A conservative liberal social democrat

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 [American Economic] 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.


1. Conservatism
* 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.

2. Liberalism
* 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 [do not do this], 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.

This entry was posted in Cultural Critique, Economics and public policy, Philosophy, Political theory. Bookmark the permalink.

21 Responses to A conservative liberal social democrat

  1. Ken Parish says:

    Nicholas

    Great post, and amazingly close to my own views (though more elegantly put than I usually manage). Moreover, Solow’s point and your elucidation are also what I try to convey (unsuccessfully) by self-labelling as “centrist”. It’s not a claim to balance or wisdom, but to being simultaneously powerfully influenced by each of the 3 major strands of western political philosophy (mostly excluding Marxism though, except some of its historical analysis), and not being able to regard any one of them as the dominant influence. Stability, continuity and tradition; individual rights and freedoms, and openness to new and different ideas (not to mention a sceptical approach to both governments and large corporations given their potential to infringe individual freedom); and fairness/social justice: all are critically and equally important principles in forming and maintaining the Good Society.

    My claim to “centrism” is an attempt to convey that need for dynamic tension and continual balancing between these imperatives, as well as a protest about the inadequacy of any one of the dominant political philoosphies as the sole recipe for that Good Society. The trouble is, and as Nicholas observes, it doesn’t in fact convey those meanings to most people.

    So maybe I too should describe myself as a conservative liberal social democrat. But then that wouldn’t be as much fun, because it wouldn’t irritate Chris Sheil.

  2. Nice post, Nicholas.

    My only comment is that liberty (particularly positive liberty but also negative) has a place in the Social Democratic tradition – though often underemphasised. Traditions of liberty were particularly strong in 19th century Democratic socialism in Britan in particuler – E. J. Thompson is good on this.

    My personal position is probably best described as social democracy with an emphasis on non-authoritarian and participative policy and government.

    It might also be worth talking about democracy – not all liberals (eg Hayek) are really democrats and some conservatives are. The faultline runs across all three traditions.

    The other question of course is the old bugbear that it’s hard to get passionate about centrism – I might have a go at writing on it in the near future.

  3. I’ve now written the promised musings on passionate centrism and its (im)possibility:

    http://larvatusprodeo.redrag.net/2005/04/24/passionate-centrism/

  4. cs says:

    E P Thompson is pretty good too, Mark (sorry) … and don’t think you can wriggle out of argument 54 with that disguise, Parish.

  5. Mark,

    If you want passion, it’s in the propositions put, not the generalised headings.

  6. Rafe says:

    I agree with just about all of the Nicholas propositions and I am too lazy and full of roast beef to argue with the others. Martin, the younger Krygier, adopted a rather similar stance, describing himself in similar terms but his arguments were confused and contradictory and he did not include some of the essential caveats that Nicolas inserted. This is not the piece that I had in mind but it did turn up on a quick google.
    http://muse.jhu.edu/demo/good_society/v011/11.1krygier.html

  7. Rafe,

    Thanks for the comment. I’ve now dutifully read Krygier

  8. observa says:

    All patting yourselves on the back as conservatives are you? To qualify for that you might have to basically agree with the sentiments expressed here at http://vdare.com/sailer/050410_underclass.htm

    Interestingly enough the Sunday Mail in Adelaide(p10 April 24) refers to a similar conclusion by Adelaide born journalist and broadcaster Susan Murray in her recent book ‘All Things Bright and beautiful: Murder in the City of Light. Much to the outrage of the Mayor(Marylin Baker) and the citizens of Elizabeth, she basically lays the blame for ‘bodies in the barrels’ murders on a ‘village of rejects’, which referred to the village of followers that John Bunting had created. Quote:
    ‘The aim of the book had been to dispel “myths” that Adelaide was a “weird city” and attempt to discover why bodies-in-the-barrels murders had happened here.’
    ‘”One of the problems is you’ve got all those people living in all those Housing trust houses too close together” she says.’
    “Too many people on welfare in one place. I think that in itself can create a problem.”
    She basically concludes that unless the problem of ghettoes of disadvantaged is addressed these murders will occur again.

    I guess the question is; How best to deal with the growing symptoms of the Long March of liberal progressivism at the margins of The Good Society? If you don’t believe in the prescriptions that Steve Sailer points to, then you aint a centrist Neo-Conservative’s jock-strap me old liberal progressive wankers! You’re way out there with subsidised solo mums, gay marriage, IVF for all, adoption for all, quickie divorce, subsidised abortion on demand, stolen generations, etc, etc.

    • meika says:

      Observa, I work in a museum. (And have done for a decade now. My children are 20 & 18.)

      We loath the day any “groups” come in, groups which are all the same in some way: School kids, en masse Grey nomad caravaners, (currently) Darkmofo hipsters from Melb. Hen’s parties. Football teams. Big white boat cruise passengers (hooray for covid-19). Falls Festival attendees on Jan 2. The thing about all these different groups is that they behave the same way. Their superegos disappear and there is a race to the see who can be the most id-iotic possible. Blaming a quality that unites them is a category error. For no matter which background they are from, their behavior can be very similar. I’d say, any system or structure or directive or happenstance that allocates and purifies people into groups would be best to avoid encouraging.

  9. observa, I know the Power aint doing so well, but the Left really do know whats best. Just vote ALP and trust them. Honest.

    That is what the people that live in Elizabeth do, and it must work for them coz they keep doing it.

  10. Dave says:

    Observa,

    The account by Susan *Mitchell* of the Snowtown affair is an entertaining read, but don’t take it as an authoritative account of what went on at the trial. For a start, Suse didn’t spend much time in court, despite what the book implies. And her casting of Christopher Pearson as the resonant voice of Adelaide’s soul is laughable. But I think Scott’s identified the source of your distress – it’s still early days in the season and the Power will probably (unfortunately) improve. Conservative liberal social democrat Quiggin seems to be taking Brisbane’s plummet to last without resorting to hysteria …

  11. Nic White says:

    Youve nailed it Nicholas. Ill ditto that.

  12. Comrade Graeme says:

    Nick you are fundamentally a left-winger whose basic honesty about matters economic has pulled you towards the centre.

    I reccomend an ideological change.

    Become a small government partial redistributionist. Someone who wants an insipid 24hour day in day out rigging of things in slight favour of smaller business and the guy who starts from nothing but in the context of small government.

    This might cure your ideological confusion. And where libertarian principle meets utilitarianism its not necessary to choose one or the other. Not necessary to throw out the free market principles. You just sort of bend things in favour of the poor worker and the smaller business. Not enough to do economic damage but enough to change things over time.

    Works for me.

  13. Pingback: Club Troppo » Solow on Schumpeter

  14. observa says:

    Well, well if it aint a dark sided alter ego that no doubt belongs to a murder of Crows. They do like posing about in coats of many colours. Ignore it and it will sink with Richmond supporters where it no doubt belongs.

  15. A bit over my head Observer. But I do like the bit in the Richmond club song where they sing “YELLOW AND BLACK”.

  16. Evan W Thornley says:

    Taking your tip to revisit this post, Nick and I did identify with much within it. Seems to me fairly obvious that no one of those ideologies can comfortably either fully describe the human condition, let alone propose adequate solutions to society’s ills – hence taking some judicious elements of each is necessary for which the chief requirement is wisdom – a commodity in generally short supply.

    The one element I think is unmentioned directly in each of these accounts is the modern phenomenon of the Managerial Class and the distortions they bring to each of these ideologies, but particularly Liberalism and Social Democracy. Clearly most “capitalist” corporations are run more for the convenience and profit of their managerial class than they are for either their shareholders, employees, customers, suppliers of the wider society. Clearly much of the public sector is run for the convenience and enhanced power and status of its managerial class than for the direct interests of the voting public. Sadly even increasing amounts of the community sector are run for the convenience of their managerial class.

    This observation is not new – from Robbins on Organisational Behaviour to Vanguard founder Jack Bogle’s Battle for the Soul of Capitalism to the profound insights of Christopher Lasch in Revolt of the Elites and more recently Michael Lind’s New Class War, this issue has been extensively identified.

    Which is why I think a fourth tradition should be added to your list – Populism. Not in the neo-fascist or excessively nationalist sense, but in the common sense and democratic version that emphasises the common sense of ordinary people – the centrality of their concerns about family and community and the fabric of intimate relationships and on localism as the locus of most of what matters in their lives. It is perhaps unsurprising that there is something of a dearth of literature from the academy advancing a coherent articulation of populism as it is, in essence, the furthest from the academy. But I think it completes the four corners of your discussion that might give us the richest toolkit of options to understand and advance the good society.

  17. John Quiggin says:

    I endorse must of this, but there’s a big problem with the formulation, which was evident in 2005, and glaringly obvious now.

    The entries for “liberal” and “social democrat” correspond broadly to the meanings associated with those terms in ordinary political discussion, bearing in mind that “liberal” means somewhat different things in different places, and particularly in the US

    But the entry for conservatism bears no relationship to actually existing conservatism with the possible exception of point 1 – given that actually existing conservatism is crazy, conservatives can’t be accused of excessive rationalism.

    • Nicholas Gruen says:

      Yes, it should be clear from context that I’m using ‘conservative’ as ‘Burkean’ conservative as there’s little in the list of points that comes from current right wing politics. I’ve never really thought of conservative as necessarily particularly right wing. Burke wasn’t right wing for his time — he was a whig. But I accept that that’s a bit eccentric. In any event I agree with you that certainly in the US and increasingly in the UK and Australia, the actually existing party political right is anything but conservative in the sense I’ve used it. Still, you have to admit that within just a few weeks of taking office our current Prime Minister solved the Great Spiked Strawberry Crisis that so threatened our country.

  18. Graeme Tychsen says:

    A conservative liberal social democrat,

    Dear Mr Gruen,

    Whether divine, truthful for believers, or a powerful message, sourced in a parable, Christianity, which is rarely adhered to, but has the highest profile in aggrandisement of individual power, anthema to its tenets, Christianity pointed the way to the quickest escape from the darkness humankind’s brain saddles all with.

    So all those elements apply to the extent knowledge shows “collective” health, the required setting for the individual, for maximum freedom, widely meant, is to be achieved.

    The pandemic has shown people describing themselves as libertarians, who allow no role, for mandatory mutuality, to make all stronger, of no one can tell me what to do, such as wearing masks, who are really “tyrannical despots” in their own little kingdom. The surprise is the prevalence of this in English derived cultures, which gave humanity the signposts of freedom, but badly applied.

    The world of immense power at fingertips, begun 300 years ago, has meant hastening unfolding change, when the bedrock empathy of Christianity has never been more crucial.

    Paradoxically, material well-being diminishes the central nervous system’s capacity to empathise.

    Pragmatism, means coming to grips with this world, to set a threshold of dignity, for all people of the “unit”, currently the nation.

    Australia’s ethos was to effect this; but in practice now could not be further from the truth. Finland and Denmark are countries that set the pace. Speak to people from there about Australia, and they are shocked, as they have the idea that this land is akin to theirs.

    The class, pecking order, social ladder of “I know my place and you are to know yours”, of Scott Morrison having disdain for so many, but grovelling when introduced to the Australian monarch, is ready to pounce, in English derived societies, and has.

    “Australians” are very formal, especially at point of entry, to the group, generally set by wealth. For “Australians all” means all are valuable at that point.

    Love the force in our “community” for private schooling, a clear marker of the Australian delusion.

    I am not surprised you and I are kindred spirits, of the more tribal continental European background. Hence your invitation for views, for example.

    For my background is mostly German/Danish, from 1800s Melbourne, upon the prevalence of that ethnicity, third or fourth largest group, of the gold boom economy times.

    Australia was to be a socialist country of strong enfranchisement, in fact, of a weak vote, given the narrow, powerful interests whose say is final.

    On socialist I am in the boat with Hugh McKay who recently commented that he was socialist, when it came to shelter and health. Education should be added to this: truly universal education, to the first qualification after school.

    Of course there are English derived people who believe in this, such as Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard, (really celtic, Welsh).

    I find Australia more and more hostile territory.

    Wishing you well, stay safe,

    Warm regards,

    Graeme Tychsen

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