Burke’s Right Minds is a project exploring and promoting viewpoints within the conservative intellectual sphere, jointly run byThe Burkean and the Edmund Burke Institute. This essay has been written by Paddy Manning.
I am a Conservatarian
Being gay made me a libertarian, being a child of the 20th Century made me a conservative. I came of age, gay, in an Ireland that that criminalised sexual contact between men. Dirty, disgusting sodomy was not just a criminal offence, to ‘importune’ a man for such activity was as criminal. The state believed it had the right and the power to make me moral, to make me straight. Every fibre of my being screamed otherwise, that as a human I had the right to be who I was, to choose for myself.
The State’s attempt to terrorise me into chastity or heterosexuality had the effect of making me doubt that the state had any rights over me. If it was wrong of the state to decide whom I slept with then was it not wrong for the state to decide whom I paid, whom I lived beside, what I ate, drank, injected, said or thought? Why could the state’s possession of force justify its rule over my life?
I struggled with these notions in the absence of ideas or philosophy. I had left school at 16 and Ireland was (is still) not a place where ideas are easy to come by. Involvement in party politics did not help. Party politics is not about ideas but about process. A political party does not care about the relationship between the citizen and the state but how the citizen can be persuaded to vote for the party by promises to manipulate the state. The better I got at process, at canvassing and training canvassers, at helping candidates present themselves, the worse I got at thinking.
In Fine Gael I was an outsider in a party which worships the power of the state like a eunuch fetishizing sex. I had my own reasons for doubting Fine Gael’s sacred cows. Memories of my arrest, under the Victorian 1867 Offences Against The Persons Act, late at night, by a burly Garda, in a sting operation, left me with a horror of moral police, an insight into the corruption of the Stasi mentality and a profound doubt as to the effectiveness of law as a tool to govern personal lives.
I was a libertarian without knowing the word but I had a problem with my nascent beliefs. The 20th century is the story of break down, of the rise of appalling totalitarian states that in which everything good, decent, protective that civil society had created collapsed and was immolated. Millions suffered and died in gruesome misery.
I read Solzhenitsyn’s ‘Gulag Archipelago,’ Levi’s ‘The Drowned and the Saved,’ ‘If This is a Man’ and ‘The Periodic Table.’ Those were history, but in Northern Ireland men broke the legs of a young father and strapped him in a v
an with a bomb telling him they would kill his children if he didn’t run that suicide mission. Man was unaccountably, polymorphously evil, and I had no answer as to whether we could be free and not fall prey to our darkest urges. How were we to be protected from the savages, from our own savagery?
I was lucky to meet a man whose irritating certainty in the correctness of his conservative and free market convictions aroused my contrarian instinct to argue with him. I couldn’t win an argument with Michael Dwyer and never have, but he became my best friend and opened a world of ideas and thinkers, including Edmund Burke. Burke laid a basis for conservative thought that sees society, civilisation, as an inheritance from the dead to be passed to the yet unborn, drawn from his horror at the French Revolution.
If Michael helped shape my beliefs so too did the Great Irish Crash direct both of our thinking. For me the personal disaster and failure were harrowing and ruinous. I needed to understand how so many got it so wrong. Capitalism had failed to die despite the constant, confident predictions of the Marxists and the mainstream Keynesians seemed to be the problem but there were economists who had a coherent explanation for credit bubbles and cyclical economic crashes.
Mises, Hayak, Rothbard and other Au
strian Economists had written cogent explanations of the virtues of the free market and the effect of low interest rates and economic bubbles long before the Great Irish Crash. Better again their views on the state either tended towards, or were fully fledged libertarian and many of the living writers were concerned with integrating their free-market economics with their Catholicism, a faith I had returned to after a 25 year wander in the atheism wilderness.
When David Cameron made his Conservatives for Same Sex Marriage speech in 2012 I had become concerned at the lack of debate for a change that was being forcefully pushed internationally. No good idea requires silencing, censorship and name calling to succeed and changes to something as fundamental, evolved and central as marriage required real debate. By the time proposal became an issue here I was opposed to the idea.
The only way I was going to be allowed take part in the national debate was if I talked of my own life, using identity politics to fight identity politicking. The experience of the Marriage Referendum, the thuggery, bullying, death threats and attempts to silence opposition convinced me that if social conservatism was to matter it would have to be stubborn, unapologetic and unashamed of its positions.
As a conservative I believe we need evolved institutions and cultures to form human society and mediate between us and the worst of ourselves, as a libertarian I believe those institutions and cultures should be voluntary. If I have no right to use force to bend others to my will, then neither have others the right to use force on me for their ends. I am utterly optimistic that free we can create mutual prosperity but profoundly pessimistic that a changed or designed society will be better than our imperfect present.
I am a conservative libertarian, a conservatarian.