Heard tries to defend conservatives

It’s rare to hear somebody try to defend conservative ideas. That’s mostly because conservativism is generally defined as a lack of ideas. While classical liberals, social democrats, socialists, fascists and anarchists have something they strive towards… conservatives only knows what they are against: change.

But in the latest edition of “Policy magazine”, John Heard has tried to defend conservatives and justify the continuation of the old conservative-libertarian union. He fails.

First, he tries to say that conservative actually means something in America, but all he can come up with is slogans about bogans with big hats.

He eventually admits what we already knew… that “the label conservative is not, in fact, a fixed or even a known quantity”. For or against Israel. For or against trade. For or against small government. For or against climate change action. For or against war & activist foreign policy. For or against immigration. For or against minority rights. The word changes meaning so often because there is no underlying political philosophy. Just a “vibe”. And when a group of conservatives can find a group of common policies, those policies have no consistent underlying theme.

Heard notes the historical fusion between traditional (social) conservatives and libertarians. But this still does not tell us what “traditional (social) conservativism” actually means, other than “anti-change”. He makes reference to “virtue”, but that doesn’t tell us what the government should do. Another reference is to “shared values, morals and standards”, but that doesn’t actually tell us anything about a political philosophy. Lenin and Trotsky also shared values, but that doesn’t make them conservative. The only other clues Heard leaves us is that conservatives were scared of communism, like god, and that they are always worried about the “fabric of society”. Still — no hint of political philosophy.

It is no surprise to me that Heard totally fails to define conservativism in terms of political philosophy. It is not possible. Unfortunately, he doesn’t seem to notice his failure and instead strives forward to defend the union between the conservative non-philosohpy and the libertarian philosophy.

Heard tells us some of the history of the conservative-libertarian union. He points out the standard explaination that their mutual anti-socialist tendencies brought them together. Strangely, he seems to disagree with this idea and then pretty much presents the exact same idea with different words (because both groups didn’t like the direction America was heading).

The logical consequence of this is for libertarians to now reject the conservative-libertarian alliance… as the conservatives are now very much in bed with the big-government social democrats. Social democrats believe in our current social democracy. Conservatives believe in conserving our current social democracy. Libertarians want change.

Heard fails to notice this break-down. Instead, he seems to defend the fusion by saying that it worked and asks “why anyone would want to jeopardise the broad political appeal of fusionist conservatism”.

While it is true that the conservatives gained power, this does not mean that the fusion makes sense. Once in power the conservatives failed to promote libertarian ideas, instead becoming a populist pool of the religious-right, big-government nanny-staters, agrarian-socialists and war-mongers. How does this help libertarians? Heard is confusing political philosophy with politics. While the “conservative” team may have been elected, it has been social-democratic policies that have won*. Heard is happy about this outcome. People who believe in the philosophy of freedom are not.

The union continues to be useful for conservatives. Without libertarian ideas, the conservative movement would look entirely empty of thought (both Australian “right-wing” think-tanks are libertarian, not conservative). And having libertarians actively criticising conservative politics would mean that the conservatives would have to justify themselves. So I can see why Heard (presumably a conservative and/or Liberal party member) wants the fusion to continue.

But the union makes no sense for libertarians. Conservatives do get more votes than libertarians, but then when in power they do nothing to promote libertarian ideas. By supporting conservatives we dilute our message and weaken our voice and allow ourselves to be side-lined in the political contest between two sets of big-government conservative social democratic parties. By hiding our voice inside a conservative fake-union we are allowing the social democrats to win the battle of ideas.

Instead of meakly accepting the choice between two conservative social-democratic big-government parties, libertarians need to be arguing for a different set of ideas. We need to be arguing against conserving the status quo. And that puts us on a direct collision course with the conservatives.

(* Ironically, the few libertarian victories in Australia came mostly under an ALP administration anyway, which further undermines the idea that libertarians get value from their historical ties with the conservatives.)

9 thoughts on “Heard tries to defend conservatives

  1. A wonderful post.

    It is too rare that so many people do not know the difference between, on the one hand, all of the ideologies of conservatism, liberalism, socialism or fascism, and on the other hand, the philosophy of freedom. The ideologies (secular religions), like the theologies, provide answers to the many unanswerable questions, usually by constructing a myth and then making a call for action. An ideology, in Arendt’s memorable phrase, is merely “An idea treated as if it were a fact.”

    Freedom is not an ideology, despite Rousseau’s dark efforts and Napoleon’s attempt to impose the Rights of Man from the barrel of cannon. Freedom is a philosophy; more accurately, a universal moral philosophy. Freedom is a way of knowing (“epistemology’ in the jargon), a moral, an ethic, and a way to live a life.

    Unfortunately, libertarians all over the world constantly try to make their philosophy into an ideology. With a philosophy about devolving power, they run for political office in their desire to acquire power. It is a fundamental contradiction, which helps explain why libertarians do so poorly in elections. Theirs is fundamentally an intellectual movement, not a political movement.

    Libertarians can, however, give political voice to their philosophy by first solving the contradiction, adopting pragmatics (successful politics is about pragmatism, not principle), and by understanding partisan hatred (political psychology). A rigorous analysis of political hatred reveals that “change” is very definitely NOT the divide between the political Left and Right, despite two centuries of political theorists believing this is so. Once libertarians solve the ‘divide’ in political life, they will be better able to mount successful political campaigns.

    Yet, the greatest successes in libertarian philosophy have always been in our intellectual life, especially in economics. When libertarian philosophers come to have as much influence in political psychology as they already do in world-wide economics, libertarianism–the philosophy of freedom–will become the guiding influence for many of the educated people on our spinning blue marble.

    Being the preferred guide for human life nurturance–in the seeking of success and happiness–is considerably more important and influential than winning elections.

    Again, an excellent post.

    ‘Be free,’ Temujin.

  2. Genuine conservatives, as the name suggests, want to conserve things they consider to be important goods. We are therefore not against all change, or blindly against change; we are against change which threatens the goods we wish to defend.

    These goods did not arise as part of an intellectual philosophy, and therefore it’s true that a genuine conservatism isn’t really based on a set of ideas. If we do have a philosophy, it is oriented more toward a critique of modernism and modernist philosophies such as liberalism.

  3. Mark — that is still a non-definition. As everybody cares about different things in life, it is possible that every political philosophy is “conservative”. When Breschnev wanted to avoid change away from the Soviet Union, he was being “conservative” according to your definition.

    A critique is not a coherent political philosophy. Sometimes, conservatives complain about social democracy (ie American liberalism), but that tells us nothing. Marx complained about capitalism, but the complaint did not constitute a political philosophy. Just a complaint.

    But it’s even worse than that. Conservatives complain about social democracy because that’s what they have to do to get elected. But once they’re elected, the “conservatives” simply continue with the same social democracy. There is no identifiable alternative that they are working towards.

    How does any of this help libertarian ideas?

  4. John Heard has always struck me as a fairly conflicted man. I’m sure at the heart of his beliefs he is something of a libertarian, possibly even of the left-leaning persuasion.

    His Catholic upbringing however tends to lead him to some very hypocritical stances. For example he rejects any hatred or bigotry towards homosexuals (being one himself) yet seems to staunchly defend fellow Catholic’s who spew similar hatred in morally elitist debates. He rejects gay marriage (as any good churchy should) yet argues for something a civil union arrangement which is practically equivalent. He is strictly anti-stem cell research and yet argues that science and religion can work coherently together to be equally progressive.

    This is what happens when one aligns to a particular ideology and then is afraid to question it when it doesn’t seem to play out in the real world. He’s certainly not alone in this, plenty of Libertarians do the same thing.

  5. “Mark – that is still a non-definition”.

    OK, how about this. Conservatism is the political philosophy which does not take individual autonomy to be the organising principle of society, instead allowing unchosen goods (and uncontracted forms of authority), including those goods inherited as part of a tradition or as part of our biological nature, to maintain a legitimate and influential place within a society.

  6. Mr. Richardson:

    Conservatism is not a philosophy. Nor is liberalism. Half of humanity has adopted an ideology as part of their forming human identity, while the other half has adopted theology. Many people have adopted both to guide their life. There is nothing wrong in that process, until we lose sight of the irrational hatreds that myth-building ideo/theologies justify and generate.

    Ideo/theologies provide answers. In contrast, philosophy asks questions, in a never-ending conversation.

    Freedom is a philosophy, not an ideology. Someone please tell the neocons in America and the neo-fascists in Austria (‘Freedom Party’) the difference.

  7. Though I’m not exactly sure what “allow to maintain” means. Does it mean you will allow it, or mandate it? Several philosophies (including libertarianism) “allow” most things that are peaceful & voluntary. But if there’s something you want to mandate, you need to identify what it is. If it’s “tradition”, then you’re admiting that conservativism is simply against change. As tradition changes, so does the “conservative political philosophy” (sic).

    Political philosphy is the study of the role of government. Anarchists say zero. Socialists want a big government. Classical liberals want a small, constitutionally limited government. Minarchists want a government that only does defence. Social democrats & welfare statists want to start with the basis of individual choice, but then with government acting as your mum & dad.

    Conservatives think the role of government is…

    …whatever it was yesterday.


    Duoist, we’re not talking about all of philosophy here. We’re just talking about political philosophy (ie beliefs about the role of government). Classical liberals do have a fairly consistent set of beliefs about the role of government, so it’s fair to say that classical liberalism is a political philosophy. Conservatives do not have any fixed set of beliefs about government, so it’s fair to say that it is not a political philosophy.

    The word “ideology” is mis-used more than it’s used, so I will try to avoid it.

  8. PML – I thought you gave a reasonably good defense of conservatism as a political philosophy in the following thread when you debated Sukrit on the point (starting at comment 15).


    And if pushed I suspect you could make a better fist of it than John Heard. Ironically I don’t think you’re a conseravative. Some of your ideas are radical. For instance given the time and space I think the merits of your ideas about negative payroll taxes warrant a wider audience.

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