Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Left Liberals and Right Conservatives

Tibor R. Machan

It is not always taken note of that conservatism refers to a procedure for dealing with life, ethics, politics, or public policy, not with a position on these. What the conservative urges is that as one considers matters related to any of the above, one ought to pay heed, first and foremost, to what has been found acceptable, useful, sensible in the past, by the dominant and persistent traditions in human history. It is these that ought to be conserved. There is, for conservatives, no other road to reliable truth. Just as the pragmatist rejects the possibility of firm, lasting principles in any area of inquiry, so the conservative rejects the possibility of gaining understanding apart from following dominant traditions.

As such, conservatives oppose something that’s central to the American political system, namely, individualism. Just consider what Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, said: “...Men have no right to risk the very existence of their nation and their civilization upon experiments in morals and politics; for each man's private capital of intelligence is petty; it is only when a man draws upon the bank and capital of the ages, the wisdom of our ancestors, that he can act wisely,” adding that “We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank of nations and of ages.”

And it is in this that conservatives share something essential with the Left, with socialists, communists, communitarians, and many modern liberals as well. All these regard individualism fatally flawed because it entrusts human individuals with the capacity to know the world on their own (a rare case but still not unfamiliar when we consider innovators, discoverers, scientists who are often way ahead of their colleagues, etc.). For socialists human beings are innately socially bound. Karl Marx put it best when he coined the term “species being,” meaning that everyone’s basic identity is intimately tied to the whole of humanity (or in less grandiose versions, society, the tribe, the race, the ethnic group, or the nation).

This is why neither those on the Right nor those on the Left favor individual rights, those social-legal provisions that make room for the independence, sovereignty of the human individual. For these Leftists everyone belongs to society and the right to individual freedom, as per Locke and the American Founders, does violence to this idea, undermines it. At nearly every turn of the debate between defenders of the American political system, with the tenets of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights, in the end this issue becomes central, pivotal both vis-à-vis Right and Left.

American individualism, following Locke and advanced mainly by Objectivists and Libertarians, holds that although human beings flourish best among their fellows, this must be under conditions where everyone’s individuality is fully respected and protected. In the last analysis a citizen must have the option to withdraw from society, say when its policies have turned against individuals, just as the Declaration makes clear. This “exit option” testifies to the prominence of individualism in this system of social-political thought. This isn’t about living like a hermit or not being closely related to others--those charges are disingenuous or misconceived. Individualism is about an adult human being having the ultimate authority over his or her life, exactly what the great and small tyrannies of human history have denied.

If you want to know why the central American viewpoint has it so hard with not just the rest of the world but its very own crop of intellectuals, it is because both Right and Left are essentially against its basic tenet, individualism.

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