The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.
Daniel Patrick Moynihan
In one of my favourite quotes for me a kind of credo Robert Solow describes himself as what one might call ideologically ‘middle of the road’.
There is a long-standing tension in economics between belief in the advantages of the market mechanism and awareness of its imperfections. . . . There is a large element of Rorschach test in the way each of us responds to this tension. Some of us see the Smithian virtues as a needle in a haystack, as an island of measure zero in a sea of imperfections. Others see all the potential sources of market failure as so many fleas on the thick hide of an ox, requiring only an occasional flick of the tail to be brushed away. A hopeless eclectic without any strength of character, like me, has a terrible time of it. If I may invoke the name of two of my most awesome predecessors as President of this 1 Association, I need only listen to Milton Friedman talk for a minute and my mind floods with thoughts of increasing returns to scale, oligopolistic interdependence, consumer ignorance, environmental pollution, intergenerational inequality, and on and on. There is almost no cure for it, except to listen for a minute to John Kenneth Galbraith, in which case all I can think of are the discipline of competition, the large number of substitutes for any commodity, the stupidities of regulation, the Pareto optimality of Walrasian equilibrium, the importance of decentralizing decision making to where the knowledge is, and on and on. Sometimes I think it is only my weakness of character that keeps me from making obvious errors.
Its not particularly original or helpful to describe oneself as ‘centrist’, but it is a bit less banal and useless to remind oneself how valuable all of the three great traditions embodied within our political culture are. My own way of navigating the world in the presence of my stupendous ignorance about pretty much everything is to try not to deviate too far from the most important principles that our political heritage has cooked up from whichever tradition has given rise to them. And to try to avoid doing things which the various coherent political world views would deem as the most obvious errors.
Here’s a no doubt incomplete sketch of the propositions that I value most that derive from conservatism, liberalism and social democracy respectively.
* Excessive rationalism can be a trap.
* Arguments from principle, authority, custom and established usage all have their place. Judgement is required to choose between them.
* Revolution is extremely dangerous. Most revolutions have been cataclysmic disasters.
* People should be encouraged to take individual responsibility for their actions. (This is shared with liberalism).
* Without authority there can be no liberty.
* Authority has a critical role to play in society and particularly in the raising and education of the young.
* A wide range of social instincts that have been ridiculed by left liberals for decades have their good side
* Robust punishment for crime may or may not be vengeful, but amongst other things it shows respect for life, and decency and the rule of law.
* Respect and knowledge of one’s own culture is not just conducive to the rule of law and economic prosperity, it makes one heir to and custodian of a great and growing heritage which makes our life both safer and deeper.
* The principle of liberty, though ridiculed during the long left tolerance of socialist totalitarianism, is one of the great foundations of modern society.
* Basic levels of economic liberty are intrinsic to and (it seems) ultimately necessary for political liberty.
* The negative liberty of Hayek is important.
* So too are ideas about positive liberty.
* Liberalism is (or should be) especially hostile to the privileges of the wealthy and powerful.
* For this reason, I admire Mill and Smith more than Hayek. Mill identified far more strongly with the last point. I also like Mill’s querulous intolerance of the conformist pressure of orthodoxy and his impatience with unthoughtfulness. His most urgent case in ‘On Liberty’ is how liberty puts the skids under complacency, and also about how the idea of freedom of expression/thought is an active one.
Eg see the following quote.
He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that. . . . He must be able to hear the arguments of adversaries; . . . He must feel the whole force of the difficulty which the true view of the subject has to encounter and dispose of. . . . Ninety-nine in a hundred of what are called educated men 2, even those who can argue fluently for their opinions. Their conclusion may be true, but it might be false for anything they know. They have never thrown themselves into the mental position of those who think differently from them, and considered what such persons may have to say, and consequently they do not, in any proper sense of the word, know the doctrine which they themselves profess.
* Hayek’s ‘Why I am not a conservative’ shows too much trust in a single principle – that of negative liberty. We are asked to believe that we can do very radical things and have trust that it will be OK. Of course one can’t ever know precisely the outcome of what one does. But given ignorance, one should usually move cautiously. In fact a great deal of Hayek’s writing involves an appeal to the superiority of evolved institutions and custom except where he wants to trump it with his principle of liberty. Smith would not have approved of this. See his comments on ‘the man of system’ in The Theory of Moral Sentiments.
* Liberty does not just help us grow rich, but makes for a better, more interesting, varied and stimulating life.
3. Social Democracy
* The idea of caring for the least well off is a great and proud residue of our Christian heritage in public policy.
* Equality of opportunity is a fine goal, but
a) To bring it about one requires more than simple rule neutrality.
b) Even where people are given extra assistance by the state, it is unlikely that it can make up for the help some people get from their families from tangible inheritance and from the education they have received.
* We may not want equality of outcome indeed it is an odious idea. But we want to provide some floor of decency below which people need never fall.
* Doing what we can to foster social mobility does not just help us grow rich, but makes for a better, more interesting, varied and stimulating life.
All three traditions (in my version of them) appreciate pluralism within the rule of law.
PS: And I’d add, (after Ken’s first comment) we should go to great lengths to avoid violence and do (almost) anything to avoid war.
- American Economic
- do not do this