American conservatism is, in many ways, a sometimes uneasy mixture of two important strains of thought. On one hand is a profound classically liberal or libertarian tradition that takes its cue from John Stuart Mill's admonition: "The only part of the conduct of anyone for which he is amenable to society is that which concerns others. In the part that merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign."Mr. Tanner goes on to detail--indeed, the book is about this--how "big-government conservatism" differs with the two strains of conservatism he so briefly outlines here, but I thought this short passage was such an excellent short description of two of the strongest currents in American conservatism that it could easily stand on its own.
On the other hand is a strong belief in the traditions and institutions of society. Rather than Mill, it is more attuned to Edmund Burke's wisdom: "We owe an implicit reverence to all the institutions of our ancestors," and "But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly vice and madness, without tuition or restraint."
These two strains of conservatism have not always seen eye to eye. They may have very different views of what, for example, state or local drug laws should be, or what is the proper role of religion in society. But in the United States, both have been united by an opposition to overweening federal power. They share a "common dislike of the intervention of government, especially national, centralized government in the economic, social, political, and intellectual lives of citizens," in the words of conservative sociologist Robert Nisbet.
Neither libertarian nor traditionalist conservatives would countenance a federal takeover of education or a massive new health care entitlement. Both are appalled by out-of-control federal spending. Both seek limits to federal power. They might disagree about what small government is, but at their heart both want a smaller government than we have today.
Tuesday, September 7, 2010
This is quoted from Michael D. Tanner's Leviathan on the Right: How Big-Government Conservatism Brought Down the Republican Revolution. So far, this has been a cracking good read; don't know how I missed it when it came out a few years ago. I am only thirty pages or so into it and have already highlighted large chunks, including this passage: