View upcoming events at Boston College
Books by alumni, faculty, and staff
Order books noted in Boston College Magazine
Join the online community of alumni
View the current BCM in original format
PO 359—Liberalism and Conservatism
Is Ann Coulter a conservative? Conservatism is generally viewed as a way of thinking that defends the existing social order, but Coulter’s incendiary words sound more like those of a revolutionary. Is Rachel Maddow a liberal? One of liberalism’s many meanings is a willingness to tolerate ideas not your own, but Maddow, in her more partisan mode, can sound anything but open-minded when discussing the ideas of those with whom she disagrees. This course examines classic texts of conservative and liberal thought. Do contemporary conservatives and liberals measure up to this heritage? However one answers this question, knowing where contemporary versions of conservatism and liberalism come from can help students understand politics today.
by Joseph-Marie de Maistre (1821)
De Maistre (1753–1821) was an essayist and diplomat in the service of France, his adopted country. A Savoyard by birth, he was a passionate defender of the monarchy—pretty much any monarchy. In this little pamphlet, adapted from his book The St. Petersburg Dialogues: Or Conversations on the Temporal Government of Providence (1821), we obtain a succinct view of the conservative propositions that life is unfair, that a strong state is necessary to social order, and that the figure who carries out the most dramatic duty of the state—the executioner—is an essential instrument of justice. “Remove this incomprehensible agent from the world,” he writes, “and at that very moment order gives way to chaos, thrones topple, and society disappears.”
For de Maistre, the Enlightenment—the philosophical movement of the 18th century arguing in behalf of reason over superstition—was a profound mistake. He was especially critical of two of the movement’s best-known and most influential standard-bearers: Rousseau (“one of the most dangerous sophists of our century”) and Voltaire (“I would like to have a statue erected to him . . . by the hand of the common hangman”).
The (liberal) 20th-century political philosopher Isaiah Berlin says that de Maistre is one of the most crucial political philosophers of the modern period, and I believe he is correct.
Compared to de Maistre, Burke (1729–1797) seems moderate. Even so, although he was in many ways an Enlightenment thinker, he at times denounced the Enlightenment with fury. The excerpts in this anthology from his book A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origins of Our Ideas of the Sublime and the Beautiful (published in 1757) assign central importance to the majesty discernible in great, if terrible, deeds. For Burke, the idea of majesty is embodied in the monarchy, and the correct response is awe—the suspension of reason.
Burke explains the sublime in terms of grandeur, glory, power, and even horror; in its presence, we bow. Beauty, in contrast, seduces us through softness and empathy. In Burke’s scheme, the sublime inspires fear; beauty inspires love. And Burke, following Machiavelli, believes that political authority depends more on fear than love. Fear keeps society in line; love breeds resistance and disorder.
Burke’s conservatism, rooted in these concepts, is hard for Americans today to understand, because it is alien to our country’s origins and experience. Heirs of our liberal founders, we still live, essentially, in a time of Enlightenment. We have never had a monarch or an established church, the two props of the old order. Instead, we have lawyers and politicians—professions Burke attacked for their calculating methods and lack of historical perspective. Government, for Burke, is an art rather than a science.
Burke’s conservatism had its contradictions, however. At the same time that Burke was a defender of order, he also understood—as one of the characters in Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard (1958) put it—that “if we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” And so this fierce opponent of the French Revolution had been a supporter of the American one. He objected to the idea of government involvement in the economy, yet he received, and passionately defended, a government pension. A member of England’s Parliament yet born in Dublin, he was, like de Maistre, an outsider to the nation he was defending.
In both its consistencies and contradictions, Burke’s thought is endlessly fascinating and rewards study.
by John Stuart Mill (1859)
Mill (1806–73), a truly great liberal, was also something of an elitist. In this essay, for example, he dismisses the English middle class as “collective mediocrity.” In other passages he sounds alarms about what his friend Alexis de Tocqueville called “the tyranny of the majority”—otherwise known as democracy. Mill shows us that liberalism and democracy are not the same. He was uncomfortable with the latter (although he would become an advocate of women’s rights), but a great expositor of the former.
For all questions about democracy, Mill’s liberalism is expressed through his “harm principle”: so long as ideas cause no harm, they should be tolerated. It is worth discussing whether those on the right today who seek to promote secrecy in the name of national security are as guilty of violating the harm principle as those on the left who support campus speech codes.
On Liberty is as relevant today as it was when Mill wrote it. Mill believed strongly that the best society allows for full individual development. The question worth posing about him now is whether the undemocratic features of his famous essay are merely artifacts of his privileged background—Mill was the son of a famous philosopher—or whether they are inevitable characteristics of liberalism itself.
by F. A. Hayek (1944)
Hayek (1899–1992) is considered a key thinker on the right, yet he once wrote an essay called “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” He is best characterized as a libertarian, and libertarianism is a fascinating blend of conservative and liberal ideas. Writing at a time when totalitarianism was the greatest threat to the West, he believed that reliance on the state would lead not, as contemporary commentary has it, to socialism and communism but rather to Nazism.
Hayek, a defender of the market, believed that social order need not be maintained by command, as de Maistre argued, but instead will emerge spontaneously as people attain freedom of choice. Like Burke, Hayek disliked social and economic planning—a fundamental issue dividing contemporary liberals and conservatives. Hayek offers an entry into current debates over taxes and spending.
by George H. Nash (1976; rev. 1996)
With Nash (b. 1945), we move to American-born thinkers and the question of how conservatism, rooted in European history, works in a country that has never shown much respect for tradition or deference to authority. Nash’s book brilliantly illuminates the strands that went into the making of American conservatism: traditionalism, libertarianism, and anti-communism.
In showing how the fusion of these disparate ideas became possible, Nash implicitly asks whether the proponents of each will at some point go their own way, destroying American conservatism from within. Nash’s book needs to be supplemented with discussions of the rise of neoconservatism in the 1980s, the achievements and failings of the conservative presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and the energy furnished to conservatism by the religious right and the Tea Party. Still, of the many books written about American conservatism, this one remains among the best.
by Michael J. Sandel (2012)
Just as libertarianism contains both conservative and liberal ideas, so does a way of thinking that has come to be called “communitarianism.” Like de Maistre and Burke, communitarians are critical of individualism. Like Mill, communitarians distrust imposing order by force.
Michael Sandel (b. 1953), one of Harvard University’s most popular professors and most elegant writers, straddles liberalism and communitarianism while resisting both labels. He has a remarkable capacity to provoke lucid discussions of difficult moral quandaries. Should couples who desperately want a child be able to buy one on the open market? What about kidneys? Do naming rights—one of my favorites is the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl in college football—corrupt what they name? Markets have a place, but do they belong everywhere? Sandel is a reliable guide through this thicket.
In my view Sandel is engaged in an effort to save liberalism from some of its extremes. His book is an excellent synthesis of the themes in this class.
Alan Wolfe is a professor of political science and the director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life at Boston College. His most recent book is Political Evil: What It Is and How to Combat It (2011).