The Bear’s Lair: How to Define Conservatism

The well-respected political journalist Matthew Continetti has just published a book “The Right: The Hundred Year War for American Conservatism,” one of many such, which takes the meaning of “Conservatism” as varying from decade to decade, according to the winds of events and popular culture. This seems to me a silly way to go about defining the term “Conservatism,” as is the concurrent attempt to write lengthy philosophical tomes attempting to do so from first principles. Instead, I suggest would-be “Conservatives” should identify a regime which in their view ran its country well, and then measure ideological deviations from that regime. Trust me: it’s much simpler and more coherent!

For me, the archetypal Conservative regime was Robert, 2nd Earl of Liverpool’s British administration of 1812-27. I am helped in this definition by the historical fact that the term “Conservative” was first used in the Quarterly Review of January 1830, shortly after Liverpool’s demise, but while its successor regime under the Duke of Wellington was still in office; it was defined as one who adhered to the principles and policies of Liverpool’s administration and its Wellingtonian successor. Thus, adherents of Liverpool’s policies have the greatest right to the term “Conservative”. In a sense all other pretenders to that appellation, including the current quasi-socialist British “Conservative” party, should be paying us royalties!

For Americans unwilling to delve back 200 years to a foreign country, there is an alternative “fixed point” by which to define Conservatism: it is the administrations of William McKinley, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge, now themselves a century or more ago. As with Liverpool in Britain, there is a coherent body of beliefs held by all three Presidents, that they themselves recognized they held in common. However oratorically attractive those Presidents found Lincoln-idolatry, their beliefs did not connect with the beliefs of Abraham Lincoln (quintessentially a “big government” man) nor with the beliefs of Dwight Eisenhower and subsequent Republican Presidents, as I shall show. They did however have much in common with the beliefs of Liverpool, a century earlier, suggesting that “Conservatism” defined by either fixed-point definition has a trans-national, trans-cultural quality and can validly be used as a benchmark today.

From the viewpoint of a Liverpool Conservative (or a Coolidge one) the candidates vying for office today, even on the right of politics, represent a choice between third-best and fourth-best alternatives. There are no good candidates, nobody representing the limited-franchise, small government, low-regulation, wealth-creating Gold Standard politics of Liverpool. Nor have there been such candidates, even at a reasonable approximation, since at least 1924 in the United States and 1900 in Britain.

Margaret Thatcher’s father had been a Gladstonian liberal and it showed; her destruction of the British merchant banks through the Financial Services Act of 1986 demonstrated a Whiggish unilateral free-trade fanaticism and disregard of existing societal structures that Liverpool despised in his own time. Ronald Reagan’s open-doors policy on immigration, while attractive to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce through producing additional cheap labor, ran contrary to Liverpool’s belief that an innovative economy required high-wage labor, and that sweatshop operators were imposing unacceptable social costs on the rest of society. Neither statesman, whatever their many virtues, represented Conservatism as Liverpool or McKinley (another high-wage man, through the use of tariffs) would have understood it.

If the best politicians operating in the mainstream today represent only third-rate or fourth-rate approximations to Conservatism, it follows that there is no need to reject the “nut-jobs” on the fringes of politics. Their attempts at Conservatism may be closer to the real thing than the maunderings of conventional politicians, and their eccentricities may jolt the political system in a useful direction.

For example, the efforts by William F. Buckley and the early National Review to exile fringe movements from “Conservatism” as they defined it appear wholly counterproductive. So what if the John Birch Society thought Dwight Eisenhower a Communist? Liverpool would have agreed with them! Eisenhower’s 91% marginal income tax rate, which he made no attempt to lower throughout his 8-year administration, his sponsorship of an overweening security state in the FBI and the CIA and his big-company anti-entrepreneurial economic vision of the United States were between them much closer to Communism than to the free market Conservatism of Liverpool’s time. Liverpool would also have spotted that the economic complacency and sluggishness of the Eisenhower years were storing up competitiveness problems for the U.S. once European economies recovered and Asian economies matured.

As for Buckley’s attempt to anathematize Ayn Rand, Liverpool would have considered it totally unjustified. He would have agreed with Buckley that Rand’s anti-religious attitudes were thoroughly unattractive but would have had more understanding of her upbringing among the haute-bourgeois Jewish community of pre-1914 St. Petersburg, and the trauma she had suffered in seeing that world destroyed by Communism and being forced to flee across the Finnish border in the snow. Her economic vision and adulation of entrepreneurs would have appeared entirely appropriate to Liverpool, who would also have appreciated, at least as a literary device, the tactic of “the mind on strike” as a means of attaining Conservative objectives. Certainly, he would have balked at employing an ex-Soviet spy like Whittaker Chambers to savage her magnum opus “Atlas Shrugged” – he would no more have employed Chambers on important work than he would have trusted Tom Paine if Paine had suddenly in old age expressed a new-found devotion to Church and King.

More recently, the split between “Establishment” Republicans and Trumpists is, when viewed from a Liverpool-Conservative perspective, not especially meaningful. Both groups have only small elements of Conservatism within them and should only be supported faute de mieux. A Liverpool would deplore the tendency of the Establishment Republicans to cave to the left whenever pressure is applied, making them hopeless as defenders of Conservative values, even when they share those values, which they generally do not. He would also deprecate their habit of starting wars in obscure places where no U.S. interest existed; Liverpool himself was always highly skeptical of the “prancing proconsuls” in the further reaches of the British Empire.

Conversely, a Liverpool would share the Establishment’s distaste at Trump’s vulgarization of political disputes and his lack of coherent principles. Naturally, he would also object to Trump’s penchant for Gosplan easy-money fiat currency Fed policies, allowing the price of money to be entirely divorced from market forces, and would correctly remark that an effective Gold Standard would remove such policies from the realms of possibility and Trump from unnecessary temptation. A Liverpool would also object to the budget deficits run by both Establishment and Trumpist Republicans in recent decades and mourn the more effective budget discipline of the Clinton/Gingrich coalition in the late 1990s, which appeared fleetingly to remove the specter of spiraling public debt from our future.

As in the early years of National Review, a Liverpool would find more to praise in the policies of eccentrics whose politics are derided by the mainstream in both parties. On the Democrat side, he would praise the staunchness of Senators Joe Manchin (D.-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D.-AZ) who showed more moral courage in resisting their party’s noisy left than the George Bushes and Mitt Romneys could ever dream of. He would also welcome the maverick former Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s insight that by supporting Ukraine with massive arms shipments, we are backing a government of odious leftist corruption and very doubtful democratic legitimacy, forcing Russia’s President Vladimir Putin into a corner and running a serious risk of a Third World War.

Finally, a Liverpool would recognize that within the Republican caucus, an extreme figure like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene plays a valuable function in opening previously derided ideas to serious discussion. The concept of an Overton Window, an opening which allows an idea previously seen as eccentric to become the topic of serious discussion, is a highly important one in preserving freedom. Compromising politicians, who despise eccentrics and extremists and allow the media-fueled left to set the limits of political debate, slam shut Overton Windows, pull society steadily leftwards and do untold damage to all of us thereby. If the current political class closes Conservative Overton Windows, as it does, then a Conservative must look to rhetorical “bomb-throwers” who can open new ones, moving the national and international discourse towards a better, more Conservative policy.

To navigate a ship, we must observe the fixed stars, not the ebbs and flows of tides and currents. Similarly, to define a political philosophy such as Conservatism, we must identify a regime that, in our naughty world, came closest to exemplifying it, then attempt to apply that regime’s political principles and where possible its policies to our own times. In Lord Liverpool’s peerless government, we have such a star by which to steer.

For more information on Lord Liverpool, Britain’s Greatest Prime Minister is available from the publisher and Amazon

(The Bear’s Lair is a weekly column that is intended to appear each Monday, an appropriately gloomy day of the week. Its rationale is that the proportion of “sell” recommendations put out by Wall Street houses remains far below that of “buy” recommendations. Accordingly, investors have an excess of positive information and very little negative information. The column thus takes the ursine view of life and the market, in the hope that it may be usefully different from what investors see elsewhere.)