Are There Any Tories On Tory Hill?

fairlie3In a few months, the Marquette University Law School community will pack up and move to its new building, located on Tory Hill.  Perhaps this is a good time to consider whether any actual “Tories” will reside there.  This is doubtful, because American political thought does not have a history of embracing the Tory philosophy.  Nonetheless, in today’s political climate, we all might benefit from hearing an occasional Tory point of view.    

The Republican Party in America currently stands at a crossroads.  There has been a great deal of debate within the political punditry concerning whether the Tea Party movement is a positive or a negative development for the Republican Party.  Some observers have noted the friction between the rage being expressed by Tea Party activists at the government bailout of the financial markets and at the expansion of government regulation of the health care sector, on the one hand, and the more business and government friendly track record of establishment Republican officials on the other.  This friction was most evident last month, when conservative activists rejected the establishment candidate put forth by party leaders for the 23rd Congressional District in New York, split the Republican vote, and delivered the seat to a Democrat.   

Similarly, Sarah Palin’s book tour has engendered speculation about her future political plans.  Some have applauded her anti-Washington and anti-big government philosophy as reflective of the public‘s current attitudes.  In the wake of the Administration of President George W. Bush, who spoke like a “States’ Rights” Texas governor while simultaneously expanding the federal government in the name of education and national security, many conservatives look to the former Alaska governor as someone who might actually govern in accord with a political philosophy that promotes decentralized government.  However, other observers have questioned whether Sarah Palin’s appeal extends beyond regional and rural areas of the country.

Democrats have their own problems.  The liberal wing of the Democratic Party finds fault with much of what President Obama does (a troop surge in Afghanistan) and doesn’t do (end “Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell,” close Guantanamo Bay sooner).  Meanwhile, centrist Democrats struggle to find a recipe for health care reform that is neither too big nor too ineffective.  It is as if the Democrats, now in possession of the federal government, cannot decide what to do with it.    

My previous blog posts have often reflected a preoccupation with the role of federal power in our constitutional system.  Previous posts have sought to track the manner in which the debate between centralized federal power versus states rights has persisted and evolved throughout our nation’s history, and to offer a defense of a strong federal government as both faithful to the original intent of the Constitution and as vital to maintain our country’s economic and military security.  In this regard, I have tried to do my part to participate in a debate of ideas that is as timely today as it was in 1789.

What is noticeably missing from this ongoing debate is the expression of a Tory point of view.  Only a Tory can claim both to be culturally conservative and to love big government.  This combination of viewpoints, so alien to our modern ears, is unsurprising given that the Tory philosophy was born in England as a defense of the monarchy against republican reformers.  In the United States, we associate Tories with the Loyalists who supported King George, many of whom moved with their families to Canada after the Revolution.  If we remember American Tories at all, it is as aristocrats and persons of privilege who sought to maintain their elite positions within the status quo.

 However, Tories have a distinctive political philosophy.  As the historian Gordon S. Wood noted in his book The Radicalism of the American Revolution (1991), prior to the American Revolution “all government was regarded essentially as the enlisting and mobilizing of the power of private persons to carry out public ends” (p. 82).  True Tories embrace this view to this day, and in Great Britain they esteem the monarchy as a symbol of government power conjoined with a public purpose.  Tories recognize that the great accomplishment of representative democracy in America is to reverse the direction of this flow of power, in order to make government serve the ends of private persons.  However, Tories fear that the benefits of this change in the flow of power are derived at the expense of the common good.

While American conservatism has some of its roots in the Tory movement, it has evolved over the years in a way that glorifies private initiative and that diminishes the value of government.  George Will, who occasionally claims Tory sympathies, once noted disapprovingly that American conservatism “tends complacently to define the public good as whatever results from the unfettered pursuit of private ends.  Hence it tends to treat lasisez-faire economic theory as a substitute for political philosophy and to discount the importance of government.” (George Will, The Morning After (1986)).

 Undoubtedly, the most notable Tory voice in modern American life was the journalist Henry Fairlie (indeed, he may have been the only Tory voice in modern American life).  Over a career that included a column in the Times of London in the 1950s as well as stops at the Washington Post and The New Republic, Fairlie established himself as a unique observer of both British and American politics.  He passed away in 1990.  A collection of his essays, entitled Bite The Hand That Feeds You, was published earlier this year.          

Here is Henry Fairlie’s description of a Tory, from his 1976 essay “In Defense of Big Government”:

 The characteristics of the Tory, which separate him from the conservative, may briefly be summarized: 1) his almost passionate belief in strong central government, which has of course always been the symbolic importance to him of the monarchy; 2) his detestation of ‘capitalism,’ of what Cardinal Newman and T.S. Eliot called ‘ursury,’ of what he himself calls ‘trade’; and 3) his trust in the ultimate good sense of the People, whom he capitalizes in this way, because the People are a real entity to him, beyond social and economic divisions, and whom he believes can be appealed to and relied on, as the final repository of decency in a free nation.  The King and The People, against the barons and the capitalists, is the motto of the Tory.

(Bite The Hand That Feds You, p. 127-128). 

In general, Fairlie’s distrust of unfettered capitalism seems to anticipate the disgust with Wall Street that motivates the Tea Party movement, but this leads him to the conclusion that more government, not less, is necessary.  He wrote, “When the private power — of the barons, of the corporations — is necessarily as great as it is in modern society, it can be checked only by a dynamic assertion of public power” (p. 134).

Fairlie’s writings also identify a strong moral imperative behind big government.  He understands the desire of private citizens to be left alone by their government, but he equates that desire with selfishness.  His essay evokes “the child of ‘affluence,’ cunningly saying that all he wants is to be left alone to ‘do his own thing,’ and he will leave others alone to do ‘their own things,’ which of course means that he will leave them alone to be poor, to be uneducated, perhaps even to starve” (p. 133).     

It would be interesting to hear Fairlie’s views on Health Care Reform, or the Financial Bailout, or (one smiles in anticipation) Sarah Palin.  Not necessarily because he would be correct, but rather because he would be true to his own instincts and beliefs instead of hewing to some established “party line.”

Henry Fairlie refused to allow himself to be boxed into any formal ideology.  He doesn’t fit into our neat boxes of liberal or conservative.  When he was alive, his column reminded us that there is little in our messy world that fits neatly into the ideological boxes that we construct to hold our reality.  Our nation’s typical left/right dichotomy is as confining as it is predictable.  Ultimately, Fairlie’s peculiar vision of Toryism may only have had himself for an adherent, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Fairlie is also memorable for other reasons.  He firmly believed in the indomitable American spirit.  He believed that the greatest quality of Americans was their genuine desire to help those less fortunate than themselves.  Fairlie was also the declared enemy of the smug, the self-satisfied, and of those who think that they have all of the answers.  He opposed such people even when the result was to bite the hand that fed him.  If someone were searching for a personal philosophy, they could do worse than to start with these elements.

 As we prepare to move into the new Law School building, take a moment to consider this particular Tory.  Henry Fairlie was, above all, an individual thinker.  We should all aspire to think for ourselves, no matter where that leads us.  There will be plenty of room for liberals and neo-conservatives, progressives and Tea Party members – and, yes, even Tories– on Tory Hill.

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