Hesiod measured the distance ‘twixt Heaven and Hell as “a full eighteen days’ journey as the bronze anvil falls”. Nothing compared to the ideological infinity that separates today’s liberals and conservatives. That, in part, is the thesis of William Gairdner’s latest book, The Great Divide: Why Liberals and Conservatives Will Never, Ever Agree.
Gairdner is the prolific author of a dozen titles, including The War Against the Family, The Trouble with Canada, The Trouble with Democracy, The Book of Absolutes, and The Trouble with Canada…Still: heretical tomes which, notwithstanding the liberal orthodoxy of our age, and the unpromising economies of modern scholarly book-publishing, managed to become immediate bestsellers. The new book is in a sense Gairdner’s summa. Dealing less with topical controversies and policies than the perennial philosophical and moral questions that underlie and inform them (the nature of man, reason, freedom, equality and inequality, and so on, each treated in a separate chapter), The Great Divide is a lucidly reasoned taxonomy of conflicting liberal and conservative ideas. It is certain to be of invaluable use to generations of readers to come, whether serious students of political philosophy, or ordinary citizens who simply like to contend in the arena of ideas, but would prefer to understand more deeply what they are contending about.
As Gairdner observes, our modern Western democracies “from Vancouver to Venice” have triumphed over the external enemies of fascism and communism only to succumb to a protracted civil war between two opposite and irreconcilable world-views. Liberals and conservatives are currently estranged across so vast and unbridgeable a chasm that, even when they are speaking to one another, they are obliged to shout at the top of their lungs, and still can’t make themselves understood.
While he harbours no illusions that the divide will ever be healed, Gairdner exhorts both sides to examine the foundational principles of their own, and their opponents’, arguments, if the emotional volume of the debate is to be turned down, and a resumption of rational discourse made possible again. (Contemporary observers may be forgiven for not knowing that the talking points of political partisans are rooted in intellectual soil. Gairdner shows that they are.)
The first part of his book traces the evolution (or revolution, in the case of liberalism) of the two schools of thought from their Enlightenment origins. What becomes immediately clear is that the classical liberalism of a Voltaire or Locke has rather more in common with the conservatism of Hume and Burke (and with that of today’s benighted “reactionaries”) than it does with its current liberal namesake.
From the birth of democracy in both the United States and Canada to as recently as the beginning of the New Deal, liberals and conservatives have agreed on most things, e.g.: that the preservation of human liberty, which is the principal promise and burden of liberal democracy, can only be accomplished through the restraint of the arbitrary, monopolistic power of the State; that traditional, organic, empirically proven moral norms, customs, institutions, and voluntary associations (family, marriage, church, the free market, local organizations and clubs) are the bedrock of civil society, (and having been formed by voluntary consent, they are the repositories of a spontaneous moral authority in the commonwealth of free men); that a diversity of economic and social conditions is the inevitable and just consequence of both the existential diversity of human character and effort and the ancient principle of equality before the law; that the fault (or advantage) lies in ourselves, not in our stars (whether economic, social, or other “root cause”); and that egalitarianism (as contemporary liberalism defines and evangelizes it) is a direct repudiation of all of the above.
Since then, classical liberalism (and liberal democracy) have mutated into something like parodies of their original selves. While “we still use the flattering term liberal democracy to describe our political systems”, the average ratepayer is now a bondsman of the Pharaonic State for almost half of every working year (until his manumission, that is, on tax freedom day). In today’s Western democracies, the machinery of government is more coercive, more tentacular, and more rapacious–while the residual social and economic liberties of private citizens are fewer, smaller, and more precarious–than practically ever before in history, including under the absolute monarchies whose oppressive yokes the liberals of the eighteenth century thought they had once and for all cast off.
Gairdner traces the origins of this wholesale surrender of liberal principles to nineteenth-century socialist theorists, who began to ascribe inequalities to uncontrollable (“unfair”, as we would say today) external causes, and argued that the establishment of universal economic and social equality was the raison d’etre of the beneficent State. But since free individuals, relying upon their own varying talents, exercising their own spontaneous choices, and expressing their own natural differences, will inevitably become “unequal”, socialists have always resorted to the brute leveling force of government (taking from some and giving to others) to reify their egalitarian dreams. Modern democracies have thus “abandon[ed] their previous emphasis on freedom for all, under laws the same for all”, to adopt the egalitarian monstrosity of “equality for all, under unequal laws”. With the progressive income tax, personal and corporate subsidies for some (but not others), affirmative action (for some but not others), and human rights for all (except, e.g., Christian refuseniks of abortion and homosexuality), the foundational principle of the rule of law–impartial and identical treatment of all citizens, irrespective of person–has been peremptorily overturned. After the medieval divine right of kings, after twentieth-century totalitarianism, the modern liberal welfare state has managed to re-enshrine the pre-civilized ethos that might, in the execution of a ruler’s caprice, makes right.
Gairdner postulates that liberty-loving citizens accepted this new statist tyranny as a Faustian bargain: they surrendered their ancient public and political liberties (including their original democratic rights to freedom of speech and religious expression) in exchange for a more or less unlimited freedom of will within a newly-created zone of purely personal and private morality, having to do principally with the modern fetish of sex. Their governments bribed them, that is, with accommodating divorce laws; universally accessible contraception and abortion (further “liberating” them in the quest for sexual “self-realization”); homosexual rights; transgender rights; gay marriage, and so on–all of which were made available “to all equally in the name of freedom”. While the State has thus abdicated its traditional interest in this newly immunized, irreducibly “private” moral sphere, it has created a “vast public realm funded by massively increased taxation and permanent public debt”, insinuating itself into every corner of formerly autonomous human activity (business, trade, education, child care, health care, elder care, science, the arts), and setting itself up as the universal “benefactor, regulator, and protector” of mankind.
The result has been that conjunctio oppositorum that Gairdner calls “libertarian socialism”, and along with it, the contemporary “tripartite state”, in which one-third of the population work to create wealth, one-third work for government, and the final third live off the benefits distributed to them by the second, having confiscated them from the first. This, as Gairdner suggests, is a self-perpetuating Ponzi scheme, since in majoritarian democracies the latter two sectors will always out-vote the former. No less repugnantly, the tripartite state has created a miasmal swamp of moral confusion, with depredatory, power-hungry governments claiming credit for compassion and generosity, and demagogically inciting their dependents to condemn the “greed” of the productive minority on which they both parasitically batten.
In two illuminating chapters (“On Conservatism” and “The Forces at Work”), Gairdner examines the traditional social structures and customs beyond which the modern welfare state has so heroically progressed. Unlike liberals, conservatives have always tended to accept the imperfections of life as a product of the fundamental imperfectability of human nature; (as the late Joe Sobran has described it, their defining mood is one of gratitude, rather than gnawing discontent). As such, conservatives prefer the civilizational wisdom accumulated by long experience (“the best that has been said and done by our progenitors”) to the abstract concepts and theories upon which revolutionary liberals have founded their successive codes, declarations, and charters for the creation of a perfect society of scrupulously “New Men”, (which have more often resulted in totalitarian hells than the promised heavens on earth). For the renovation of man’s fallen nature, conservatives have relied instead on empirically tested, time-honoured institutions, customs, and norms (the “formative vehicle[s] of our human second nature”), which have evolved and been refined over the course of an immemorial civilizing process. As “natural and organic product[s] of historical experience”, these traditional social arrangements are in fact “prior in existence and importance” both to individuals and the State. Having arisen “from the ground up”, by mutual cooperation and consent, they have an inherent moral authority, which is a direct affront to the coercive power of the imperial State. And as Gairdner points out, their existential priority wholly invalidates the vaunted liberal “social contract” theory of government: “because…in order for a contract creating civil society to come into being, an entire structure of civility, law, and custom protecting and policing such a contract–a functioning society–would already have to be in place”.
But the main function of civil society, and the private voluntary associations that are its organizing units, is “to welcome and encourage the creation of inequalities in the form of exclusive group privileges, benefits, and duties that are shared by group members only”. For that reason, they have lain directly athwart the path of the egalitarian bulldozer. The reader can think of any number of recent examples, from the assaults on Christian educational institutions, charitable organizations, or the Boy Scouts, to the fiat by which the State has conferred, in the name of equal rights, the privileges of traditional marriage upon same-sex couples, who are disqualified by definition.
The grand project of egalitarian liberal democracy, then, is to declare all formerly exclusive privileges a “right for all”, to annul all qualifying distinctions, and thus, as universal Benefactor, to “transfer to itself the deep loyalties and gratitude generated by the civil social-bonding process”. The State usurps these allegiances by providing what Gairdner calls “substitute caring”, the myriad social programs, community facilities, subsidies for the arts, and so on, which it so generously offers at the expense of every taxpayer, including those who will never use them. A thriving pluralist civil society is thereby converted into what politicians proudly call our “one national family”. Meanwhile, the dissolution of natural social bonds, which have always been the nurseries of human liberty in flourishing societies, removes the few remaining “real-world barriers to state coercion”.
In these and many other ways, Gairdner traces the descent of liberty and civil society into modern liberal democratic servitude. A series of eight chapters on some of the fundamental philosophical questions on which liberals and conservatives disagree (human nature, the limits of reason, freedom, will, democracy, equality and inequality, morality and self, God and religion) constitute the bulk of his book; but it is impossible, within the scope of a review, to do justice to the complexity and breadth of Gairdner’s analyses of the liberal-conservative divide on these themes. By way of summary, at the end of each chapter, Gairdner appends a handy little comparative table, through which the reader can determine where he stands on the question (and whether he and his new bride will still be on speaking terms in a couple of years).
The one fault of Gairdner’s work is also its virtue. Though he makes no effort to hide his conservatism, he strives throughout to rise above polemics and referee the debate from a posture of neutrality (to which one only wishes modern governments would return). And he succeeds too well. Few liberals, it seems to me, could have written this book. Since the Sixties, the zealous avidity with which liberals have striven to abominate traditional institutions and norms has far outstripped the disorganized instincts of conservatives to preserve them. Witness the pusillanimous capitulation to President Obama by a recently triumphant majority of Republicans in Congress, desperate not to be accused of creating “gridlock” in Washington, where gridlock, as defined by liberals, is what happens when there’s a Democrat in the White House; (when the President is a Republican, gridlock is the wisely intended consequence of the Founders’ “prudent separation of powers”).
And though Gairdner hopes that an examination of first principles will help to turn the volume down, very early in the book he mentions “political correctness”, whose purpose is to turn the volume off. Political correctness is a liberal project, enforced by all of the totalitarian agencies of the modern egalitarian State about which Gairdner writes. Under its shadow, the problem is not that the debate has become shrill, but that it has become silent.
Finally, as Gairdner demonstrates (though one wishes he had said so explicitly), the Great Divide can hardly be laid at the feet of conservatives. It is liberalism that has decamped to the wildest fringes of the ideological topocosm. And yet it’s liberals who reflexively vilify conservatives as “right wing ideological extremists”. Which is rather on the order of calling one’s relatives back home in Pennsylvania “eastern extremists”, after setting off with one’s stoner buddies to Haight-Ashbury.
But these are quibbles. Gairdner’s analyses of the political quarrels between liberals and conservatives, and the way in which they erupt from subterranean fault-lines of which neither may be fully conscious, are always penetrating and often brilliant in their originality. The style throughout is at once accessible, elegant, and revelatory: replete, that is, with the ironies, paradoxes, and aphoristic strokes for which Gairdner is widely celebrated. For both liberals and conservatives who wish to think their arguments down to their roots, there is probably no better guide than The Great Divide.