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Conservatism and Neoconservatism

For at least the last forty years if you had asked a self-described conservative living in North America what conservatism was all about he would have responded that it is about small government, low taxes, freedom, free markets, free trade, tough laws and sentences for violent crimes and a strong military. If the conservative happened to remember he might have added the defence of the nuclear family and a traditional Christian morality and way of life.

In my country, Canada, conservatism was originally about much more than this. Canada is a country that was founded within the British Empire in the Victorian era. It developed its national sovereignty within the British family of nations without severing ties to the Crown and Britain, the way our republican neighbour to the south had, and as such it inherited from the older country the older kind of conservatism known as Toryism. Toryism was about monarchy, the institutional church and government for the common good of a national society envisioned as an organic whole that includes past and future generations, not merely those present among us today. I have been a conservative of this older type, a Tory, my entire life.

US Neoconservatism

There has been much talk in recent years of “neoconservatism”. What is meant by this term is somewhat different in Canada and the United States, although in both countries it refers to either the espousing as conservative of ideas that were once considered liberal, the profession of conservatism by former liberals, or both.

In the United States, the term refers to a very specific group of people and a set of ideas with which they were associated. The original neoconservatives had been members of the group known as the “New York Intellectuals”, which consisted mainly of second generation, Jewish Americans who had studied either at City College of New York, Columbia University, or both in the period between the World Wars and who in that same period espoused politics that ranged from New Deal liberalism to far-left Trotskyism. After the Second World War many of these became Cold War liberals, i.e., liberals who strongly supported the West in the fight against Soviet Communism, and of these many realigned with the right in the 1960s and 1970s to become the “neoconservatives”. The best known among these were Norman Podhoretz, who edited the journal Commentary for decades, his wife Midge Decter, Irving Kristol, also a journalist, and his wife, historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. It was Kristol who famously defined a neoconservative as a “liberal who has been mugged by reality”. As “neoconservatives” these continued to look upon the New Deal welfare state, the Civil Rights Movement, the early stages of second wave feminism and other such causes they had espoused as liberals favourably, but it is their outlook on geopolitics that is their most distinctive.

Neoconservatives John McCain and Lindsey Graham with Netanjahu
Leading neoconservative politicians John McCain and Lindsey Graham flanking Israeli Prime Minister Netanjahu

The American neoconservatives believe that American style liberal democracy is the birthright of everyone on the planet and that the United States has a duty to guarantee that birthright, by offering military assistance and protection to countries that have liberal democracy, fighting against and toppling the enemies of liberal democracy and bringing liberal democracy to countries that do not yet enjoy it. For this reason, the neoconservatives believe, the United States must continue to maintain a military presence throughout the world, as the world’s policeman. This vision of a Pax Americana is rooted in liberalism, having antecedents in the war aims of both Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Its most utopian articulation, that of Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, envisions all of human history as having led up to universal capitalism and democracy and is simply the latest manifestation of the Whig theory of history.

The American kind of neoconservatism has come under much heavy criticism during the last thirteen years for its influential role, during the presidential administration of George W. Bush, in leading the United States into the disastrous War in Iraq. While most of this criticism is well-deserved, those making the criticism seldom understand the nature of the problem with the neoconservative view of geopolitics. Critics on the left inevitably maintain that all the neoconservative talk about spreading democracy, protecting the rights of women, and such claptrap, is just a thin veil masking the lust to grab power and resources for the United States, or for the large corporations that to people of this mindset are the real powers behind the American government and military interventions. In reality, however, it is precisely because the neoconservatives are true believers — in Eric Hoffer’s meaning of that expression — in democracy, human rights, liberalism and basically all the same ideals that their critics on the left hold dear, that they feel that it is imperative that these American liberal values be exported universally.

Canadian Neoconservatism and Toryism

In Canada, the word neoconservatism is often used interchangeably with conservatism, in reference to the conservatism described in the first paragraph. The intent of this usage is to contrast what has been called conservatism for the last forty years or so with the older High Toryism. Red Tories in particular like to use the word neoconservatism in this way. High Toryism is the blend of political royalism, “high church” Christianity, traditionalism and classicism that was the original conservatism of the English speaking world. Red Tories are people who, like myself, are High Tories of the older royalist, institutional church and common good-of-the-organic-whole variety, but who, unlike myself, have avowed sympathies with socialism, feminism, pacifism and other left-of-centre causes for which I have nothing but disdain and contempt. The Red Tories are quite right in saying that much of what is called conservatism today is what was called liberalism a hundred years ago, but it is ironic that this criticism is offered by those whose Toryism is modified by an adjective that alludes to their espousal of ideals that have also sprung from the modern well of liberalism.

At times these attempts to distinguish Canadian neoconservatism from the older tradition can be exaggerated in a way that can be quite misleading and which distorts the nature of the older Toryism. It is not uncommon, for example, to hear Red Tories say that the older Toryism was the opposite of what is called conservatism today. Think about what that suggests regarding the first items mentioned in the description of conservatism in the first paragraph — small government, low taxes, free markets and free trade. There is a grain of truth in this when it comes to free trade — the older Toryism espoused protectionism — but if we were to accept the assertion that the older conservatism was the opposite of today’s conservatism, we would have to conclude that it was opposed to freedom and stood for big government, high taxes and a centrally planned and bureaucratically administered economy. This, however, is laughable nonsense.

Indeed, as I have frequently pointed out, the older “throne and altar” Toryism ought to be regarded as being more favourable to small government and low taxes than contemporary North American conservatism. Toryism was born out of the defence of royal sovereign authority against those who wished to wrest it away from the Crown and to vest all power in elected legislative assemblies. The opponents of the original Tories declared themselves to be on the side of “liberty” against tyranny, but the history of the last four centuries tells us another story. What that history tells us is that the more the Crown’s authority was limited and the power of the elected assembly augmented, the larger and more intrusive government became, while taxes grew both exponentially and astronomically.

King Charles I of England
King Charles I of England (1600-1649)

With regards to freedom, the difference between the older Toryism and the classical liberalism that much of modern conservatism resembles was not that the latter supported freedom while the former opposed and feared it. It was rather a disagreement about the nature of freedom. The classical liberals equated liberty with the sovereignty of the individual, argued that the function of government was to protect liberty so defined, and declared that only democratic governments, in which each individual participates at least through his elected representative, can so protect the liberty that is individual sovereignty. By contrast, the Tory view of freedom, grounded in the thought of classical antiquity, was explained by the martyred King Charles I, in his final speech before his execution, when he declared that the liberty and freedom of the people consist in their having from their government “those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own” rather than “having share in government”.

The liberal idea of freedom as individual sovereignty is now being taken to the nth degree, recognizing not even such constraints as nature and reality itself as valid

Anyone who happens to think that the liberal doctrine is more conducive to personal freedom than that of the Tory it is invited to look around him today. The idea of freedom as individual sovereignty is now being taken to the nth degree, with even such constraints on that sovereignty as those of nature and reality itself no longer recognized as valid. Thus, for example, gender is now being declared to be something that the individual decides for himself — or herself — or itself — or whatever! By consequence, liberalism is now declaring such self-determination of gender to be a right of the individual, which is to say something that belongs to the essence of the individual’s sovereignty. Since in liberal theory, the rights of the individual are what law and government exist to protect, the consequence of this will inevitably be that the legislatures and courts, will impose legal restrictions on what we can think, say or do, in order to protect such a “right”. The more the individual is declared to be sovereign, the more new “rights” are discovered, the more laws restricting our thoughts, speech and actions are passed, so that what is called “freedom” today, often resembles a soft form of totalitarian tyranny.

Contemporary conservatism, or what is called in Canada neoconservatism, ought not to be faulted by Tories of the older tradition merely for being in favour of small government, low taxes and freedom. It merits criticism for defining conservatism by such things rather than by monarchy, institutional religion and the common good of the organic whole. Continuity, tradition and an established order for which the older Toryism stood are what provide the necessary context for any real freedom to exist and flourish in a civilized society.

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