After reading the aforementioned post by Bramwell, I found another on a related theme.
That the movement became known as “conservative” at all is an historical accident, no less than that the peoples Christopher Columbus encountered in North America became known as “Indians.” Early movement texts such as God and Man at Yale dubbed their ideology not “conservatism” but “individualism.” Only after Russell Kirk, who called himself a conservative but was never much troubled by inconsistency, chose to position himself as a movement godfather did “conservative” become the epithet of choice. Despite its name, the movement has never had any necessary connection to the political philosophy of Edmund Burke.
“Conservatism” is, to put it cynically, a powerful brand, and it’s hard to see right-of-center Americans abandoning it as at least some left-of-center activists and thinkers have jettisoned not-so-popular “liberalism” in favor of “progressivism,” to connect with another usable past. But what if conservatives did decide to take on another label?
One possibility: we could call left-of-center Americans social democrats and right-of-center Americans liberals, or, to use an old Cato Institute term, “market liberals.” The advantage is that it reinforces the idea of a continuous strain of Whiggish thought that extends from the old English liberalism to Tocqueville and Hayek. Perhaps the American right could embrace Buckley’s “individualism,” though it misses an important aspect of the worldview of the pro-market right. I like Arnold Kling’s ”civil societarian,” though I don’t think it’s likely to catch on.
In a neat post, Kling writes:
The traditional libertarian solution for corrupt government is Constitutional restrictions on government activity. Smaller government means smaller scope for corruption.
I am not sure I believe that the traditional libertarian solution works. I suspect that what really makes for limited government is the opportunity for exit. In the early 1800’s, it was possible for an American to pick up and move to a remote area where government had very little impact. That possibility tended to limit the power of the central government.
I think we need to boost the organizations of civil society that compete with government: private schools, private firms, charities, neighborhood associations, and groups that supply public goods using the “open source” model.
This jibes very nicely with the Cameron vision of a post-bureaucratic age, which we discussed below. The politics of exit doesn’t have a good name — think of derisive terms like white flight, sprawl, etc., for the not unblemished but in many respects not-so-bad phenomenon of Americans settling the crabgrass frontier – but it’s what the founding of the United States was all about. (And, to be fair to the anti-exit crowd, the founding of the Confederacy as well.)
Post-bureaucratism, alas, is rather ungainly. I think of my conservatism as a pragmatic classical liberalism that builds in a basic but not limitless respect for the settled cultural and institutional practices of a basically stable and well-governed society.