Liberty Matters

Polity Conservatism As Equipage of Policy Liberalism


I am grateful to Michael for his engagement and questions. He asks about the arguments I had sketched for polity conservatism: "wouldn't these also support policy conservatism, i.e., a reluctance to change particular government policies?"
Excellent question.
Recall that here I use "policy" in a tailored sense, most significantly tailored away from reforms that might well significantly alter the character and political workings of the polity. "Policy" in this tailored sense, then, has built into it the condition that we simply need not fret much about how the policy reform might alter the polity. That's the case for the vast majority of the liberalizations that Cato Institute liberals advocate. Let them take Uber—even though it destroys the taxi monopolies. Liberalize schooling. Abolish Ex-Im. Et cetera.
The relaxation of zoning and land-use restrictions may alter the character of the neighborhood, but it won't unsettle the character and political workings of the polity. Ditto drug liberalizations. If augmented liberty brings vicissitudes, let them come. Michael is right, people will learn to adjust, and, besides, abundance enables people to opt for a life more insulated from the vicissitudes.
The alternative to letting the market rip is terribly pocked with ugliness. The impartial spectator told me herself.
For the vast majority of issues, liberalizing what the polity can do—in the sense of freeing up what its members are allowed to do in their voluntary relationships—will not spell changes in what the polity is—at least, not the kind of changes that we conservative liberals are worried about.
That's not say that we're averse to every possible change in the character of the polity. Recall that our polity sensibilities, though conservative, are not otherwise neutral. Liberalization may well make the character of the polity more liberal. God bless. That was, to Hume and Smith, one of the things the "liberal plan" had going for it.
Reduce the role of government in schooling, most of all for the character changes it will bring. And reduce taxpayer funding of colleges and universities.
I propose "conservative liberalism," then, not as deduction in a philosophical exercise. I propose it as a common room for classical liberals, libertarians, and conservatives, a common room by no means specific to the United States.
In that common room, there is common understanding of what policy liberalism is and what its chief merits are. Also common are allegiances to it, to one degree or another. There is common understanding that, by and large, the governmentalization of social affairs is a sham and a menace—we can debate how large the "by and large" is. In that room we also share an understanding that policy liberalism depends on equipage, some degree of polity conservatism—we can debate the degree.
2025 will be the 400th anniversary of the first edition of Grotius's masterwork. The Western liberal project of the past 400 years faces great challenges. We can scarcely do better than to meet in a common room chaired by Smith, Hume, and Burke. They remain leading spirits of The New World.