Axiomatic Conservatism vs. Holistic Conservatism

I recently read Michael Oakeschott’s very influential long form essay “Rationalism in Politics” (1947), which properly argues against the Axiomatic Rationalism underlying various ideologies from Marxism to Libertarianism. The attempt to build a system of governance from the ‘ground up’ vis-à-vis axiomatic principles (e.g., the non-aggression principle, etc.) represents mankind’s vanity with regard to Reason’s potential, and is acted out through a reductionist scientism itself guided by a progressive assumption about an ever-improving Enlightenment Reason unfolding over over time.

The entire approach works under a one-sided version of Reason that is based largely (and sometimes entirely) on abstraction. Completely ignored is the innate and necessary incompleteness of our attempts to understand both ourselves (e.g., Nagel and McGinn and other ‘New Mysterians’ in philosophy of mind) and society writ large, let alone the chimera of building a utopian form of government that will continuously optimize our navigating human follies. Practical reason, and a more Aristotelian approach as well as Hobbesian approach, is ignored.

Austin Bramwell’s “What Is Principled Conservatism?” is a superb piece on the shortcomings of what he calls Axiomatic Conservatism, a latent philosophical approach which is the dominant mode of conservatism in official GOP, Inc. circles.

The critics of this approach include figures such as (ironically) Hayek and (undestandably) Edmund Burke. Regarding Burke, Bramwell writes:

Perhaps more importantly, one may share axiomatic conservatives’ commitment to liberty yet reject their embrace of ideology. The eighteenth-century Whig politician Edmund Burke, for example, was an early and trenchant apologist for the movement towards American independence. Yet Burke denied that Americans were driven exclusively by libertarian ideals. “Abstract liberty,” he observed in his Speech on Conciliation with America, “like other mere abstractions, is not to be found” in America. Burke instead found Americans’ “fierce spirit of liberty” in their “temper and character.” That spirit of liberty, he claimed, was “stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.”

Americans’ liberal spirit did not, for Burke, descend on them in a miraculous Pentecost. Rather, it was a peculiar historical inheritance. Burke identified six causes of Americans’ unique character. First, Americans’ ancestors were not only Englishmen but Englishmen who emigrated when the English bias for freedom “was most predominant.” Second, American colonies were governed by popular (as opposed to proprietary) legislative assemblies. Third, their religion was not only Protestant but (except in the Southern colonies) dissenting Protestant, “which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.”

Fourth, the Southern colonists’ practice of slavery taught them the “haughtiness of domination,” which rendered the spirit of liberty “invincible.” (To be clear, Burke made no apology for slavery. “I do not mean,” he wrote, “to commend the superior morality of [the Southern colonists’] sentiment, which has at least as much pride as virtue in it; but I cannot alter the nature of man.”) Fifth, Americans had a passion for the study of law, which made them ever resourceful in challenging the depredations of their rulers. Finally, Americans’ sheer remoteness from the seat of empire accustomed them to self-rule.

Burke’s view that liberty in America arose not from ideology or “abstract liberty” but from a fortuitous set of ethnic, religious, governmental, economic, educational, and geographical circumstances implied, negatively, that American liberty could not easily be replicated elsewhere. A quarter century after the Speech on Conciliation, Burke made that implication explicit in his most famous work. (Burke’s foes in the ensuing debate—the axiomatic Whigs of his day—accused him of jettisoning his principles, yet the consistency of the themes running through Burke’s work is unmistakable.) In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke affirmed his love for “a manly, moral, regulated liberty.” Yet Burke denied that he must praise liberty “as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.” Liberty, he argued, must coexist with government, public enforcement, military command, taxation, morality, religion, property, order, and manners. Without these, Burke wrote, liberty is not a benefit but merely permits individuals to “do as they please.” The “manly, moral, regulated liberty” that Burke prized, and throughout his career defended, in short, has multiple, intersecting preconditions.

Axiomatic conservatives, by contrast, believe that liberty derives from ideology or systems of belief, which are easy to identify and easy to transmit. They assume away the context that, Burke thought, makes liberty possible in the first place. Burke, and his disciples up to the present day, hold that liberty is embedded within a particular institutional and sociological background. Just how fortuitous and singular one regards the Anglo-American and Western traditions of liberty will almost entirely determine whether one is an axiomatic, ideological conservative or instead a Burkean, classical conservative.

Bramwell’s essay also includes this most instructive passage on the 19th century sociologist (and de facto political theorist) William Graham Sumner, which is the most salient section of Bramwell’s essay:

… Sumner reviled ideological theories of liberty. The doctrine of natural rights he dismissed as a “complete and ruinous absurdity.” Abstract individual rights, he predicted, would be invoked not to defend liberty but to rationalize its downfall. If one man has a right to something, after all, then others have a duty to provide it; when government secures a right, it necessarily restricts the liberty of others. With this argument, Sumner presciently foresaw liberalism’s twentieth-century leftward turn.

But the deeper reason that Sumner opposed the doctrine of individual rights was not so much theoretical as empirical. According to Sumner, liberty arose not from laws, much less from propositions, but from the mores and habits of a particular people. “Rights originate in the mores,” he wrote, “and may remain there long before they can be formulated in philosophical propositions or in laws.” The liberal American society that Sumner prized was not formed by ideology but by centuries of organic development. “Rights are not antecedent to civilization,” for Sumner, but “are a product of civilization” and “to be real, they must be recognized in laws and provided for by institutions.”

… Rights are not natural but are socially embedded, just as Burke, to whom Sumner owed a large intellectual debt, had argued. (Lockean social contract theorists, by contrast, implausibly and myopically assume that men in the so-called state of nature possess sophisticated notions of contract found in some civilizations but not in others.) To defend liberty, one must defend the community that practices it.

It is Locke vs. (Hobbes + Aristotle).

This is what things boil down to.

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