaining criticism comes naturally to any conservative who understands his situation.
Liberalism tends toward an approach that makes political judgments into the conclusions of ideological formulae, something akin to political algebra. (My free market allies often do the same.) This is one reason why they can be so certain that their views are the only morally serious ones, and it may explain why liberals tend to dismiss conservatives as beneath contempt.
That said, the more persuasive explanation is very likely our pride and sloth, two vices that encourage us to ignore criticism. Both find welcoming homes in conservatives and liberals alike.