Liberty Matters

The Value of Conservative Liberalism

I want to thank Dan Klein for his interesting thoughts about the conservative liberalism of Smith, Hume, and Burke. My own interest is more in contemporary issues than in interpretation of historical figures. But as Klein observes, the conservative liberalism of these great thinkers is of continuing relevance today. So I will here focus on three issues of current import that Klein's essay raises: (i) the coherence of "conservative liberalism," (ii) the arguments for conservatism, (iii) the importance of conservative liberalism in today's political situation.
The Coherence of Conservative Liberalism
"Conservative liberalism" sounds at first like an oxymoron, with conservatism and liberalism being traditionally seen as ideological opposites. This impression, however, stems more from misunderstanding about the meanings of "conservatism" and "liberalism" than from any real tension. I take it that "liberalism," as Klein uses the term (and as I use it herein), refers to a certain (admittedly broad and vague) set of substantive values. These values include such things as individual liberty, the rule of law, the moral equality of persons, and a free-market economic system. This is the liberalism of Hume, Smith, and other historical figures. (This of course is not to be confused with the common use of "liberal" in the contemporary American political scene, to refer to a left-wing person.)
I take it that "conservatism," as used by Klein (and myself herein), refers to a political stance that values the preservation of the existing institutions and practices of one's own society, and would require a burden of proof to be met by those who propose significant changes.
With that understanding, "conservative liberalism" makes perfect sense in certain societies. If one lives in a society that presently recognizes most individual rights, treats persons roughly as moral equals, and more or less practices the rule of law, then a liberal would of course want to preserve these traditions and the institutions that implement them. Thus, a liberal in such a society would naturally be a conservative.
The Case for Conservatism
I won't here discuss the case for liberalism, as it is not a major focus of Klein's essay, and it is in any case well-known; let it suffice to say that liberal societies have in general fared far better than illiberal ones and are today the countries that people around the world most commonly want to move to. The case for conservatism, however, is less well appreciated. Klein mentions five central arguments, most of which I agree with. To have their greatest force, however, I think these arguments ought to be supplemented with a sixth argument, as I will explain below.
First, in the spirit of devil's advocacy, let me try to articulate where one might want to resist Klein's five arguments (as quoted from Klein):
(1) "Established ways have been through a historical process of selection and survival and adaptation that reflects, albeit highly imperfectly, functional goodness."
There is some truth to this. However, just as in the case of biological evolution, the process by which social practices evolve need not select for goodness. In the case of biological evolution, nature selects for selfishness. Many behaviors can benefit the individual who engages in them at the cost of society or the species as a whole – and, on the correct understanding of evolution, we would expect evolution to favor those behaviors. Similarly, some of our social practices may exist only because they have 'survival value' – they succeed in maintaining and spreading themselves – even if they are harmful to human beings. (Granted, they cannot be too harmful – they cannot be so bad that they destroy the society that adopts them.) Perhaps this point is recognized by the "highly imperfectly" qualifier in Klein's statement.
(2) "To some extent goodness is historistic and established ways are good because they are established."
This is the one argument of the five that I see nothing in. A thing cannot be good merely because itexists; that makes no sense to me.
(3) "The citizen's knowledge is slight, as is that of the social theorist or reformer […]; the consequences of a proposed polity innovation, or even its true nature, are scarcely known. […]"
With this point, I strongly agree.[1] For this reason, large reformations are almost always much more risky than proponents realize. This applies both to policy changes and to changes in institutional structures and norms.
I can imagine, however, a "polity radical" making the argument that this point cuts both ways: if our knowledge is slight, then we may be underestimating the value of reforms, just as well as we may be overestimating it. Too, we may as well be overestimating the value of the status quo and underestimating its risks. So it is not so clear that the point motivates conservatism rather than reformism.
(4) Happiness depends on tranquility, which depends on confidence. […] Every reformation excuses, arouses, and inspires a next reformation, reducing certainty, stability, confidence, and the quality of life.
This point stands in some tension with the fifth argument, which claims that bad reformations are not easily corrected. The latter suggests that, once adopted, a reformation will usually become stable. So there is only a short-term cost in terms of instability. If the reformation is truly better, then that cost will be outweighed in the long term.
This fourth argument claims, however, that each reformation will lead to further reformations. That could be true – there is some a priori plausibility to the idea – but I do not know of any compelling evidence that it is. It is about equally plausible to hold that good reformations will make further reformations less likely, since they will increase people's satisfaction with their system. On the other hand, perhaps bad reformations will make further reformations less likely because they will cause people to become more cautious.
(5) "Bad reformations are not easily corrected: Their badness enjoys plausible deniability and is stubbornly denied. Also, they breed interest groups who stoutly defend them."
This again seems plausible but could cut both ways. Wouldn't it also be true that good reformations would be stable? More importantly, this fifth argument directly suggests that some elements of the status quo may be surviving despite their badness, since "their badness enjoys plausible deniability" and they have bred "interest groups who stoutly defend them." This stands in tension with argument (1).
Now, here is a sixth argument that I think the conservative needs (my addition):
(6) Regression to the mean: As a general statistical matter, we should expect large changes in our society to, on average, move us closer to the mean for human societies in general. But the average human society is terrible, compared to our current society. Therefore, in general, the average large change in our society is bad.
Of course, some changes will still be good. But if we assume that we are highly ignorant about society and bad at predicting the future, then for any proposed large change, we should start out presuming that it will have about the average effect of large changes. So we should in general have a strong presumption against any large change. I think that this point plugs the gap in some of the above arguments and is in keeping with the general spirit of Klein's (and Burke's) arguments. My argument differs from arguments (1)-(5) above, in that my argument turns on comparing our society, favorably, to most other human societies. I think you should be conservative if and only if you live in a society where things are going comparatively well. If you live in a society where things are going badly – where the people are poorer, less healthy, less happy, and so on, than average – then you should be a reformer.
The Need for Conservative Liberalism Today
As I say, our society has been going extremely well, relative to the norm for human societies. But this fact is drastically underappreciated. There is a kind of reckless disregard for institutions and established processes in the current political moment that I have not seen before in my lifetime.
At the cost of descending from the heights of abstract theory to the depths of contemporary politics, I will point out that America's current leader was voted into office largely for the purpose of "shaking things up" in Washington. It is hard to think of a more foolish political idea. Remarkably, many voters who were once thought to be conservative today show no concern about the President's violation of the law, open flouting of longstanding political and social norms, and abuse of power. Most of the elites in America's erstwhile conservative party (that is, the Republican Party) have abandoned any pretense of concern for fair process, in favor of short-term, apparent gains in power for their tribe. Here, I have in mind such striking phenomena as the Senate Majority Leader openly rejecting the idea of impartiality in a trial, and openly avowing his intention to coordinate with the defendant on the conduct of a trial.
Meanwhile, as I write this, one of the leading challengers to our current President is a candidate who openly embraces socialism, the core idea that America opposed during the last century's Cold War. Somehow, in one of the most prosperous, safe, happy, and free societies that has ever existed in human history, large numbers of people on both sides of the political spectrum have agreed that the institutions, practices, and norms of their society need to be burned to the ground. A clearer illustration of political irrationality could hardly be wished for in any time and place.
[1.] See my "In Praise of Passivity,"