Conservatism vs. Ideology

In “Rescuing Conservatism” I distinguish between “true” conservatives — persons who are conservative by disposition, not ideology, — and faux conservatives — bloviators like Sean Hannity, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Michael Savage.

I go on to say that

[in] the conservative view, government would … be limited to making and enforcing the few rules that are required to adjudicate what [Michael] Oakeshott calls “collisions.” And there are always foreign and domestic predators who are beyond the effective reach of voluntary social institutions and must be dealt with by a superior force.

By thus limiting government to the roles of referee and defender of last resort, civil society is allowed to flourish, both economically and socially. Social conservatism is analogous to the market liberalism of libertarian economics. The price signals that help to organize economic production have their counterpart in the “market” for social behavior (which really encompasses economic behavior). Behavior which is seen to advance a group’s well-being is encouraged; behavior which is seen to degrade a group’s well-being is discouraged.

Taking a stance about the proper scope of government might seem to be an ideological position. And it is one, in the hands of anarchists, who imagine that their “ought” — no government (of any kind) — can be transformed into an “is”. The conceit of anarchism is that human beings are always peacefully cooperative and never driven by power-lust.

Government of some kind is as inevitable as conflict and the urge to control others. It is therefore better to form an accountable state — and strive to keep it accountable — than to have one thrust upon you.

The argument for government, as I have just posed it, isn’t ideological. It doesn’t begin with a particular view about the need for government, or the lack of such a need. It simply takes human nature into account and argues that government is inevitable. Given its inevitability, it is better to take the bull by the horns and shape it in a way that serves the interests of the persons subject to it.

Most sentient beings of the human persuasion, having better or more urgent things to do with their time, skip over the argument for government and go directly to the power it ought to have. Again, this isn’t necessarily a matter of ideology, a prefabricated belief in what “ought” to be. But it has become primarily a matter of ideology, for the reasons given by Joseph Sobran in his “Pensees: Notes for the Reactionary of Tomorrow“. (Sobran, despite his egregious blind spot regarding the Holocaust, was a brilliant thinker and writer.) Sobran writes:

Most of the world is a mystery. Consciousness is a little clearing in a vast forest; every individual has his own special relation to the area of mystery, his own little discoveries to impart. Discovery is by definition unpredictable, and it is absurd for the state to foreclose the process of learning. There are moods when we are too exhausted to imagine that there is still more to be learned; an ideology is a system of ideas that wants to end the explorations we are constantly making at the margin of consciousness, and to declare all the mysteries solved. This is like the congressman who introduced a bill a century ago to close the U.S. Patent Office, on the ground that every possible invention had already been invented.

And so, as a result of the system of indoctrination known as public education — with reinforcement from the internet-media-academic complex — most Americans (like most human beings) have adopted this ready-made belief: Government exists not just to protect citizens and their beneficially cooperative behavior, but also to “solve their problems” — as those problems are defined by government officials and parties with vested interests in the adoption of certain “solutions”.  (This is nothing new, of course. Go here and read “The Framers’ Fatal Error”.)

The ready-made belief is an ideology. Or, rather, it is a meta-ideology which has been sliced and diced into a range of specific ideologies (many of the inchoate) about the proper scope of government power.

The range of ideologies includes some that have been called conservative. That is to say, there are conservative ideologies, as distinct from conservatism, which is a disposition. James Burnham addresses that distinction, and others, in Suicide of the West (1964):

As a rule it is not the several values (ideals, goals) to which a man adheres that reveal most about his character and conduct, but rather the order of priority in which the values are arranged. It tells us little about John Doe to know that for him life is an important value. So it is for nearly all men; not quite all, but nearly all. But we will have learned much about John if we find out whether life is for him a value more important than any other; or, if not, what other value is more important than life. Better Red than Dead? . . . Liberty or Death? . . . Death before Dishonor? . . . My life, that another may live? . . .

Suppose that we use the term “Liberty” to designate national independence and self-government — the meaning that was presumably in Patrick Henry’s mind; “Freedom,” to designate the freedom, or liberties, of the individual; “Justice,” to mean distributive justice of a more or less social welfare sort — that is, a reasonable amount of material well-being for everyone along with an absence of gross exploitation or discrimination; 1 and “Peace,” to signify the absence of large-scale warfare among major powers.

Liberty, Freedom and Justice are the three primary social values or goals that have been approved or at least professed by nearly everybody — not quite everybody, but nearly everybody — in Western civilization, whatever the political philosophy or program, since the Renaissance. The fourth — Peace — has moved into the front rank during the present century, especially since the advent of nuclear weapons.

Most people want, or think they want, all four of these values; but, the way the world goes, it is not possible to realize the four equally on all occasions. One value must be subordinated or sacrificed to another, or others. Whether we wish to or not, each of us is compelled for practical purposes to arrange the four values in a certain hierarchy — if liberals will permit the word — or order of priority.

For the older liberalism of the nineteenth century [as epitomized by John Stuart Mill], the standard order, starting with the value that was regarded as the most important, was:


For twentieth-century liberalism up to a decade or so after the First World War [i.e., Progressivism], the order became:


From that time until after the Second World War, the last two tended to shift positions, so that the liberal ranking became:


Since the coming into being of full-scale nuclear systems, the standard liberal order has become:


This evolution expresses summarily the rise in the relative importance, for liberalism, of the ideas of social reform and the Welfare State, and the gradual shift of stress from national sovereignty to internationalism.

The significance of these ratings becomes more marked when we contrast them with non-liberal orders. For example, the form of contemporary self-styled conservatism that is really a kind of right-wing anarchism [i.e., standard libertarianism] accepts an order that is the same as that of nineteenth-century liberalism, except for a displacement of Peace:


However, this ideology (for this form of conservatism is also an ideology) grades the last three so much below the first that they must almost be thought of as belonging to a different scale; and it tends to interpret Freedom primarily in terms of laissez faire economics.

The form of contemporary conservatism that might be called traditional — which is not an ideology [emphasis added] — would not judge, or feel, that there is any fixed order of priority for the major social values. Under the specific circumstances of this specific time, it would probably rate the four here under consideration as:


I would say that this is now the standard leftist (“liberal”) ordering of the four values:

Justice – Peace

Freedom – Liberty

With a huge gap between the first pair and the second pair.

Burnham’s ranking of the values of ideological “conservatism” (i.e., standard libertarianism) seems to fit today’s “libertarians”. (The “sneer quotes” are explained in some of the posts listed below.)

Most important, Burnham correctly characterizes conservatism as a non-ideology and hesitantly ranks the values of conservatives of the day (early 1960s). Speaking for myself, he has it right, and not just for the early 1960s. Burnham’s ranking aligns with what I call rightminarchism. It is an ideology that seems to fit the conservative disposition comfortably.

As argued in many of the items listed below, conservatism is true libertarianism. Indeed, many so-called libertarians seek to impose particular values on the populace, even going so far as to enlist the power of the state to that end.

Related page and posts:
Social Norms and Liberty
Pseudo-Libertarian Sophistry vs. True Libertarianism
More Pseudo-Libertarianism
Understanding Hayek
Why I Am Not an Extreme Libertarian
What Is Libertarianism?
True Libertarianism, One More Time
Liberty and Society
The Eclipse of “Old America”
Genetic Kinship and Society
Liberty as a Social Construct: Moral Relativism?
Defending Liberty against (Pseudo) Libertarians
Defining Liberty
Modern Liberalism as Wishful Thinking
“Liberalism” and Personal Responsibility
My View of Libertarianism
More About Social Norms and Liberty
Social Justice vs. Liberty
Liberal Nostrums
Liberty and Social Norms Re-examined
“Liberalism” and Leftism
Disposition and Ideology
My View of Mill, Endorsed
Order vs. Authority
Suicide or Destiny?