North Western Winds

Contemplating it all from the great Pacific Northwest

Extremism

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John Ray at Dissecting Leftism has a provocative statement up this morning:

An important implication of what I am saying is that I don’t think there CAN BE such a thing as an extreme conservative. Extremes are for theorists and conservatives are people whose modus operandi is to go by what can be shown to work for the good of people over the long haul, rather than going by any theories. And I just don’t see how you can be extreme about that. So my (slightly) revisionist view of the political spectrum is that it has conservatives at one end and a motley assortment of dreamers at the other.

My question is, is it true? I’ll let you know what I think, but first I’d like to ask for opinions from readers – from all sides of the spectrum.

My own opinion is that much of the truth or falsity of the statement depends on how one defines “conservative.” There are a lot of people in the camp of the CPC (Canadian Conservative Party, Tories for short), for example, who differ from the Liberals only in the theory that they want to act out when they get to form the government (if ever). As theories go, it’s not bad. Since it tends to be a theory of government minimalism it is less likely to do harm than Liberal theories, which tend to be a lot more ambitious.

I do think it is possible to go too far on this theory, however. I think it is fair game for government to have a stake in the healthy regeneration of the society it governs, and that a few carrots before the people in this regard is not a bad thing. This can take the form of money or simply speaking to what we value. Government, by it’s nature, is about leadership. One can disavow that but that does not change the relationship, it simply ignores it, and that is poor stewardship of the government’s authority. This is why I think any theory of government that focuses primarily on ends is at grave risk of being taken too far, even a theory of minimalism.

There is another aspect to conservatism, one I’ve talked about a lot here, and that is a conservatism that concerns itself with means. I think this is a deeper and a truer sort of conservatism. It says that if we remember to do the small things right, the bigger things will follow. “Take care of your pennies and the dollars will take care of themselves.” I think that this is a lot less likely to lead to extremism because it tends to keep the flesh and blood nature of people (the governed and the government) more clearly before us. Political theorizing is more at risk of treating people like interchangeable abstractions.

Can this second sort of conservatism fall victim to the charge of extremism? It’s less likely, but it has to be admitted that yes, it can. Let’s look again at what John Ray wrote:

conservatives are people whose modus operandi is to go by what can be shown to work for the good of people over the long haul

How does this go off the rails? Well, “the good of the people” is a slippery concept. How do we define “the people?” Even more important is the concept of “the good.” That is a question that goes back to Plato and then some. Can we harm some people for the benefit of others? I think the more that we keep things simple and deal person to person and not from “theory” to “citizen” the less risk we will run. To this end, the theoretical assumption that one is somehow immune from treating another as an object is a grave danger.

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Written by Curt

February 4, 2005 at 9:58 am

Posted in Uncategorized

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