5 thoughts on “Catholic conservatives: procedural or substantive?”

  1. Although I think the
    Although I think the distinction between substantive and procedural conservatives is a helpful one, I believe also that you have to make a distinction between left and right liberals.

    Right liberals are often drawn from the commercial classes and tend to put economic issues ahead of social ones. They want the operation of capital to be unimpeded (although many seem now to have accepted high taxation and large central states). Hence George Bush recently calling free trade a “moral imperative”.

    Their philosophical starting point is a liberal one: the idea of a “blank slate” individual who becomes sucessful (mostly in an economic sense) through individual enterprise.

    They mostly prefer to identify themselves as progressive rather than traditional, and if they do have a preference for some aspect of tradition, they see it as an individual sentiment to be held to privately.

    The so-called “conservative” parties, like the Republicans in the US, the Conservatives in the UK, or the Liberal Party in Australia, are based to a considerable extent on right liberalism rather than on any kind of conservatism.

    Within these right liberal parties, though, there are elements who tend toward an orthodox progressive liberalism, and others who tend toward a procedural and sometimes even a substantive conservatism.

    It has to be remembered though that it is rarely an unalloyed conservativism, of either the procedural or substantive kind. There is nearly always some admixture of right liberalism.

    I believe, therefore, that the columnist was wrong to claim that there are no important distinctions between the Democrats and Republicans, as one party is left liberal and the other an admixture of right liberal and “establishment” conservative.

    We also have to be careful about labelling in a simplistic way, the leaders of “right wing” parties or movements as conservative. Was Margaret Thatcher a conservative? Can you really answer simply yes or no?

  2. I suppose it all depends
    I suppose it all depends upon our purposes. Such talk is useful just like talking about different kinds of bicycles is useful. One of my peeves is traditionalists who shy away from making categorical claims, because without such claims the store has been given away to nominalism and we all might as well go home. On the one hand traditionalism is naturally rather humble, deferring authority to the wisdom of the ages as unquestionably wiser than ourselves. On the other it upholds universals against nominalism and relativism. That doesn’t mean we have to buy into some specific rationalist metaphysics— we take categories for granted as delivered to us authoritatively by tradition and humble reason, so we don’t need a comprehensive theory even if one is possible in principle.

    Margaret Thatcher was unquestionably a categorical liberal. What sort of liberal specifically in terms of subsidiary traits is another matter, and certainly discussing tires and derailures and seats is interesting and useful. We wouldn’t want to be simplistic about bikes when talking about them. But categorically a bike is a bloody bike is a bloody bike, even if Jacques Derrida happens to be riding it.

  3. But the problem is that many
    But the problem is that many people hear a bike endlessly described as a car and believe it’s a car. We have to explain why it’s not.

    To do this you have to explain the politics of people who often describe themselves as conservatives, who often in their personal lives uphold some conservative values, who publicly sometimes express doubts about some social changes, but who at the same time have a fundamentally liberal world view and who carry forward a liberal social programme.

    For you it’s clear that Margaret Thatcher is a liberal, and I would agree with you. But to many Britons, who saw her defend the Falklands, and express doubts about the EU, and defend the monarchy, she is identified as a champion of conservatism.

    I don’t believe that we have reached the stage where the average conservative intellectual really understands what conservatism is, let alone the average person with conservative inclinations.

    It’s important not to shy away from an attempt to clarify things. It’s been a grave weakness of the conservative movement that the pivotal book of conservative theory is still Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the French Revolution.

    Talking about different kinds of bikes is not very useful. Explaining to rank and file conservatives the different kinds of liberalism is. It saves people from placing too much faith in the wrong people, and it helps to clarify the substantive goals of a genuine conservatism.

  4. I like the left/right
    I like the left/right liberal distinction and think it’s useful. I suppose the claim that there are no differences between the Republicans and Democrats is based on the thought that in the long run the distinction breaks down because of the similarity of philosophical presuppositions – the Democrats become more market-oriented and fiscally responsible, the Republicans more socially tolerant and accepting of big government.

  5. Well, I’m a bit obsessive
    Well, I’m a bit obsessive about the implications of nominalism and as a result I’m also a bit of a tiresome pedant. But it is not without a real underlying motivation. I don’t deny that the exercise in infinite taxonomy can be helpful, but it can easily be—and often is—more harmful than helpful. So it is one of those tools that should be used with fully open eyes.

    One of the implications of denying universals is that we get to define our own categories and therefore ourselves through a plenary act of will. If we don’t like being labeled one thing, we can modify our personal ideology, construct some new categories with our plenary will-to-power, and pick-and-choose our way to some other platform of personal innocence and complete righteousness.

    This doesn’t track reality at all, though. We are not the masters of ideology and its implications; we are servants. All we can do is pick our alliegences. Liberalism is what it is; we only get to choose whether we will serve it or some other master. The opposite view is complicit with the liberal (or modern-postmodern if you prefer) project. The notion that we can control all of the implications of our alliegences and can tweak as we go in order to stay innocent and righteous is simply false. The idea that the American founders understood the implications of their alliegences is ludicrous, for example; and why should we be any different?

    So I agree that alliegences and labels shift around, particularly for those who have no real power. The English countryside is no doubt a seething mass of shifting labels and alliegences, but as long as they affirm their master and attend his rituals he doesn’t mind.

    But saying that Margaret Thatcher or any individual IS a liberal, just to contradict myself, is in a sense itself an intrinsically antitraditional modern perspective. That is the church she goes to, to be sure, and she is certainly no apostate. But she doesn’t have plenary power to shape her ideology to what she wills, either. She only gets to choose who she will serve, and just talking about it framed from the former perspective gives up part of the game.

    Polemics may be another matter. How we talk to the English countryside when every respectable political position is a liberal one becomes a difficult technical problem, and in that sense the taxonomy is helpful. All evidence to the contrary you won’t find me on a soap box shouting “down with clarity!”

    But to the extent that there is reticence to classify categorically there is complicity with the liberal project.

    There is one more thing to be said. Part of the problem might be a real underlying disagreement. It is my position that there is no respectable modern political posture that does not go to the church of liberalism. As in any congregation there are conservative and liberal members in terms of their relative postures; but they all go to the same church and it is the only respectable church in town. Getting more people to sit in the right hand aisle might be useful to the extent it gets them closer to leaving altogether, but the objective is to get them to leave the altar of blasphemy and human sacrifice entirely and shake the dust off of their boots.


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