A Whig or a Tory?

A reader ponders his own political identification:

Like you, I identify as a conservative. My conversion from high school and college radical was mainly in reaction to other student radicals, who seemed divorced from reality and Tcscover_41 in love with their own rhetoric and that of their heroes. Yet I did not find much comfort in the so-called campus conservatives, who seemed even more intellectually vacuous, even dishonest.

My own beliefs about conservatism and the ideas which I hold dear are constellated around the idea of the primacy of the individual. Yet the individual does not exist outside of the context of society, so that the good of the individual must be balanced against the needs of society and his fellow man as a group (perhaps as a group of fellow individuals, but a group nonetheless). However, in finding this balance, the individual must be favored, or at least protected. This is what I think was the intention of the founders of our government in their design of the Constitution.

One of your most interesting assertions about your idea of conservatism is that it should be skeptical, both of change and of tradition. Today, as I read Hayek's essay "Why I Am Not a Conservative", I felt as though I had found someone who understood and elucidated my position, and I noted that his position seemed quite similar to yours:

"The liberal differs from the conservative in his willingness to face this ignorance and to admit how little we know, without claiming the authority of supernatural forces of knowledge where his reason fails him. It has to be admitted that in some respects the liberal is fundamentally a skeptic - but it seems to require a certain degree of diffidence to let others seek their happiness in their own fashion and to adhere consistently to that tolerance which is an essential characteristic of liberalism."

In the succeeding sections, Hayek goes on to describe his discomfort with calling himself a liberal because of modern usage and because of Continental Liberalism, which he disavows. Instead, he describes himself as an "Old Whig", yet wonders if this is an effective label, given its obscurity.

You may well have covered all this in your book, which I have not yet read.

Well, read it. My own position is an essentially Oakeshottian one, which doesn't actually help many people, does it? Hence my book. But in Hayek's terms, I am a liberal. I don't see tradition as dispositive; I see it as the essential material for the pursuit of existing cultural and political intimations. Tradition is another name for contingency. I eschew the word liberal because for a century at least, it has been coopted by statist, high-minded busy-bodies who see nothing wrong with the world that government and a few big brains can't fix. That's about as far fom my own perspective as can be described. I'm a believer in individual freedom, small but strong government, free speech, free trade, secular politics, and the pursuit of happiness (including religious bliss). My difference with Hayek is Oakeshott's. I think Hayek elevated the market to an ism; he made a system out of an anti-system. Oakeshott brilliantly avoided this trap. And his essay on Hayek (collected in the Rationalism essays) is well worth re-reading.

I wrote "The Conservative Soul" both as a conservative indictment of Bush Republicans and as a way to sum up a political philosophy that has no home in America right now. It's an epistemologically and philosophically conservative defense of liberal society. So call me a Tory Whig, if you must. There are more of us around than you think. And we are all currently refugees.