The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 5 – Conservatism, Liberalism & the Founding of the United States)

One central question can premise this part:

Given that core components of both conservatism and liberalism were influential among the early American Founders, how can we accurately categorize them?

While I’ll leave that to my readers to decide, I think the answer will become rather clear: you can’t. That case is made immediately clear in the debate between some historians as to whether or not Thomas Jefferson was essentially a liberal or a conservative. In the vein of the first argument, Jefferson was hugely influenced by John Locke, continuously promoted civil liberties, and ultimately promoted blatantly liberal policies such as the separation of church and state, a wider democratic base, et cetera. Other historians argue that Jefferson was actually a conservative. In their line of reasoning, Jefferson supported republican principles going back as far as the Roman Republic and was pro-agrarian (a traditional vocation). By the time of Jefferson’s prolific support of all these various principles and ideals, many of his ideas were already widely accepted and promoted by many in the 13 colonies of the U.S. So did that make them conservative…or liberal?

I’ll give you the history; you can decide the answer. Here are the previous parts, if you are just now joining me:

A Review of Colonial Foundations

I want to start this section off with a quick historical comparison of some of the colonies, loosely categorized for our purposes. This will help inform the impact that these founding influences had on the later framers of the United States during the Revolutionary Era and serve as a helpful reminder more generally.

Virginia & the Aristocratic Colonies: The first colony, established in 1607, grew into an agrarian colony (mainly on tobacco) based on the aristocratic hierarchy of England. Their colonial assembly, the House of Burgesses, was made up of members chosen by the various land-holders of Virginia. Until the Revolutionary Era, Virginia looked much like the mother country, with an officially state-established and state-sponsored Anglican Church. Founders such as George Washington, James Madison and Thomas Jefferson would all herald from the aristocratic society of Virginia. Maryland and Carolina (and later Georgia) would follow a very similar structure. (And we should note that Thomas Jefferson was able to produce and get a measure passed in 1786 that ended the government-sponsored church in Virginia.)

Massachusetts & Puritan New England: Though preceded by Plymouth Colony (established 1620), Massachusetts Bay Colony (established 1630) would ultimately become the dominant New England Colony. We’re all familiar with the narrative: led by John Winthrop, thousands of Puritans migrated to Massachusetts in the 1630s to escape the restrictive religious/political environment of Anglican England. There are far too many misconceptions about Massachusetts to expound on here, but for now it is suffice to say that the Puritans were very clear about their goal of a Puritan society in which the church was state, and the state was the church.  Their decentralized system of governance left politics extremely local and based in the church in each community. Members in each church were the voting members in their community. The Puritans did not intend for any separation of church and state, and quickly images of Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter emerge to condemn them. Another debate for another time, to be sure, but we have to remember Winthrop was also clear in the voluntary nature of living in Massachusetts. When Roger Williams and Anne Hutchinson digressed from the basics of Puritanism, they were asked to leave.

Roger Williams

Puritan Dissenters & Rhode Island:  Roger Williams himself decided to establish his own colony in 1636 at Providence (Rhode Island), established on the idea of separation of church and state. In his essay, The Bloody Tenet of Persecution for the Cause of Conscience, Williams argued against the Puritan church and state unification on the argument that enforced religion was no true religion at all, and the political sword could never effectively create or maintain the true church or the true spiritual life of a believer. (Interested readers are encouraged to read his essay and the response by Puritan Minister John Cotton of Massachusetts, The Bloody Tenet Washed and Made White in the Blood of the Lamb.)

The Middle Colonies: New York (established as New Amsterdam by the Dutch in 1624), Pennsylvania and New Jersey were rather distinct from the other colonies in the propensity of their settlers to take advantage of the somewhat greater economic opportunity. Established as a trading colony by the Dutch and later taken by the British, New York boasted of significant diversity, as well as a great number of people loyal to the British crown during the American Revolution. Pennsylvania and New Jersey, gifted to the Quaker William Penn (and established 1681), were afforded extensive economic freedom. Quakers, while known for being distinctly devout, were also very much committed to economic, political and religious freedom.1 Overall, it is not surprising that New York and Philadelphia grew into the two most prosperous cities in the colonies.2

British Colonial Political Culture

It is important to note that during the 17th and 18th centuries, the British people were among some of the most free in the world in comparative terms. The natural law traditions of Great Britain were an element of pride and specific importance to those in Great Britain and her North American colonies. Much of the conflict arising in the early days of the series of crises leading up to the Revolution cited violations of the colonial “rights as Englishmen.” More specifically, according to Dr. Jason Jewell, many colonists, regardless of their colony of origin, saw themselves as heirs of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (discussed in parts 1 & 3) and of the Whiggism that followed (discussed in parts 3 & 4).3

Although a fading part of the current narrative as it is told, most colonists read and were immersed in the Bible on a regular basis, and beliefs in people as both inherently sinful and made in the image of God were common. Additionally, most of the more educated colonists (and a great many of the aristocratic planter-class of the southern colonies) were well-read in the writings of Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. Political thinking was no doubt influenced by Cicero and Cato the Younger’s advocacy of “civic virtue” and republicanism. Republicanism, in the Roman sense, was deliberately opposed to absolutism and was premised on the idea that those with a vested interest in the political society of a country should be actively involved in the affairs of the political society.

Newspapers of the day displayed these cultural influences with constant Biblical and Roman references. The symbolism of Republican Rome was perhaps most popularly notable with the title given George Washington: “The American Cincinnatus”4. In addition, it was common for newspaper columns to be authored by someone taking a Roman name as an alias. The Federalist Papers were published under the pseudonym Publius, for example.

A key feature of this appeal to Roman republicanism was the conservatism of these Romans. Fundamental to Cicero and Cato the Younger was a desire to retain traditions and the norms of the ancestors. The conservative Romans who found their influence in American periodicals often bemoaned the loss of their traditional society and culture under the influence of the Roman emperors.

Likewise, despite modern critiques that blur the importance of the Bible in colonial society, this very importance was itself precisely conservative. We see this from New England, where the “puritan ethic” described the general adherence to a life of hard work and strong Biblical ethics, to Georgia, where even the aristocratic elites were well-versed in Scripture. Prayer and Scripture, whether with devout or nominal devotion, were a regular part of private and political life throughout the colonies. (And do not criticize me for any lack of critique with regard to issues of hypocrisy, inconsistency or slavery; that is not the purpose of this series. I merely wish to highlight historical realities that help us understand the progression of the ideas in its title.)

And note one omission from the narrative that is not by accident. Many critics today accuse the conservatism of the Founding generation to be inherently tied to the preservation of slavery. Clearly, that is not the case in any uniform sense. Yes, a distinct conservative thread would emerge in the defense of the slave-based plantation system in the south insofar as they wanted to conserve that lifestyle, but it was not applicable in a more broad sense during the founding days of the United States. (I have included a small digression related to this issue in the footnotes.5 )

The Revolutionary Crisis

Philadelphia, c. 1776

A full discussion of the series of events leading up to the Revolutionary War won’t fit in this post(!).6 Most of us are familiar from our school days with the tax crises. After the French & Indian War, a heavily indebted British government began a series of taxing measures in the colonies to help pay off war debt, as well as to help cover the costs of the British troops stationed in the colonies. Long story short, early problems caused by the taxes led to repeal of some of the taxes, but a Parliament itself divided over policy (Whigs vs. Tories) ended up instating further taxes (some of which were also repealed, and some of which were kept). Eventually, with increased resistance on the part of the colonists and increased determination to secure authority over them by Parliament, a snowball effect of events led to an acute crisis in Massachusetts. A meeting of colonial delegates (ambassadors) was called and the First Continental Congress was formed. It would be the second Continental Congress that would issue the Declaration of Independence two years later.

What was the real issue? Did the resisters oppose taxation on principle? No, not particularly. The real issue was the belief in local government. It was common belief that only the local legislative assembly had the authority to tax its constituents (we’re all familiar with the cry, “no taxation without representation.”)

This principle of localism was very conservative, drawing largely on the localism and traditions of the Middle Ages. As Tom Woods writes,

“Medieval Europe…was a radically decentralized society that featured a multiplicity of jurisdictions. … The Catholic Church, giving voice to the rich tradition of Christian social thought, recommends the principle of subsidiarity… The ideas of federalism and states’ rights, in short, hold a central and honored place within the Western tradition.”7

Finally, it should also be obvious by now the effect that liberalism had in the colonies. We are all familiar with John Locke’s influence on Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence. As many colonists saw it, their traditional rights as Englishmen were being violated and their traditional societal values were being challenged. All this culminated into justification for rhetorical and active resistance and ultimate rebellion against the British.

American colonists themselves split as the crisis unfolded. Many remained loyalists and gained themselves the title Tories (recall the Tory origins in England). According to Dr. Jewell, an estimated 20-30% of the colonial population supported continued union with England and the king. Though many did not support British tax policy, they nevertheless were not willing to sever ties to a country that had a better track-record than most of protecting their natural rights, as they saw it.

Of course, the Patriots won the day in bringing full rebellion to pass. Radicals such as Thomas Paine (especially in his booklets such as Common Sense) helped push American colonists into supporting independence.

Post-Revolution Politics

I once again apologize for my lack of historical exposition. It is my full intention to expound fully in the future. For now, I intend to summarize the points that help tell the conservative/liberal story.

With the decision to fight for independence, the citizens of the 13 independent states began a process of attempting the creation of a new political system. In the wake of the declaration, they created the Articles of Confederation to form a continual Congress of delegates from the sovereign states.

I do want to explain the importance of the all-too-often overlooked Articles of Confederation, ratified as the Revolutionary War began. See the footnotes for more information on that document8, but for now, a few points. First, the Articles of Confederation were particularly deliberate in protecting the full sovereignty of each of its member states, much as the nations of the United Nations maintain their sovereignty today. As we’ve already seen, this was a conservative position. Likewise, the Articles were conservative in their guard against democracy, as was the later Constitution (though, with the implementation of the House of Representatives, to a lesser extent). Like the conservative Tories in England (though generally emphasizing different reasons), the Founders, as historians have aptly pointed out, were not supporters of direct democracy, understanding its tendency for the tyranny of the majority.9

In 1787, delegates met once again in Philadelphia to discuss changes to (or more specifically, by the design of James Madison, a full replacement of) the Articles. The Constitution emerged from its debates.

Thomas Jefferson

Passage of the Constitution not a foregone conclusion (something I think we don’t get taught today!), vigorous debate broke out in many states over its merits and demerits. Ultimately, these factions would become known as the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists, respectively. The Federalists were proponents of ratification and the consolidated powers given the new federal government not given under the Articles. In opposition, the Anti-Federalists were concerned about losses to state sovereignty that could be brought about by the Constitution. Appeasing their concerns, the Federalists promised a Bill of Rights, the most important of which to the Anti-Federalists was the 10th Amendment. According to historians Kevin Gutzman, Brion McClanahan and many others, the promise of the 10th Amendment was pivotal in getting several key states to ratify the Constitution, including Virginia. The 10th Amendment was put in place to protect state sovereignty, and the conservative principle that promoted localism.

John Adams

 

Thomas Jefferson (though not in the states during the ratification debates), taking the helm of the arguments against increases in the scope of the federal government’s power, is most remembered for his continued push for the separation of church and state, civil liberties, and generally more limited government. The Constitution passed despite his concerns with the document, but he later went on to demand that the federal government must be bound down by the “chains of the Constitution.” Today, many traditional conservatives, as well as libertarians, look back at Thomas Jefferson for inspiration.

John Adams, who very much could be considered a conservative in his era, was the president who signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts, violating the First Amendment and punishing those who publicly spoke poorly of Adams or the government. This was done, incidentally, about the same time that Tory William Pitt the Younger signed the British Sedition Act into law (discussed in part 3). Jefferson and Madison, in reply, authored the Virginia and Kentucky Resolutions, calling state “nullification” of the laws the “rightful remedy.”

So, how do we classify the Founders and their ideas? Once again, it becomes clear that categorization is not so clear. (And clearly, a complete analysis would discuss individuals and not such a generalized approach. My goal has been summary.) Nevertheless, understanding how they fit into (or didn’t) the ideas during their day will help to clarify the progression of conservative and liberal thought heading toward the current day.

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1 Quakers were, notably, some of the most passionate abolitionists well into the 1840s and 50s. They got their name from the way their services would include quiet worship time during which members were known to quiver or quake as part of their worship experience.

2 Some might attribute that claim to southern cities such as Charleston, but the wealth of Charleston was created by the land and slave-holding aristocrats and brought back into the cities. New York and Philadelphia were filled with far more entrepreneurial-generated wealth created from the unique opportunities of economic freedom.

3 Jason Jewell is the Humanities Chair at Faulkner University and blogs at The Western Tradition. His lecture series on related topics is a key source of my series. You can subscribe to Liberty Classroom for a special discount by subscribing to LCKeagy.com. Already subscribed? Send me an email or message at the LCKeagy.com Facebook page for the coupon codes.

4 Cincinnatus was a Roman farmer who, in the time of need, led Rome to victory against invasion, after which he returned to his farm, declining an opportunity to use his power and loyalty as an avenue to dictatorship. Washington, likewise, returned to Mount Vernon after becoming the hero of the Revolutionary War, despite concerns (and some proposals) that he would become an American King.

Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and George Washington were all slave-owners, and all admitted to a distaste of slavery in general, but were unwilling to alter their lifestyles so radically as to honor their distaste. Some who expect perfection of humanity do not think these two ideas can go hand in hand, but human nature is more complicated than these people will admit. George Washington was willing to ensure all his slaves were free upon his and his wife’s death and wrote regularly of his opposition to the institution, but, knowing that freeing his slaves would lead him into bankruptcy, was not willing to catapult himself into poverty. It was a conflict of desires, and his personal desire to avoid bankruptcy and a radical change of lifestyle for which he was not prepared won out over his desire to see slaves freed. Sure, there is plenty of critique to be made here, but that is not the place for this series.

6 I am currently working on writing a summary of these events, but my time dedicated to it has been rather limited. Subscribe to know right away when that one is finished and posted!

33 Questions About American History You’re Not Supposed to Ask, ©2007, Thomas E. Woods, Jr. Ph.D, page 25.

8 I am going to be embarrassed to post this, but I did a video discussion about it for my students, which you can find here. There is nothing professional about the videography or style, and it is my first video lecture I have done! The Articles are far more important in understanding the American founding than they are almost ever given credit for. Instead, we’re always stuck with the “did they succeed, or did they fail?” discussion…and we miss the whole point.

9 John Jay, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton make this point very clear later on in the Federalist Papers.


 

Do You Aspire for Political Power?

I was recently having a conversation with someone who explained to me her interest in politics. Her ultimate goal she said: to become president. She was quite convinced of it, too.  A self-described “control freak,” she had a plan for moving up the political ladder and ultimately emerging in that prized executive position.

Now, I pledge to never disparage anyone with the terribly powerful weapon and tool of my metaphorical pen, and that is not my purpose here. But the interaction struck me and I had to hold my tongue politely in the setting that did not allow for further discussion of the matter. Still, I managed one bit of cordially-delivered advice.

The advice? That politicians are the only people with the legal authority to use force, violence and the threat of each, and the reality of that ought to be sobering.

And as I said, I spoke with lighthearted understatement that somewhat masked the formidable reminder. I will not mince my words here.

Do you aspire for political power?

Please remember the same.

This is not a treatise on political power and its proper role or extent. It is merely a warning.

Saint Augustine theorized that those in power are by and large those who are already inclined to such an abuse of that power, as those not so inclined are most often found in the more docile of vocations. This, of course, is quite counter to the general perspective we are taught of government officials from our youngest days: that those bearing our team label are sacrificial benefactors out for our own good. (You already know how I feel about “team politics” from my post, “I Am Not Partisan”.)

Sure, in response to some of your protests, there are politicians who are not naturally those already inclined to seek the position for its own sake. But am I really that far out on a limb to suggest that these are by far the exception rather than the norm? Saint Augustine and many others would not think so. When the Hebrews demanded a king, the Lord told Samuel to warn them of the ways the kings would turn the people into his very slaves.1 If the vocation of painting draws those who naturally tend to be artistic, then why are we so ready to proclaim that the vocation of power must be a great a sacrifice born by those in its pursuit for the greater good of those they have power over? Does it not likewise tend to draw those who are naturally “control freaks”?

In one of the first posts of this project (“What is the State?”), I made the assertion that the state is a monopoly on force.

Do you aspire for political power? Do you aspire to be a member of this prestigious monopoly with the power to hold the metaphorical gun of legal force?

There is an old adage that we all knew from a young age: “power corrupts.” And when we learned about the kings of France, we added, “and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” And there may be some truth here in a colloquial sense, as some who seek political office often find their benevolent aspirations twisted cruelly into an activity of self-advancement. But perhaps it is a far more accurate reality that power draws out the natural corruption of human nature and gives it far more dangerous an impact than the more benign professions.

Again, this is not a treatise on the role or legitimacy of power. It is, to sound like a broken record, a caution. A warning.

Indeed, I am not altogether opposed to a pragmatic pursuit of political position (and on this, there will be divided opinion among my readers), so long as all such pursuits are used for the advancement of liberty, anchored in the most unshakable of moral caliber. Such pursuit and integrity is a rare find among the political class.

We have come so far from God’s warning to the Hebrews that a king would “draft your sons,” force some to “plow in his fields and harvest his crops,” “take away the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his own officials,” and “take a tenth of your grain and your grape harvest.”2 Indeed, we have come to revere the very power that God told Samuel was a rejection of His sovereignty.3

This is the power to tax. The power to wage war. The power to wield the only legal metaphorical gun and the power to use it.

And for those who want to add, “the power to build up or to destroy,” do not be misled. The power of government cannot build up. It cannot create. It can only feed on the productivity and creativity of others. All true conservatives have understood that truth and beauty can never be the product of force. As the great conservative Edmund Burke (who I discuss here) wrote,

“In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing, the Thing itself is the Abuse!”4

And the great 20th Century writer, conservative and libertarian-leaning J.R.R. Tolkien, expressing his views in The Lord of the Rings, expresses his views in Gandalf’s reply to Frodo’s suggestion that he take the Ring (which in a later letter, Tolkien says symbolizes power itself):

“No! With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly! Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused.”5

Do you aspire for this power?

Then be sobered by the reality of this danger and proceed with humility, integrity and a deep and abiding fear of what the weapon and tool in your hands really means.


1 1 Samuel 8

2 Ibid, verses 11-15

3 Ibid, verse 7.

4 This comes from one of his early essays, though it was repeated as a motto throughout much of Burke’s political life. Numerous commentaries can be found on it with a simple Google search.

5 The Lord of the Rings, page 60. A very interesting and thorough look at Tolkien’s views on power as expressed through The Lord of the Rings can be found here.

Book Review: The Problem with Socialism

The book begins by citing a 2015 study showing that “43% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 had a ‘favorable’ opinion of socialism and that they have a higher opinion of socialism than they do of capitalism.1 It immediately cites another study in 2016 that “found that 69% of voters under the age of thirty expressed a ‘willingness to vote for a socialist president of the United States.’”2

Economics professor Thomas DiLorenzo saw this as a challenge.

In his beautifully short and information-packed book, The Problem with Socialism, DiLorenzo strikes at the heart of the major elements and issues with socialism. As he aptly states in his introduction, “In order to have a ‘favorable’ view of socialism one must have either forgotten what the entire world learned about socialism from the late nineteenth century on, or have never learned anything about it in the first place.”3

He is correct.

And he knows how to cater it to millennials, many of whom seem to be trending in a Bernie Sanders direction. Well, okay, let’s be honest. The best way to do that might be flashy short video clips. But for a book, DiLorenzo keeps his chapters snappy and thorough; most can be read in 20 minutes or less. I read virtually the entire book in a weekend—quite a feat for a slow reader with a toddler, newborn and two jobs.

What does DiLorenzo cover? Everything from the fundamental economic problems of socialism to how forced egalitarianism conflicts with human nature, to how Scandinavian socialism isn’t what it’s made out to be, to the problems of minimum wage, welfare, state-sponsored education and more. As he writes, this book is meant to be a “primer on socialism (and capitalism) for some; a historical reminder for others; and a handy sourcebook on all the problems of socialism and how it threatens a free society.”4 And he does it all in an easy-to-read way, without the total-silence-needed-for-concentration burden of heavy economic analysis. This book is written for the layperson.

For anyone looking for this sort of easy, quick but comprehensive examination of all the major issues of socialism, I cannot more highly recommend this book. I agree with Thomas Woods, and others who contend that every high school student ought to read this book before heading off to college, but even for those of us beyond that point and immersed in busy lives, DiLorenzo helps us avoid the ignorance that seems to be increasing around us on the topic of socialism. The fact of the matter is, this isn’t just something that you can just take or leave. The more these realities are forgotten by voters and their elected officials, the more it truly will affect our lives. Treat yourself to an excellent source of understanding.

And for my fellow nerds, enjoy a lecture given by Professor DiLorenzo based on this book:


1 DiLorenzo, Thomas, The Problem with Socialism, page 1.

2 Ibid, 2.

3 Ibid, 4.

4 Ibid, 12

 

The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 4 – Liberalism in 18th & 19th Century Great Britain)

Let’s jump right in. In this part, I’m going through the key elements of liberalism in Great Britain during the 18th and early 19th centuries. In case you missed any of the previous parts:

In my approach to this rather sweeping scope and sequence, I am going to first discuss key thinkers (primarily John Locke) in the development of distinctly liberal thought in the political sphere and then in the economic sphere. Then, I’ll look at specifically how liberal ideas had an impact on British politics and policies more directly.

John Locke (1632-1704)

John Locke & Other Key Theorists in Liberal Political Theory

As already stated numerous times, the character perhaps most foundation to classical liberalism is John Locke, who we already mentioned briefly in part 1. Given the profound influence on many thinkers and particularly on many of the American Founders, Locke’s ideas merit a bit more expansion than I have offered so far. As Edmund Burke is often cited as the “father of conservatism,” so Locke is considered the “father of liberalism.”1

Despite his work as a physician to the Earl of Shaftsbury (a key founder of the Whig Party who probably influenced many of Locke’s ideas), John Locke committed much of his time to philosophy and writing, producing, among other works, his primary disposition on political philosophy, The Second Treatise of Government.

Though I will not reproduce a full analysis of Locke’s theory, I do want to lay out some of his foundational ideas. To begin, Locke believed that all people are entitled to what he called the “law of nature.” He writes first that the state of nature is “a state of perfect freedom to order their actions and dispose of their possessions and persons as they see fit, within the bounds of the law of nature.” A few paragraphs later, he clarifies this law of nature:

“The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one; and reason, which is that law, teaching all mankind who will but consult it, that, being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberties or possessions. For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker—all the servants of one sovereign Master—they are his property” and “there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another.”²

 

Continuing through his Treatise, Locke then theorizes that the reason that men leave the “state of nature” and join together in political society is for the protection of those rights. In gathering together, Locke believes that people have formed a sort of “social contract,” whereby they consent to be governed by the very status of being in civil society (called social contract theory). In this civil society, they then create for themselves a government (which Locke specifically calls a commonwealth) for the protection of natural rights, and that commonwealth is only legitimate insofar as it gains its power from the consent of the governed. When the government fails to protect natural rights, it can and should be resisted and, if necessary, replaced.³

Any readers familiar with the American Declaration of Independence cannot miss Locke’s profound impact on its primary author, Thomas Jefferson.

To safeguard the government’s prescribed role as protector of individual liberty, Locke advocated a clear separation of political power into the law-making (legislative), law-enforcing (executive) and judicial branches. Of course, it’s all but impossible to miss the impact his ideas had on the American Constitution, as well.

Locke’s ideas expanded beyond his Treatises on Government. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke also argued adamantly for the separation of church and state and for religious toleration, writing that “no man by nature is bound unto any particular church or sect.”4 His ideas on religious toleration and the separation of church and state would, of course, as any student of American History understands, have profound influence on the debate over these issues in the North American British colonies.

A final note before moving on. Neither modern American conservatives nor most current libertarians fully adhere to all of John Locke’s principles or premises. Nevertheless, it is hard to understand the impact of his ideas on American political life, both in the conservative and classically liberal traditions, without a more complete understanding of these fundamental tenants.

Though perhaps the greatest voice of his day advocating for natural rights, Locke was not alone. We’ve already mentioned Samuel Rutherford in part 1, but even some French thinkers would have an impact on the liberal tradition in Great Britain.

Voltaire (1694-1778)

Voltaire is a key example. A poet, playwright and humanist who spent much of his time in England, Voltaire is largely remembered for his political writings like the satirical Candide. In his writings, Voltaire argued against arbitrary power and specifically for free speech and religious toleration.

Another writer in the liberal tradition (and, incidentally, also in the conservative tradition, depending on the ideas discussed) is David Hume (1711-1776). Though an entire section could be written on Hume, as well, it must be suffice to say that he spent much of his writing arguing for the liberal idea of minimal government.

And born nearly a decade after Locke’s death, John Stuart Mill would also write a passionate treatise advocating for liberty in his essay conspicuously titled, On Liberty. I’ll mention him again in a bit.

 

Key Theorists in Liberal Economic Theory

Supplemental to the political theorists were numerous economists who either self-consciously or inadvertently can be identified in the same liberal vein. As Locke argued for political liberty, economists such as Adam Smith and David Ricardo would argue for economic liberty.

Adam Smith (1723-1790)

The name most people are familiar with, naturally, is Adam Smith, a Scottish economist boasting his major work, The Wealth of Nations (1776). We find ironies with Smith as with Locke; as a professor of moral philosophy, it is his economic writings that have earned him the title by many, “the father of modern capitalism.” (Note that some current free-market economists contend this title.)

Though by no means the key originator of these ideas, Smith made the now well-known case for free trade and deliberately opposed the mercantile ideas of the day. Mercantilism is (in layman’s terms) the economic theory that wealth is fundamentally finite and it is in a nation’s best interest to maintain a favorable balance of trade (more exports than imports) in order that more wealth enters a country than leaves. In summary, Smith is probably most well-known for his advocacy of laissez faire—or “hand’s off”—economic policy. In truth, Smith drew much of his understanding from others. This same anti-mercantilist ideology was perhaps first promoted by a group of economists in France known as the physiocrats.

(Readers hoping for a more extensive description of the economic ideas of the day will have to forgive me; click the links for further reading. Particularly interested readers may also research Cantillon, an Irish-French economist preceding Smith who laid much of the anti-mercantile groundwork. He would play a key role in the development of economics as a field of study broadly and in Austrian Economics specifically.)

In summary, then, the French physiocrats, Adam Smith and other classical economists were largely united in their view that markets, both domestic and international, ought to remain largely free of government intervention, a position that aligned itself with and became a key part of liberalism going forward.

Utilitarianism

I want to touch briefly on one other vein of thought that is often tied, in historical context, to the liberalism of the era we’re discussing: utilitarianism. To be sure, not all liberals adhered to utilitarianism, and not all utilitarians can be considered liberals. But that a few key figures did does tie the two movements together to a limited extent.

John Stuart Mill

But first, what is utilitarianism? Utilitarianism is the idea that favors policy that maximizes social utility, that is, whatever improves the greatest amount of happiness for the greatest number of people. Advocated first largely by Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), utilitarians believed that government should pursue policies that improve social utility (or happiness) for the most people. (Some even went so far as to try to calculate pain and pleasure in what Bentham called “hedonistic calculus.”)

While not premised on principle, as for liberals such as John Locke, utilitarians often ended at liberal conclusions such as free trade, civil liberties and political equality, inevitably uniting many of their policy positions.

As already mentioned, James Mill (1773-1836) and his son, John Stuart Mill (1806-1873), are two well-known thinkers in the utilitarian and liberal streams of philosophy. Though both passionately agnostic and anti-Christian, they wrote both economics works and political philosophy pieces such as Mill the younger’s On Liberty.

Liberalism in British Politics

Okay, time to get to the practical influence of liberalism on English politics. We need to back up in time for a moment. In the last part, we looked at the development of the Whig and Tory parties surrounding the question of whether to allow James II to become king of England, which he finally did in 1685. Whiggism, originating in the fear that James would bring Great Britain back into Catholicism, became tied more and more with liberal ideology over the following centuries. Part of the reason for this was that Whigs based their policy positions on the longstanding natural law traditions in England that afforded the land-holding gentry some, if limited, sovereignty over their government.

As time went on, the ideas of John Locke helped to solidify the philosophical grounding to many Whig positions. Drawing on not only Locke, but as far back as Classical Roman Republicans, a series of essays called Cato’s Letters circulated Great Britain.5 Using historical characters to expose contemporary issues, Cato’s Letters dealt with government corruption, natural law, freedom of speech and political resistance, among other things. Published while Whigs held Parliamentary power from 1720 to 1723, Cato’s Letters helped inspire many in English society, as well as the North American English colonists.

What of specific policy prescriptions of the liberals? Let’s jump ahead to the early 1800s, where we see a few key clear-cut liberal policies come into effect.

One already mentioned in the previous part was Catholic Emancipation. Liberals and Whigs were the most ardent in their advocacy that Catholics be allowed to meet in public and serve in public office. Ultimately, in an effort by both liberals and the conservative Duke of Wellington, Catholic Emancipation managed to be passed in 1832.

Another major issue put forth by liberals was the Reform Act of 1832.

It is important to draw out one more clear point here. During the later 18th and early 19th centuries, liberalism pursued democratic expansion—the inclusion of greater numbers of people in the political process. The theory behind this is best understood in context. With the backdrop of Divine Right (discussed in Part 1), absolutism becoming stronger in neighboring France, and a hierarchical system that put power in the hands of the aristocracy, liberals saw some of the best safeguards of liberty to be in the greater “voice” of the people as a check against the arbitrary power of oligarchs. (That many people would soon come to see democracy as a way for large numbers of people to vote themselves political privileges and monetary transfers was not particularly clear to liberals at the time. More on this development later.)

Charles Grey (1764-1845)

And it was in this push for greater democracy that the Reform Act of 1832 was passed. Passed under Whig Charles Grey (for whom the tea Earl Grey is named), the Reform Act vastly expanded suffrage (by relaxing land-owning requirements for voting) and rearranged parliamentary districts (called boroughs) to ensure more equal representation. The Industrial Revolution had resulted in such massive demographic shifts and boroughs that were either vastly over-represented or under-represented, that it had become a major Whig goal to reform the entire Parliamentary district system.

The Reform Act was met with substantial opposition from Tories, who feared that a greater voting base would degrade politics into a sort of rough and tumble sport while removing it from those with the higher levels of education and nobility. It is also an important note to remember that almost all taxes were paid primarily by the land-owners. Conservatives feared that by giving suffrage to those who paid little or no taxes, the political process could, in fact, become vulnerable to taxes being raised under the pressure of those who would not pay them.

Despite opposition and with the help of political maneuvering, Charles Grey managed to get the Reform Bill passed.

Encouraged by this, the Chartism working-class movement of the 1830s-1850s sought to expand these democratic and, at the time, liberal gains. The Chartists pushed for universal male suffrage, voting by secret ballot, the elimination of property-requirements for members of Parliament, a more evenly balanced constituency for these members, and annual elections. For the time being, these measures failed in the British Parliament.

Finally, liberals were at the forefront of the abolitionist movement. While the slave trade had already been passed in England (with the advocacy of conservative William Pitt the Younger), it was also during Charles Grey’s tenure during which all slaves were freed in the entirety of the British empire, a longstanding goal of many liberals.

And this concludes the foundational ideas of conservatism and liberalism as they developed in Great Britain. Many readers will already see how these ideas impacted the development of the United States, in some cases in opposition to each other, and at times in unison. In the coming posts, we’ll head over to the specifics of this narrative in the American colonies before coming back to look at these ideas on continental Europe, the emergence of socialism, the modern trends in conservatism and liberalism, and so much more. Thanks for reading!


¹A quick Google search turns up many articles testifying to these titles. 

²The hyperlink before is to a full-length text. The quoted portions come from pages 2-3 of the Dover Thrift Edition.

³Ironically and contrary to the understanding of previous scholarship, it turns out that Locke’s Second Treatise on Government was written prior to the Glorious Revolution of 1688, discussed in parts 1 and 3.

4Same version as footnote #2, page 116. 

5Cato the Younger was the Roman Republican who, after attempting and failing to prevent Julius Caesar’s rise to virtual dicatorship, eventually committed suicide. In addition to inspiring his namesake essays circulating Great Britain, his story also inspired many in the American Colonies, especially Patrick Henry.

Don’t Trust Me; Study What I Say

This post is going to be a bit different than many of my posts, but something that I very much want to emphasize:

Don’t trust me.

That seems like an odd thing to say, especially given my vocation and passion as a teacher. But it just because of that vocation and passion that I say it.

I’m not implying that I’m untrustworthy, obviously! So let me explain completely what I mean.

If you haven’t read it, yet, I began this project with a post (“Why On Earth Do We Need Another Blog?”) that reveals my reasoning and intent on a broad, and yet very personal level. There is an abundance of information out there; the Information Age is aptly named, or so it seems. Likewise, the more abundant a product, the more abundant is its counterfeit, in this case: disinformation. Or skewed information.

To have one more source of information and thought-provoking content in the current environment is almost like a drop in the lake saying, “hey, drink me, not that other drop over there!”

And that’s why I say don’t trust me. The reality is, I really do want you to trust me, but I understand something crucial: my credibility to the reader is only as good as their verification of what I say. So that’s ultimately what I want you do to: study what I say. Do your own research. See if I’m truly telling the truth, or if I am sound in my arguments.

For those who have studied the art of argumentation, you know that there are three major ways to argue, approaching the debate on logos, ethos or pathos.¹ Logos is the idea that an argument is logically and factually sound. Ethos refers to the credibility of the debater; do we trust them? As a constant student and teacher of the material I write about, I hope that I have some “ethos” in my articles. Pathos is an appeal to emotion. The most effective arguments have all three.

My goal with this project truly comes from a desire to dispense truth and genuine understanding. I want a strong logos and ethos to bolster what I say, but I am not a soap-box blogger (most of the time). Frankly, that might make me less popular than the Tomi Lahren’s of the information world, as human nature is generally more drawn to the pathos approach. (And that is not to say I ignore pathos, but that will come third of the three appeals.)

So study what I say. See if I am right. Do your own research. I want you to trust me, of course, but I want mostly to be a conduit for your own investigation. As a teacher, I know that my students will only really learn when they care about the learning and study it for themselves. That’s true for anyone (how many of us would have enjoyed the books we were assigned to read in school if they had not been an assignment?). What I care about is truth and learning, not about building my “brand” or making a name for myself. (Incidentally, the main reason this project took my name is because I struggled to find an effective alternative.)

If you find something to be awry or not correct, I want to correct it or re-think what I say, or engage you in courteous discussion about the disagreement. You can contact me at the “Contact Me” tab or, even better, private message me at the LCKeagy Facebook page.

Want to engage in discussion on matters related to these or similar topics? Join the LCKeagy Forum, a discussion group meant for just such courteous and productive debate.

Want to followup with your own study and research? Check out my Recommended Books and/or check out Liberty Classroom.com (subscribe for special discounts), and go to sources I don’t have listed and let me know if you find what I say to be off or untrue.

In the end, I hope this project is a helpful conduit of learning that both challenges you to think about things in perhaps a way you have not, or learn about things that are not otherwise the common repetition of the nightly news or the items crossing your Facebook news or Twitter feed. Learning and understanding what is true in a world of information, disinformation and confused information is the ultimate goal.

¹There is an abundance of material on these argumentative appeals; here is just one such source.

Book Review: The Primal Prescription

It’s a bit of a rarity for me to write a book review. Let me qualify that. This is the first I’ve written beyond the paragraph comments provided for the various books I have so far recommended under my “Recommended Books” page.

But why not start somewhere? I’ve always had a bit of an interest in it.

I have recently finished reading The Primal Prescription: Surviving the ‘Sick Care’ Sink Hole (© 2014)¹ by Doug McGuff and Robert Murphy. McGuff is a Medical Doctor with years of experience working in the Emergency Room, while Robert Murphy is an economist with the Free Market Institute of Texas Tech University, the author of numerous books and the co-host of one of my favorite podcasts, ContraKrugman (listed on my “Recommended Podcasts” page).

The Primal Prescription serves two major purposes and is divided accordingly.

First, the authors draw on Murphy’s economic insights to explain and analyze the complete history of health care in the United States and how things have progressed to what we have today, from wage and price controls in World War II to EMTALA under Reagan and the Affordable Care Act (ACA) under Obama. They break down the effects of various laws, and spend several chapters showing how the ACA “works.”  Additionally, they show the process of new drug approval and the relationships between what has notoriously become known as “Big Pharma” and the FDA. And here’s a shocker. For everyone who says, “the free market is broken in healthcare,” you’ll find that it’s not so much the free market, but rather intervention and “tweaking” over the last century that have, in their attempt to “correct” for various problems and perceived problems, caused many unintended “side-effects” in the health care and health insurance markets that needed further and further intervention and tweaking.

In this thorough analysis and exceptional insight into the healthcare and health insurance markets, McGuff and Murphy’s examination is replete with statistics. These are not cherry-picked; they draw largely on the numbers offered by the Congressional Budget Office. And in so doing they show the clear unsustainability of the Affordable Care Act (ObamaCare) and the progression of American medicine toward a Canada- or Britain-style single-payer system (the “public option”). This was the ultimate goal that then Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid confirmed with Journalist Steve Sebelius when he said, “We had a real good run at the public option” and “ObamaCare is a step in the right direction, but we’re far from having something that’s going to work.” (Video link to that interview here.)

The information is thorough and detailed; bring a highlighter.

The second half of the book transitions into a unique insight on how to both try and avoid the healthcare system as much as possible through a Paleo-style diet and lifestyle, but also to know how to navigate the system effectively. It is in this section where where Doctor McGuff’s experience is paramount. Covering topics from choosing a physician to navigating a hospital stay, getting off medications and whether or not to choose screening procedures, there is no shortage of helpful revelation and advice.

If you’re looking for a book that both explains the economics of healthcare and health insurance and lays out how to navigate both in a way that avoids getting trapped by either, then The Primal Prescription is well worth your while. And ultimately, as one who believes firmly in individual responsibility (as opposed to expecting others to give things to you), we ought to be well-armed with understanding in order to make wise and informed decisions in an environment where healthcare and health insurance are becoming increasingly complex, convoluted and expensive, both in time and money.

(¹A note on commissions: I do not earn commission sales on books I link to on Amazon. There are a handful of states that Amazon is not allowed to pay commission to residents of, and I happen to live in one of those states. So I am not linking to books or recommending them for any financial income, at least not at this point under the current rules.)

Trump’s “Historic” Budget Proposal…?

For those who missed it, I decided to turn my recent email about Trump’s Budget Proposal into a blog post.

“Trump seeks historic cuts to government,” the headline reads.

And then proceeds to say, “The Trump Administration on Tuesday will propose the deepest cuts to government programs in a generation.”

So which is it? Historic cuts? Or the deepest cuts in a generation? Or have we gotten so accustomed to massive budgets (which the Congressional Budget Office predicts will run at an annual average of a half-trillion dollar deficit fiscal years 2017-2021) that the largest cuts in a generation are considered “historic”?

The article I am referring is a headline on TheHill.com, which you can read here.

As you read on, it is based on three points: “cuts to anti-poverty programs, optimistic economic forecasting and deep cuts to nondefense discretionary funding.” At he same time, the coming budget is intended to leave Medicare and Social Security alone, and increase the Defense budget.

Let’s examine this a bit closer:

First of all, major anti-poverty programs began with Lyndon Johnson. Interesting statistic: By modern standards, the U.S. poverty rate fell from 95% in 1900 to around 14% by the mid/late 1960s (when the “War on Poverty” and its spending programs began), where it has consistently hovered. In inflation adjusted dollars, spending on anti-poverty went increased by 8.1 times from 1964 to 1996 alone (in-depth analysis at “The Legacy of Johnson’s War on Poverty”). Surely, even if you favor the social safety net, the cost/benefit analysis ought to at least be re-considered.

Second, regarding optimistic economic forecasting, the most recent recession was the 2008 Great Recession. For a century, recessions have happened on average no less than every 7 years. Now, I believe there are rather clear reasons for economic recessions other than “it’s just a downside of capitalism” (which I’ll get to eventually), but whether you rely on historical pattern or economic theory, there are plenty of reasons to think that recession may be around the corner. I wish I had time to get into all of them here.

Third, non-military discretionary spending is a fraction of the budget, ranging from around 9-13% of the total budget, years 2011-2017.

Fourth, Social Security and Medicare are the two largest current and coming budget black holes. As of today, the total unfunded liabilities (unfunded planned payments due to be paid out at existing rates and with projected population trends) for these programs is estimated to be $106 trillion, and some studies have put it as high as $200 trillion. That’s a tax liability of $884,037 per taxpayer (source: usdebtclock.org).

Let’s just say that whatever this “historic” budget proposal is, you will have it decried as some evil hatred of the poor and progress, or praised as some remarkable achievement for which to shower praise. Either way, it’s a bare drop in the fiscal bucket of liabilities.

What do you think? Is this a step in the right direction? Harmful? Join the new Facebook discussion group at the LCKeagy Forum and let’s discuss it, or anything else of interest.

The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 3 – Conservatism in 17th & 18th Century Great Britain)

In Part 1, I laid out a bird’s eye view of how natural law translated into its common law protections in England and in Part 2, I attempted to share how the terms conservatism and liberalism can be defined. So does that make 17th century Great Britain notably liberal (given liberalism affinity with liberty) or conservative (given conservative affinity with tradition)? As noted in Part 2, you could argue both ways. But let’s get into the details and you can decide for yourself. That takes us back to the English Civil War. In this part, I’ll take you from this event to the mid-1800s, specifically looking at the early Whig and Tory parties and the development of conservatism in British politics.

But first, why is this important to modern readers? Because many modern American Conservative values are rooted in the writings and ideas of the British conservatives of this time period.

Charles I (1600-1649)

The Whigs and the Tories

Before we get to the 18th Century, let’s expand on a few details alluded to in Part 1. The English Civil War broke out in 1642 and would finally be settled with the execution of King Charles I in 1649 at the hands of Parliament and its military commander, Oliver Cromwell. To oversimplify the matter, Charles ended up at war with Parliament for his numerous attempts to dissolve Parliament and rule in absolutist fashion as his neighbor, King Louis XIV (the “Sun King”) of France when they restricted Charles’ access to taxation and other elements of power as laid out in the Magna Carta and later documents. The war, more about power than political theory, was nevertheless embodied a sort of symbolic conflict between the king and his supporters and country and their political representatives—absolutism vs. representative government. (It should be noted that only the land-owing aristocracy of England both paid national taxes and voted, as it was understood that tax-paying citizens should be responsible for the representatives using those taxes.)

Puritan leader and Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell ruled in the British Commonwealth until his death in 1658. His son was unable to keep the loyalty of Parliament and the army, and Parliament, disenchanted with the Cromwells, invited Charles II (the son of executed Charles I) back from exile in France (where he also admired the absolute rule of Louis XIV). To most of Parliament, Charles II was the same disappointment as his father.

James II (1633-1701)

Charles II (1630-1685)

This is where we see the earliest development of what would later become distinct political parties in the English Parliament: the Whigs and the Tories. Though these groups were not formalized until much later, the question that would start to divide them was: Who should succeed Charles II, who did not have a son of his own? Charles had a brother, James, a Catholic, who was in line to rule upon Charles’ death. Members of Parliament who began to unify against the ascension of James to the throne became known as Whigs, and those who generally supported James as king were known as Tories. The Whig argument centered around fears of a recurrence of the days of England’s notorious “Bloody” Mary, the Catholic queen who had attempted to return England to Catholicism through often violent means. Tories, on the other hand, notwithstanding their own concerns of a Catholic King in a country where it was culturally-expected to be anti-Catholic, were inclined to grant royal prerogative. This was the idea that the succession of kings is a matter outside the hands of Parliament.

Whigs won the electoral debate in Parliament, which passed the Exclusion Bill, barring James from the throne. The bill was expectedly vetoed by King Charles, and when he died in 1685, James came to the throne as James II despite Parliamentary efforts. However, within three short years, James had managed to isolate both Whigs and Tories, and 1688 marked the astonishingly peaceful transition of power as James’s sister Mary and her Dutch husband William came to the throne and James himself quietly slipped out of London.  This was the Glorious Revolution discussed in Part 1.

The English Bill of Rights and similar measures passed in the immediate wake of the Glorious Revolution and agreed to by King William and Mary solidified parliamentary sovereignty in England. This would put the bulk of future policy debates primarily in the hands of the members of Parliament, and though the issues would change, the Whigs and the Tories would persist and eventually formalize into more distinct political sides.

The Development of Conservative Thinking

Amidst these significant changes in English politics and the ultimate ascendancy of Parliament in the political process, the Whigs and the Tories would increasingly become more aligned with liberalism and conservatism, respectively. In this part, we’re focusing on the latter.

Henry St. John Vincent Bolingbroke (1678-1751)

Two key people must be discussed as particularly influential in conservative thought: Henry St. John Vincent Bolingbroke and the more well-known Edmund Burke.

Bolingbroke’s period of influence came about shortly after yet another short but turbulent political episode. After the death of William and Mary, Mary’s younger sister, Anne, also died  after a short period as queen (in 1714) without an heir. When Whigs in Parliament decided to invite the German Hanoverian King George to be the British King George I, a plot emerged to place James III, son of James II, on the throne. Those supporting this measure were known as Jacobites (named for the Latin word for James: Jacob), who twice tried to accomplish their goal (known as the “Jacobite Uprisings”). Tories, having their political beginnings in support of the royal prerogative of the very much disliked James II, were naturally suspected of sympathy toward the Jacobites, resulting in Whig dominance of Parliament during the period. Bolingbroke, a Tory, was also implicated and spent some time in exile before regaining favor and returning to England.

A key early conservative thinker, Bolingbroke (1678-1751) is one of the first to clearly lay out what would become known as conservative values. First, he argued that the primary unit of society is the family, and all law should be centered around the family unit rather than the individual. Second, though deistic himself, he supported the established and government-sponsored Church of England. Third, he believed that politics could only affect limited influence on society. And finally, he favored the land-owning aristocracy and looked down on the growing merchant and middle class. All four of these would, to one extent or another, come to be key elements of conservative principles.

Edmund Burke (c.1729-1797)

The second key figure in the development of these principles was Edmund Burke (1729-1797), considered by many to be the father of modern conservatism in both England and the United States. Ironically, and as a further demonstration of the nebulous nature of terms, ideas and labels, Burke was a Whig and is also often cited as a key thinker in the liberal tradition. In and out of Parliament, Burke never produced a clear political treatise (there is some debate over the only one he did produce as a young man, but most of his political theory is drawn from his later political career and bits and pieces of his writing). Conservative in his approach to politics, Burke nevertheless favored some political reform, such as Catholic Emancipation. If enacted, this would free Catholics to meet publicly in England and open up further opportunities to Catholics, an idea shunned by many, if not most, outspoken voices in Parliament and England. The measure was rejected. Burke also supported the American Revolutionaries. None of these approaches would seem particularly conservative to many observers.

If Burke wasn’t strictly conservative in these regards, what gains him the title “Father of Modern Conservatism”? Specifically, his conservatism comes through in his writings, primarily in his essay Reflections on the Revolution in France in 1790 (the French Revolution began in 1789). First of all, he makes the very conservative case that the structure, traditions and relations of society are organic and develop over time through unique human interaction, not as some mechanical, impersonal or forced process. He is here arguing broadly against a growing humanistic culture, a worldview glorifying the ability of people to guide and orchestrate society toward some form of perfection (we will later call this progressivism). He is more specifically countering French philosophers who argue that society can be “reset.” Second, he argues that political change must be made very gradually; not through revolution or radical uprisings. Keep this second point in mind going forward.

William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806)

Conservatism in English Politics

Far more involved in British politics from the mid-18th to mid-17th centuries were a a few key characters instrumental in transforming conservatism from a vague ideology to a semi-organized political approach. The first, William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806), a Tory, would serve as Prime Minister (the youngest in English history) during the French Revolution of 1789. Like Burke, he favored some reformist policies, but was conservative in his belief that change should be limited, gradual and organic. Particularly, he feared the spread of revolution to England, and took measures to repress free press and free speech in his Sedition Laws, suspended habeas corpus, and banned trade unions, which he believed fostered discontent in the working classes. This particular fear of an overflow of the revolution into Great Britain from France was reflected in the writing and words of many conservatives during the era, and conservatives saw it as crucial to avoid any chance that this could happen.

Overall, Pitt’s actions characterized political conservatism: a premium put on keeping order at the expense of individual liberty. (Many Americans will recall this is during the same time that American President John Adams would sign the Alien and Sedition Acts into law.)

Robert Peel (1788-1850)

The Duke of Wellington (1769-1852)

Tories would dominate Parliament for the first part of the 19th century. Key figures among them, especially after the resignation and death of Pitt, would be George Canning and Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington), both of whom followed in the politically conservative stream of Burke and Pitt, working to maintain order, but also pursuing the more liberal Catholic Emancipation.  Still, it wasn’t until Robert Peel (1788-1850) that Tories began to consider themselves conservatives in a self-conscious fashion and in the sense that we understand Bolingbroke and Burke retrospectively. Peel would serve as a leader in the House of Commons and had a few stints as Prime Minister, during this time creating the first modern municipal police force in London and finally managing to work with the Duke of Wellington to pass Catholic Emancipation in 1829. A later policy position ended up with a split in the Conservative Party, but the fundamental points of conservatism had been laid. We’ll look at this split in a later post.

What Did Conservatism Look Like in Great Britain?

In addition to Tory/Conservative dominance in the Parliament during the early 1800s, conservative authors and poets were representative of the cultural phenomenon of conservative. Names such as Sir Walter Scott are familiar to some readers, among others like William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The latter, Coleridge, wrote specifically in 1830 on how the integral union between the church and state formed a backbone of English society (On the Constitution of Church and State); a church was the unifying center of every community across England, he argued. Many of these writers were influenced by the Romantic Movement, a cultural and artistic emphasis on emotion, beauty and the subjectivity of feeling (and a pendulum swing away from the rationalism of the 18th century Enlightenment).

So, despite its varieties, what commonalities bound conservatives together in the 18th and 19th Centuries in Great Britain? I’ll conclude with a concise list. (Obviously, some of these will overlap with current emphases of American Conservatism and some will not.)

  • Support for established institutions, particularly the Anglican Church (and its status as government-sponsored)
  • An emphasis on slow, organic political and social reform, if any, with an acute skepticism of government as an agent of change
  • A praise and support for tradition
  • Recognition of society as an organic, naturally occurring organism rather than being mechanical and systematic
  • A prime importance put on maintaining order, using government restrictions on liberty to maintain it, if necessary, and to ensure that revolutionary fervor not spread

Thanks for sticking with me this far! In the next post, we’ll look further and the development of liberalism in Great Britain, and then move to America in the founding era after that. Subscribe to know when the next one is posted (and to get my enjoyable emails)! See you then.

The History of Conservatism, Liberalism & Libertarianism (Part 2 – Definitions: Conservatism & Liberalism)

In the first post in this series, I explored a few key ideas and thinkers that help to establish the context for the development of distinctly conservative and liberal thought. To review, a tradition of some extent or another of natural law had existed in England for a long time, manifesting itself in the stipulations of the Magna Carta, the English Petition of Right (which I did not get into) of 1628, the English Civil War and the English Bill of Rights in 1688. To note, thinkers such as Samuel Rutherford and more specifically John Locke, who we will explore in depth in Part 4, drew these to their full conclusion that all people are a natural right to life, liberty and the protection of their property.

As the narrative proceeds into the 18th and 19th Centuries, the ideas of conservatism and liberalism begin to take on more specific parameters. Let’s nail down a few of these before proceeding.

Defining Conservatism & Liberalism

I’ll begin with straight forward definitions. Conservatism is an ideology that holds to tradition and societal norms. Conservatives tend to favor maintaining the status quo by definition, including its various institutions and structure. They want to “conserve” the way things have been.

In American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Bruce Frohnen defines conservatism as, “a philosophy that seeks to maintain and enrich societies characterized by respect for inherited institutions, beliefs and practices, in which individuals develop good character by cooperating with one another in primary, local associations, such as families, churches and social groups aimed at furthering the common good in a manner pleasing to God.”

Liberalism comes with a less clearly defined definition, as any dictionary search will turn up several definitions, the first of which is something along the lines of, “holding to liberal views.” Well, that sure helps (sarcasm meter high).

The fact of the matter is that both terms need context for clarity. If conservatives in a given context desire to maintain tradition and the order that exists, it is often presumed that a liberal must be someone inclined to push for change. This is sometimes, but not always, true. The context of the original use of the word liberal has formed a basis for its classical definition. Also in American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia, Ralph Raico defines classical liberalism as “the term used to designate the ideology advocating private property, an unhampered market economy, the rule of law, constitutional guarantees of freedom of religion and of the press, and international peace based on free trade.”

The word classical is added to liberalism today to describe this emphasis on individual liberty because the word liberal today has taken on meanings more aligned with progressivism, a term I’ll explore fully in later posts. In its context, we can drop that qualifier classical and simply refer to the liberal of the 17th through 19th Centuries; readers can know that I am referring to the historical context until we reach the 20th Century and the explanation of changing terms.

One more point before moving on. Are conservatism and liberalism mutually exclusive or opposed to each other? As with many umbrella-type labels subject to numerous degrees and varieties, it depends on who you ask. You could both argue that they do in are in some respects, and not necessarily in others. Insofar as libertarianism has its roots in classical liberal thinking (they are similar, though not entirely), I will take a later post and explore this question more fully. For the time being, understand that there are not always black and white lines of separation between some of these ideas, and reality more often plays out in the grubbiness of politics than in rhetoric. That’s what we’ll see in Great Britain.

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(A note on my sources: I combine a variety of sources in my historical narrative, combining lectures from Liberty Classroom with my own extensive reading, research and study from my years of teaching much of this content in High School. )

Race vs. Culture

Culture is different than race, and yet, the two are often confused.

Warning. I am about to enter politically incorrect territory. Ironically, it may even earn me the accusation, “racist” (which I’m not). But I have a very simple point to make, albeit it one that won’t win me any brownie points in today’s PC society, and one that I have not observed made virtually anywhere, let alone among the regular information sources or media.

Allow me to begin with a practical and personal qualifier.

First, let’s define racism and clarify what we mean by race. A google search turns up this definition of racism: “prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.” Race is often (although not always), especially in the United States, considered correlative to a person’s skin color, but the basics of race don’t preclude various differences among peoples of similar pigmentation, such as the historical Franks, Germans or Slavs of Europe, among whom differences in physical appearance were minimal.

At best, the idea of “race” is a loose description of a person’s biological heritage . At worst, race is a pathetically invented and gross distortion of biological heritage, whereby people with various amounts of pigment in their skin are “grouped” in a category of “race.” (I have written on the dangers of collectivism here.)

Race is a meaningless concept to me insofar as it has no impact on any conceptions I have about people. To have pre- or post-conceived ideas about someone, let alone condemn them as inferior, because of their skin color or their biological heritage is—forgive the unprofessional language here—stupid. Period. Still, that genuine racism seems entirely irrational and illogical (not to mention immoral) does not make it any less real, and I don’t intend to pretend otherwise. To do so would require ignoring historical and present (if overstated) realities. Many Nazis truly believed in the superiority of the “Aryan race.” Many Americans in U.S. history really did believe in the inferiority of the “African race.”

But I didn’t come to write a sermon on the topic. And while that is a rather long qualifier that some readers will think I simply put in there for the purpose of remaining politically correct (despite my initial warning), I really don’t mind ensuring that I am not misunderstood. My main point is not compromised.

And we’ll get to that now.

Culture is different than race. Culture is the vast array of traditions, norms and features of a society. And while cultures are vastly nuanced and complex, there are distinct differences between them. Given my own aversions about collectivist thinking, I do not believe that any individual should be viewed first and foremost for any cultural tendencies; this is as irrational and wrong as racism. They are an individual first and foremost.

And so long as we understand that norms and tendencies are laden with exceptions and must be held very loosely, we can still evaluate the aggregate. Cultures differ. It is common in “U.S. culture” (good luck trying to tie that down!) for people to ensure that aging parents are entrusted to an elderly care facility, whereas in “Central and South American cultures”, you will often find extended family, parents and grandparents all living under one roof. Whether this is the product of wealth disparity or other factors are entirely beside the point. I’m not playing anthropologist here, simply making an external observation that helps demonstrate cultural differences.

This is my key point: The problem is that many people confuse culture and race. Many people fail to recognize that a cultural critique is not racist simply because there is a correlation between people of that “race” and people who share that culture. The only way you make that connection is on the assumption that a person’s cultural norms are the result of their biological heritage or race. This has no scientific or logical defense.

How do you jump to the conclusion that a person is racist simply because they take issue with an aspect of a culture different from theirs?

Here’s an example that will get me slandered in politically correct groups. It is a cultural norm in Islam that men have complete political and personal authority. Women are not given legal representation, and in moral matters pertaining to Islam, many men are given the responsibility to stone their wives if there has been any real or alleged infidelity. Many men in Islamic culture are prone to this position of dominance over women (and this is not unique to this culture), a cultural difference that is currently causing cultural clashes in Europe. None of this has anything to do with race. And yet somebody out there is ready with the label “racist”.

But some will recognize my logic and go for “ready-to-use” insult #2: bigot. A bigot is defined as someone who “is obstinately or intolerantly devoted to his or her own opinions and prejudices” (Merriam-Webster). Still, how did you reach that conclusion? I made an observation regarding cultural tendencies in one specific area.

So, if cultural observations are often confused as racist remarks (a logical fallacy), and those who make such observations are often considered racists and/or bigots, then what can we draw from this?

First, prejudice, regardless of the reason, is a tragic and natural tendency of human nature. I’m not digging into the reasons for this here. Nevertheless, I believe adamantly that it is wrong for me (or anyone) to hold prejudice of any kind, whether I exalt myself and degrade others for my gender, my “race”, my intellect, my level of education, my culture, my skin color (or lack of it), et cetera. If I think less of Muslim men generally because of the cultural tendencies from which they come, that is the real issue, not the observation made. I believe equally adamantly that charity and compassion should always describe our view and action toward any individual.

Second, and as I have said before, recognize the individual first. Collectivist thinking is a logical fallacy, and the individual should be recognized for who he or she is, not for his or her biological heritage or their cultural tendencies.

Third, don’t get confused by the tendency to confuse cultural observations as racist remarks. Recognize the skewed reality that is perpetuated around us, sometimes by habit and sometimes deliberately. To call someone racist for a particular commentary on something that is cultural is, in and of itself, an empty argument that merely perpetuates the collectivist thinking that is so problematic in the first place.  It’s a non-argument.

Sadly, there is truth in the words of economist Thomas Sowell: “Some things are believed because they are demonstrably true, but other things are believed simply because they have been asserted repeatedly.”*

*Video link here.