‘Nations stumble upon establishments, which are indeed the result of human action,
but not the execution of any human design.’
Adam Ferguson, An Essay on the History of Civil Society (1767)

27 September 2009

Is Organic Toryism the ‘Bat’ of Politics?

It is difficult for an organic Tory not to become glum and despondent while reading newspaper accounts of political events, and assessing partisan commentators who dissect national and international politics. His allegiances are torn, his judgements conflicted. He must feel like the bat in Aesop’s fable of the ‘Battle between the Birds and the Beasts’.

From the media the organic Tory learns that the ‘left’ calls for continued and more generous government spending in areas of social policy, while the ‘right’ condemns most all State activity that touches upon the personal and the private, concluding with the refrain that ‘government is best which governs least.’ Similarly, in Aesop’s tale, Birds and Beasts come to blows, each warring faction entreating our friend the bat to join its side. But the bat, as a winged mammal, was at a loss: With which armed force was it to enlist? The indecision accounted for, in part, because the bat considered itself above the fray and aloof from the travails of the combatants, telling the Birds that he was instead a ‘beast’ and, to the Beasts, a ‘bird’. The bat, as it were, had ‘no dog (or crow, apparently) in this fight’.

(For even more anthropomorphic atmosphere, one can imagine that Birds—due to their vegetarian habits and mild disposition, perch upon the left in the wild kingdom, while Beasts—‘red in tooth and claw’—form upon the right. While not a perfect analogy, the bat is the misplaced omnivore in this slipshod analogy.)

The organic Tory, however, far from seeing himself untouched by the debates between left and right, is able to agree and disagree with the tenor of their arguments, assessed upon their strengths and not their ideological origins. Though by temperament he favours conservative attitudes, by being ‘organic’ he is amenable to the claims for evolution (though not revolution), improvements (less so innovations); ‘Tory’ serving as a shorthand for a traditionalist’s scepticism toward contemporary conservatism’s affinity for libertarianism. He listens to all the points made, for and against, and weighs them on their merits. He appreciates the benefits of State action and the virtues of individual liberty. His stance, rather, is one of moderation and compromise—the classic via media—adapting the better elements of each position and melding them into a complementary whole.

Well, not exactly—at least not if an organic Tory is to have a practical, principled programme to call his own, and not a pastiche of ideas cobbled together for the sake of ending antagonistic squabbles and not for a larger, more ennobling outcome. Policy wonks will often exclaim, usually proudly and by way of explication, that if liberals and conservatives equally excoriate their plans, then they must be doing something right ... err, correct. But for Aristotle, the aim of moderation was ‘the right course’, not the least common denominator nor a compromise that ‘all could live with’.

In the Nicomachean Ethics (London: Kegan Paul, 1893), Aristotle asserted that ‘the middle character is in all cases to be praised, but that we ought to incline sometimes toward excess, sometimes towards deficiency; for in this way we shall most easily hit the mean and attain to right doing (ii, 9).’

The objective was never the popular or the politically expedient, but always ‘right doing’.

And such should be the programme of an organic Tory, taking circumstances as he finds them, and calibrating between excess or deficiency as necessary; in this case, between liberalism and conservatism, respectively, in order to achieve the best humanly possible action available—with principle his North Star.

There may be times when the State should use its legislative and executive powers to set in motion events to help people achieve the common good, and others when individuals and civil society, more intimately connected with the issue at hand, can themselves solve their problems without the intervention of an external authority ‘removed’ by time and place.

Of course, Aristotle argued that ‘it is not all actions nor all passions that admit of moderation (ii, 6)’: Can a ‘little bit’ of murder be the right thing to do? What of theft? Of adultery? Politically speaking, there may be areas of private action where any role for the State is unwarranted and obtrusive; similarly, the State has its own legitimate sphere of activity where private involvement is wrong, such as in the establishment and execution of law and order.

All of Aesop’s fables end with a moral: For the bat, ostracised by both Birds and Beasts when peace was won, its lesson was that ‘He that is neither one thing nor the other has no friends.’ Is the organic Tory likewise so isolated? Unlike the bat, he feels himself very much invested in the outcome of events, seeking to contribute and to steer them toward a just and equitable politics. Aristotle well knew that the pursuit of the right course was never easy, since ‘on this account it is a hard thing to be good; for finding the middle or the mean in each case is a hard thing (ii, 9)’. Nevertheless, it was worth the effort.

Unlike the bat, the organic Tory must take sides and defend his understanding of the via media that will lead to the right course. Unlike the bat, the organic Tory must join in the fray and contribute to the harmony that is the aim of any politics of the common good.