Notes From Babel

Distinguishing Conservatism and Progressivism

with 3 comments

I’ve been thinking a bit about Tim Sandefur’s recent comment to this post, and specifically this comment, in which I argued that whatever conservatism’s moral perspective toward “the human condition,” conservatives are committed to achieving it through culture and society, not through coercive government controls.  Sandefur excepted as follows:

This is false. Conservatives are every bit as fond of Progressivism as liberals—moreso, in some ways. Progressives were actually quite socially conservative, and believed, as today’s conservatives do, in using the state to make people good—i.e., to control marriage, sex, education, the use of alcohol or drugs, and all those other social issues. The main body of conservative intellectuals is extremely close to the Progressives of the turn of the century–Robert Bork, for example. True, there are some conservatives, of whom you are one, who take natural rights seriously in ways Progressives did not, but so far as I know you remain every bit as ready to use the state to control marriage, sex, education, et cetera. I recommend on this subject Michael McGerr’s outstanding book “A Fierce Discontent.”

I know Tim well enough that it came as no surprise that he would take exception to my use of a libertarian anti-Progressivist argument in the cause of conservatism.  And I will give him that conservatism is a moralistic ideology that does not shy from expressing its values through the law.  Same-sex marriage is one example.  Abortion is another.  Drug use, prostitution, suicide, euthanasia, bestiality, the list goes on.  In this regard, it can be difficult to explain how conservatives are different from Progressives:  though they have different values, they merely seek to express them through the law like conservatives do.  So aren’t conservatives and Progressives just birds of a feather?

I don’t think so.  First, it is important to recall that society precedes government.  That is, not only are the two distinct, but the latter is inferior to the former in its representation of the values and beliefs of its constituent members.  Law and government reflect only a very narrow subset of the important values and beliefs of the society out of which it arises.  And where law and government fail to represent the society’s important beliefs and values—and particularly, where it misrepresents them—their authority is greatly injured.

For conservatives, moral authority arises out of society.[***]  Beliefs about marriage, the beginning of life, the end of life, and certain of our most important relationships are of utmost importance in establishing and maintaining the bonds among individuals that make up our underlying society.  In certain cases, these beliefs and values will find their way into our laws.  But it is important to note the direction these values and beliefs flow:  from society to government.  That is, government is meant to play a supporting role in the underlying society’s culture and norms; it is not meant to conceive and advance them on its own, foisting them on the society which the government is meant to serve.

For Progressives, on the other hand, this is exactly what government does.  Through either minority factions or temporary populist flare-ups, most Progressive laws are political or factional phenomena that in large part do not reflect the values of the underlying society.  Minimum wage or maximum hours laws, for example, are not even the sorts of laws that are traditionally harbored by an underlying society.  That is, a conservative society might adopt laws forbidding work on Sunday, in expression of its Christian beliefs and rituals.  However, that same society would search its underlying values in vain for anything compelling it to adopt laws forbidding a worker to labor more than 10 hours in a given day.  Birth control and “family planning” programs are another easy example:  the goal of eliminating children born to poor families is one felt more strongly by government planners than by the society itself.

Progressivism, I think, was borne of two new presumptions: that the federal government should make society “nice” (a justifiable presumption in the example of bringing emancipated blacks “up” from slavery, for example); and, due to technological and intellectual innovations, that government could make society “nice.”  But I’m having trouble coming up with many examples (other than, perhaps, federal education mandates and the “war on drugs”) of how conservatives embraced the Progressive movement for the purpose of expressing any more of its values and beliefs in the law that it hadn’t already grown accustomed to doing.


*If you are wondering why I capitalize “Progressive” but not “conservative,” know that I am, too.

**By the way, I finished Tim’s new book, The Right to Earn a Living, over the Thanksgiving holiday.  It is a wonderfully detailed account of the myriad ways government wrecks our ability to make a living.

[*** I should clarify/correct this statement. By moral authority here I am speaking in the descriptive sense, not the prescriptive. That is, what a people (and in this post I am conceptualizing people in their pre-government condition) believes on moral issues is the source of moral legitimacy, at least as against the later-contrived state. This is not meant to touch on who or what in pre-government society establishes that moral baseline (e.g., the mob, the clerics, scriptures, etc.). It is only meant to say that whatever is moral is such without respect to the state.]

Written by Tim Kowal

November 29, 2010 at 8:48 pm

3 Responses

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  1. […] ideas.  Upon finishing the book, I’ve set out to fortify the basic position I advanced here, as I believe it is vindicated by the historical record set out in McGerr’s […]

  2. […] v. Progressivism (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3, Source […]

  3. […] v. Progressivism (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3, Source […]

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