Many liberals (in the classical sense) are so reluctant to concede an inch to conservatism and progressivism that they insist the latter two political philosophies, and the worldviews that frequently accompany them, have no redeeming features. This is a mistake. There are elements of conservatism worth conserving, and elements of progressivism worth progressing towards. Furthermore, tolerance, the premier social virtue of liberalism, provides a way to reconcile the best of conservatism and progressivism. Melding the virtues of conservatism and progressivism, while eschewing their vices, is the responsible thing for liberals to do in order to promote human flourishing.
Conservatism does possess an appealing aesthetic vision, namely, in its emphasis on preserving civilization and maintaining public virtue. Conservatism typically finds its highest expression in its promotion of a well-ordered society, in which individual persons find meaning through their place in society’s inherited social institutions. It also recognizes the importance of some check on political power by affirming the liberties and local sovereignty of individuals and intermediating social bodies, such as churches and fraternal organizations. Such “little platoons” are important because they bind communities together and provide for needs that the community’s individuals, in isolation, would find difficult to meet. There is something comforting, and even romantic, in conservatism’s emphasis on pursuing the good, the true, and the beautiful and its recommendation of a healthy dose of humility when seeking social reform.
However, there is also much in conservatism that its detractors rightly spurn. Despite its frequent emphasis on natural law and discovering the true essence of things, conservatism is often hostile to the analysis of the social world along the lines of abstract reason. There is an implicit objection to divorcing part from whole in the conservative intellectual tradition, which if taken seriously, would render impossible the assertion of any fact or law concerning social processes. The traditionalist aspects of conservatism can also go too far in advocating the continuation of inherited social practices. That can result in the enshrinement of institutions that continue the unjust perpetration of some people’s high socio-economic status at the expense of others’. Finally, in its quest to discover the good, the true, and the beautiful, conservatism often overlooks the fact-value distinction, being too quick to judge something “good” simply because it is “natural.”
Given those shortcomings, the emphasis progressivism places on equality and justice are understandable and commendable. Progressivism is hostile to treating the status quo as sacrosanct, and emphasizes the desirability of judging the justice of society and its institutions on the basis of reason. Because of that, progressivism is often unwilling to tolerate existing social practices if they result in some people’s being unable to lead minimally decent lives. Thus, there is a certain element of the heroic in progressivism: Society can and should be perfected, and human rationality is the means by which perfection can be achieved.
However, as with conservatism, progressivism’s virtues are a double-edged sword. Just as conservatism runs into the danger of being perpetually concrete-bound, progressivism relies too much on unanchored abstraction. A universal theory of justice conceived through abstract argument, which supposedly commands our assent by the power of reason alone, does not constitute an argument for shoehorning society into that idealization. There are immutable laws governing social organization — the laws of economics come to mind — that render progressives’ grand schemes of social engineering impossible, and ignoring them can be catastrophic for the very people progressivism heartily wishes to assist. Progressivism, in its zeal to rectify injustice, is too quick to see every discrepancy among persons as the result of some act of discrimination. That, too, inappropriately enshrines the normative at the expense of the positive, albeit in a different way than conservatism does.
The essence of civilization
Fortunately, the first virtue of liberalism allows us to have our cake and eat it too. That virtue is tolerance, as I asserted before. Tolerance is frequently something to which everyone pays lip service, but the dedication rarely goes any deeper than that. As I use the word, and as it finds its expression in liberalism, tolerance does not mean approval, but acceptance. To tolerate is to live and let live. I tolerate others to the extent that, whether I approve of their practices or not, I do not seek to interfere forcibly with them by acting on my own or by using the coercive apparatus of the political process. If I disapprove, I do not seek to use the law to prevent others from engaging in their preferred activity; if I approve, I do not seek to use the law to promote it.
Unfortunately, that kind of tolerance is eschewed by the vast majority of conservatism’s and progressivism’s adherents. Conservatism typically endorses the use of force to impose one vision of the good, the true, and the beautiful on others. Its respect for traditional social practices extends to protecting those practices by using the political process, which means forcing the practices on unwilling third parties. Progressivism, odd as it may sound at first, can be equally intolerant. Although it frequently calls for, and even approves of, social practices that conservatism would be more than happy to outlaw, it also calls for the use of coercion, usually directed at redistributing people’s resources. That too is an imposition on unwilling third parties, but the values are material rather than spiritual. So conservatism and progressivism have the same Achilles’ heel: they each endorse the imposition of a set of values on others, whether those others like it or not.
The tolerance of liberalism allows for a synthesis of the ideal upright and orderly community emphasized by conservatism and the push for individual equality and justice promoted by progressivism. By whatever personal code one chooses to live, endorsing the virtue of tolerance means refusing to impose one’s vision of the good society on others. Tolerance allows individual persons to form communal bonds of their own choosing on the basis of their own conscience. It thus allows them to build their ideal society in concert with others who share their vision. A tolerant society is not one where everyone embraces one set of values. A tolerant society is one characterized by a plurality of values, where those who disagree — even if they disagree vehemently — leave each other alone. In such a society, people recognize that the existence of social practices they find repugnant does not justify a coercive interference to instill the “correct” set of values on those engaging in the supposedly repugnant practices. A tolerant society recognizes that people of different backgrounds, values, and life goals possess a fundamental dignity by virtue of their humanity that ought not to be diminished. Liberalism’s emphasis on tolerance is what makes it a truly cosmopolitan philosophy, one that appreciates and nurtures the rich diversity that exists among human beings. A liberal society is an archipelago of tightly bound yet open communities, each offering people a chance to pursue their happiness in whatever way is best in their own estimation.
Obviously, tolerance is not a social panacea. I do not deny that there are certain social practices, such as theft and murder, that societies must curb, or else they will not remain social for long. And by praising tolerance, I do not endorse nihilism or ethical relativism. But I do believe that the willingness to leave alone those with whom one disagrees is the essence of civilization, and hence the essence of liberalism. For all their insights, neither conservatism nor progressivism is the appropriate philosophy for a flourishing society. Without tolerance, society will conserve that which ought to be discarded, or progress towards a state of oppression through enforced conformity. But in the tolerance of liberalism, society has a stable foundation for orderly growth and development, driven by the expression of individual diversity.
This article was originally published in the April 2014 edition of Future of Freedom.