Column on Left Liberals and Right Conservatives

Left Liberals and Right Conservatives
Tibor R. Machan
It is not always taken note of that conservatism refers to a procedure
for dealing with life, ethics, politics, or public policy, not with a
position on these. What the conservative urges is that as one considers
matters related to any of the above, one ought to pay heed, first and
foremost, to what has been found acceptable, useful, sensible in the past,
by the dominant and persistent traditions in human history. It is these
that ought to be conserved. There is, for conservatives, no other road to
reliable truth. Just as the pragmatist rejects the possibility of firm,
lasting principles in any area of inquiry, so the conservative rejects the
possibility of gaining understanding apart from following dominant
As such, conservatives oppose something that’s central to the American
political system, namely, individualism. Just consider what Edmund Burke,
the father of modern conservatism, said: “…Men have no right to risk the
very existence of their nation and their civilization upon experiments in
morals and politics; for each man’s private capital of intelligence is
petty; it is only when a man draws upon the bank and capital of the ages,
the wisdom of our ancestors, that he can act wisely,” adding that “We are
afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of
reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that
the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank of
nations and of ages.”
And it is in this that conservatives share something essential with the
Left, with socialists, communists, communitarians, and many modern
liberals as well. All these regard individualism fatally flawed because it
entrusts human individuals with the capacity to know the world on their
own (a rare case but still not unfamiliar when we consider innovators,
discoverers, scientists who are often way ahead of their colleagues,
etc.). For socialists human beings are innately socially bound. Karl Marx
put it best when he coined the term “species being,” meaning that
everyone’s basic identity is intimately tied to the whole of humanity (or
in less grandiose versions, society, the tribe, the race, the ethnic
group, or the nation).
This is why neither those on the Right nor those on the Left favor
individual rights, those social-legal provisions that make room for the
independence, sovereignty of the human individual. For these Leftists
everyone belongs to society and the right to individual freedom, as per
Locke and the American Founders, does violence to this idea, undermines
it. At nearly every turn of the debate between defenders of the American
political system, with the tenets of the Declaration of Independence and
the Bill of Rights, in the end this issue becomes central, pivotal both
vis-à-vis Right and Left.
American individualism, following Locke and advanced mainly by
Objectivists and Libertarians, holds that although human beings flourish
best among their fellows, this must be under conditions where everyone’s
individuality is fully respected and protected. In the last analysis a
citizen must have the option to withdraw from society, say when its
policies have turned against individuals, just as the Declaration makes
clear. This “exit option” testifies to the prominence of individualism in
this system of social-political thought. This isn’t about living like a
hermit or not being closely related to others–those charges are
disingenuous or misconceived. Individualism is about an adult human being
having the ultimate authority over his or her life, exactly what the great
and small tyrannies of human history have denied.
If you want to know why the central American viewpoint has it so hard
with not just the rest of the world but its very own crop of
intellectuals, it is because both Right and Left are essentially against
its basic tenet, individualism.

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One Response to Column on Left Liberals and Right Conservatives

  1. Unknown says:

    One problem is "Liberal" and "Conservative" have both become almost swear words – replacements for thief and bigot. Sadder is that there is some justice in this perversion of language. When I think "Liberal" I immediately think of some very crooked politicians and clergy-folk. When I think "Conservative", I immediately think of some very crooked politicians and very crooked clergy-folk. The parallelism in the last two sentences is neither accidental nor a typo. It is a reflection of over 60 years of personal experience.The classical conservative, like myself, is simply honest in all his dealings. The classical liberal, like myself, is generous with what is his and not coveting what is not his – even to re-distribute. There is no incompatibility to being both liberal and conservative in the classical sense. A more useful morey for modern times than either of these could be Richard Maybury\’s 2 laws: 1) Do what you say you will do; 2) Do not encroach on the person or property of others. That\’s all. I believe Maybury has it down to even fewer syllables, but you get the idea. Maybury takes as his authority the common basis of all religious thought through history. I take as my endorsement of it its congruence with what I consider to be Spiritual Law. I do not consider spirituality and religion necessarily congruent, but this is not a point I\’ll argue. One gets it or one doesn\’t. If you have to ask the meaning of jazz, you wouldn\’t understand, so explanations are probably a waste of time.The ethics one develops or follows, if one follows any, stem inevitably from one\’s understanding of the purpose of life, if one has any understanding – or even concern. Life is always a subjective experience. The concern for individuality stems from the tacit conspiracy of the human community to collectivize experience. Each of us is an individual, no matter how we may glom to our self-image categories of personage. Examples are "Judeo-Christian" (I prefer to call that one "Judeo-Christian-Islamic," being by nature mischievous!), "Republican" (I prefer "Democan" or "Republicrat," of course), "Professional", "Person of well earned substance", etc. to add examples. Anyway, I have found one of life\’s most important purposes is to enjoy it. Contrary to popular opinion, real enjoyment does not require great wealth, but wealth needn\’t be a barrier to enjoyment. A blessing that is only counted doesn\’t count. A blessing that is truly enjoyed counts as a true blessing. Well, now here is a comment on a worthy article where before there were none. Enjoy!

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