Sketch of a social philosophy

Elsewhere I have outlined my view that political ideologies are inevitably inadequate as models of the social and political world and of the way we as individuals relate or should relate to that world.

A large part of the problem is that ideologies have a subjective and arbitrary nature, based as they are on all too human passions and desires, and subject as they have been in their framing to multiple historical accidents and contingencies. Whatever they are, political ideologies are not adequate representations of reality.

Nevertheless, not all ideologies are equal (or equally deleterious). Even though (or perhaps because) conservatives are often religious, they tend not to make a religion of politics. Conservative approaches to political issues tend to be more pragmatic and in touch with actual social realities, politics – rather than being mythologized and exalted – being seen for what it is: a messy, fundamentally boring but necessary process.

I am talking here about moderate conservatives, of course. Others – radical conservatives and libertarians as well as leftists – tend to mythologize and metaphysicalize politics, and to look there for some kind of salvation-equivalent.

For example, the left could be seen as constituting a sort of secular religion, having in effect adopted certain egalitarian and (with respect to the radical left, at least) revolutionary values directly or indirectly from the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, whilst rejecting of course the supernatural or otherworldly elements. The former move ensures that their outlook is essentially more emotion- and desire-driven than conservative views; the latter move (which in itself I endorse) arguably undermines the coherence as well as the foundational basis for the social and moral views in question.

I surprise myself that I seem to spend so much time thinking – or at least talking – about religion, having given up on religion many years ago. But politics and religion are parallel phenomena, and social theorizing sometimes has a theological feel. I think it's because this is where we seek, if not our salvation, then at least some kind of psychological satisfaction or comfort as we try to put our lives into a broader social perspective and – in my case, in as unmetaphysical a way as possible – try to make some sense of it all in human terms.

Here, then, is my latest attempt to sketch out my social and political views.

Traditional and pragmatic approaches

Traditional conservatives see conservative values as being embodied in institutions – mainstream churches, the family, other traditional groupings – and sustained by a broad framework of customs and practices. But such institutions are either failing or in a process of radical change, posing a problem for those with conservative inclinations.

Many responses to this situation are possible. One can simply try to ignore the changes; or move to the left; or take a reactionary stance; or move to a radically conservative position.

My preference is to focus on features of the conservative outlook which are not dependent on the survival of specific cultural elements: for example, holding in high regard certain personal qualities (self-discipline, self-reliance, good manners...); and a reluctance to interpret human relations and history in terms of abstractions. It's always important to be sensitive to the contingencies of time and place.

My approach, though conservative, is decidedly non-religious. I see a certain degree of moral relativism as inevitable, but my relativism is constrained. (And it certainly does not extend to scientific knowledge, which – though always provisional in a sense – we have good reasons to call objective.)

A European tradition of thought

These notes draw on a particular European intellectual tradition which may be characterized as both conservative and classically liberal. During the 1930s, a time of great political instability and polarization, a small group of European and American thinkers set out to revive and revise the classical liberal tradition. The group first came together in 1938 at a conference in Paris organized by the philosopher Louis Rougier, and was re-formed after the World War II as the Mont Pelerin Society. Its members were generally conservative, steeped in the cultural traditions of Europe, but forward-looking and seeking to apply new developments in economic theory and new political thinking to the economic and social problems of the time. Since then, of course, much has changed – new technologies have radically altered the way we communicate, and traditional and homogeneous cultures have been replaced by mixed and fragmented societies severed from their historical roots – but these scholars, largely because of the breadth and depth of their cultural understanding and their acute awareness of the contingencies of history, retain their fascination and relevance.

The European neo-liberals remained independent thinkers and did not really constitute a single school of thought. Some, like Ludwig von Mises and F.A. Hayek, favored relatively unregulated markets; others, like Wilhelm Röpke, Alexander Rüstow and Louis Rougier, argued for a more active role in the economy for governments. Ultimately, the test of social and economic principles is whether they work in a given context – though, admittedly, there will always be an ideological element in such judgements.

Legislation and spontaneous order

It's clear that command economies, such as those of the old Soviet Union and communist Eastern Europe, do not work. But Hayek saw as fatally flawed not just socialism but also social democracy. Both systems may be utopian in inspiration but are oppressive and inefficient in practice. And, indeed, most European experiments in social democracy have failed miserably.

Hayek's attitude to social democracy was linked to his view that justice is not a matter of outcomes but of process, so the legal system should provide a framework for free human action that does not seek to direct it to predetermined outcomes. He was especially wary of the idea of 'social justice' which he saw as incoherent (because it is concerned with outcomes rather than process). I have some sympathy with this view, and, though I believe the unlucky and those not able to cope should be helped, I don't think it's a matter of rights or justice, but rather of benevolence or common decency.

Socialist and social democratic programs may have failed, but there are crises also in economies more closely associated with free market approaches. Even though they were arguably precipitated at least in part by inappropriate government and central bank interventions, these continuing crises do seem to call into question Hayek's optimism about spontaneous order and the capacity of markets for self-regulation and self-correction.

My explanation is that the spontaneous economic order which Hayek championed cannot be divorced from more general social values and norms, and these common values have been seriously eroded in the West in recent years. A lightly regulated system will only flourish in a moral and cohesive society. On the other hand, a proliferation of laws and regulations is no substitute for basic moral values, and may only succeed in stifling entrepreneurial and general business activity. In fact, whatever one's views on the nature of law and justice, it's undeniable that laws and regulations tend to proliferate beyond what is required to secure human freedoms or enhance other aspects of well-being.

Equality, inequality and freedom

A strong case can be made that conventional Western notions of egalitarianism and human rights derive in large part from metaphysical biases, including the idea, originating with the Greeks, of a rational soul being equally present in every man (women were not always deemed to have such a soul). But the idea of the social self – that we derive our selfhood from the culture and the society in which we spend our earliest years – challenges the conventional view.

Though conservatives are – rightly – committed to the notion of equality before the law, they are – again rightly in my view – more relaxed than many on the left about accepting that any human society will inevitably be stratified.

Conservatives tend to see society as a complex organism, with individuals seeking fulfilment via association with others in multiple ways. In fact, individuals are in large part defined by their links with others. In this context the notion of equality has limited applicability. What is valuable in it is encapsulated in the notion of fairness which encompasses a commitment to due process and non-discrimination.

If the notion of equality has been influenced by metaphysical ideas, so too has the notion of freedom. Arguably, classical liberal and libertarian notions of individual choice and freedom also come with implicit metaphysical assumptions, drawing as they do on Western religious notions and Renaissance humanism. Our views on individual freedom need to be reviewed in the light of an understanding of social and developmental psychology, neuroscience, etc. We will end up, I think, with a scaled-down view of human freedom, but one which is more robust, resilient and realistic than the older notion.

Fiscal discipline and the limits of politics

Conservatives have generally been more wary of deficit spending and government indebtedness than social democrats and others on the left, but not always. There have been notable failures amongst conservative leaders on the fiscal front, and some social democrats have been strong fiscal conservatives. But all too often approaches deemed 'Keynesian' have been driven by essentially political rather than economic imperatives, resulting in populist policies and high government indebtedness. The situation the United States and a number of European countries now find themselves in is such that a long-term decline in relative prosperity seems inevitable.

The conservative view on fiscal discipline may be linked to a deeper issue. Socialists and social democrats are on whole are too optimistic about what politics can achieve. They want to end poverty and deprivation and inequalities in society and recklessly promise to do so. Those with a more conservative bent, on the other hand, know that the power of leaders to effect beneficial change is limited. What leaders and legislators can do, however, is to help build and maintain a framework within which social and economic life can thrive. National prosperity – on which so much depends – will only be maintained if populist pressures to overreach and overspend are resisted.