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 Notes From Babel]

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10 thoughts on “Conservatism: Defender of the Modern Welfare State?

  1. And yet, conservatives all over the country are telling Democrats to “Keep government out of my Medicare!”

    Tim, this is one of those instances where I agree with you, but the majority of people who vote and self-identify as conservatives prolly don’t. Or rather, they may want to get rid of SS, Medicare and Medicaid, but only after they’re done benefiting from those programs and long gone from the worries of finding affordable healthcare when you’re at death’s door.

    How do we handle this? Are those people not real conservatives?

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    • I suppose you might say that the New Deal was not ALL bad, and that Social Security and Medicare are the sorts of programs worth defending on conservative grounds.

      Then again, I think there is a lack of clarity and consensus among thoughtful conservatives about what modern federal governance should look like. The face of American government changed profoundly through FDR’s administration enabled by international crises. It has been a difficult project applying conservative principles of governance to the drastically altered regime—what, indeed, should we expect from conservative leaders? Roll back the administrative state whose tentacles are in everything? Take away the popular Social Security and Medicare programs? Perhaps dogma would demand it, but conservatives are not entirely unpragmatic.

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      • I think there is a lack of clarity and consensus among thoughtful conservatives about what modern federal governance should look like.

        I think the deficit of clarity finds some of its origin in political antiquarianism. Antiquarianism is agreeable in the aesthetic realm, not so much in practical life. An example of this is the habit among some of identifying as the salient defect in our political life notions ambient in the Progressive Era which conflict with the political thought of our 18th Solons. The solution proffered is to repeal the 17th Amendment. Thinking about how to restore local discretion in many realms and contain inefficiencies and rent seeking does not interest them because you are giving consideration to the effects of policy measures which are all unConstitutional anyway and we can reach an absolute politico-economic optimum by implementing Mr. Madison’s vision without any modifications.

        The difficulty you get with programs like Social Security and Medicare is that people’s long-range planning is constructed around them and their clientele have a very circumscribed ability to adjust to changes in economic circumstances. Altering theses programs is thus something that has to be done cohort-by-cohort to avoid serious social disruption – i.e. it is a multi-decade project. Another problem you get with Medicare and Medicaid is that they attempt to supply a service in a realm where people have unpredictable spikes in their propensity to consume; they are not readily replaced with something like a cash transfer or tax credit because attempting to pay for medical care it toto with private household savings would tax to the breaking point most people’s capacity to allocate income between temporal periods.

        Another difficulty you get with Social Security and Medicare is that eligibility and benefit levels are influenced by contributions collected over decades. The population is not as mobile as it is cracked-up to be, but you do have a critical mass of people who move around throughout their life and portability of benefits is an issue, hence the difficulty of devolving the programs.

        (Other elements of the welfare state as constructed during the period running from 1933 to 1969 could be readily replaced with a tax credit or phased out entirely because they serve a clientele which can passably adjust and involves subsidies to things like rental housing and groceries which are replenished weekly or monthly, are fairly predictable in their dimensions, and are sensitive to considerations of taste and amenity).

        With regard to the regulatory aspect of the ‘administrative state’, your bigger problem is policy barnacles and agency capture. The scale of enterprises and division of labor is such in our time that federal regulatory agencies are predominantly concerned with activity that crosses state borders. The big exceptions would be the application of federal law to the labor relations of small business, to occupational safety practices of small businesses, to landlord-tenant matters, to retail trade by small business whose clients are presumptively local, and to waste dumping with locally circumscribed effects. These matters could be devolved to state agencies. Of course, the reaction to gutting federal civil rights law would likely lead to a neuralgic reaction.

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  2. 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.

    Your “thus” is inappropriate here. I argued what came before it — that cherishing the present is conservatism, at least for Oakeshott. I did not argue the latter — that we must do so unthinkingly — and neither did he. In fact, I offered evidence to the contrary and even spoke favorably of it.

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  3. If the New Deal legacy is a regime of endless experimentation, it would seem easy to get rid of it by just stopping the experimenting. If it’s something more than that, getting rid of it would likely cause some pain and social upheaval, but that’s not necessarily a good reason to keep it. How much social upheaval would it cause? How great are the rewards for doing so? How do we do so without simply winding up doing more experimenting? If conservatives are simply at odds with the New Deal legacy, would these pragmatic questions matter to them? At what point would a conservative say the negative consequences outweigh the positive outcomes? Could they say that? Finally, if someone’s goal is to reverse a sweeping social change that has already taken place, doesn’t that mean they’d be more rightly called a reactionary than a conservative?

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    • Actually, what you’re getting at here is the inverse of RTod’s pragmatism thesis: there are some institutions people like independently of ideology. Since they like them, and they self-identify as ideology X, ideology X must in some sense, to a certain degree, adopt those institutions or risk irrelevance. That’s progress. Well, not progress, but progression.

      Maybe that’s my biggest gripe about ideology: it’s too static.

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      • Right, I think that’s my issue with this. The way Tim explains it, I totally get why conservatives would be opposed to the New Deal legacy- it makes perfect sense. But if getting rid of some aspect of it would greatly increase the freedom of the individual to pursue the activities of his own choice with the least amount of interference- and yet he doesn’t want it taken away- how do you take it away without being just as paternalistic and coercive as what you’re looking to do away with? I mean, I’m not asking to cause trouble. I just don’t know where you draw the line.

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  4. Rufus,

    I’m pecking this out on my Blackberry, so forgive me for offering conclusory answers to your very good questions. First, I’ve been defending the idea that conservatism, though it has a major relative component (resisting change), it is also based on some bedrock principles. Those principles are antithetical to the main thrust of the New Deal, even if not all of its particulars. Pragmatism is necessary, then, to effectively transition back to an order that comports with conservative principles. But pragmatism describes the means, not the ends.

    So yes, the amount of upheaval matters, but if we’re talking about removing policies antithetical to a properly ordered regime, then it matters politically only–it does not suddenly make those policies “conservative.”

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