Monday, 25 July 2011

Conservatism, Kieron O'Hara

The late Lord Longford used to tell a revealing story about Stanley Baldwin, the longest-serving Conservative leader of the 20th century.  Longford once asked the old boy which political thinker had influenced him the most. Baldwin replied: "There is one political thinker who has had more influence upon me than all others - Sir Henry Maine.  Rousseau argued that all human progress was from contract to status, but Maine made it clear once and for all that the real movement was from status to contract."

And then, in the words of Longford, "he paused, and suddenly a look of dawning horror stole across his face. 'Or was it,' he said, leaning just a little towards me, 'or was it the other way round?'"

There was a time when most British conservatives were as resolutely un-ideological as Baldwin.  To a traditional Tory, ideologies were what other people had - foreigners, socialists, brainy chaps at Oxbridge, the Irish.  Conservatism was about dealing with the real world, not the abstract realm of theory.  This tradition was eclipsed in the 1970s and 1980s with the coming of the self-consciously ideological Margaret Thatcher, aided and abetted by freemarket intellectuals like Keith Joseph and Nigel Lawson.  It has, however, reasserted itself since then to some extent.  Most recently, the conservative thinker Jesse Norman has, following Michael Oakeshott, described British conservatism as "a disposition, not a doctrine".  In this book, Kieron O'Hara seeks to further the case for a traditional, Burkean take on conservatism.

O'Hara proceeds from the entirely plausible claim that we know less about the world than we think.  He promotes a scepticism about the powers of human understanding that explicitly draws on the work of Nassim Taleb.  Human society is exceptionally complex, he says, and it is more difficult than we think to get our primate brains around it.  Any theoretical model will at best be a partial and imperfect description of the reality to which it pertains.  The result is that political projects to remake society along the lines mapped out by expert opinion are likely to be half-baked if not dangerous.  This leads O'Hara to what he calls the 'knowledge principle', which maintains, in its simplest form, that "both data and theories about society are highly uncertain".

The lesson is that people who might be tempted to try to remake society in their own image should be bloody careful about what they're doing.  This doesn't mean that it is desirable, or even possible, to prevent change per se.  Trying to stop change is as bad as trying to make it happen, and if by chance the designs of liberals or socialists turn out to work, conservatives should be the first to recognise the fact.  Conservatives, for O'Hara, are not immobilists.  But change should be gradual and organic in nature: there is a world of difference between demand-driven change arising out of millions of free actors taking their own decisions and supply-driven change arising out of a blueprint imposed from above.  Reformers who suggest remoulding society from above do not - and cannot - know in advance the full consequences of the changes that they are proposing, and they typically undervalue the benefits of society as it presently exists.  Conservatives will accept or promote change only in certain circumstances: when, for example, conditions are so bad that the calculus of risk is altered, or when the change under consideration is modest and the potential costs are low.

This gives rise to O'Hara's second fundamental principle, the 'change principle'.  This essentially holds that societies should be risk-averse and that would-be reformers have the burden of justifying any changes that they advocate.  For O'Hara, the political philosophy of conservatism lies at the intersection of the knowledge principle and the change principle.

One criticism that has been levelled at O'Hara in the past is that this view of conservatism is agreeable but banal.  It amounts to little more than saying that we should be careful of changing things unless we need to because the consequences might be worse than we expect - a principle that would probably be accepted by most reasonable people unless they are committed radicals or revolutionaries.  What O'Hara's two principles describe is not really conservatism as opposed to liberalism or socialism, but rather pragmatism as opposed to idealism.  By this standard, Jim Callaghan and Gordon Brown were better conservatives than Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron.  For that matter, I would be a better conservative than Sarah Palin, an idea that I do not find congenial.

O'Hara goes further, however, and attempts to draw out certain substantive conservative values that give flesh and colour to his foundational principles.  These comprise authority, tradition, stability, security, the rule of law, evidence-based policymaking, anti-inflationary economic policy, anti-populism, anti-fundamentalism, an aversion to governmental planning and an aversion to contractual views of social relations.  These principles have a more distinctively conservative flavour.  They are, however, flexible.  The content of conservatism, O'Hara observes, will necessarily differ from culture to culture.  In the UK, for example, it will imply strong support for parliamentary monarchy and an unwritten constitution, whereas in the US it will entail ardent devotion to the written constitution of the Republic drawn up by the founding fathers.  O'Hara isn't troubled by this, and notes that the same sort of observation can be applied to other ideologies too: after all, socialism with its commitment to equality and state action has produced such radically different manifestations as Stalinist communism and the insipid social democracy of New Labour.

Another of O'Hara's basic conservative principles is that there is no fixed, transcendent pattern to which it is natural or necessary for society to conform.  This disallows right-wing radicalism based on dogmatic religious beliefs just as it disallows programmes based upon the supposedly ineluctable laws of freemarket economics.  For O'Hara, there is no set of iron laws for human life, whether they be sought from the Bible, Karl Marx or Milton Friedman.  Conservatives are inherently antipathetic to such ways of thinking because they prefer facts to theories and they take society as it is rather than as it might be.

O'Hara accordingly distances his brand of conservatism from right-wing radicalism in the mould of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.  There are real affinities between conservatism and Reaganite libertarianism, and the two movements have shared enemies in the form of socialism and left-liberalism.  Conservatives, like economic neoliberals, will tend to favour lower taxes, pursue orthodox fiscal policies and oppose left-wing attempts to engineer an artificial equality through state intervention.  They do not, however, have a strong dogmatic commitment to shrinking the state, cutting taxes, and so forth.  To take another classic right-wing issue, they are not necessarily against immigration: after all, many migrants have an admirably conservative desire to work hard so as to better themselves and support their families.  Moreover, while conservatives firmly oppose crime and disorder, their penal policy will not take its lead from the tabloid press or the American Republican Party.

O'Hara goes into some detail on the differences between traditional conservatism and Thatcherite neoliberalism.   He notes that Margaret Thatcher's intellectual godfather, Friedrich Hayek, wrote a whole essay entitled 'Why I am not a conservative' and suggested that policymakers should, in embracing deregulated freemarket capitalism, show "a preparedness to let change run its course even if we cannot predict where it will lead".  To a conservative in the mould of O'Hara, this is sheer irresponsibility.  It recalls the story that Geoffrey Howe, Thatch's first Chancellor, likened the sudden abolition of exchange controls in 1979 to walking off a cliff in order to see what happened.  Conversely, O'Hara argues that the Thatcherite icon Adam Smith was in fact a traditional Tory who viewed the capitalist market squarely in the context of a broader web of societal relationships.

O'Hara devotes a chapter to environmental issues in which he ranges himself both against the rather generously titled "climate sceptics" and against environmental campaigners who believe that climate change can and must be halted by concerted, large-scale governmental action.  No such action is going to be forthcoming, he says, so conservative policy-makers much approach the problem in a pragmatic and sober way.  He favours the respectable centre-right solution of introducing a carbon tax so as to neatly incorporate the environmental costs of emissions into the price signals of the hydrocarbon market.

The present writer has a deep and visceral hostility to radicalism.  So why am I not queuing up to associate myself with O'Hara's brand of conservatism, which is fundamentally - radically - based on anti-radicalism?  What is the case against his apparently prudent and thoughtful neo-Burkean credo?

The main objection is that O'Hara's philosophy can too easily degenerate into the kind of reactionary, stop-the-world-I-want-to-get-off politics associated with UKIP, Peter Hitchens and the Daily Mail.  O'Hara protests that he is not a reactionary and that there is a difference between being suspicious of risky change and being opposed to all change on principle.  So there is - but the problem is that the conservative cause tends to attract people who do not respect such distinctions.  Historically, conservatism has had a consistent habit of merging into reaction.  To take one example that I have blogged about, in the 19th century debates on extending the right to vote, the moderate camp that favoured incremental reform (while rejecting a precipitate shift to universal suffrage) consisted of Whigs, whereas the diehard anti-reformers were Tories to a man.  Much the same can be said about the ending of religious discrimination against Catholics, the granting of home rule to Ireland and the 1911 Parliament Act.  Most reasonable people can agree that it is good to be prudent and cautious when undertaking major social reforms, but too many people on the conservative side have got the balance wrong too often.

It might also be argued that, in terms of classic left-right politics, O'Hara's approach really only makes sense as a response to full-blooded socialism.  Yet the modern British centre-left is not, in general, a radical movement.  Prudent caution might be an appropriate response when confronted with a Attlean programme for nationalising large swathes of industry and imposing punitive levels of taxation on the rich, but few people in Britain outside a fairly small minority advocate that sort of thing nowadays.  One example might illustrate this.  One of the most enduring reforms of New Labour was the introduction of the national minimum wage.  This was a moderate, popular, well thought-out measure which entailed only limited costs and was flagged to business several years in advance.  It was consistent with laws in place in other rich western countries, including capitalist America.  But the Tories resisted it tooth and nail until it became clear that it was working perfectly well - and O'Hara suggests that they were right to do so (though, to be fair, he does concede that they were also right to accept the policy once it had proved to be workable).

In all, this is a very interesting and stimulating read, even if it is a little drily written at times.  I'd recommend it to anyone with an interest in political ideas.