26 October 2009

On Being A Whig

The sovereign idea which inspires those who have used the name Whig has always been the same: a belief that the paramount public value is the freedom of the individual.

Since the first Whigs developed in England, we have pursued this great and simple idea. We Whigs believe in a society in which every individual is free to do their best. For Americans today, it means each citizen living his or her own life, and doing the best for himself and herself. The one idea which has united Whigs for nearly four hundred years is that of freedom. While staying true to our legacy, we must address old problems with a fresh mind, as well as addressing new challenges unencumbered by the weight of old prejudices and certitudes. The central task of a Whig, from which all else follows and upon which all else depends, is to maximize the freedom of the individual.

"We have realised that men and women are not just ciphers in a calculation, but are individual human beings whose individual welfare and development must be the main concern of government … We have learned that the right answer is to set the individual free, to aim at equality of opportunity, to protect the individual against oppression, to create a society in which rights and duties are recognized and made effective.” -- Robert Menzies

Likewise, Whigs must be "a progressive party, willing to make experiments, in no sense reactionary, but believing in the individual, his rights and enterprise, and rejecting the Socialist panacea."

So are Whigs liberal or conservative? These two terms are overused so much that their original meanings are obscured. Here, by liberal I am referring to what in American we now call "classical liberalism." Aside from the confusion of language, there is a deeper reason why classical liberalism and conservatism are so often confused.

Our public values – personal freedom, toleration of diversity, equality of opportunity, the rule of law – are classically liberal values. In striving to preserve them, the Whigs share the conservative’s instinctive suspicion of change – but not his reasons.

Defence of a classically liberal society is the defence of liberalism, not conservatism, but in that endeavour, Whigs and conservatives will find common cause. This is the point made by F. A. Hayek in his superb essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative”, which forms the postscript to The Constitution of Liberty, quoted at length below:

At a time when most movements that are thought to be progressive advocate further encroachments on individual liberty, those who cherish freedom are likely to expend their energies in opposition. In this they find themselves much of the time on the same side as those who habitually resist change

… But, though the position I have tried to define is … often described as ‘conservative’, it is very different to that to which this name has been traditionally attached. There is danger in the confused condition which brings the defenders of liberty and the true conservatives together in common opposition to developments which threaten their different ideals equally.

…Let me … state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing.

…Since the development during the last decades has been generally in a socialist direction, it may seem that both conservatives and liberals have been mainly intent on retarding that movement. But the main point about liberalism is that it wants to go elsewhere, not to stand still.

… (I)t has never been a backward-looking doctrine. There has never been a time when liberal ideals were fully realized and when liberalism did not look forward to further improvement of institutions.

… The difference between liberalism and conservatism must not be obscured by the fact that … it is still possible to defend individual liberty by defending long-established institutions. To the liberal they are valuable not mainly because they are long established … but because they correspond to the ideals which he cherishes.

What Hayek captures is the central ethical problem of conservatism: its relativistic nature. As one of conservatism’s most articulate contemporary exponents, Andrew Sullivan, says “We see the world from where we are, and our understanding of the universe is intrinsically rooted in time and place.”

The American scholar Samuel P Huntington described conservatism as a “positional ideology” which may be “employed to justify any established social order, no matter where or when it exists, against fundamental challenge to its nature or being … The essence of conservatism is the passionate affirmation of the value of existing institutions.” It was thus possible, as Huntington points out, for conservatism’s most eloquent exponent, Edmund Burke, simultaneously to “defend Whig institutions in England, democratic institutions in America, autocratic institutions in France, and Hindu institutions in India”, because “(h)e was concerned not with the substance of institutions but with their preservation.”

Elevating to a virtue its distrust of what it commonly calls dogmatism, and favouring scepticism about social change over the question of the desirability of change, conservatism lacks a set of a priori principles against which to assess the justness of a society; the fitness of its legal, economic and social arrangements; and the direction of reform. Conservatism has a deeply sophisticated, and in many ways attractive, theory of the nature of society but, in its hostility to what Sullivan calls “the arrogant Reason of the Enlightenment”, it lacks the moral clarity to make the most fundamental judgments about right and wrong.

Classical liberalism, recently described as “the Enlightenment’s most authentic political creation”, has such a central guiding principle – respect for the freedom of the individual, his dignity and his autonomy; his right, so far as is consistent with the equal rights of others, to make his own choices and be the architect of his own life.

But the essentially ambulatory nature of conservatism means that, while in one era it may share territory with those whose political beliefs spring from a profound respect for the freedom of the individual, in a different place or time it may set its face against those very same values. In the words of Huntington:

“Just as the aristocrats were the conservatives in Prussia in 1820 and slaveowners were the conservatives in 1850, so the liberals must be the conservatives in America today … In preserving the achievements of American liberalism, American liberals have no recourse but to turn to conservatism.”

And so it must be for the modern day heirs of classical liberalism, the Whigs. While today Whigs and conservatives may adopt common positions, the very reason that we are now united in defending a society whose fundamental values are classically liberal is because of the victories won over conservatives in decades and centuries past in the cause of advancing the freedom of the individual.

Despite their differences, there is one thing about which Whigs and conservatives will always be in agreement: their shared hostility to ideologies which seek to impose a pattern on human conduct, and seek to bend human beings into shape in the service of a determinist theory of history or some rationalist notion of perfectibility.

The one political philosophy – or ideology, if you will – which is not susceptible to the criticism that it is willing to crush human beings by seeking to impose a pattern upon history, is classical liberalism. For the very point of the Whigs is to promote the freedom of every individual, to liberate them from whatever threatens their autonomy or inhibits their freedom of choice, whether it be the pattern of existing social customs - which a conservative would generally support - or the patterns in the minds of metaphysicians, utopians and historical determinists - in opposition to which conservatives and liberals unite. And so we come back to the essential flaw of conservatism – its ethical relativism. A conservative, no less than a liberal, is horrified by the thought that human beings might be crushed in the name of an abstraction, yet we often find him indifferent, or even an apologist, when human beings are actually being crushed by an existing political system or social order.

There usually is not a conflict between Whigs and conservatives. But there are points of tension when there is and, as we know, in politics it is the points of tension that matter. The points of tension occur when the rights of individuals or minorities come into conflict with existing laws and prevailing social customs. When this occurs, merely weighing the rights of the individual in a balance against the mainstream attitudes of society is not an adequate response for a Whig. For as John Stuart Mill said:

“It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation. … To give any fair play to the nature of each, it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives. In proportion as this latitude has been exercised in any age, has that age been noteworthy to posterity … (W)hatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it be called and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.”

It is these beliefs that set us apart as Whigs. It is time once again to renew our commitment to the values of our Revolution, which made us Americans. That is our legacy. That is our purpose as a political movement.

This post is paraphrased and adapted from a speech by Senator George Brandis, entitled "We believe" for the 2009 Alfred Deakin Lecture, at The University of Melbourne, Thursday 22 October 2009, published in The Australian, October 26, 2009.

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