Conservatism: Defender of the Modern Welfare State?

I am grateful for the incentive Jason’s rebuttal provides to study conservative thinker Michael Oakeshott.  However, I respectfully disagree with Jason’s conclusion that “esteem[ of] the present … on account of its familiarity” suffices to establish conservatism.  Thus, I stand on my assertion that there is something more to the idea of conservatism than unthinkingly defending the status quo. 

Oakeshott’s basic point about conservatism—that it is primarily concerned with “conserving” what is present and familiar—is similar to Russell Kirk’s, who in What Is Conservatism? stated:

Strictly speaking, conservatism is not a political system, and certainly not an ideology. . . . Instead, conservatism is a way of looking at the civil social order.  Although certain general principles held by most conservatives may be described, there exists wide variety in application of these ideas from age and age and country to country. 

However, Kirk acknowledges, as I believe Oakeshott does to a degree, that the conservative man has not failed to discern certain principles of governance and right conduct and social ordering from his humble study of custom and convention.  For Oakeshott, conservatism observes certain fundamentals of social and political order not because they are “familiar,” but because they are necessary preconditions of the sort of society that conservatives can bring themselves to admire and defend in the first place. 

“[W]hat makes a conservative disposition in politics intelligible … is the observation of our current manner of living combined with the belief (which from our point of view need be regarded as no more than an hypothesis) that governing is a specific and limited activity, namely the provision and custody of general rules of conduct, which are understood, not as plans for imposing substantive activities, but as instruments enabling people to pursue the activities of their own choice with the minimum frustration, and therefore something which it is appropriate to be conservative about.”

(Emphasis added.)

For his part, Kirk explains conservative principles by reference to a source that Oakeshott rejects: antiquity.  Oakeshott holds that man will forsake antiquity in favor of the familiar.  Kirk acknowledges, correctly I think, that antiquity engenders familiarity.  Drawing from Edmund Burke’s “wisdom of our ancestors,” Kirk emphasizes conservatism’s reliance on “‘prescription’—that is, of things established by immemorial usage.” 

There exist rights of which the chief sanction is their antiquity—including rights in property, often. . . . Conservatives argue that we are unlikely, we moderns, to make any brave new discoveries in morals or politics or taste.

A recent upheaval of long-recognized rights or principles of limited government, it would thus seem, does not automatically command the observance of the faithful conservative.  Specifically, defending the New Deal and its legacy is not “conservative” for at least two reasons.  First, as suggested above, it undermines familiar ideas long and closely held concerning economic rights and limited government.  Irrespective of the post-New Deal regime’s “substantive activities,” it is credibly regarded as having undermined the “instruments enabling people to pursue the activities of their own choice with the minimum frustration.”  Thus, even an Oakeshott conservative will not regard the modern enlarged federal government as “something which it is appropriate to be conservative about.” 

Second, the New Deal replaced the old ideas of limited government with enumerated powers with no coherent idea of its own.  Instead, it ushered in a regime of endless experimentation.  As Richard Hofstadter put it, “it would be fatal to rest content with [FDR’s] belief in personal benevolence, personal arrangements, the sufficiency of good intentions, and month-to-month improvisation, without trying to achieve a more inclusive and systematic conception of what is happening in the world.”  The New Deal legacy thus offers conservatives neither familiarity nor antiquity. 

[Cross-posted at the main page]

Tim Kowal

Tim Kowal is a husband, father, and attorney in Orange County, California, Vice President of the Orange County Federalist Society, commissioner on the OC Human Relations Commission, and Treasurer of Huntington Beach Tomorrow. The views expressed on this blog are his own. You can follow this blog via RSS, Facebook, or Twitter. Email is welcome at timkowal at


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