Conservatism: Burke to Nozick to Blair?

Conservatism: Burke to Nozick to Blair?

by Ted Honderich



Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780745321295
Publisher: Pluto Press
Publication date: 03/16/2005
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Ted Honderich is Grote Professor Emeritus at University College London and author of numerous books on philosophy including After the Terror (Edinburgh University Press, 2002), How Free Are You? (Oxford University Press, 2001), and editor of The Philosophers: Introducing Great Western Thinkers (Oxford University Press, 2001). He is also the editor of the Oxford Companion to Philosophy.

Read an Excerpt


Change and Reform

Our business is interrupted, our repose is troubled, our pleasures are saddened, our very studies are poisoned and perverted, and knowledge is rendered worse than ignorance, by the enormous evils of this dreadful innovation. ...

Edmund Burke


Conservatism by its name announces that it conserves. It recurrently said of itself, in a tone suitable for an axiom of politics, that it is against change. Some others said unkindly that it believes nothing should be done for the first time. No doubt there is some compendious truth about its opposition to change, but what is it? To understand conservatism, by which I mean a political tradition including many governments, a number of parties, and indeed different conservatisms, and to make a judgement about it, we need a clearer understanding of what it is against. Conservatism as we know it, sometimes aggressive, sometimes in retreat, sometimes seeming to be changing or maybe taking on a disguise, came into existence as a reaction to the French Revolution. It began in disapproval, shock, fear and resistance. Some say, as a result, that conservatism is better identified by what it opposes than what it supports. Are they right?

It would go against one refrain of conservatives, having to do with familiarity, to take them as against only and merely what you can call basic change. That is what does not include within itself our loss of familiarity with a thing. Basic change may cause, but does not include, unfamiliarity and like feelings. Is conservatism better conceived as resistance to change where change importantly does include our no longer being accustomed to things? No doubt, but that leaves several questions open. Conservatism is, we have occasionally been told, the disposition and the politics in favour of the familiar, the old and known, whether in the constitutions of nations and the large ways of society, pinstripe suits, places to fish, or as some say, reflectively and perhaps resolutely, spouses and lovers.

Our subject for analysis, however, as you will have gathered, is not conservatism in a wide sense, where it has to do with more or less anything in addition to society and politics and is more a matter of a personal disposition or indeed personality than principles. Nor is our subject a related conservatism where that is something that can turn up in any political party, and has turned up in liberal, socialist and communist parties. We are not concerned with conservative wings of such parties, so long as those wings remain more or less true to the spirits or principles of the parties.

Rather, our subject is the particular political tradition of belief, feeling, policy, legislation and action exemplified by the Conservative Party in Britain until its election disasters in 1997 and 2001 ended its run of successes, and also by a main part of the Republican Party in the United States, certainly that of Mr Bush, and some of the Democratic Party. It is a political tradition that has evolved and contains diversity. The indication of the tradition in terms of only three parties is no adequate account or definition of our subject – such an account is not something we can start with, but something we intend to end up with. But it is enough to enable us to get under way. Is this politics of the right well conceived as resistance to the kind of change that includes unfamiliarity?

It has among its leading principles, as they are briefly and coolly traced throughout its history by Anthony Quinton, the principle of traditionalism, which has to do with attachment to and reverence for established institutions and customs. English Tories true to their lineage, like their American cousins within the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, could for long rely on Peregrine Worsthorne of the Sunday Telegraph to speak their instincts, indeed weekly. He recurred to the proposition that the purpose of sound men must be to keep a country recognizably the same.

Still, if conservatism were at bottom a defence of the unaltered and familiar, in the plain meaning of the phrase, we should have a mystery on our hands, the mystery of how an egregious idiocy could have become a large political tradition. If we do speak in an ordinarily clear way, in saying that conservatism comes down to a defence of all of the unaltered and familiar in society and politics, we also say nothing kind about conservatism. We do not do it justice.

One simple reason is that over quite short periods of time, if conservatism were the mentioned thing, it would in effect have to be repeatedly inconsistent. It would need to defend next year or the year or decade after – when the thing becomes familiar – what it opposes today. More absurdly, it would fail to make the most elementary distinction in life: between what is familiar and good and what is familiar and bad – and hence the distinction between bad and good change. Anything, after all, can become familiar. Confusion, boredom, frustration and solitary confinement can. So can being without a job. Perhaps in the 1980s and 1990s there was a logician of the new right who supposed that for consistency he had to agree that there was a good argument for the anarchists and communists outside continuing to drive him crazy. He was familiar with that. Let us not make him our exemplar of the conservative.

Does the summary idea, that conservatism recommends the unaltered and familiar in society and politics, founder not just on the truth that this would make it wholly irrational, but on the large proposition that in fact conservatism has often or even always advocated change? One might indeed think so.

Conservatism as we are understanding it begins with what all take to be its greatest piece of writing, Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France of 1790. But consider the Thatcher years in Britain from 1979, when we were to transform into private property anything upon which the eye of an entrepreneur happened to be directed towards by an evangelical politician. We were to privatize the prisons, think about doing the same with the police and the army, and pay a little attention to the far-sighted economist who wished to privatize the whale as a means to its preservation. In 2004, in America, there was neo-conservatism, a kind of successor to the new right but more international. The neo-cons were also inclined to make things different, mainly other countries that had a mind of their own, by means of war. To pre-emptive war, unprecedented in not being in America's backyard of South America, the Bush presidencies added a break with a remaining consensus that had the New Deal and President Johnson's Great Society in its past. In fact pretty well all conservatism from Burke on, and not just of the Thatcher and Reagan years and since, has advocated what it will be a good idea to call alterations. It has made a lot of them.

If Burke, when he was concerned with England, did not actually want to turn the clock back to an earlier English constitution, the constitution whose 'balance' he so idealized, he certainly did not want just the England he found himself in at the end of the eighteenth century – let alone the way it might naturally develop. To glance at an early American instance of the unbroken line of conservative doom-singers, Fisher Ames of Massachusetts could hardly have wanted to leave alone the American state of things in 1807. 'Our disease,' he said, and gave good signs of believing it, 'is democracy. It is not the skin that festers – our very bones are carious, and their marrow blackens with gangrene.' Could he have been inclined to anything less than a little alteration or indeed a little transformation?

The poet Coleridge was no doubt sincere in his idea that English society should be civilized. This was to be done – it is here that the novelty comes in – through the ministrations of a new national church of culture, superior to the Anglican, and under the guidance of what he called a clerisy. To pass on to Benjamin Disraeli, that prime minister's celebration of the gentlemen of England, and his resistance to the new industrial money, did indeed issue in national alterations. A somewhat less world-historical figure, President Hadley of Yale University, maintained in 1925 that equality was the ideal of backward races, and liberty the ideal of progressive peoples. He was no doubt inclined, as a rational man, to having less of equality in America and more of liberty.

To revert to the new right, and the sample provided by William Buckley Jr, he was inclined nearly to transform all of American society: individualism in place of what he perceived as collectivism, moral absolutism in place of relativism, more presidential power and less Congressional, more liberty and less social security, and so on. The list was no short one. The Harvard philosopher Robert Nozick, the philosophical voice of part of the tradition of conservatism, the embodiment of its audacity, was opposed to anything more than the minimal state, taught that taxation on earnings is a form of forced labour, and elaborated the idea that starving members of a society may have no moral right to food, and so indeed have to starve. Much may be conjectured about his benevolence or humanity, of whether it would have been prudent to go shooting tigers with him, or, for that matter, picking mushrooms. The present point, however, is that he was no advocate of the status quo.

In Britain, from 1979, as already noted, Thatcher governments set out to reduce much of what others regarded as the decent institutions and practices of the society, things that others took to have made a little contribution to advancing civilization, say the railways. In fact Conservative Party politics, more than Labour Party politics, was the politics of alteration. In one large part it was reactionary politics, which is to say intent on altering things in the direction of a society long since left behind, indeed unfamiliar. The poor were again to become properly independent, and so on. Reagan governments in America, if they had somewhat less scope for privatization, shared this zeal. So with President Bush.

We have already concluded that conservatism cannot be taken to advocate an undiscriminating defence of all of the unchanged and familiar in society and politics, since that would be absurd, more so than is likely to be true of any sizeable tradition. Given what has been noted of the history of conservatism – its record of actual alteration and its commitment to it – are we not able to conclude that any attempt to summarize conservatism as opposition to change would fly in the face of a large fact: that conservatism does produce and advocate change?


Well, if we do conclude exactly that conservatism advocates and produces change, we go against a dominant idea in its tradition, anyway a refrain, although an idea or refrain not quite so much to the fore in its moments of aggressiveness. The dominant idea, which certainly does not issue in a general and undiscriminating defence of the familiar, is taken to be consistent with its record, with what in anticipation was neutrally called the alteration advocated or made by conservatism. Yes, it is said by conservatives, we have favoured some alteration, but do not confuse two kinds of alteration. Conservatism has never been in favour of the alteration, involving unfamiliarity, that is change. It has been and is for the kind of alteration, no doubt also involving some unfamiliarity, that is reform. If there have been careless musings to the contrary, conservatism has had at its heart, indeed firmly in its head, a claim about a deep difference between change and reform.

Burke set out to make this 'manifest, marked distinction' several times. It was wholly clear, he said, but was one 'which ill men with ill designs, or weak men incapable of any design, will constantly be confounding'. It will be as well to let him speak for a while.

... change ... alters the substance of the objects themselves, and gets rid of all their essential good as well as the accidental evil annexed to them. Change is novelty, and whether it is to operate any one of the effects of reformation at all, or whether it may not contradict the very principle upon which reformation is desired, cannot be certainly known beforehand. Reform is not a change in the substance or in the primary modification of the objects, but a direct application of a remedy to the grievance complained of. So far as that is removed, all is sure. It stops there; and if it fails the substance which underwent the operation, at the very worst, is but where it was.

All this, in effect, I think, but am not sure, I have said elsewhere. It cannot at this time be too often repeated, line upon line, precept upon precept, until it comes into the currency of a proverb – To innovate is not to reform. The French revolutionists complained of everything; they refused to reform anything; and they left nothing, no nothing at all, unchanged. The consequences are before us – not in remote history, not in future prognostication: they are about us; they are upon us. They shake the public security; they menace private enjoyment. They dwarf the growth of the young; they break the quiet of the old. If we travel, they stop our way. They infest us in town; they pursue to the country. Our business is interrupted, our repose is troubled, our pleasures are saddened, our very studies are poisoned and perverted, and knowledge is rendered worse than ignorance, by the enormous evils of this dreadful innovation.

Some have bravely said that Burke stands on a level with Karl Marx and John Stuart Mill. They are equals in the pantheon of politics. He did for conservatism what Marx did for the particular socialism that bears his name, and what Mill did for liberalism. If his tolerance of suspect financial dealings was considerable, and if there is the persistent suspicion that his varying and somewhat inconsistent opinions had to do with his patrons and money paid to him, he did not, like Marx, father a child on his servant, or, like Mill, never quite achieve the manly. Be all that as it may, he was not, as the passage indicates, very good at holding one idea before the mind long enough to explain it. He was not good at doing one thing at a time.

The most promising thought we can take away from his words is that change is what alters the substance, or the essence, or the primary character, of something. Reform touches only what is extrinsic or accidental to it. Do we by this thought come near to understanding what alteration conservatism opposes and what alteration it supports? Burke was by way of being a philosopher, of more than politics. At any rate he was an aesthetician, which is a little different. But we shall not get far by supposing that what he has in mind can be clarified by reflecting on philosophical distinctions between substance and attribute. We shall not be helped by the distinction between the elusive substratum of something, say of the wine goblet, and that which the substratum supports, which is to say all of the properties of the goblet. His drift is clear enough, and is as well put in this way as any other: change alters what is somehow fundamental, and reform alters what is not fundamental.

However that difference is enlarged upon, we are left with a large difficulty about the first kind of alteration: we cannot take it to convey Burke's intention, or to clarify conservatism. Burke is not against all change, which is to say all alteration to what is fundamental to a thing. A large part of the Reflections on the Revolution in France is given over to damnation of the very nature of a thing, a thing regarded in its most fundamental nature. It is hardly too much to say that Burke mainly owed his fame in his own time, and that he mainly owes his place in history, to the force of his demand for exactly the changing of this thing, as distinct from any mere reforming of it. The thing in question was the constitution and government of France put in place by the French Revolution.

The point is a general one, and does not depend on that one piece of support for change, telling though it is. Burke's life had in it a good deal of passion or feeling for change – desires that certain things be altered fundamentally. Another example was his championing of the American Revolution, inconsistent or not with his vilification of the French. He could have little hope of success in arguing, as in ways he did, that the American Revolution was mere reform. It may be, too, if Conor Cruise O'Brien is right about Burke's residual Irishness, that Burke in a part of himself was inclined to some change with respect to another large fact, England's grip on Ireland. It would be sad, looking on the fine statue of him in front of Trinity College Dublin, to think otherwise.

About some facts and things, there is room for much dispute as to what part of their nature is fundamental, and hence what alteration of them counts as change. However, if we do not succumb to the brazen stubbornness that turns up so often in political argument, there is not much room for dispute with the French constitution and government, or with the American Revolution. We know that Burke wished to alter the French constitution and government fundamentally, and that what he supported in supporting the American Revolution was also change. We get our conception of fundamental alteration in this neighbourhood from such cases, rather than bring it along to judge them.


Excerpted from "Conservatism"
by .
Copyright © 2005 Ted Honderich.
Excerpted by permission of Pluto Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Introduction, 1,
1 Change and Reform, 6,
2 Theory, Other Thinking, Incentives, 32,
3 Human Nature, Dealing With It, 69,
4 Freedoms, 113,
5 Government, 162,
6 Society, 192,
7 Equalities, 219,
8 Desert, Conclusions, 270,
Acknowledgements, 313,
Notes, 314,
Index, 329,

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See All Customer Reviews