Here and there – George Will: The Conservative Sensibility

 

You get some idea of the tone and gist of this book from the following extracts from the Introduction.

Although it distresses some American conservatives to be told this, American conservatism has little in common with European conservatism, which is descended from, and often is still tainted by, throne-and-altar, blood-and–soil nostalgia, irrationality and tribalism.  American conservatism has a clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking….The label ‘liberal’ was minted to identify those whose primary concern was not the protection of community solidarity or traditional hierarchies, but rather was the expansion and protection of individual liberty.  Liberals were then those who considered the state the primary threat to this…..In Europe today, the too few people who think the way American conservatives do are commonly called liberals, and people who think as American progressives do are called social democrats….Progressivism represents the overthrow of the Founders’ classical liberalism.

Later on, we get this – those who believe, as the Founders did, that first come the rights and then comes government, are adherents of the Republican Constitution; while those who believe, as progressives do, that first comes government and then come rights are the Democratic Constitution.  The difference comes down to whether ‘We the people’ is a collective entity or ‘We the people as individuals.’

A number of things follow.  First, this book is about theories and labels.  (I agree with the late G H W Bush – labels belong on soup cans.)  Secondly, it will offer little to the rest of the world because this conservatism is uniquely American and different to that of the rest of the West.  Thirdly, the book will be completely foreign to Anglo-Australians because we prefer experience to theory, results to ideology.  Finally some of the discussion will be as penetrable as the doctrine of the Trinity or the Real Presence, and provoke the question: What contemporary political issue might be enlightened by the application of these theories or labels?

But let us take the mission of this book on its terms.  We are to seek the Founders’ thinking by going back to what they said.  Lawyers are familiar with this process (and avoiding dogmatism in this context will be very tricky).

Let us put to one side that the Founders knew division – between, say, the focus of Jefferson on you and me, and the focus of Hamilton on Uncle Sam.  The Founders had some things in common.  They owned and traded in slaves.  They might fairly be labelled patrician and they were horrified at the thought of what we call democracy.  Alexander Hamilton spoke of the ‘unthinking populace’ and John Adams referred to ‘the common herd of mankind’.  George Washington referred to the common people as ‘the grazing multitude’.  He had the High Tory view that ‘the discerning part of the community’ must govern and ‘the ignorant and designing’ must follow.  His successors now practise the reverse.

As a result, the Declaration contained two outright lies.  The one about all men being equal is well known.  Perhaps I may then refer to what I said in a book about the comparative history of Australia and the U S.

Well, this evasion, if that is the term, on the subject of slavery might be expected from a slave-owner from the largest slave-owning state.  But what was not to be expected was the lack of candour on the causes of the revolt.

The American Declaration of Independence follows the form of the English Declaration of Rights.  It records the conduct complained of to justify the termination of the relationship.  (This is what lawyers call ‘accepting a repudiation’ of a contract.)  The English did so in short, crisp allegations that were for the most part devoid of oratorical colour in the Declaration of Rights.  The allegations are expressed in simple enough terms and were not phrased so as to encourage an evasive form of denial. 

How does the American Declaration of Independence go about this process?  Before it gets to an allegation that the king maintains standing armies, which is a relatively specific charge, it made ten allegations of misconduct that were so general that they would not be permitted to stand today as an allegation of a breach of the law on a conviction for which a person might lose their liberty.  The fourteenth allegation, which is hopeless, but which appears to be an attempt to invoke the English precedent, is that:  ‘He [King George III] has abdicated government here.’  Then there is the fifteenth allegation:  ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.’  If that allegation of plunder and murder – the old word was ‘rapine’ – had been seriously put, you might have expected to see it before an allegation of abdication – and before every other allegation.  The eighteenth allegation relates to the Indians. The nineteenth was the allegation relating to slavery and which was struck out.  Those drafting the Declaration were not evidently keen to get down to the subject of people of another race.  Or tax.

Let us put to one side that all these allegations are made against the Crown, and not the government, and that none of these allegations refers to any statute of the British government.  There is no history of the American Revolution that has been written that says that the American colonies revolted from their subjection to the British crown for any of the reasons that are set out in the eighteen clauses of the Declaration of Independence.  The primary reason that history gives for the revolt of the colonists was the imposition, or purported imposition, of taxes upon them by the British parliament – when those being taxed had no direct representation in the parliament levying the tax.  Most divorces are about money, and this one was no different. 

But British taxation is only mentioned once in the Declaration of Independence.  That reference is fallacious.  It is against the King.  The Glorious Revolution made it plain that he could not impose a tax.  The only reference to the English legislature comes when those drafting the documents scold the English for ‘attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us’.  Given that the 1688 revolution secured the supremacy of the English parliament over the English Crown and made it transcendentally clear that only the English parliament could levy a tax on its subjects, it may have seemed a little odd for Jefferson to be suggesting that the American colonies were somehow subject to the English Crown, but not to the English parliament.  ‘Jurisdiction’ is a word that has come to bedevil American jurisprudence, and it looks like the problem may have started very early.

‘For imposing Taxes upon us without our Consent’ comes in near the end of charges against England.  This Declaration is then a very dicey basis for any political theory or catechism.  It’s not much of a rock to build a church on.  And the descendants of the colonists are still skittish about tax.  They are better at spending than paying.  An endorsement of deceit, racial superiority and fiscal irresponsibility may be okay for the current president, but surely not for a Republican, much less a bona fide conservative.

The rest of the West think that the U S has been driven to at least two disastrous political failures by the application of the kind of theories discussed in this book by Mr Will  – free universal health care and gun control.

If you think an ounce of evidence is worth a ton of theory, try this.  In June 1908, David Lloyd George told the House of Commons:

‘These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood … are problems with which it is the business of the State to deal.  They are problems which the State has neglected for too long.’

That proposition is still heresy for those to whom Mr Will appeals. For them, the State has no business in dealing with such problems.  But Lloyd George and Churchill drove through this reform – as they called it – which would be the foundation of what we know as the Welfare State, and the start of the provision of a system of affordable health care that is taken for granted in every country in the West – except America.  England was following the example set by Bismarck in Germany.  Well over a hundred years later, Americans were still mouthing silly labels like ‘Socialist’.

What do Americans get for their primitive and puritanical purity?  Not just the worst health system in the Western world, but the most expensive.  And they get something from between pity and contempt from the rest of us who regard free universal health care as non-negotiable in a society that likes to call itself civilised.  You can quote Plato and Hegel till the cows come home – decent health care provided by government is for us an inescapable part of our social fabric.

The same goes for gun control.  Americans pay a frightful sacrifice in human life in obedience to what we see as a hideously loaded ideological reading of a clause in their Bill of Rights that had nothing to do with the cruel aspirations of the NRA. .  The same Bill of Rights is part of our legal dispensation, but only a lunatic would assert that it has the same lethal consequences for us.

You get some idea of the depth of the gulf separating us when you read ‘So, constitutional lawyers are America’s practitioners of political philosophy.’  That is not our way here.  English and Australian jurists would be horrified at the notion that they should engage in political philosophy while on the job.  And we worry about Mr Will’s grip on reality when we read: ‘most Americans want altars kept apart from the state’s business.’  Is all that stuff we read about Evangelicals just fake news?

The Index to the book makes no mention of Trump, or, in a book riddled with –isms, populism.  As best I can see, the book contains no discussion of the current status of ‘conservatism’ for Republicans in America.  If they are the two main issues facing America today, then tossing intellectual playthings about like shuttlecocks makes Nero’s fiddling look while Rome burned positively sane.  If this book correctly reflects a ‘conservative’ spectrum in America today, then we may better understand what many see as the moral and intellectual collapse of the Republican Party and any reasonable application of ‘conservatism’ to the U S in 2019.

By contrast, near the end of Jefferson and Hamilton, John Ferling said:

Presciently, and with foreboding, Jefferson saw that Hamiltonianism would concentrate power in the hands of the business leaders and financiers that it primarily served, leading inevitably to an American plutocracy every bit as dominant as monarchs and titled aristocrats had once been.  Jefferson’s fears were not misplaced.  In modern America, concentrated wealth controls politics and government, leading even the extremely conservative Senator John McCain to remark that ‘both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.’  The American nation, with its incredibly powerful chief executive, gargantuan military, repeated intervention in the affairs of foreign states, and political system in the thrall of great wealth, is the very world that Jefferson abhorred.

Well, that was way back in 2103, and since then the abhorrence of Jefferson has got so much worse as the United States has fallen flat on its face in the gutter.  And, yes, Hamilton was killed in a duel.  And the rest of the world looks on in sadness as the United States increasingly looks more like its current president – the spoiled child who never grew up.

None of this would have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville.

…..in America the people regard this prosperity as the result of its own exertions; the citizen looks upon the fortune of the public as his private interest, and he co-operates in its success, not so much from a sense of pride or duty, as from, what I shall venture to term, cupidity…As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured; for it is not only his country which is attacked upon these occasions, but it is himself…Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans.’

And ‘irritable patriot’ is a reasonable title for the current incumbent at the White House.

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