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I recently discovered the website FiveBooks, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with it. The site consists of a collection of interviews with experts in various fields; these experts come to the interviews with a list of five books on a specific topic, and then answer questions about why they think the books illuminate that subject so well. Today, the featured expert was the Cato Institute’s Brink Lindsey, who came prepared with a list of books on “Traditional and Liberal Conservatism.” First on the list: John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, perhaps the great treatise on utilitarianism.
I’m not terribly familiar with the parts of Mill’s political philosophy that aren’t directly related to rule utilitarianism, so it was fascinating to read Lindsey describe why Mill thinks that liberalism and conservatism complement each other:
He strays from the contemporary libertarian line in a number of respects. But the reason I selected him is that there is a brief passage in On Liberty (in the second chapter on defending liberty of thought and discussion) where he lays forth what I think is the best concise explanation for why there is a left and a right – and why there always will be. Why, even though he wasn’t a conservative and didn’t think much of conservatives, he thought conservatism was a necessary and wholesome part of political life. Let me quote a sentence or two: ‘In politics, again, it is almost a commonplace, that a party of order or stability, and a party of progress or reform, are both necessary elements of a healthy state of political life; until the one or the other shall have so enlarged its mental grasp as to be a party equally of order and of progress, knowing and distinguishing what is fit to be preserved from what ought to be swept away. Each of these modes of thinking derives its utility from the deficiencies of the other; but it is in a great measure the opposition of the other that keeps each within the limits of reason and sanity.’
I think the typical view of politics from inside a partisan mindset is to see politics as a battle of the good guys versus the bad guys. Maybe the good guys are on the left, maybe the good guys are on the right, but it’s this Manichean struggle and the way to get progress is for the good side to win and impose their will. Mill sees through that and sees that, in fact, politics is a dialectical process. At any given time truth is partly on one side and partly on the other. It’s more a battle of half-truths and incomplete truths than of good versus bad. The excesses of each side ultimately create opportunities for the other to come in and correct those excesses. Liberalism, in Mill’s view and in mine, provides the basic motive force of political change and progress. It will go astray, it will have excesses, it will make terrible mistakes – and a conservatism that is focused on preserving good things that exist now will be a necessary counterweight to that liberalism.
I think this is exactly right, but it’s important to recognize that the current political dynamic in America doesn’t function like this at all. The current major political figure in the US with the most cautious, incrementalist disposition is President Obama, while those to the right of him are lobbying for radical, deeply rash changes in government policy (the call to repeal the fourteenth amendment comes to mind). Sure, they justify their platform with appeals to nostalgia, but it’s nostalgia for policies that either A.) never existed except in their minds, or, worse, B.) represent extreme atavism far more than cautious incrementalism.
In other words: Instead of impassioned reformers on the left and cautious inertia on the right, we have cautious reformers on the left and extreme radicals on the right who distinguish themselves largely by running in the opposite direction. The fearful crouch of the Democratic Party and the dangerous lunacy of the Republican Party have thrown Mill’s dialectic model completely out of whack.