Chameleon conservatives

Do conservatives believe in conservatism, or is conservatism whatever conservatives happen to believe? I think commenter Ken Nielsen is right when he says ‘“conservative” means different things to different people in different countries.’ In the very useful introduction to his book Conservatism: An Anthology of Social and Political Thought from David Hume to the Present, Jerry Muller says:

..conservatives have, at one time or place or another, defended royal power, constitutional monarchy, artistocratic preregotative, representative democracy, and presidential dictatorship; high tariffs and free trade; nationalism and internationalism; centralism and federalism; a society of inhereted estates, a capitalist, market democracy, and one or another version of the welfare state. …

You get the picture. John Howard fits into this – constitutional monarchy, free trade, soft nationalism, centralism, a capitalist, market democracy and a welfare state – but he could have had contrary ideas without threatening his status as a ‘conservative’. Unlike liberals, conservatives are not committed to a particular set of state institutions.

As I read Muller, conservativism is very hard to define in terms that apply to all times and places, but conservatives can be identified by recurrent themes (human imperfection, epistemological modesty, the value of restraint, the value of custom, historicism and particularlism, anti-contractualism, utility of religion); recurrent arguments (critique of ‘theory’, unintended consequences, latent functions, functional interdependence, anti-humanitarianism); recurrent substantive themes (scepticism of written constitutions, central role of cultural mores, scepticism of proposals to liberate individuals from cultural authority, emphasis on the family, legitimacy of inequality, security of property, importance of the state, assertions that capitalism depends on pre-market and non-market institutions and practices), and various recurrent images and metaphors.

Because conservatives don’t have a precise institutional framework they want to put in place (as liberals do) or have an ever-pressing though never-achieved goal like equality (as leftists do), they end up being defined politically in their time and place by what they are against as much as what they are for. They may deploy Muller’s themes and arguments to defend their position, but with a few exceptions those themes and arguments don’t in themselves tell us, without knowing the local context, exactly what substantive position a conservative will hold. Conservatism is a chameleon philosophy.

So at an given point in time and at any given place ‘conservativism’ is what self-described ‘conservatives’ believe. Academics like Marion Maddox get things hopelessly wrong when they try import analysis based on American conservatism to explain Australian conservatism.

By global standards, Australian conservatism is very mild. As I noted in my big government conservatism article, the modern social conservatism promoted by the former Prime Minister largely gave up on prescriptive enforcement of ‘family values’ in favour of helping families with large amounts of taxpayers’ cash. No-fault divorce stayed, welfare for single-parent families was expanded (via FTB B), contraception and abortion were state-promoted – all with little more than token opposition from within the government or the broader conservative movement.

It is only relative to some local ‘progressives’ that the former government can even claim to be ‘conservative’. Before the 1960s and 1970s, the Howard social policy status quo would have been what ‘progressives’ were trying to achieve. Australian conservatives have (perhaps reluctantly) accepted virtually all the social change of the last generation, while holding out against gay marriage, euthanasia, and genetic engineering of humans. They changed their political colours to fit into the new status quo, while still resisting further change.

24 thoughts on “Chameleon conservatives

  1. “Australian conservatives have (perhaps reluctantly) accepted virtually all the social change of the last generation”
    That is precisely the point made by Hayek in his essay “Why I am not a conservative”. He suggested that conservatives have no dynamic that leads anywhere so they end up being dragged in the direction of the prevailing current. Counter-arguments would be interesting. Hayek’s essay is on line and it is such a good piece that it has “white dwarf” status, it is so densely packed that there is something more to find with repeated visits.


  2. Really interesting thoughts. Does this mean we can think of conservativism as a bulwark against the excesses of whichever contrary ideology (whether commnunism / socialism or liberalism / capitalism) might hold sway at the time?


  3. It would appear that “Conservatives” are directionless gainsayers then.

    And speaking of getting things hopelessly wrong Andrew, on what evidence do you base this statement:

    “abortion [was] state-promoted “.
    There is quite a strong case to say the former health Minister was quite active in his promotion of the idea that abortion was morally wrong and he used taxpayers money to help promote the it. Really this statement reeks of right-wing commentariat bullsh*t.




  4. David, you should have picked up the message that conservatism does not mean any single thing, it needs to be qualified with regard to the people you are talking about and the specific issues of concern at the time.


  5. To be more precise, I am a fan of the eight ball over in cricket. When we actually had 8 ball overs that would have made me a conservative, now it makes me a backward looking trog and reactionary, but I like to think that it is just a good idea because you get to spend more of the day watching cricket and less time watching the field change between overs.


  6. Patrick – On the basis of Medicare funded abortions. Plus various methods of contraception are subsidised under the PBS. We all know the Catholic view on these things, but the fact is that it was not followed. Actions speak louder than words.


  7. As Rafe says, the best and most accessible liberal critique of conservatism is ‘Why I’m Not a Conservative’ by Friedrich A von Hayek. An interesting reverse critique is ‘Hayek and conservatism’ by Roger Scruton, the 11th chapter of ‘The Cambridge Companion to Hayek’.

    And as Rafe also says, conservatism’s biggest weakness is that, because it doesn’t offer an alternative future ‘path’ for society, the only purpose it serves is to slow the rate of change in the direction supported by its opponents – socialism.

    Its interesting though that Hayek eventually avoided the label liberal, preferring ‘old whig’ or ‘Burkean whig’.


  8. “On the basis of Medicare funded abortions. Plus various methods of contraception are subsidised under the PBS”

    Very disingenuous. There is a huge difference between a taxpayer taking up a service offered by the government and the “promotion” of that service which implies that use of the service is being actively encouraged and there is absolutely no evidence for this. Indeed one wonders why you have even attempted to justify your statement as it only further indicates the presence of an underlying ideological or religious motivation on your part.
    The decision to go through with this medical procedure is generally considered to be one of the most difficult a person will have to make. To insist that there exists a campaign to actively encourage it is quite appalling.




  9. Rafe, your support for the 8 ball over very nicely illustrates the tension between conservatives and free market liberals.

    Australia changed from the 8 ball to the 6 ball at the start of the 1979-80 season.

    Why the change?

    Because it was then that Channel 9 got the rights to broadcast the cricket, as part of the truce between the Australian Cricket Board and World Series Cricket. Commercials are broadcast at the end of each over. With 6 six ball overs, you get 25% more commercials.


  10. Patrick – I have been a classical liberal and an atheist for 25 years. I have no ideological or religious stake in this. The word ‘promoted’ was unfortunately ambiguous in this context, I meant free or heavily subsidised abortion or contraception, while you took it as propaganda. But I am pretty confident that subsidies have more effect on usage than the personal views of the health minister. Indeed, given the Pope doesn’t seem to have much influence on Catholic reproductive practices, I don’t think it is very likely that a mere Catholic Minister will influence the general population.


  11. […] Because conservatives don’t have a precise institutional framework they want to put in place (as liberals do) or have an ever-pressing though never-achieved goal like equality (as leftists do) …

    But many liberals do have an ever-pressing though never-achieved goal: liberty, in some form or another. Similarly, many leftists have a rough institutional framework in mind — as liberals want a state limited enough that it doesn’t transgress individuals’ spheres of non-coercion, leftists want a state unlimited enough that it can ameliorate inequality to the greatest possible extent.

    … with a few exceptions those themes and arguments don’t in themselves tell us, without knowing the local context, exactly what substantive position a conservative will hold.

    Indeed, the point of almost all the arguments and themes listed is that local context, as well as being important and valuable, is at least partly unknowable, irrational, and irreducible. There isn’t any “substantive position” beyond that.

    I think this is because conservativism judges political philosophies, not political decisions. Taking liberalism as an example, most conservatives would oppose liberty as a political ideal (“ever-pressing though never-achieved”), while some would support it as a political value. Same goes for equality. But you can’t pin down how conservatives will react on any given issue. Conservativism judges how you hold your values, not what those values are, and supports the family and (sometimes) religion because these institutions are seen as part of the “local context” mentioned above.


  12. “But I am pretty confident that subsidies have more effect on usage than the personal views of the health minister”

    Actually, I think in terms of abortion, I’d bet there is almost no effect of either, since even if it wasn’t subsidized, the cost of having a kid hugely outways a simple hospital procedure (let alone an RU486 tablet). The only difference I can imagine it making would be a small number of people may wait longer to have it done when they need to the find the cash. This would be basically solved if people representing a minority view would stop threatening people trying to import RU 486 (and women’s health outcomes would be better too).


  13. Leon – Yes, of course you are right that liberals do have a goal in liberty, but I quite like looking at liberalism in institutional terms (which would include government sufficiently limited to permit very substantial freedom). There is actually a point at which liberals can say that they have achieved their political goals, which for all their over-regulation and over-taxation modern Western societies are quite close to achieving in global and historic terms. By contrast, equality is an impossible goal, given the inherent differences in people, and the main institutional attempts to achieve it were catastrophic failures.

    I also like your distinction between a political ideal and a political value.


  14. Conrad – Though an economist would argue that while free abortion may not affect the behaviour of most women who get pregnant, it probably would have at least a marginal effect on how many get pregnant in the first place.


  15. Andrew —

    16 — On abortion, I think what you just posted summarizes the typical conservative position. The incentives are supposed to lead to a more responsible sexual culture (even though abortion is seen as wrong besides). I think similar conservative reasoning applies around e.g. no-fault divorce.

    15 — Seeing liberalism in institutional terms is a conservative way of looking at it. Paraphrasing Scruton, institutional reasoning has (today’s) society as its premise and the freer individual as its conclusion; as opposed to starting from e.g. individual rights and reasoning towards a social ideal.


  16. Leon – I think seeing liberalism in institutional terms opens the way for a liberal-conservative alliances in cultures that have essentially liberal frameworks. But it also means that within liberalism there is more political unity than there is philosophical agreement, with at least three major justifications for liberalism existing – natural rights, social contract, and utilitarianism.


  17. “There is actually a point at which liberals can say that they have achieved their political goals… modern Western societies are quite close to achieving in global and historic terms”

    I think there is a logical inconsistency in this statement Andrew.

    When you say that there is a point in which liberals can say they have reached their goals, presumably you are saying that the ultimate goals of liberalism are universal, abstract and permanent across time and space.

    But then you say that these goals are close to being achieved ‘in historical terms’. Meaning political institutions are comparatively liberal today. Meaning that the ultimate goals of liberals are not universal, abstract and permanent.

    Do you agree that you have not addressed this inconsistency?


  18. Whig – There is a checklist of institutions and practices – eg private property, market economy, rule of law, no substantial restrictions on speech, association or movement, democracy – which when achieved we can say that the liberal fundamentals are in place. The precise form of these institutions can vary, but the basic ideas are universal to all forms of liberalism I think. The ‘liberals’ in each Western political culture are the people who argue for repealing remaining restrictions or against diminishing these institutions, but in no Western country are these things entirely absent.


  19. I am reminded of a quote by Ronald Reagan:

    “I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism… The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.”


  20. Brendan – In 1960s America there was a lot of discussion of ‘fusionism’, the idea that conservatism and libertarianism both had their roots in a common Western political tradition, from which libertarianism abstracted the importance of the individual and comservatives the need for ‘value, virtue and order’ (the words are Frank Meyer’s). The reconciliation came in the way of Leon in comment 12 above: in the political realm, freedom is the primary end, whereas in the moral realm freedom is only the means by which men can pursue their proper end.

    Reagan was probably alluding to this kind of thinking.


  21. American conservatives (with some weird exceptions i.e. those influenced by European conservatism) are not conservatives since what they seek to conserve is a society that was essentially designed by scratch based on Enlightenment principles by founding fathers who were deists/rationalists/atheists. Whether many of them realise this or not is irrelevant but they are influenced by it nonetheless – that is why you can have crusty old conservatives in America who are First Amendment absolutists and a conservative intellectual godfather (William F Buckley) who was a libertarian on drug policy. The fact that many of them are anti-abortion is also irrelevant since
    1) very few of the anti-abortionists among them are actually in favour of recriminalising abortion.
    2) many are against the Roe vs Wade decision for federalist reasons i.e. rationalistic reasons related to upholding an ideology of decentralised government
    3) one’s position on abortion can be independent of religious belief as it partly depends on how human life is defined, a question not amenable to any definitive answer.

    There is one other exception I can think of – the neoconservatives. Despite their Wilsonist idealistic ambitions in foreign policy, they are essentially non-ideological ex lefties who are actually more influenced by European conservative thinking, hence their conservative views on preserving the welfare state, etc.


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