The moral basis of the Right

This is the sister essay to last week’s on the moral basis of the Left, and the subject is more difficult, because the words we use here are both more numerous and more ambiguous. Along with ‘the Right’ we can use ‘Liberal’, ‘conservative’, ‘reactionary’, ‘establishment’, ‘Tory’, ‘laissez-faire’, ‘neo-con’, and others. They all come with baggage, both linguistic and historical. ‘Right’ refers to those who sat on the right of the President of the National Assembly in Paris in 1789, who wanted less change than those on the left of the President. ‘Liberal’, again, has to do with freedom, and in this case more often the freedom to be able to do things, than freedom from … (poverty, oppression, feudalism and so on). Sometimes, of course, both.

‘Conservative’ comes  from the Latin, and in ancient times probably related to the business of preserving food — conservatrix meant a woman who preserved fruit. We still speak of ‘conserve’ as a type of jam, and in environmental matters we have the Australian Conservation Foundation, whose goal is the conserving of the natural environment. ‘Establishment’ in politics refers to the position of the Church of England in England (the ‘Established Church’), and by extension, the aristocracy and those who benefit from such a position. Inside the word is the Latin root of our word ‘stable’, meaning fixed or settled. ‘Tory’ is a beauty: it is from the Irish toraidhe, meaning an outlaw, originally referring to peasants dispossessed by English settlers and living as robbers, and then extended to refer to supporters of James, Duke of York, who was denied succession to the throne because he was a Roman Catholic. From those who supported him and his claims came the increasingly dominant party of the late 17th and 18th century in England, the Conservatives, still referred to by some as ‘the Tory party’.

‘Laissez faire’ is French for let be, or more literally, ‘allow to do’. If you like, let things take their natural course, don’t interfere. ‘Neo-con’ is a modern American term for what I would call ‘reactionary’. My Shorter OED defines one sense of ‘reaction’ as ‘a movement towards to the reversal of an existing tendency or state of things… or desire to return to a previous condition of affairs’. The neo-cons in the USA seem to have originated on the Left, as strong opponents of the extreme, Stalinist, Left, but eventually felt that ‘liberalism’ in the USA had run its course, and it was time to return to a much less regulated state.

The history and subtlety of these terms suggests that to use any of them as having real meaning is to run into a great terminological bog. It seems to me that most of the time they are used as epithets by those who dislike anything to the ‘right’ of themselves. The dominant group within the federal ALP is ‘the Right’, or sometimes, ‘the NSW Right’. It is all relative — in the case of the ALP, relative to those on ‘the Left’. But isn’t the ALP generally on the Left? Well yes, but that’s relative to the Liberal party. We learn nothing by discovering that Mr X is thought to be  a Tory, a neocon, or whatever. As with Ms Clinton and Mr Trump, it is more useful to see what stands in their names as written policy. What do they want to do? Why do they want to do it? What is your own view about that? Why is it your view?

In the case of the Left, there is an enduring theme, more important in some quarters than in others, which is the notion of a journey, that of human progress. In the case of the Right there is something else, but still a sort of journey. It is the supposition that what has over time survived or endured in human societies must have some value in it, and we should not get rid of it without good reason. While that is straightforward, it doesn’t generalise well. Those in Australia who wanted state aid to church school in the 1960s were mostly Catholics, and to quite a degree they were socially and economically conservative. Those who resisted the shift to public funding of church schools were politically conservative. They liked things as they were, and did not want change. Indeed they tried for thirty years and more to get things back to where they had been. In terms of the definitions set out above, you could fairly call them ‘reactionaries’, though they would have thought of themselves, I feel sure, as ‘progressive’.

Built into the ‘conservative’ frame of mind is also a preference for, or a kind of belief in, the notion of an organic society, which is not just a set of individuals. Such a society is almost a living thing because it includes not only our buildings, industries and cities but our cultures as well — what makes us ‘Australian’, how we define family and education and marriage and music and leisure. Of course, these things are changing all the time, and a conservative tends to resist such changes where that is possible,especially big ones, and regrets the passing of what had been. Incidentally, Mrs Thatcher is supposed to have said that there was no such thing as ‘society’, there were only individuals and families. If she did say it, where does that put her?

Conservatives value continuity and stability. They don’t like governments that want to reform everything. They don’t much like politicians with expansive visions of the good society. If they feel they have to, they will tweak the current system. As I have written before, if pushed hard conservatives will engage in reconstruction themselves, and Bismarck and the Marquess of Salisbury, both true conservatives, were the real creators of what we now call the welfare state. They saw the dangers of revolutions that might arise from a disgruntled industrial working class, and bringing the workers into mainstream  society through voting reforms and old age pensions were their mechanisms to avoid one. They copped a lot of flack from other conservatives for doing so.

As will be clear, conservatism almost requires some kind of adjectival qualifier. We are all conservative about something. Just pop an obvious adjective in front, and you can have social conservatives (church is a good thing, homosexuality is a worry, etc), religious conservatives (no woman priests), cultural conservatives (modern art is rubbish, rap music is evil), economic conservatives (get rid of regulation about business), fiscal conservatives (balance the budget). Bio-conservatives (a new arrival) fear technological development, and are sceptical or downright hostile to new treatments in medicine. I doubt that more than a handful of people would be conservative in every area. And the terms change their meaning as soon as you move from one country to another, for one country’s liberals are another country’s conservatives.

Those who enjoy or benefit from any state of affairs are likely to see it (the status quo ante) as a good thing, and will be conservative with respect to aspects of it, just as many of those who are ‘have-nots’ will see such a state of affairs being plainly wrong. Perhaps it is true that many of us become more conservative as we get older, if only because we have learned how the system works. I once interviewed a senior politician who reflected on his discovery, when first elected, of the volume and complexity of standing orders in the House of Representatives. He had a reformer’s zeal. ‘When I get into power,’ he thought, ‘I’ll make sure these are sorted out and made much simpler.’ Twenty years afterwards, a master of procedure,  he had become the guardian of standing orders. He knew how they worked, and was able to use them effectively. To newcomers who had the reformer’s eye, he would explain that you simply had to learn the system.

It is nearly always the young who start revolutions, either on the grand scale or inside existing organisations. The young, who  have little experience of life yet, tend to see things clearly, and in binary terms — right/wrong, black/white. For those older, there are many shades of grey. There is good grey, not-so-good grey, and really awful grey.

If I have to use any of these labels at all, I try to speak and write so it is quite clear what I mean. Debate and discussion are much better, I think, if we dispense with the labels altogether, and talk about specific policies. Having said that, I do think asking myself where that perspective comes from helps me to understand my own personal position. As in the case of those on the Left, I doubt that most of those who espouse policies or positions of the Right have a clear sense of the basis of their  views.

And to conclude, I am reminded of a lovely book (The Devil’s Dictionary, 1906) by an American writer, Ambrose Bierce, he who defined ‘corporation’ as ‘an ingenious device for obtaining individual profit without individual responsibility’. He also defined  a Conservative as ‘a statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others.’

End-note: In the next essay I will try to relate the core of these two essays to current Australian politics.

Join the discussion 41 Comments

  • Ron Dent says:

    Hi Don.
    Thanks for these great article that have keep my mind stimulated as I have travelled this wide brown land ( green these last couple of months )
    for the past few years . While I think I knew what the left and right meant in politics it was good to get the real meaning . I hope this finds yourself and Bev well .
    Best wishes
    Ron and Bev Dent

  • Neville says:

    Another good summary Don and I think I would say I’m a person who is against censorship and I am certainly against any form of totalitarianism. Of course I strongly believe in freedom of speech and that includes the freedom to offend the sensibilities of individuals and other groups.
    I’m sure I have an economic bias that sometimes makes me very wary of dry economics and I certainly believe in helping the less well off in society. The people I admire are the people who work hard and save a nest egg and purchase their first home or start a small business. I’ve seen many examples of this over the years and have seen some go into retirement as self funded retirees.
    These people don’t get the praise they deserve in my opinion. To finish here is a reaction by the left to Andrew Bolt’s factual data on recent temp etc. You have to read this to understand the stupidity of the left and their refusal to understand facts , data and the wild exaggerations of their fellow travelers.

    • PeterE says:

      thanks for the Bolt page. Enlightening.

    • Ross says:

      The usual selfserving rubbish from Bolt. Lap it up Nev. But do check other sources won’t you.
      ACMA basically said Bolt was an opinion/entertainer and thus, the average reader wouldn’t expect his deceptive slicing of a graph to be accurate. But then ACMA is probably part of the UN conspiracy, eh?

      • Neville says:

        Ross read Bolt’s article again and you might start to wake up. Gawwwwrrrd help us.

        • gnome says:

          I must caution you, Neville, not to respond to Ross, not merely because zhe is a drivelling idiot, but because, statistically, zhe doesn’t exist.
          Disregard any arbitrary start date zhe may choose, such as hir time of conception or date of birth; this would ignore a much longer previous period of pre-existence which must swamp any current objective or empirical data. Such is hir warmist logic, by which zhe must stand or be proven inconsistent.
          (Imagine my horror when I realised afterwards to whom I had responded on Don’s previous thread.)

        • Ross says:

          Again, Nev. What Bolt thinks and what actually happened are two different things.
          ACMA ruled in Bolts favour because he is an ‘opinion’ writer. Whilst his science may be wrong this didn’t’ matter because, in the opinion of ACMA, most readers accept that Bolt is not a scientist but merely throwing up his 10 cents worth. He doesn’t have to be scientifically accurate, because it was an ‘opinion’.
          Good to know, eh Don? (Chuckle)

          • Neville says:

            Ross I thought I’d cleared this up months ago, but here it is again, just for you. According to the IPCC’s preferred data set ( HAD 4) the planet has warmed by 0.8 C in the last 166 years. The PR Concordia study claims just 0.7 C warming ( OZ responsible for just 0.006 C of that 0.7 C ) since 1800 and the PR Lloyd study found an average temp variation per century over the last 8,000 years of 1.0 C. So how is 0.8 C 0r 0.7 C unusual or unprecedented over 1.6 and 2.16 centuries? Bolt , if anything was very understated in his conclusions. Flannery is a fool and so are the other extremists mentioned in Bolt’s post. But by all means tell us why you would believe anything Flannery says?

          • gnome says:

            Neville, Neville, Neville – You’re responding to someone who thinks ACMA (whatever that is) is some sort of authority on a matter of natural science, capable of adjudicating in a discussion of world temperatures. Stop it – you’ll end up as blind as zhe is.

          • Neville says:

            Ross even the much adjusted and abused GISS LOTI temp data only shows 0.95 C temp increase over the last 136 years. That’s about 0.7 C in a century.
            But our modern warming also comes at the end of the LIA and that was the coldest sustained period for thousands of years.
            Surely our planet can make some small recovery without these silly fairy stories alluding to unusual and unprecedented warming?
            Here’s the GISS data.

  • Alan Gould says:

    Thanks Don, you show us the ground. Left and Right are terms we use to try and crystallise how we relate to our fellows, and it is the formative – dare I call them ‘innate’ properties regarding this that intrigue me. For instance…

    1. Is our instinct to survive, or is it to-more-than-survive. If the latter, then the idea of ‘enough’ gets blurred and our laissez-faire is born.

    2. We have created the idea of a ‘society’ – by which in fact we mean ‘mass society’, an assemblage of people larger than we can count as acquaintance, whereas through the million-odd years in which we formed our sense of relationship with the group, these groups were small, and our reflexive behaviour toward the group was set down with an ability to encompass some imagining of how a decision affecting all would impact on each. The selfish and the selfless could be elided more easily.
    3. We do seem to have inherited from our feral forbears an odd survival mechanism that tilts us toward altruism. This is that the anguish of others causes anguish in ourselves, anguish prompting the motivation for its relief. We have seen by the roadside the rozella piping its distress for its roadkilled mate, the lion pride attending the snakebitten lioness. We inherit the stories of wolf or dolphin nurture of distressed humans, have seen footage of the hippo intervening to rescue a stricken water buffalo from a Nile crocodile. Here is the welfare states roots in wild nature.
    4. Why do I lean toward the Left in my judgements on what is fair? If someone is setting up a business, I wish him/her to prosper. If the rewards given to runaway success afford a few people an opulence millions of times more than the wealth of the poorest in the community my reaction is to think that is grotesque. Plutarch was able to conceive the same thing among the Romans he wrote about. I think the reaction is embedded in those mental formations we made when we lived in our small groups. I know of only one example of human thinking that has managed to embrace a sense of the other – whether individual or society – where the innate tension between the two is reconciled, and that is the counsels of Christ. The Samaritan story covers that.

    • spangled drongo says:

      “If the rewards given to runaway success afford a few people an opulence millions of times more than the wealth of the poorest in the community my reaction is to think that is grotesque.”

      Alan, you nailed one of the great philosophy dividers of the right and left.

      But I could never work out why the actions of someone who attains wealth honestly by providing a good or service that must be superior to anything in current existence under a free market system could ever be considered “grotesque”.

      Initially, of course, they don’t gain that sort of opulence at all but by getting their nose in front [if they are as smart as their actions indicate] they simply out accelerate the herd.

      But in today’s globalised market, overregulated by the Nanny System and supervised by the ever increasing “entitlement” specialists, while the market has increased exponentially, for the [honest] entrepreneur it’s tougher than ever. Scammers, not so much.

      • Alan Gould says:

        It is not the honesty, usefulness or initial enterprise that appears to arouse the natural offence in the watchers of wealth accumulation, but the spectacle of excess when seen across the spectrum of people’s fortunes, and the exploitation of advantage in terms of power for influence beyond whatever the market product originally benefited. My guess is that this offence IS natural to us, may have a component of envy in it but is more likely to derive from a sense of mésure in how human fortunes best unfold, and takes into account that the billionaire and the pauper will be mindful of each other because they cannot help it, and this mindfulness stems from the million years they spent beside the same campfire.

  • Patrick says:

    “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
    I think this summarises the rather arbitrary way most people use those labels.

  • margaret says:

    Love Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary. The essays have been thought-provoking and informative.

  • spangled drongo says:

    Don says: “Perhaps it is true that many of us become more conservative as we get older, if only because we have learned how the system works.”

    Yes, the system we call life : If you’re not a lefty during callow youth you have no heart, if you’re not a conservative at maturity you have no brain.

  • Doug Hurst says:

    Bierce also countered Decartes’ proof he was a living, thinking being – “I think, therefore I am’ – with: ‘I think I think, therefore I think I am’ – the logic of which I can’t fault and which has caused me to ignore Decartes’ thoughts on everything except maths ever since.

    Great essay Don. Some things are hard to define, but the Left and Right of political and social thought are harder than most. And the boundaries between one and the other can be problematic. Someone once said that while we all know the difference between day and night, agreeing the precise moment we change from one to the other has always been contentious – so much in so that astronomers and celestial navigators have three definitions depending on just how dark it is. I see politics as much the same, only worse.

    That said, I will still divide the political/social world up into Left and Right, with a preference for the less emotional Right in most things, especially government management of our money.

  • PeterE says:

    To be a good conservative, understand the merits of what has gone before and is now, carefully examine any proposal for change in the light of justice for all, oppose that which will do harm and be prepared to accept a workable compromise where change may bring benefits.

  • JAC says:

    Interesting that you seem to be including the French “laissez faire” concept in the broad scope of conservative values. My understanding was it equated more with a libertarian position, with no government controls on commerce or finance. Effectively the advocates were free marketeers wanting a free reign to do anything, something that is at odds with your description of the notional society that conservatives subscribe to. It may have been the genesis of small government which (should) form the basis of right wing political parties, and it sits along side the philosophy of Adam Smith’s economic theory, and 100 years later the work of John Stuart Mill. While most conservative people would support those views, I don’t think a Conservative political party would have much traction today with a laissez faire platform
    Inherent in the term society is the concept of dealing fairly with members within the society. We judge a community ( or a nation) on how it deals with the lame and the halt within its ranks. One of the foundation tenets of Australian culture is helping the battlers – helping those who need a hand and leaving no one behind. It was part of the sense of community service, volunteering to help others and it can still be seen in the work done by people with Meals on Wheels or Rotary or Lions groups, to name a few. These interpersonal engagements form part of the fabric of the society, and the more there are, the stronger the community. I think it is important to note that this is manifested by the individuals giving up their time to help others, not money. We hear a lot these days about “fairness”, “equity” , “social justice” or “inclusiveness”, usually from people who want to spend other peoples money to pursue their causes.
    And it has now become a function of Governments, state and federal, to collect and disburse this money. This money comes from those deemed to be unfairly wealthy or otherwise privileged.
    So we now have a society with political agendas largely driven by those who are self appointed arbiters of which members of the society are deemed to
    worthy of support ( the ones they “give a voice to”), how they are to be assisted ( by government grant) and who is going to foot the bill ( the politics of envy). It is interesting to note that the organisers of rallies or marches that promote these agendas are unavailable to organise mass demonstrations to
    assist the SES volunteers with cleaning up after a flood, or help make tea and sandwiches for the Rural Fire Service members who give up days to fight fires in rural communities, assistance which has little financial cost but is priceless in restoring communities.
    Increasingly we see the fabric of our society being torn apart. Individuals are not supported to become self reliant and independent. Instead they are categorised into various victim groups, LBGTI, ATSI, refugee, disabled, and their grievance identified and amplified. They are encouraged to feel disadvantaged and dependent on the state for support. Activists promoting this invariably do not take their concerns to the point of providing practical assistance to the victims of oppression that they so vocally support.
    Don, you mentioned that conservatives want order and stability. If pushed hard they will start reconstruction themselves. To have reconstruction, you must first have destruction. Conservatives are risk averse to the destruction of their society. They see the necessary changes as being evolutionary not revolutionary. As for having to be pushed hard, most of the major social reforms in this country in the last half century have been barely resisted by conservatives. In 1967 they voted overwhelmingly in support of recognition of aboriginal people in the constitution, yet they are still vilified as being racists. They are still accused of being homophobes, but they were watching sex scenes with gay men on number 96 in the 70’s. Land rights came and went without any major voter resistance, and gay marriage is a pressing issue in inner city suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne only. The perceived resistance to change is in the minds of the left. The conservatives are disinterested in the endless noisy righteousness of the activists, but they are protective of the rightness of the community that they want their children to grow up in.

  • Don Aitkin says:

    JAC, on ‘laissez-faire’: this is a not uncommon charge from the Left about the attitudes of people thought to be on the Right. And there is of course contradiction within all ideologies!

    • JAC says:

      Don, I agree. One of the most puzzling things about this categorising of political positions is that the meaning is fluid, and depends on how the cognoscenti interpret it on the day.
      I believe the current American liberals are libertarians with totalitarian overtones. How else do we explain 19 states attorneys agreeing to make climate change denial a criminal act, or entertain the idea we should suspend democracy until the crisis of denialism is overcome? As for attempting to pin the charge of laissez faire on Conservatives, they are confusing it with Capitalism. This thinking is archaic – the stuff of the 19th century and the rise of organised labour. The world has moved on. But the comrades like to maintain the fiction of ‘the struggle”. It energises their young acolytes.
      I look forward to your next piece. I presume you chose the word “morals” as the theme because you see this as an underlying driver of political positions.
      As you asked – what is your view, why is it your view. What has shaped what we think in the past and what will be the driver of thinking into the future. What are our values and how do we communicate them to our children?

    • margaret says:

      Take the test to confirm your stance.

  • Boxer says:

    Thank you Don for another interesting article and this is probably the only blog, of the few that I follow, where I always read the comments.

    The hated directed towards what Lee Iacocca described as “the stupidly rich” is understandable from the emotional perspective of a small tribal society. I think this is hostility is valid to some extent because an over inflated ego needs to be countered. Graveyards are full of indispensable people. However rich and materially successful people do play important roles in stimulating economic growth from which we all benefit. I don’t have the strength or determination to be one of those rich and powerful, but I have to recognise that I have been a beneficiary of their endeavours. They often pay a personal price too; I sometimes pity the offspring of these people.

    Left and right are very loose terms but they are useful shorthand for a complex spectrum. One of my friends almost becomes angry when he attacks the terms left and right as over-simplifications. But then he gets tangled up in complex definitions of a political position in relation to an issue. A simplification can help us maintain the flow of a conversation.

    An illustration of the political spectrum that I like describes the spectrum as a circle. At the top is a centrist position. Moving towards the left or the right takes us downwards to the 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions. If we move further down the circle towards 6 o’clock, both the left and right approach one another at a totalitarian position, where we meet up with Hitler, Mao, Stalin, Daesh and the Taliban. These extremists defy the left-right simplification.

    • Ross says:

      Boxer. Love the circular image. A beautiful visual depiction of the road to extremism from both sides of ‘the divide’.
      I’d never pictured that way. Obviously, there are many roads to the bottom, but the pure visual elegance of the ‘circular spectrum’ is superb.
      Just as an aside, does any one know of anyone who describes themselves as ‘centre’? (Central? Centrist?)

  • Ross says:

    Left wing, Drongo.
    At about 11 o’clock on the circular spectrum. Maybe 10.30? You may have another opinion.
    (Did I say I love this thing? Thanx again, Boxer!)

  • spangled drongo says:

    The lefty media is, sadly, not just confined to “our” ABC.

    Hillary’s unmentionables:

  • Neville says:

    I’m sure that most conservatives have a high regard for facts and not a lot of time for delusion and emotive nonsense. Here’s another example of the stupidity of the left and the refusal by our crazy media to highlight the problems of our future energy policies.

    The giant SunEdison solar company is about to go belly up. Over the last couple of years it has lost about 95% of it’s value.
    And yet Labor and the Greens parties would inflict more of this stupidity on OZ taxpayers. And of course have SFA impact on temp or climate by 2040 or 2100 or ??? Will they ever wake up?

  • Don Aitkin says:

    This is for Chris, but also for anyone else who is interested in the ‘science is settled’ question. When we talk about ‘climate sensitivity’ what is implied is feedback: an increase of something causes a further increase because the two are related. I came across an excellent discussion of this issue on WUWT. First a paper is put forward, arguing in a particular way. It is then heavily criticised — and defended. At the end I was less sure than I had been before I started. But I did come to a recognition that ‘feedback’ is a metaphor. Electrical engineers know what they mean by it. But what do climate scientists think ‘feedback’ is, and how it must work?

    It is a good example of how scientific argument should work.

  • Chris Warren says:

    Disputes about whether the “science is settled” are artificial because the question really should be what science has been settled.

    Here is one right-winger, in 2016, denying science;

    “beyond experiments undertaken by a chemist over 100 years ago – there is no real proof only unreliable computer simulation models.”

    We now have plenty of science establishing the different behaviors of gases according to different wavelengths.

    How else could the IPCC establish emission factors for different gases?

    The science is the absorption spectra of gases and the real proof, denied by a coterie, is in the results at fig. 6.3 here:

    These people just do not know how to use a library.

    If you Google “absorption spectra of greenhouse gases” you will see all the settled science you could want.

    It is settled science that GHGs absorb infra red and near infra red. It is settled science that after receiving visible radiation the earth emits consequential longwave radiation (IR, near IR).

    It is settled science that as CO2 concentration increases the amount of absorption increases.

    And it is settled science that the heat that once was reaching outer space is no longer getting there.

    GHG trapping of heat is settled science.

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