Conservatives and Political Liberalism: A Necessary Paradox | Jake Scott

In the last forty years, two terms have been conflated in conservative philosophy: the concept of “limited government”; and the political programme of a “small state”. The former is a traditional approach to governance that conservatives defend, in that it does not specify a particular restriction to government action, while the latter is an ideological goal that measures the validity of government action by how far it aligns with a pre-conceived notion of what a state should do. In another way of putting it, the term “limited government” is structural, and concerned with the way government is built and constrained; “small state”, however, is a substantial definition of the responsibilities of government and where those responsibilities end. The two are not incompatible at all – but then, the two are not destined to be fused together irreparably.

Why does this matter?

Because the conservative rhetoric has been confused by the conflation of these two terms. In the English tradition, limited government is a reflexive and elastic term that allowed governments to expand, withdraw, intervene, shift its focus and – in all things – remain limited. I cannot stress this enough – the use of the word “limited” is very much a constitutional one that, no matter how big the state should become, it remains constrained. 

To fuse the two terms is to make the conservative into a distinct form of neoliberal, who sees any form of government action as “authoritarian” or, especially in the case of economics, even “socialist”, and appeal irrationally to the naturally liberal impulse in all Britons for the state to be kept at arm’s length. American philosopher George Will in his book Statecraft as Soulcraft made the very powerful argument that a state cannot retreat into itself, or society will (as Edmund Burke put it) collapse into the dust and powder of individualism. Without saturating this article with too many names, Quintin Hogg argued in 1947 that if you “do not give the people social reform, they will give you social revolution”. 

The summary of these arguments (referenced briefly in the hopes the reader will research them himself) is that state action is necessary to avoid the collapse of society; while inequality is a natural state of affairs, it does not follow that inequality is desirable, especially where that inequality erodes the very foundations of political institutions, which largely exist to find a way of harmonious living despite practical differences. When Peter Dorey observed that the British Conservative Party was concerned with inequality, he made it very clear that the post-Second World War Conservatives were concerned with “bounded inequality” while the Thatcherite paradigm was the exact opposite, “unbounded inequality”. In short, a small state risks eroding the society over which it governs.

Conservatives therefore ought to be wary of a “small state”, but they must also be wary of a too-powerful one. It is not a philosophical principle, but rather a pragmatic axiom that the apparatus of government can be captured by the wrong ideas (not necessarily the wrong people). When John Locke famously wrote in his Letter Concerning Toleration that “the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate, any more than to other men… nor can any such power be vested in the magistrate by the consent of the people, because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave it to the choice of any other… to prescribe to him what faith or worship he shall embrace” his concern was that, should the power to determine conscience or belief be one that the government possessed, then that power could be used by a conspiracy to enforce an alien belief onto the people over whom that government reigns.

Some might find such a pronouncement preternatural. 

Conservatives might also tend towards an authoritarian mindset when they consider that the purpose of government is to protect the society that formed it, which necessarily involves the limitation of dangerous and harmful activities (the consumption of narcotics; reckless driving; etc.) that are selfish in such a way that they erode the bonds between individuals. But the danger of authoritarianism is that it does not dissipate with the authoritarians; if conservatives construct a state in which they have the ability to punish people for aberrant thoughts or incorrect attitudes, then that state may one day be used to punish them.

Consider early 20th century Russia; after the October Revolution, the powerful Tsarist government was not deconstructed, despite strident attacks made by the Bolsheviks and Mensheviks towards it in the years preceding, but was utilised by the communists in order to silence dissent. Similarly, the new French Republic in 1789 was able to enforce its new project in philosophical politics only through the structure of French absolutism established in the preceding century, taken to absurd ends with The Terror and the systematic execution of the aristocracy. 

Contrast this to the English state that so enamoured the Baron de Montesquieu in his visit in the early 18th century. England, recently (politically) joined with Scotland (Act of Union, 1707) and declared a constitutional monarchy in 1688 following the Glorious Revolution, had developed a system that Montesquieu termed the separation of powers in L’Esprit de Lois and became a famous concept in political liberalism. Montesquieu was fearful of a powerful state that eroded long-standing liberties, considering Louis XIV (who died in 1715) had continually forced the parlements to accept royal decrees, despite their historical freedom to shape decrees in such a way that they respected the local customs. Montesquieu did not live to see the French Revolution, but one could imagine his horror at the fusion of all branches of government into one monolithe

This is why conservatives must align themselves with political liberalism, and put their faith in a social conservatism that demands self-responsibility, self-governance, and self-discipline. By social conservatism, again I do not mean a substantial connection to the ideals of yesteryear, but a belief in responsibility to balance the rights with which we have all been endowed. It might be your right to free speech, but it is your responsibility to speak well that matters, for instance. 

If the State becomes the single arbiter by which behaviour can be considered appropriate or legitimate, it can also become the method by which behaviour can be controlled. This is why conservatives must defend a limited government; because almost certainly, that government might be controlled by those with whom you disagree. 

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