Conservatives, or more specifically Traditionalists, find ourselves in the rather uncomfortable position of revering a group of men who espoused ideas that modern Traditionalists approach with immense reserve—namely, Liberalism and democracy. William Cobbett irritated the Tory government of William Pitt the Younger with his incessant calls for parliamentary and social reform, G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc were both avowed Liberals, and C.S. Lewis, in one of his few political comments, names himself as a certain democrat. So are we wrong to call ourselves Conservatives? Are we, in fact, the true heirs of Liberalism?
First we ought to look at why Chesterton and Belloc would claim to be Liberals so long before Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton would do the same.
Some commentators prefer to explain that Liberalism has literally meant two very different things—something to the effect of, “In the modern use, a Liberal thinker is what the OED would define as, ‘giving generously’—that is, a proponent of redistribution of wealth. But in the 18th through the 20th centuries, a Liberal would have been identified with, ‘willing to respect or accept behavior or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas’, and ‘favorable to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms’.”
But that’s a tad too literal for my taste. It’s not likely that anyone was perusing the dictionary looking for a word that exactly matched their political thinking. Old Liberalism did have something to do with “liberalizing”, with freeing something up, and with becoming more permissive. But not in the way the word is used today.
If the “Old Liberals” of the 19th century were one thing, they weren’t revolutionaries. That role was filled by Charles James Fox’s Radicals: the English crypto-Jacobins. Certainly they often both belonged to the Whig party, and elsewhere I’ve criticized Radical Whigs without differentiation. But an honest commentator can hardly say Jefferson the Whig, the plutocrat, republican and anti-theist, is uniformly the same as Burke the Whig, the aristocrat, monarchist and Anglican. Burke today is even regarded as a Tory thinker, which is better than calling him a Whiggish thinker. But nonetheless, that Burke identified with the Whigs means that, to some degree, he isn’t an orthodox Tory, a conservative full-stop.
So what did Burke’s Old Liberals, the not-entirely-Conservative conservatives, stand for? It might be just as well if we define Old Liberals by what they aren’t—that is, neither Reactionaries nor Radicals.
The Tories, who were mostly the heirs of the Cavalier, Absolutist camp, had a narrow definition of rights: namely, the right of the King and the right of the Aristocracy to rule as they saw fit. They opposed the expansion of landowning and the vote, which have historically gone hand-in-hand, and most strongly resented the Industrial Revolution. Fastidious defenders of the Established Church, the Tories of this period were generally opposed to both Dissenter toleration and legal Catholic emancipation.
The Radicals, or the “New Whigs”, on the other hand, were republicans and egalitarians, advocates of greater suffrage and against the privilege of the landed. They also came down heavily in favor of Parliamentary authority and generally sympathized with religious toleration both for Catholics and for Dissenters, though their attitude toward the Catholic faith itself was marred by their pro-Jacobin sympathies.
Burke and his “Old Whigs”, the original Liberals, defended the institutional monarchy and aristocracy while encouraging reforms that would give the common people greater access to mercantile and farming opportunities. The Old Whigs generally supported the emancipation of Catholics, and many (including Burke) were suspected of being Catholics themselves.
The question is whether we interpret this moderation to be a commitment to a perpetual centrism (like the Anglican commitment to a via media) throughout an ever-changing political landscape, or if they were in themselves clear and constant convictions. Could it be that the Liberals of old believed in land or parliamentary reform for the sake of reform, not to spite the “establishment”? Could they have supported the monarchy and the aristocracy on principle and yet still accepted that changes were necessary?
If so, we’ll have to face a truth uncomfortable for modern progressive liberals: their forebears were far from slaves to compulsive progress, but rather stood behind fixed principles rooted in a certain vision of society.
Curiously enough, we see that the Old Liberals didn’t seem to agitate for any “progressive” social reforms for their own sake. The emancipation of Catholics would only serve to open the debate to a religion, politically speaking, more ancient and “conservative” than the Church of England. But what of the land reform? What of this apparent divestment of aristocratic power?
There’s a very, very tenuous balance that certain tradition-oriented thinkers have difficulty striking—the balance between preservation of the “permanent things” and accepting true progress when it’s needed. The militantly reform-minded Tory (though he was hardly a reactionary) used the motto, “Fear God, Honour the King” for his magazine The Porcupine. For Cobbett, Burke, and other traditional Liberals, honoring the King could come second only to the fear of God, and a God-fearing man of course would stick his neck out for those most in need. These Liberals, right or wrong, believed there to be a serious necessity to improve the lot of the working poor, the small farmers, and others who they saw to be wronged by the present situation in England. It was not, of course, an ideological madness that drove the Old Liberals, for there can be no ideological zeal that can compete with Radicalism. It was a patient, arduous commitment both to the traditional institutions of the British Isles with a recognition that all men—even the priests, even House of Lords, even the King—are only human. A particular quote from C.S. Lewis springs to mind:
I believe in political equality. But there are two opposite reasons for being a democrat. You may think all men so good that they deserve a share in the government of the commonwealth, and so wise that the commonwealth needs their advice. That is, in my opinion, the false, romantic doctrine of democracy. On the other hand, you may believe fallen men to be so wicked that not one of them can be trusted with any irresponsible power over his fellows.
That I believe to be the true ground of democracy. I do not believe that God created an egalitarian world. I believe the authority of parent over child, husband over wife, learned over simple to have been as much a part of the original plan as the authority of man over beast. I believe that if we had not fallen…patriarchal monarchy would be the sole lawful government. But since we have learned sin, we have found, as Lord Acton says, that ‘all power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ The only remedy has been to take away the powers and substitute a legal fiction of equality. The authority of father and husband has been rightly abolished on the legal plane, not because this authority is in itself bad (on the contrary, it is, I hold, divine in origin), but because fathers and husbands are bad. Theocracy has been rightly abolished not because it is bad that learned priests should govern ignorant laymen, but because priests are wicked men like the rest of us. Even the authority of man over beast has had to be interfered with because it is constantly abused.
This is the same Lewis who, in the only other important political comment he made, defended Monarchy against its attackers, claiming that a King or Queen is a necessary part of civilized society; a void which can’t be filled by simply putting the matter out of one’s mind; that will inevitably be filled by “millionaires, athletes or film stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters”, and all the poisons of the soul. That’s the best of the Liberal spirit: possessing both the courage and the good sense to know what is eternally just and what is only transient—to know where the corruptible body ends and the incorruptible spirit begins.
The Progressive, the intellectual heir of the Radical Whigs, is far less preoccupied with questions of permanence. Unlike the Old Liberals, he believes political justice is derived from natural rights, which they call fundamental human rights. Among them are the rights for same-sex couples to be married, for refugees to seek asylum, and for women to have access to abortions. They believe these rights are guaranteed simply by virtue of them having been born.
Burke and his Old Whigs, however, were skeptical of the notion of “natural rights”, for which so many men, women, and children had been sent to their death during the French Revolution. Rather, Burke claimed rights were won and won by “an entailed inheritance derived to us from our forefathers, and to be transmitted to our posterity; an estate specially belonging to the people of this kingdom without any reference whatever to any more general or prior right”. For the first Liberals, there was no such thing as “trump by right”. The only guarantees were the Laws of Nature and the Fall—from there, it’s the responsibility of man and his governments to build a happy and just society, and to pass that society on to their children.
Chesterton, who wrote in Orthodoxy that, “I was brought up a Liberal, and have always believed in democracy, in the elementary liberal doctrine of a self-governing humanity,” has a bit of advice for our modern Progressive “Liberal” in his famous discourse on the “Ethics of Elfland”:
The democratic contention is that government (helping to rule the tribe) is a thing like falling in love, and not a thing like dropping into poetry. It is not something analogous to playing the church organ, painting on vellum, discovering the North Pole (that insidious habit), looping the loop, being Astronomer Royal, and so on. For these things we do not wish a man to do at all unless he does them well. It is, on the contrary, a thing analogous to writing one’s own love-letters or blowing one’s own nose. These things we want a man to do for himself, even if he does them badly. I am not here arguing the truth of any of these conceptions; I know that some moderns are asking to have their wives chosen by scientists, and they may soon be asking, for all I know, to have their noses blown by nurses. I merely say that mankind does recognize these universal human functions, and that democracy classes government among them. In short, the democratic faith is this: that the most terribly important things must be left to ordinary men themselves—the mating of the sexes, the rearing of the young, the laws of the state. This is democracy; and in this I have always believed.
We also know that Chesterton extended his democracy to the dead: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father. I, at any rate, cannot separate the two ideas of democracy and tradition; it seems evident to me that they are the same idea.”
So the Progressive, with his preconceived ideological scheme for the world, is of course not the heir of the original reactionary Tories—but nor is he the heir of the old Liberals. The Liberals, while concerned with improving the condition of society’s lowest orders, also didn’t intend to sacrifice the order itself. They recognized the great value that many traditions have, not for the sake of them being old, but for the way they naturally frame and support an organic community. “Change” is the Progressive’s battle cry, “Reform” is the Liberal’s.
But there’s as much danger in saying, “Burke, Chesterton, Belloc, and Lewis were Liberals and democrats; therefore, they would support modern Progressivism”, as there is in saying, “Burke, Chesterton, Belloc, and Lewis were Liberal anti-Radicals; therefore, they would support modern Conservatism.” There are plenty of witty quotes to the contrary. There’s Eliot saying, “Conservatism is too often conservation of the wrong things.” There’s Chesterton’s admonition, “The whole modern world has divided itself into Conservatives and Progressives. The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” We have to wonder what exactly is that error our most cherished Traditionalists saw in their contemporary Conservatives.
What unites these critics of both modern Conservatism and modern Liberalism is one great and all-pervasive conviction: Distributism.
Distributism was, of course, formulated by Chesterton and Belloc. Eliot was known to have certain sympathies with the ideals of Distributism, and it’s rumored (and not unlikely) that the Inklings, especially Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, were early converts to Distributism. We ought to be aware that Distributism’s convictions have been a much larger factor of Imaginative Conservatism than we might realize.
Of course, one can’t be both a Distributist and a supporter of Neoliberal economics—the sort touted by Reagan, Thatcher, and most of the center-right parties in the Western world. One might be a Distributist with a generally laissez-faire approach, but a strong Distributist conviction would soundly rebuff any great love for Reaganomics or “trickle down” scheme. Distributism is, and always has been, more than a simply mathematical way of looking at human interaction.
Distributism is undoubtedly the most cross-eyed philosophy in modern times, which owes to its unpopularity. It commits itself both to the organic structure of society and to a general revolt against man’s inherently selfish nature. It concerns itself with what caused our forefathers to flourish but demands that we be still more prosperous. It’s a desire to improve the lot of every man without making him obsessed with that lot. At its heart, Distributism is at once a Traditionalist and reform-oriented philosophy. It’s a relic of the old Liberal spirit.
Now it’s perfectly true that the Old Liberals, like neoliberals, believed that governing forces (be they aristocrats or kings or republics), ought to have greater autonomy in the market. But the question is whether they believed in a “free market” economy for its own sake, or if they believed individual autonomy was the ideal. To put it another way, would the Old Liberals have been comfortable with heavily centralized wealth in the hands of corporations, a large banking sector, the exportation of labor and agriculture, and the decline of independent artisanship?
My inclination would be to say no. We know for a fact that the avowed Distributists opposed the rise of modern Capitalism, which is really a form of Social Darwinism. The Distributists, in the tradition of the Old Liberals, believed that neither governments nor corporations have any right to deprive workers of the ownership of their own labor or to exert great influence over the affairs of the common man. This is the strain of Liberalism that believed man ought to be rooted and free, autonomous and deferential to the natural order of things. This is the sort of democracy that mistrusts any one Fallen man to lord over any other Fallen man, and yet respects the traditional institutions that know how to govern justly.
Preferring a corporate master to a government master is the “conservation of the wrong thing”. It belongs to a tragic strain of conservatism that, rather than respecting all things sacred—Kings and common men, communities and individuals—picks one and holds fast. The Old Liberals understood this need for perpetual reform, perpetual rebellion against the depraved and unjust world. The Old Liberals knew, as Christians and students of natural law, that the world is unfair, but that men ought to strive to be fair themselves. They knew Kings and Presidents were oftentimes the most just rulers of all, but to expect perfection of them was in itself a great error: to idolize does great harm to one’s self, but it also harms the idol, who might think himself far greater than he is.
This balance between conformation and deformation is the most precarious of all. Certainly it’s always easier to say, “This is as good as it gets” or “everything needs to go”. But as Chesterton said of Christianity, it hasn’t been tried and found wanting, it’s been found difficult and not tried. The same may well be true of the good old Liberalism.
There’s still the troubling question of how a body might sympathize equally with Eliot, the High Tory royalist, and with Chesterton the Liberal democrat. Perhaps a Catholic might feel more secure in his or her traditions and be willing to take the Liberal tack, whereas Anglicans and Protestants are considerably less comfortable in their own denomination and raise the blue flag. Who knows? Though I’d be inclined to say it’s largely a matter of the individual Traditionalist’s priorities. Is he, like Eliot, more concerned with preserving the “permanent things”, guarding ancient institutions, and preserving their society’s Christian culture? Or are they, as Lewis said, “… commandos behind the enemy lines, preparing the way for the coming of the Commander-in-Chief”—waging guerilla war against the very nature of this world, fighting for justice and virtue where there was none before? We can see how the two go hand-in-hand, and yet at times demand separate battalions. The relationship isn’t unlike Pope Benedict XVI and his successor Francis: both uphold the traditions of the Church, whereas one is visibly more conservation-minded, and the other concerned largely with reform. One might even wonder if the so-called “New Right”, the European Nouvelle Droite, is a reaction against the declining Liberal/reform element of Conservatism as well as the loss of Conservatives who defend the permanent things: with the pro-status quo faction having grown so large, and with its conservative emphasis focused on a “live and let live” economic attitude coopted by either a puritanical prohibitiveness or a self-interested permissiveness. They might see a Conservatism that is both disinterested in its roots and in the wellbeing of its fellows. And perhaps their critique is valid in that respect. Traditionalism is always in need of the right sort of Conservatives, but it may well need the right sort of Liberals, too.
Books on this topic may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.