Do Conservatives have a philosophy? Do Liberals?

Jonathan Chait is great.

When he’s not writing on the Keystone XL pipeline he’s generally pretty solid; I imagine we have deep disagreements, but presently, with a Republican party largely off the hinges, he’s writing on stuff I agree with. One qualm I stumbled upon:

And not because conservatives are necessarily more stubborn. (Indeed, on an individual level, liberals may well be just as stubborn as conservatives.) Rather, conservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles.Conservatives believe that big government impinges upon freedom. They may also believe that big government imposes large costs on the economy. But, for a true conservative, whatever ends they think smaller government may bring about–greater prosperity, economic mobility for the non-rich–are almost beside the point. As Milton Friedman wrote, “[F]reedom in economic arrangements is itself a component of freedom broadly understood, so economic freedom is an end in itself.”

As far as I can tell, this is total bunk. For one, I’ve met a lot of liberals and all of their political decisions are formed by deeply philosophical principles. Chait essentially contradicts himself in his next paragraph:

We’re accustomed to thinking of liberalism and conservatism as parallel ideologies, with conservatives preferring less government and liberals preferring more. The equivalency breaks down, though, when you consider that liberals never claim that increasing the size of government is an end in itself. Liberals only support larger government if they have some reason to believe that it will lead to material improvement in people’s lives. Conservatives also want material improvement in people’s lives, of course, but proving that their policies can produce such an outcome is a luxury, not a necessity.

Now, liberals do have an underlying set of philosophical principles, i.e. utilitarianism. Conservatives, in Chait’s telling are more concerned with ideology i.e. government is always bad. In this paragraph it is the liberals with the deep philosophical claims, while the conservatives are simply reactionary. I would argue that, in fact, conservatives are likely right that a material improvement in someone’s life should not be the end-all, be-all of politics, because millenia of existing as human beings confirm that far more important to well-being are family, community, a sense of purpose and fulfilling work.

There was a time when conservative philosophy was represented in Republican policies, and not a reactionary conservatism, a conservatism that was logically coherent and powerfully persuasive, one that made you think (read: Michael Oakeshott or Leo Strauss or Carl Schmitt and, if I’m being gracious, Chesterton – though never Lewis). Now, that tradition is in shambles, mainly because the Republican party is no longer informed by a coherent set of underlying principles. That’s why Jon Stewart can satirize them so successfully, they are entirely nihilist. Chait recognizes this, in his newest piece on the EITC when he talks about a proposal that is once accepted by Republicans is immediately denounced when their opponents cite it. This is not philosophy, it is, ultimately, nihilism.

I grant that in politics, the lines of your philosophy are blurred. But you can still get a general reading. The humor that Stewart creates is in showing that all of the modern Republican party’s pretensions toward traditions and such are empty – their goal is to forward the plutocratic agenda, it is pure class politics. Chait believes Republicans want small government for no reason. What? No one just hates government out of nowhere; Republicans have a reason for it – primarily, helping those who benefit from smaller government (i.e. richie riches). I don’t know inside their hearts, but I’m guessing this because when big government helps wealthy donors (farm subsidies) the party has trouble getting rid of it. There are libertarians as well, their political program is also informed by philosophical principles – different from my own, but philosophical nonetheless.

I wish there were more people like Andrew Sullivan who really wrestled with their traditions to come up with a realistic conservative political program. When that happens, we could say that the right was infused with political philosophy. As it is, it’s just naked class interests (which is why Sullivan has distanced himself from the Republican party). Liberals, as far as I can tell, have a better, if not incomplete political philosophy, rather than a reactionary program of class interest.

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