Saturday, August 25, 2012

Mark Kleiman Tries to Sort Out the Meaning of "Conservative"
And You Can't Blame Him for Trying

Mark Kleiman offers a taxonomy of meanings of "conservative," offering multiple meanings, each amplibied by its antonym (numbering added by me):
One: An Oakeshottian conservative wants to moderate the pace of change and to proceed incrementally and experimentally rather than suddenly.  ... The antonym of “conservative” in this sense is “radical.”

Two:A traditionalist conservative is someone who prefers old ways to new.  (In the extreme, this can mean opposing the growth of knowledge that might threaten traditional beliefs.) The antonym is “progressive.”

Three: An authoritarian conservative distrusts the use ordinary people make of personal  freedom and favors strict social controls over individual behavior. The antonym is “liberal.”

Four: A particularist conservative is unashamed about favoring his own interests and values, and those of his family, neighborhood, ethnicity, and nation over those of outsiders. The antonym is “universalist” (or “liberal” in another sense of that term).

Five: A market conservative likes capitalism and distrusts regulation and state production. The antonym imagined by such conservatives is “socialist.”
I'd give him serious points for trying, but I think he has proved just how difficult the definitional problem really is.  Start with five:  a market (bleep) is, of course, in traditional terms, a liberalizer, trying escape from under the hammer of three.  It's a somewhat antique usage but it has an honorable history and explains a lot that needs explaining.  It explains, e.g., why Hayek was so insistent that he wasn't a conservative.  Those who embrace class five what-ever-it-is do, indeed, see their foe as "socialism," but their use of the term is so open-textured that it never seems to add much to the debate.

Now go back to one; conservative as incrementalist. For a lot of readers, that will be the most beguiling face of "conservatism," but again, I think the antonym is unhelpful.  Type one conservatism is a habit of mind, an approach, more than a program; s/he'll be skeptical of anything that moves the ball down field, whether radical or not.  

Two  and four seem to me particularly difficult to sort out, not least because the so much overlap.  There are certainly plenty on the left who think that the problem with "conservatism" today is that it is way too much five, and that five tends to bulldoze anything in its path: the party of the late Christopher Lasch.  We can hear the ghost of Hayek saying "quite right."

Of three, Kleiman says "There is no word I know of to define the sort of person who prefers hierarchy to equality, and in particular who both supports the maintenance of the current hierarchy and opposes both social mobility and the leveling of status gradients."  Really, no word?  Maybe not today, but in the grand tradition of post-Renaissance political thought, this is the very essence of what a conservative was thought to be.  The classic word here would be "reactionary," in the sense of "plus royaliste que le roi;" its high priest (sic?) would be Joseph de Maistre; in England, Sir Robert Filmer perhaps Lord Eldon.   Some would say the proper name here is not "conservatism" but "orthodoxy."

Addressing the current landscape, Kleiman declares that 
Obama, as I read him, is indeed Oakeshottian rather than radical, but he is also moderately progressive rather than tradition[al]ist, quite liberal rather than authoritarian, reasonably universalist, and purely pragmatic about regulation and state production. But most of all, Obama is strongly egalitarian: he wants both more social mobility and gentler status gradients. That’s the feature of health care reform that the plutocrats really hate ... . 
Hm.  This is not an easy one to sort out, but I think it is possible to read the evidence  in a somewhat different way.  One, it's hard associate the label "Oakeshottian" with the man who propelled himself into office on the mantra of "Yes we can!"  And it is hard to imagine Oakeshott--the great intellectul foil to the Attlee reformers--embracing any comprehensive program of health care reform.

On the other hand, I think one thing that upsets some of his old friends (=me) is the emergence of an authoritarian streak we may not have expected when we first saw him.  Guantanamo is still open.  Teens can't get Plan B.  And there is his near-servile deference to the culture of finance.

Just for the record, as I've said before, I don't mean this as a total writeoff.  Whatever the particulars, he is so many light-years ahead of the opposition that it isn't even worth discussing. But on the narrow issue of conservative v. something else--well, kudos to Mark for trying.

1 comment:

Larry, The Barefoot Bum said...

The Reactionary Mind, by Corey Robin, might be helpful here.