Am I a ‘moral conservative’?

In the Culture Wars book, Norman Abjorensen describes me as a ‘moral conservative thinker’. Yet again the left’s labels for the right seem chosen according to mood rather than meaning. The footnote at the end of the sentence is to this 2002 Quadrant article on the right’s labels for the left, which apart from its place of publication provides no hint as to my views on moral issues.

So what is a ‘moral conservative’? According to the book’s introduction, the terminology is ‘imprecise’ (an understatement). But

…the conservative side [liberal progressives being the other] tends strongly to an Augustinian pessimism at the base of their thinking about human society, and the necessity therefore for traditional modes of authority, for simple moral codes to maintain order and provide direction for the masses and for a unified, patriotic approach to national identity.

I have hundreds of thousands of words on the public record; these do not strike me as major themes of my writing. Indeed, I have hardly mentioned them. Across the issues that are discussed in the context of conservative politics in this book I am for the most part either not very interested (eg history wars) or opposed to the conservative view (eg euthanasia, family payments, gay marriage, censorship). (Migration is a partial exception to this, but the confused account of this issue in the book, not written by Abjorensen, needs a separate post.)

This lack of support for conservative views is hardly surprising. I am, as my blog says, a classical liberal. I support classical liberal causes. I work for a classical liberal organisation. So why can’t Norman just call me a classical liberal?

I have several (not mutually exclusive) theories:

1) He thinks the differences between conservatism and liberalism don’t matter, because they are both just protecting private property interests. But calling me a ‘moral’ conservative seems to connect the description to social issues with at most very tenuous links to property-related issues.

2) Carelessness. There is evidence for that; but on the other hand surely anyone who had bothered to do enough research to find a 2002 article I wrote for Quadrant would have noticed at least my institutional affiliation, even if they had not read anything else?

3) The conspiracy-theorist mindset. With this mindset, nothing can be taken at face value. So if I say I am a classical liberal, I must really be a conservative. And if I said I was a conservative, I must really be a classical liberal.

I don’t suppose the precise reason matters much. They key point is that Norman’s work – on this subject at least – is hopelessly unreliable, and nobody without the time and skill to fact-check everything should use it.

16 Responses to “Am I a ‘moral conservative’?

  • 1
    Jeremy
    February 23rd, 2009 07:09

    You left out two other hypotheses.

    1. Laziness. It’s just plain easier to slot someone into a pre-fab thought-box than to do the hard work of discovering what they think and why.

    2. Heurisitcs. You’re not on the left, therefore, according to the luvvies’ rule of thumb, you must be on the right. The conservatives are on the right, therefore you must be a conservative.

    Either way, it’s a display of poor and sloppy thinking.

  • 2
    M J Warby
    February 23rd, 2009 07:26

    Part of the self-image of academics is that they live in bastions of moral cleanliness unpolluted by the vulgar touch of commerce. So Norman A’s intellectual sloppiness makes perfect status sense.

  • 3
    Rafe Champion
    February 23rd, 2009 07:34

    Strange that radicals beat the drum for conservationism in relation to the natural environment but don’t apply the same principles to the social environment.
    Interesting that Abjorensen spent time with the Liberal Party but never learned anything about classical liberalism. What does that tell us about the Liberal Party

  • 4
    Charles Richardson
    February 23rd, 2009 07:50

    Hi Andrew – Option (1). I don’t think Abjorensen is ignorant, but his theory of “progressive democracy” entails that the difference between liberalism and conservatism is purely “cosmetic”, so he quite happily uses the terms interchangeably. And because everything’s about economics, “moral” doesn’t add anything to the description: he’s not actually thinking about social issues, it’s just an intensifier. Very frustrating, but if you put yourself into his worldview it sort of makes sense.

  • 5
    Tim Lambert
    February 23rd, 2009 11:56

    M J Warby says: “Part of the self-image of academics is that they live in bastions of moral cleanliness unpolluted by the vulgar touch of commerce.” Umm, what? I have ads on my blog, Andrew doesn’t.

    I vote for “2) Carelessness”.

  • 6
    Dave Bath
    February 23rd, 2009 12:36

    Andrew: far-lefty me recognizes you as an economic conservative, but morally progressive. And I cannot resist..

    Abjorensen should abjure ‘n’ so-on.

  • 7
    Jc
    February 23rd, 2009 13:24

    Tim Lambert says:

    The ads you have basically reflect your political persuasion- planned parenthood comes to mind. The engines wouldn’t be doing their job otherwise.

    Umm, what? I have ads on my blog, Andrew doesn’t.

    Didn’t you recently run a thread complaining about an ad that didn’t fit you political views?

    Please!

  • 8
    Jeremy
    February 23rd, 2009 16:39

    Dave, I’d love to know what an ‘economic conservative’ is.

  • 9
    Andrew Norton
    February 23rd, 2009 16:49

    Jeremy – I think this terminology is problematic too. It could mean:

    1) Support for whatever economic policy is now;
    2) Support for whatever economic policy was some time in the past;
    3) Economic policy that supports other conservative goals of social stability, nationalism, family etc.;
    4) Support for whatever economic policy the people commonly called ‘conservatives’ adopt.

    Economic liberal has none of these ambiguities.

  • 10
    charles
    February 23rd, 2009 20:33

    I read you blog because I think you argue you view well, I don’t agree with many so I enjoy reading the argument. I get annoyed with the throw away line ‘left ‘ and “right” ( and you are as guilty as the next). And really I couldn’t care less what words you all use to insult each other. Totally fed up with the “culture wars” and such, have been for years.

  • 11
    Andrew Norton
    February 23rd, 2009 20:51

    Charles – I agree, tribal grenade chucking can get a little tedious. I never want to read another thing about the colonial Tasmanian Aboriginal death toll. But understanding social and intellectual movements is important, and a lot though not all of the issues sometimes classified under ‘culture wars’ are important.

  • 12
    Jeremy
    February 24th, 2009 07:06

    Hi Andrew,

    Yes, I know that the term ‘economic conservative’ can have many meanings. That’s why I asked Dave what he meant by it!

  • 13
    Michael Kalecki
    February 24th, 2009 09:23

    Andrew,

    I do not know anyone could ever say you are a moral conservative.

    There are very few around anyway

  • 14
    conrad
    February 24th, 2009 09:34

    You could measure yourself on the political compass, which has an economic and social axis. It’s set up on facebook as a freebie.

  • 15
    Dave Bath
    February 24th, 2009 20:36

    I used “conservative” because the accusation did.
    Economic liberal is the appropriate term… minimal government intervention apart from probity type stuff allow free-markets to operate as they are supposed to.
    I don’t think Andrew is a deregulation absolutist though, merely that his default position (probity and “safety net” type issues aside) is that minimal government intervention and use of liberal markets is likely to lead to the best outcomes.

  • 16
    Jack Strocchi
    March 5th, 2009 18:19

    Andrew,

    The political economy of modernity, whether liberal or socialist, tends to fall apart at the centre if moral constructivism is let loose. Moral conservatism to provide the cultural basis of institutional trust.

    Both neo-liberalism (ie US-style democratic capitalism) and neo-socialism (ie UE-style social democracy) require some form of.constraint on individual appetites.

    If you have a free-capitalist system then you need moral conservatives in charge of financial institutions to prevent swindling. Thats why the UK’s successful banking system evolved under WASP guardianship.

    If you have a fair-statist system then you need moral conservatives in charge of fiscal institutions to prevent rorting. Thats why the US has not evolved a standard welfare state. Problem of moral hazard in politicised ethnic groups.

    Of course Scandanavians welfare statists have plenty of moral constructivism, if by that one means wall-to-wall porn, winking at dope and wife-swapping. But underneath that sexy exterior they are all really quite boring and staid. Lutheran workaholics.

    The problem with liberal and socialist political economists is that they have a completely superficial and false view of human nature. They think that man is simply the sum of his institutionalised parts.

    Conservatives at least take the trouble to look below the institutional bonnet and see the inherited nature. You should be proud to wear the epithet “conservative”. At least it means your critics sense you are veering too close to inconvenient truths.