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Old Toryism: We hardly knew ye

By Daniel M. Ryan
web posted July 13, 2009

When coming across the term "Old Tory," many people assume that it refers to the American Old Right: un-theoretical libertarians with a fondness for face-value interpretations of the U.S. Constitution. If not specifically American, then people with similar beliefs. Someone who would conclude that John Ruskin's pronouncement, "I am a Tory of the sternest sort, a socialist, a communist", was a mere Wilde-esque witticism. Mr. Ruskin, however, meant it.  

He's somewhat representative of the old Tories that I'm referring to: European, which for English-speaking culture means "British." Tories of this sort are, to a man, Hobbesian. Hobbes' line of reasoning, which starts with the premise that all men seek glory for themselves and ends with the need for Leviathan to face down chaos, is rooted somewhere in their thought. Someone who believes that all men are glory hounds is not going to take a Lockean (or any) argument at face value. Instead, he (or she) will cast it to mean something else. For a High Tory of this sort, Lockeanism amounts to the industrious peasant trying to get his way at the expense of others. Some of those others are grandees, but the "others" category also includes less economically ambitious commonfolk. A European Tory can't shake the suspicion that minimal-government advocates secretly delight in showing up their more easygoing equals. The more conventional kind of liberal tends to be pegged as a social climber, as the stereotypical dung-booted peasant who deludes himself into thinking he and his cohorts – he and his friends, that is - can run the show by themselves.

Given this mindset, it shouldn't be that shocking to see said Tories looking kindly upon non-revolutionary socialists. When seen through an old-Tory lens, the "good" kind of socialism consists of demands for one's customary rights in a changing economy: restoration of customary claims that have been ravaged by progress. If faced with the term "reactionary," this kind of Tory would merely reply: "so you concede that it was you and your kind that aggrieved first."

Being possessed with the suspicion that economic progress calls forth vainglory, an old Tory would not be surprised at the recent financial debacle. He would agree with the people who say that the cause of it was too much economic freedom. Armed with the belief that business is disreputable, he would aver that the "right people" would have nothing to do with financiering anyway. Case in point: a long-passed-away British baronet with the charming name of Sir Nathaniel Nathan. In a book he wrote, Economic Heresies (1909), he noted to the effect that financiers are nervous men who would be more comfortable in cheap suits.

In terms of policy, an old Tory of the European sort would have certain recommendations in common with modern-day liberals. It's a well-known fact that the founder of the social-security state was Count Bismarck. Not so well known is his justification of it as an extension of Junker's noblesse oblige into the modern age. As parliamentarian, he got behind it to euchre out the socialists. As a noble, he saw passing it as his duty to protect the peasants from economic uncertainty.

English Tories were quick to advocate interventionist measures, including mercantilist ones. It's a matter of historical record that the behind-the-scenes forces behind early U.K. worker-protection laws were English bluebloods. Many of those interventions were justified as being for the greater good of country and countryfolk, or as part of one's duty to Christ, but their militarist bent suggests that they saw free trade and economically permissive government as signaling national weakness. They were the type of people who interpreted "serve the consumer" as "Come on in, and walk all over us while you buy something!" It's a short step from here to the opinion that deregulation is a euphemism for "weakening governments." Put 'em together, and you have someone who secretly believes that libertarianism is the thinly-disguised desire to walk all over the men of State…and that a libertarian is a poacher at heart. It seems almost a certainty that they would applaud what they'd consider a long-overdue crackdown on unruly financiers.

Environmentalism? Well, they'd be for it…as a way for the State to clamp down on the arrogance of man and on covert poachers. A tax-and-spend government? What better way to keep the peasants happy while punishing rascals with a thinly-disguised desire to cheat the government? Cap and trade? They'd support it, but with regrets over the need to sugar the unruly by using "market forces."

The more the mindset of the European Old Tory is explored, the more one suspects that they wouldn't be very welcome at the next Republican convention. It all follows from the Hobbesian perspective, with a "manly" disdain for trade added.

Of course, there's one element that's not often discussed now. To a man, they were all antidemocrats at heart. What else would you expect from people who deeply believe that all men have one prime desire: to win glory and shine in society? In the area of statecraft, there's only one way to do so in a democracy: get the votes, perhaps by any means necessary. To a Tory of this sort, democracy itself is a race to the bottom – a bottom inhabited by silver-tongued weaklings, wastrels and rascals. To the Hobbesian sort, all of the above opinions cohere.

To quote the young Pierre E. Trudeau, from a somewhat different context: "Think that over before you cast your vote!" ESR

Daniel M. Ryan blogs these days about low P/E stocks.


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