Redefining the Modern Conservative with a 19th-Century Lens

Nineteenth-century laissez-faire capitalists were 'progressives' of their day.


Before all you political theory-heads take off for the weekend, be sure to check out this email debate between Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin author Corey Robin and American Conservative blogger Daniel Larison.

The exchange is refreshingly free of the standard liberal vs. conservative, capitalism vs. socialist nonsense in which mainstream political discourse is trapped, and it touches on many of the thinkers and ideas that animate my own humble scribbling.

[See the month's best political cartoons.]

I heartily recommend, too, Front Porch Republic blogger Susannah Black's interjection into the Robin-Larison debate. She takes issue, in particular, with Robin's contention that conservatism's instinct is "to defend power and privilege against movements demanding freedom and equality."


Now, this seems to be to be getting it just exactly wrong. It was liberal reformers—throughout the nineteenth century, and earlier—who were keen to institute meritocracy in the civil services of various European governments. The struggle for existence is an essentially liberal way of conceiving civil society: that's why laissez-faire capitalists, arch-liberals all, tended to be such fans of the eugenics movement.

Conservatives, by contrast, see social solidarity as the normal state of things, and the dynamism or creative destruction that the liberal order fosters, and in which natural law promotes the rule of the "best," is really quite alien to the conservative mind. Those conservatives who are defenders of aristocracy do so not on the basis that the aristocrats are better than others, but on the basis that aristocrats fill a social role that someone's got to fill, just as someone's got to bake the bread and someone's got to write for the feuilletons, and it might as well be this lot as anyone else.


The real conservative argument for aristocracy lies somewhere entirely different. G.K. Chesterton, no friend to aristocracy, got this right: in What's Wrong with the World, his criticism of Edwardian social thought, he makes an unusual case for what might be called the democratic roots of European aristocracy. Democracy, the sense of equality and comradeship among men, he defines as the normal condition of humans: "The common conception," Chesterton writes, "among the dregs of Darwinian culture is that men have slowly worked their way out of inequality into a state of comparative equality. The truth is, I fancy, almost exactly the opposite."

[Read: 'Left' vs. 'Right' Debate Not Solving Our Economic Problems]

Black's argument here is right in my wheelhouse. One of the drums I've been beating in this space is that 19th-century classical Manchester liberals were the "progressives" of their day. Adam Smith's "invisible hand" indirectly fathered Darwin's theory of natural selection. In economics as in biology, the "cream" rises to the top.

To which Black colorfully objects:

We don't really want to be a gang of Victorian Manchester-school plutocrats, do we? Saying "The cream rises to the top, what?" while elevating our gouty feet on a stepstool and plunging our faces into a tub of goose-liver pate? And, surely, we don't want to be the modern version either: the fit, well-manicured, childless, tech-savvy Forex trader who looks at the mother of three, surviving on welfare, and says "Well, she's got to just go to some adult education program, doesn't she? She doesn't even know Excel."

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Having encountered her stuff for the first time, I Googled Black and found this fascinating talk she gave at her alma mater Amherst College about her evolution from secular urban liberal to hardcore libertarian to, finally, the Chestertonian "off-brand" conservative Christian she is today.

One of her commenters at Front Porch recommends she drop the "conservative" bit altogether, arguing that, in this day and age, it muddles rather than clarifies. He suggests "bohemian tory."

That, in turn, reminds me of The American Conservative's editor Daniel McCarthy's blog-moniker "Tory Anarchist."

This is the real hope and change, people!

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