Dissent of the Day

A reader writes:

As much as I admire your work, I have to wonder where you ever got your notions of 'conservatism'. Conservatism has nothing to do with libertarianism, and on the contrary has always had a strong authoritarian strain. Once this was expressed as reverence for monarchy, now it is the Doctrine of the Unitary Executive and a reflexive desire to defend the military. Hayek noticed what he called (in 'Why I am Not a Conservative') the conservatives' 'fondness for authority':

Let me return, however, to the main point, which is the characteristic complacency of the conservative toward the action of established authority and his prime concern that this authority be not weakened rather than that its power be kept within bounds. This is difficult to reconcile with the preservation of liberty. In general, it can probably be said that the conservative does not object to coercion or arbitrary power so long as it is used for what he regards as the right purposes. He believes that if government is in the hands of decent men, it ought not to be too much restricted by rigid rules. Since he is essentially opportunist and lacks principles, his main hope must be that the wise and the good will rule - not merely by example, as we all must wish, but by authority given to them and enforced by them. Like the socialist, he is less concerned with the problem of how the powers of government should be limited than with that of who wields them; and, like the socialist, he regards himself as entitled to force the value he holds on other people.

Bush has not corrupted conservatism, he is acting out the kind of conservatism Hayek described in this essay. I think that is the only kind of conservatism that has ever existed as a real political force.

I disagree. Yes, of course, the strain that Hayek notes is a large part of the conservative tradition. But it is not the only strand. Burke, in many ways the founder of Anglo-American conservatism, defended the American rebels and the rule of law and was deeply skeptical of those in power. The skeptical Oakeshott, the twentieth century Burke, favored peace, non-violence, and liberty - not war, torture and authority. We can get bogged down in semantics here, and a case can be made that Burke and Oakeshott are more classical liberals. But I'm loth to argue that the two greatest British conservative thinkers were not actually conservative at all. I make my case in my book. Make your own mind up.