Free Life 17, January 1993, Sean Gabb Reviews A Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought

From Free Life, Issue 17, January 1993
ISSN: 0260 5112

A Dictionary of Conservative and Libertarian Thought
Nigel Ashford and Stephen Davies (eds)
Routledge, London, 1991, 304 pp., £40.00.
(ISBN 0 415 05125 8)

Every so often, another book appears, with the words "New Right" in its title. Almost invariably written by socialists, these books describe an alarming state of affairs. A New Rightist believes in a crude and often consciously sadistic ideology. He (there are few women in his movement, and these are as feminine as adding machines) believes in turning back all the social progress of the past three generations. Rent control, minimum wage laws, social security, medical treatment free at the point of use – each is to be abolished, and those who benefit from them are to be subjected to the full blast of market competition. Protest is to be muted by the creation of permanent mass unemployment. This process is described as "economic reform" or, more aggressively, as "a return to freedom".

How truly the New Rightist believes in freedom is shown by his utter disregard of civil rights. He wants to arm the Police, issue identity cards, simplify criminal justice, and use the resulting increase of State power to achieve his agenda of social, sexual, artistic and racial oppression.

All this, of course, is for the most part a caricature. It rests on a mass of bad economics – on the nature which I do not need here to elaborate – and on a sometimes ignorant, though more often dishonest, amalgamation of opposites. For the new right is not a single ideology. It is instead a coalition of ideologies. Each has its own intellectual ancestry and view of the world. Each has its own agenda, and the items on one agenda may easily be contradictory of those on another. Despite much overlap, there is only one feature common to all these ideologies – and that is a loathing, more or less severe, of socialism.

The value of this book is that it offers a true account of these ideologies, showing the reasons for their objections to socialism, and analysing their points of mutual agreement and disagreement. We can read here about the different varieties of conservatism, and about the profound and often bitter arguments that divide them from each other and from the liberals and libertarians. We can read how each ideology treats such issues as war and peace, technology, rights, progress, and democracy. In short, we have an informed guide to a movement which has set the old collectivist creeds on the defensive, and which has begun to influence the language, where not always the actions, of our political leaders.

It differs from ordinary dictionaries so far as each article is written by an eminent scholar in that particular subject. Thus, we have Anthony Flew – one of this country's best living philosophers, and its greatest living expert on David Hume – on Language, Race, Rules, and Scepticism. We have Stephen Davies, one of our leading younger historians, on The Enlightenment, History, and Ideology. We have Nigel Ashford, himself a systematising ideologue, on American Conservatism, Neo-Liberalism and Public Choice. There are further articles by Norman Barry, Christie Davies, Paul Helm, and five others. Every article is in itself a little dissertation, packed with information. It could stand quite easily alone. It could be quite easily expanded to book length.

This being said, however, the book must be considered as a whole; and, considered as a whole, it cannot be said entirely to succeed. Its purpose, according to the advertisement on the dust jacket is to fill

a major gap[,] to give academic, student and layperson alike a better understanding of the ideas which define the debates of today and shape the politics of tomorrow.

To be sure, it does this – but not in a very convenient manner. Let me imagine, for example, that I am a first year Politics undergraduate at the University of Peat Verge. I am told by one of my lecturers that Hayek was a fascist, and that the British Utilitarians were nothing but proto-Fabians. I turn to this book and look for Hayek. He has no separate entry; nor is there an index to tell me where he is discussed; nor if I should find him mentioned in one entry am I directed to another by any system of cross referencing. Either I must know something about him in the first place, or I must read the whole Dictionary, to find him discussed under the various headings of Austrian Economics, Conservative Theory, Justice, Liberalism, Socialism, and Heaven knows what else. The same applies for Utilitarianism and many other important or interesting issues. Everything is here. The problem is how to find it.

Even so, this book is the only one of its kind; and its individual parts are such a joy to read. I can only hope that it is successful in spite of its flaws, and that we shall soon be treated to a new and improved edition. Then the world really will be rid of the grotesque bogeyman put together by Levitas and Gamble and reproduced weekly in the socialist press.

Anthony Furlong (Sean Gabb)

© 1993 – 2015, seangabb.

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