A conservative answer to liberalism’s crisis

This article first appeared in the October 2018 IPA Review. Slight revision by author, November 2018. It is a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why liberalism failed, Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the west, and Roger Scruton’s Conservatism: an invitation to the great tradition. Links included in the piece.

In a famous essay, the economist FA Hayek disassociated himself from conservatism. Despite admiring figures like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, both frequently cited as conservatives, Hayek believed conservatism was simply an unprincipled opposition to change. Conservatism, he argued, accepts that political and social institutions emerge over time through trial and error, but then arbitrarily forecloses on this process. This lack of principle means conservatives cannot persuade anyone not already disposed to agree with them. Ultimately, conservatism is ‘obscurantist’, always falling back upon ‘a claim to superior wisdom, based on some self-arrogated superior quality’, and, contentless as it is, fated always to ‘be dragged along a path not of its own choosing’. Given Hayek’s profound influence on centre-right politics, the challenge for conservatives ever since has been to articulate a systematic explanation of which institutions are deserving of support or reform, and when change ought to be opposed altogether.

This challenge has renewed relevance with the rise of populist movements in the United States and the United Kingdom, and the illiberal direction taken by Poland and Hungary. On one reading, populism validates the political scientist Samuel Huntington’s view that conservatism is simply a perennial argument in favour of the status quo that emerges whenever a significant segment of a society begins to lose faith in its ruling ideology. Populists are reacting to rapid change brought about by globalisation, immigration, and technological innovation. But another way of viewing the current situation is that conservatism is coming back into its own as an ideology, shedding the liberal arguments that it adopted for the Cold War and presenting its own unique vision.

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Comfortable and relaxed with conservative populism

This piece first appeared in Meanjin (Autumn 2018).

The last time identity played such an outsized role in Australian politics, then opposition leader John Howard famously stated his ambition for a country in which people should feel ‘comfortable and relaxed’ about the past, present and future. Howard’s phrase has been remembered because, for detractors and supporters, it captures something deep and resonant in the conservative idea of government. It is an idea worth revisiting now, more than 20 years later, as our politics again breaks down over claims of institutional and historic unfairness, and a conservative response that is, depending on how you look at it, either wilful complacency and disregard or an entirely understandable desire to be left in peace.

The purpose of this essay is not to rehash the meaning of Trump and Brexit, to muse about the collapse of the conservative establishment, or to declaim against any specific issue on today’s activist agenda. Instead, I propose to examine the philosophical debate that underlies the political back-and-forth. I will explore the struggle for recognition that animates identity politics. In the concept of recognition, progressives have found a cause to rally behind: differential institutional treatment of members of historically oppressed groups that enables those individuals to participate fully in society, thereby securing their dignity as truly equal citizens. Its absence is held to cause real harm. This is a strong claim that, if correct, implies a justification for the coercion, both state and cultural, of those who contribute, by act or omission, to the continued marginalisation of others.

The question, then, is whether anyone can in good conscience believe that the existing political and cultural institutions of our liberal democracy (which together I refer to as the social order) are preferable to a politics that prioritises the recognition of difference. Or, alternatively, whether such conservatism, indulging in comfort and relaxation not available to all, is an ongoing threat to equal citizenship and individual dignity, and must therefore be excluded from our politics and our society.

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