Conservatism: Civil And Cultural
Civil conservatism draws on a recognizable tradition of limited politics. On the one hand, it proposes that government should not plan the lives of citizens or be an instrument of their collective enlightenment but should uphold a framework of law. On the other hand, it argues that the rights of civil society should not be translated into claims on public expenditure but should be valued as the condition of self-reliance and creativity. Limited but authoritative government remains the proper complement to a society of "difference."
This understanding owes much to the work of Oakeshott, who in turn owes much to Hobbes. Indeed, Oakeshott's celebrated essay "On Being Conservative" draws its inspiration from a distinctive reading of Hobbes's Leviathan. Commentators seduced by his poetic description of conservatism as a preference for "the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss" (Oakeshott, 1991, p. 408) sometimes fail to note that Oakeshott believes this disposition to be inappropriate "in respect of human conduct in general" (p. 415). However, conservatism does remain appropriate in respect of government, all the more so indeed in a modern society that puts so much store by its individualism.
Governing, for Oakeshott, "is recognized as a specific and limited activity; not the management of an enterprise, but the rule of those engaged in a great diversity of self-chosen enterprises" (1991, p. 429). The philosophic basis of this view of government is explored in On Human Conduct (1975). This text has provided fruitful reflection for a diverse range of thinkers seeking a method to secure political legitimacy in contemporary multicultural societies and who identify a common threat to civility in utopian liberalism. Noël O'Sullivan, for example, has attempted to develop a vision of "formal politics" where the bond of association "is neither an agreed end, nor personal approval of the ruler and his actions, but acknowledgement of the procedural considerations which confer authority" (pp. 204–205). He argues that formal politics does not mean a commitment to liberalism but rather a rejection of the sort of "programmatic politics" with which modern liberal politics has become associated. The problem with the formal politics favored by civil conservatives is that it may be (ironically) too abstract and too detached from public sentiment to engage the loyalty of citizens. Certainly, it appears very distant from that sympathy for a traditional way of life normally associated with conservative politics.
Cultural conservatism, by contrast, assumes that a sense of unity rather than diversity is the foundation of political legitimacy. As Roger Scruton argues, the civil vision discounts "prejudices," and for Scruton (as for Burke), prejudices are those prepolitical affections, such as a sense of national belonging, upon which a stable political order depends. As he succinctly expresses it, "Unity is, in the normal instance, social rather than political, and ought also to be national" (1990, p. 54). This sets out a clear skeptical agenda for conservatism on issues—such as immigration, feminism, multiculturalism, and human rights—that are thought to present challenges to the substance of national identity. This cultural conservative agenda can be distinguished from that of the extreme right because of its respect for the conventions of established institutions. The great difficulty with it is that the social unity it assumes is a contentious one and, far from being self-evident, presents an easy target for those who would dismiss conservatism as nostalgic and elegiac. Contemporary conservatism, then, remains an ambiguous identity, a hybrid of civil and cultural elements.