Conservatism is not only about limited government, and where it seeks to limit government it does so because it sees government as a force of instability. But what about those times when government is instead a force for stability? Defense leaps to mind. Conservatism, I would argue, is first and foremost about preserving or regaining a stable society. Liberty and prosperity are two of the most profound ways we can achieve a stable civilization. Limiting government often leads to both these things, and thus it is a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.
And when limiting government actually brings about social chaos rather than social stability, then it’s outworn its use. Perhaps this is why anarchy is such an impossible goal. At some point the benefit of removing the state from the equation no longer outweighs the cost.
The underlying principle here is an Oakeshottian one: the coherence of a polity matters more than any single ideological approach to politics. This was Oakeshott's critique of Hayek after a fashion. If the market becomes an ideology in itself, it ceases to be conservative. The real conservative tilts from intervention to laisser-faire depending on the circumstances. He may lean in the long run toward less government as a more stable principle in a free, self-reliant and increasingly diverse country than more government. But he is always seeking the right prudential balance from exigency to exigency, from era to era, from year to year. And government is never the enemy tout court. It is a necessary means to an end.
Oakeshott saw the politics of faith and the politics of skepticism as the two core principles guiding modern Western politics. He favored in his own day of government planning, rationalism and left-liberal triumphalism the unfashionable tradition of freedom, mystery, markets and personality. But he was always aware that government needed to act strongly sometimes and swiftly too. He was skeptical of excessive skepticism. A conservatism of doubt might be too sluggish in emergencies, as Oakeshott scholar Paul Franco explains here, or deemed too frivolous at times. It could be incapable of summoning the necessary love or gratitude or patriotism from its subjects. So it can embrace government at times, to save civil society; and vice-versa.
What the conservative is about, in other words, is balance. And that's why Oakeshott's famous metaphor for the kind of politician he admired was a "trimmer." And one of his treasured works of political writing was Halifax's sadly neglected "The Character Of A Trimmer". Today we regard a trimmer as a flip-flopper. But a trimmer in the nautical sense was a man simply tasked with trimming the sails and balancing the weight of a ship to ensure, as different winds prevailed, that the ship stayed upright and on an even keel. The role of the conservative statesman is, in Oakeshott's sense, to do the same thing - sometimes expanding government in discrete ways to ameliorate or adjust to new circumstances; sometimes restricting it for the same reasons. Here's his own description:
"The 'trimmer' is one who disposes his weight so as to keep the ship upon an even keel. And our inspection of his conduct reveals certain general ideas at work...Being concerned to prevent politics from running to extremes, he believes that there is a time for everything and that everything has its time -- not providentially, but empirically. He will be found facing in whatever direction the occasion seems to require if the boat is to go even."
I think you can see the critique of left-liberalism in the 1970s as a classic conservative trimming of the excessive delusions of a liberalism become too powerful, too smug and too ideological. That's why the original neoconservatives - Kristol, Bell, Glazer et al - were heroes to me.
But I also think you can see Clinton and Obama as necessary attempts to balance the excesses of this movement which inevitably succumbed to hubris, calcification, and ideological purism over time. What Bush and Cheney then did to the system in panicked response to the emergency of 9/11 - a massive and radical attack on constitutional norms, a conflation of religious certainty and government, and a huge expansion of government power and spending - requires now a very intense period of Halifax-style balancing. Obama's moderation may, in fact, not be radical enough on Oakeshottian grounds. For trimming is not about always finding the middle option. It is about restoring balance, which may sometimes mean radicalism if it is preceded by serious imbalance.
This is a prudential task, not a theoretical one (the other core conservative insight). And we should judge this president and his opponents on the wisdom of their prudential decisions and positions. So far, it seems to me, Obama is the only game in town. Whether his judgment is right will only be determined by history. But his instincts, it seems to me, are genuinely that of a trimmer.
In the best possible sense of that term.
(Photo: Obama leaving for West Point last night by Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty.)
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