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true conservativesHave you the makings of a Great Libertarian? Might you become a Titan of Liberty like Ayn Rand, a Hercules of Revolutionary Thought like Murray Rothbard or a Paragon of Pure Reason like Walter Block? Or are you doomed to be merely a well-meaning but hopelessly inconsistent conservative muddler like Russell Kirk, Ronald Reagan, Edmund Burke, the most recent three popes and God? Take our simple quiz.

There’s no numerical scoring, no right or wrong answers, no panel of judges, and no one else need see your results. And it’s short: only two questions. Just read on, look in a mirror and decide. Ready? Let’s go.

Calling a person “good” can mean different things. A good pediatrician makes late-night house-calls to treat your sick child while a good lawyer, who may know just as much law as the doctor knows medicine, will twist law, language and the minds of the jury to get what you wish. You want the legal-eagle on your side, but maybe not to marry your grown-up son or daughter as you hope that the doctor might. After all, the good lawyer may turn those talents against his spouse while the good physician represents something more reliable.

Yet it isn’t as simple as “good” meaning virtuous or kindly on one hand versus adept on the other. Nor are all top-notch doctors good in the same way, or lawyers either.

Ask any aspiring libertarian Ubermensch why he or she thinks that way and you tend to get one of two replies. Either he (for it is usually a male) starts with problems or with reasoning. Often he recounts the Sins of the State historical and/or contemporary, but accurately real and agonisingly cruel. Otherwise he starts from First Principles based on Rights. In either case he concludes by painting a panorama of accomplishments in a fully consistent New World of unfettered liberty and individual choice. It’s not the whole truth.

This is not to accuse libertarians of outright lying or even well-meaning guile; one finds that sincerity and candour are often their most dependably admirable features. No, few views are held for one reason alone, and underlying most libertarians is also the Will to Change; it is definitely not Nietzsche’s Will to Power because libertarians can be domineering but not truly coercive. They revel in change because it promises to cure an injustice, or make the world rational and logical and consistent, or give them personal satisfaction to have championed that change, or all of it together. But one can see the sheer attraction of change in how they describe their libertarian heroes; radical, fearlessly innovative, unexpected, relentlessly consistent and, for the most attractive individuals, totally revolutionary. In terms of motive, their adjectives can be more informative than their reasoning.

true conservativesPhysicians can be the same idealists; but not your humble family doc, the General Practitioner (GP). Surgeons and Emergency Room doctors are actually trained to be dynamic and even arrogant, simply because if they waver then their team may dither and their patient may die. A research physician may be equally cocksure in a world where Hard Sciences reign supreme; a realm of logic and order and consistency. In either case, in terms of expectations and behaviour they may be medical versions of Randians. Not so, your humble GP.

The GP, at the coalface of medicine, works with patients, with people. People are sometimes illogical, inconsistent and even self-defeating.

The GP may give stern warnings to diabetic Missus Henshaw who agrees vigorously, but when she passes the chocolate shop and her nose starts to twitch she may emerge with a few pralines or even the giant-size discount box; “they’ll keep for later,” she thinks, but they won’t last that long. Or Mister Murphy with the rummy liver, who knows that he should stop after one or two drinks or even quit altogether and he resolves to do it…tomorrow or next month after the holidays, or maybe even later still. Or old Missus Jennings who is a model of backbone and compliance, but who’s so addled that the poor dear sometimes forgets to take her medicine.

The GP tries as hard as possible, scolding and reminding as much as she is able; but she knows human frailties and so she anticipates failure and expects to treat some of her weaker patients again and again so long as they live, ameliorating their recurring problems as best she can. Our GP hasn’t the luxury of achieving perfection or even dreaming of it; that matters not in her world where it seldom exists. She cannot afford to be a swaggeringly perfectionist surgeon who only meets patients once they are sedated, or a researcher cosseted in a sterile lab. She has a stroke patient back in her office dribbling out of the corner of his mouth, his family argues over what to do and nobody is listening: perfection isn’t an option.

Conservatives are the GPs of politics and culture. They are not pessimists exactly, but they anticipate human failure and know that when it often occurs we must treat the patient only as best we can. Some conservatives are inspired by religious teaching that man is weak and also has a sinful side, so perfection is impossible on Earth; others by observation or simple disposition. Whatever the clever reform being proposed, a conservative suspects that some stinker will find a way around it while the numbskulls will misunderstand and fail to comply, and the rest of us must try to set things right again and again; while the biggest and most adventurous new reforms, however good they sound in theory, offer the most numerous and dangerous flaws often unforeseen.

Like the GP, the true conservative practitioner has a bank of clinical experience and a practical pharmacopeia extracted from history and tradition, culture and faith, and a fairly dependable (if dour) knowledge of human nature. If you want a conservative and medical example from popular drama, as Professor John Willson reminds us, try Doc Adams, actor Milburn Stone’s character on Gunsmoke; he knows the limits of available medical science while, grumpy but virtuous and steeped in experience, he treats patients as best he can. He’s Russell Kirk with a stethoscope, or Edmund Burke in Dodge City.

true conservativesIn terms of diagnostic practice, as with the GP, perfection isn’t an option for true conservatives but patience is a prerequisite. Kindness helps too. Hence many self-proclaimed conservatives aren’t conservative. Similarly, most people who call themselves libertarians are merely conservatives attracted to one or two sensible reforms, but they neither expect universal rationality nor perfection. A real libertarian, a Titan or a Hercules, holds the world to his higher expectations where Reason can accomplish all. Usually that means one man’s Reason, warned Edmund Burke ahead of the equally rationalist French Revolutionary “Reign of Terror.”

So a “good” conservative and a “good” libertarian are different creatures indeed.

Now take the test. Look in the mirror. First question: are you the Titan or the family doctor?

Second question: which would you trust when your grandma or your culture needs treatment?

Now, wasn’t that easy?

Books on the people and topics discussed in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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5 replies to this post
  1. Or, in the words of Dr. Eden:

    “One of the hardest things to get used to in Aristotle’s Politics is his respect for the chaotic or internally contradictory world of common sense and his willingness to work with it.. you are perplexed by this; perhaps reasonably, because the more one thinks about it, the more perplexing this is… your preference is for an intellectually crisper approach in which the muddleheadedness of common sense gives way categorically to the requirements of sound method and logic… Your discomfort with this unclarity may conceal from you that you are in the presence of more substantive problems embedded in political life. It has been said that ‘it is essential for political philosophy to be set in motion, to be kept in motion by the disquieting awareness of fundamemtal differences between conviction, or belief, and knowledge.'”

  2. In this essay, you’re falling for the common mistake of conflating libertarians with Objectivists. While there does exist an overlap between the two groups, they’re not one and the same. In fact, the strain of libertarian thought informed by Hayek and the Austrian school fits quite well with your conservative model of humility in dealing with humans and their institutions. It’s very much a generalist view: You can tweak incentives, but you’ll never really change human behavior, and you certainly can’t design some mechanism to direct it.

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