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What is Conservatism? A Commentary on Steven Hayward's Talk

by Sam Yau
Esalen eZine Volume III, January 2015

What is the defining principle of conservatism? Were not conservatives “liberals” years ago? What are the fundamental differences between conservatism and liberalism? How were their differences translated into such bitter conflicts in the political arena? Steven Hayward informed us and entertained us with his erudite answers to these questions.

Conservatism is less a political doctrine than a frame of mind, a feeling, and a state of being. Conservatives have a deeper desire than liberals to “conserve” and “be anchored” in foundations created from traditions, religions, institutions, or what have become customs or norms in a society. 

Conservatives and liberals in America today share the same roots of individual liberty, but they differ in their attitudes about fairness, and about the role and size of the government. Conservatives’ concept of fairness is based on proportionality of efforts while liberals lean more toward social and economic equality as a basic human right.  Conservatives tend to believe government is inherently bureaucratic and inefficient—and, if left unchecked, will inevitably infringe upon individual liberty and hamper economic growth. Economically, they prefer the private sector and the free market. Their motto, therefore, is “limited government.” Liberals believe in government’s role in providing the “necessities” that enable individual freedom and equality, such as education, safety net, and universal healthcare. Government is, therefore, an indispensable and legitimate vehicle for achieving individual and social progress.

Conservatives’ worst fears are: loss of traditional values as the social fabric, unrestrained expansion of government to achieve full equality of outcome (as opposed to equality of opportunity), and unsustainable deficits that would destroy the economy. Liberals’ worst fears are: untrammeled pursuit of personal and corporate interests, resulting in large-scale social, economic, and political inequalities. 

But these “worst fears” are just projections that demonize people who think differently. Most conservatives believe in a safety net for the aged and the poor. Most liberals know there is a limit on deficits beyond which they become unsustainable. Despite the usual stereotypes, conservatives have hearts for common people and liberals have brains that know the limits.

Above: Steven Hayward wants to make a point. Seated next to him, L to R, Laura Chasin, MaryLu Horkowitz, and Priscilla Lewis.

Over the last twenty years, our political parties have become increasingly purified along the singular axis of conservative and liberal ideologies. People have increasingly attached their moral values, or even personal identities, to political ideologies and parties. Political parties have increasingly behaved as tribes in bitter rivalry for power and often put their interests ahead of the interests of their country. It is in this cultural context that ideologies have become moralized and polarized, and the "worst fear" projections, on the personal and collective level, have become rampant.

Politics is no longer about solving problems facing the nation, or the art of finding the best idea that can solve the policy issue at hand, or negotiating the give-and-take among competing interests. Politics is now a moral issue that justifies righteousness, an identity issue that calls for a life-and-death struggle, and a competitive game for a political party to win at all costs, even if it hurts the nation.

To understand on a deeper level what conservatism is and contrast it with liberalism, the following is an edited transcript of a talk by Steven Hayward, the Ronald Reagan Professor of Public Policy at Pepperdine University.

"I’d like to start with Martin Mansfield, who’s the most famous conservative at Harvard. Mansfield says the job of modern conservatism is to save liberalism from liberals. I kind of like that. Why would he say that? Most conservatives are liberals.

What is liberalism? Liberalism is the idea that individuals should be free to pursue their self-chosen purpose, for which liberal democratic institutions are the best way of making that possible. These days that doesn’t sound especially controversial. But that was a radical idea 300 years ago when you still had people thinking that the divine right of kings was a perfectly plausible idea.

So conservatives are older liberals. Modern liberalism, twentieth century liberalism, added a dimension to this, the welfare state, based on the idea that for individuals to be able to pursue their self-chosen purpose, they needed means. Franklin Roosevelt delivered his famous phrase, 'Necessitous men are not free men,' in his 1944 State of the Union Address. A lot of conservatives don’t fundamentally disagree with that. I paraphrase what Friedrich Hayek said 50 years ago, 'A wealthy society might well require everyone to buy health insurance,' so that you don’t have a free rider problem. Winston Churchill in his liberal phase, but still a very conservative guy, said around 1905, 'Any modern industrial democracy that doesn’t have social insurance risks social revolution.'

Are we just arguing about means and not ends? Is this really a policy disagreement? Sometimes that is true. But I think there are some deeper differences where you can trace how the cultural wars start and certain other divisions get out of control really fast. Tom Sowell, in A Conflict of Visions, said the real division between Left and Right is between what he called constrained and unconstrained vision. Constrained vision would be conservatives who believe there are constraints, especially of human nature.

The unconstrained vision says that there’s really no limit to progress and what we can do if we just will it and have good intentions, and especially if we translate it into political terms. Your modern liberals have high confidence in politics and government, which is admirable to a certain extent. I depart strongly from the Libertarian sensibility that is anti-politics. In his terrific essay, 'On Being Conservative,' Michael Oakeshott provides one sentence that perfectly distills the conservative fear of unconstrained liberalism: 'The conjunction of dreaming and ruling generates tyranny.'

At the bottom of modern liberalism lurks a utopian disposition that knows no limit. One of the conservative critiques is that liberalism doesn’t seem to have a logical stopping point. What’s the limiting principal? In practical political terms, I always loved Lyndon Johnson who, in 1964, got on top of a car and said, 'I want to tell you all that we’re for a lot of things and against mighty few.' I just love that definition of modern liberalism.

I think that the root of the conflict is the question of human nature. Conservatives question the modern liberals’ belief in unlimited moral autonomy, unconstrained human freedom, and self-expression. Let me restate it: The central conservative inquiry in philosophical terms is: Is there an unchanging ground of changing experience? Most modern philosophers say that you can’t find unchanging ground; there is no ground. In moral relativism, there is no truth. Well, is that statement true? Then we have at least one, don’t we?

Aristotle said that the object of politics is friendship because when there is friendship, justice is unnecessary. Now, politics is about who gets how much. We can’t all be friends in a world of eight billion people, so you need politics and justice."

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this eZine are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Esalen Institute.


 

SAM YAU, Esalen Chairman of the Board, is a recognized business leader and strategist, known for delivering rapid value creation for companies that need strategic repositioning for growth or significant turnaround in challenging times. His diversified career has spanned many industries, including semiconductor, specialty retailing, computer hardware and software, medical management, and for‑profit education. Sam currently serves as a director on the boards of SRS Labs and Multi-Fineline Electronix. He is a director of the Center for Integrative Medicine at the College of Medicine, University of Irvine, and the past Chairman of the Forum.

 


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