In 1964, Barry Goldwater addressed the Republican National Convention with a famous speech that argued “extremism in defense of liberty [was] no vice” and “moderation in pursuit of justice [was] no virtue.” Few understood him as making a prediction about the future of right-wing thinking and politics across the English-speaking world. Yet that speech foreboded perfectly the revolutionary zeal that has since spread through conservatism on both sides of the Atlantic, and which appears to have reached its apotheosis with the Brexit vote and Donald Trump’s election.
Today, ideas for a radical disruption to the existing political and economic system abound within the political Right in the United States and Britain. Some U.S. Republicans have argued for a return to the gold standard. In the United Kingdom, the Tories have accepted the idea that it is desirable to undo 40 years of economic and political integration with the European continent. Meanwhile, the former chief strategist to the President of the United States stated that his ambition was to “deconstruct the administrative state.”
Of course, the political Left has more than its fair share of eccentric ideas, including its veneration for tyrants of the world and murderous utopias, or its efforts to destroy the system underpinning global trade. What makes right-wing radicalism stand out is not so much whether it is right or wrong, but rather the fact that it sits ill with central tenets of conservatism, which as its name suggests, is keen on conserving things, especially those that work.
For Michael Oakeshott, change is something that “[has] to be suffered.” “[A man of conservative temperament],” he writes, “prefers small and limited innovations to large and indefinite.” A conservative, Oakeshott adds, “is unadventurous; he has no impulse to sail uncharted seas; for him there is no magic in being lost, bewildered, or shipwrecked. If forced to navigate the unknown, he sees virtue in heaving the lead every inch of the way. What others plausibly identify as timidity, he recognizes in himself as rational prudence.”
To be sure, even in such a version of conservatism, there is time and space for Goldwater’s uncompromising spirit. In the face of evil and injustice—totalitarian ideologies, slavery, or apartheid—there is no place for timidity, compromise, or equivocation.
Critical junctures of history, too, favor decisive action. When communism collapsed in Central and Eastern Europe, reformers had to move fast and be ruthless in order to create conditions for democracy and markets to take root, and to avoid the trap of incomplete, dysfunctional transitions followed by Russia or Ukraine. It is easy to understand why the Winter of Discontent in the United Kingdom created a sense of urgency for reforms of the “Thatcher Revolution”—although Margaret Thatcher’s reforms were deeply connected to the UK’s membership in the European Economic Community. Similarly, when it came to regulatory policy, there was more continuity between the Carter Administration and the “Reagan Revolution” than typically meets the eye.
However that may be, Western liberal democracies are not characterized by a persistence of unadulterated evil, nor are they permanently standing at a decisive crossroads of history, as Poland did in the autumn of 1989.
If our societies face numerous social ills, they tend to be chronic and complex. Real incomes across the West are growing at a sluggish rate. The UK in particular has seen a disappointing real wage stagnation, driven in part by growing costs of living. Children from poor backgrounds only have access to worse schools, greatly limiting their prospects in life. In the United States, there is a dramatic economic, social, and health crisis among men. Women, in turn, are often confronted with bigotry and discrimination at their workplaces. Race relations in America remain difficult, and European countries are struggling with the integration of immigrants from Muslim-majority countries.
Reasonable people of good faith will disagree about how such ills should be diagnosed and treated. That is hardly a surprise given the complexity of human societies and the proclivity of even the best thought-through policies to engender unintended consequences. That alone should make conservatives wary of sweeping changes to policies and institutions and make them more attuned to small, local, and evidence-based interventions.
But there is more. For all the problems of the West, we are also living in the best of times: a time of historically low rates of poverty and violence, and an era of unprecedented prosperity. Again, that gives little credence to some conservatives’ attempts to smash the system or to follow the logic of Flight 93. Instead, any attempts to modify existing arrangements, whether domestic or international, have to start from the recognition of what a marvelous achievement the post-World War II world has been for Western societies.
Radicalism, on the Left and Right, rarely proceeds by weighing costs and benefits of policies, or by articulating strategies that are meant to produce desired outcomes. A repeal of Obamacare in itself will do nothing to improve the quality of healthcare in the United States, nor reduce its cost. A “no-deal” Brexit is bound to disrupt trade and economic activity and alienate Britain’s friends on the continent. Declaring NATO “obsolete” is not going to induce America’s allies into taking their defense obligations seriously.
Radicalism instead requires making leaps of faith, and often making impossible promises to mobilize the masses. But that sets in motion a dynamic that inevitably appears in the context of revolutions driven by utopian ideologies. Once the impossibility of promises made becomes apparent, a search for saboteurs and traitors gets underway in order to identify those responsible for derailing the will of the people from being translated into effective policy. At some point, shifting the blame around becomes unsustainable. The revolutionary edifice collapses and is replaced by reactionary backlash.
Both Brexit and the Trump presidency have already moved far down the path of impossible promises. To any fair-minded observer, it should be evident by now that real economic trade-offs are involved in leaving the European Union, that a “no-deal” or “hard” Brexit would cause real disruption to existing business chains, and that the UK on its own is unlikely to strike significant trade liberalization agreements to make up for those losses. For some, Brexit might be still the right choice, perhaps because of sovereignty considerations. But as recent polling indicates, there are many who will sooner or later discover that they were sold a fantasy by the Leave campaign. The same logic applies to Mr. Trump’s promise to “make America great again” by “renegotiating” or leaving NAFTA and building a wall on the United States’ border with Mexico.
Given young people’s generally reserved attitudes towards conservatism, radicalism is bound to make the conservative label and ideas of conservatism and classical liberalism toxic for at least a generation. British Tories and U.S. Republicans already do poorly among young people. Doubling down on the most retrograde ideas, including anti-immigration rhetoric and economic nostalgia coupled with a revolutionary zeal, is helping drive the youngest generation of voters into the hands of an increasingly regressive political Left.
Conservative caution and humility has to cut both ways. If many on the political Right are trying to smash the existing order without regard for consequences, there are also many—myself included, on occasion—who are tempted to deepen and extend the open society in ways that risk producing a political backlash.
For instance, most economists agree that a freer immigration regime would not only increase economic welfare but would do so on a magnitude far exceeding the effects of any other policy intervention. If humankind eliminated barriers to migration, global GDP could double. There are also sizeable—albeit much smaller—gains from reducing regulatory barriers to trade, through trade agreements, harmonization, mutual recognition, or other forms of regulatory cooperation.
However, there are political flipsides to both freer immigration and deeper economic integration. Whether driven by xenophobia or other reasons, many voters do not want to see dramatic changes in the ethnic composition of their societies. For others, trade agreements and other forms of economic integration remove decision-making authority over important, politically charged decisions, away from elected representatives towards opaque international authorities.
Intellectuals and political leaders still have the responsibility to make the case for more open immigration and trade regimes if their social benefits outweigh the costs. However, there is a difference between carefully building support for that case and taking such support for granted, while dismissing dissenters as bigots and protectionists. The experience of the past decade shows that particularly in environments of zero-sum politics—which are usually associated with periods of sluggish or absent economic growth—utmost care needs to be exercised in making decisions that can be seen, albeit wrongly, as benefitting foreigners at the expense of “our people.”
In themselves, prudence, humility, and moderation are hardly winning political messages. But in a world of complexity and unintended consequences, they are necessary components of any honest right-of-center politics. Let us remember it when the time comes to rebuild on the ashes of the current conservative radicalism.