December 21, 2010


Conservative Nation (James Piereson, October 2010, National Interest)

AMERICAN CONSERVATISM began decades ago as a movement of ideas and, notwithstanding its current popular appeal, has managed to maintain its original character. Thus David Brooks has observed that conservatives differ from other political sets in their apparent preoccupation with books, ideas and a handful of influential authors. One rarely hears of liberal groups discussing major works written by the intellectual architects of the welfare state, such as John Dewey, Herbert Croly or John Rawls, or sponsoring programs in honor of leading figures like John Maynard Keynes or John Kenneth Galbraith. One would be hard-pressed to identify an influential book or essay that sets forth the principles of contemporary liberalism as they relate to feminism, multiculturalism, diversity or economic planning. Conservative groups, on the other hand, regularly pay tribute in their programs to the founding fathers of conservative thought; the American Enterprise Institute sponsors an annual Irving Kristol Lecture, and the Manhattan Institute awards an annual Hayek Book Prize.

The texts that energize conservatives are not difficult to identify. The most influential of these publications are: (1) The Road to Serfdom, published by F. A. Hayek in London and in the United States in 1944, which developed the enduring case for classical liberalism; (2) Witness, published by Whittaker Chambers in 1952, and The Conservative Mind, by Russell Kirk in 1953, which provoked a renewal of Burkean conservatism, which in turn led to the founding in 1954 of National Review by William F. Buckley Jr.; and (3) the Public Interest, a quarterly journal founded in 1965 by Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell which was the original forum for neoconservatism, a set of ideas that quickly found expression in other influential venues, such as Commentary magazine and the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.

To a great extent, conservative thought evolved in the postwar period as these writers responded to developing events and also to one another. Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom during the war in response to the gathering momentum of socialism in Great Britain. His antidote was the recovery of the Whig tradition of classical liberalism, out of which the institutions of liberty and limited government first arose in Britain and America. Though Hayek claimed to be a liberal in the old sense, he was also a conservative in the American context because he sought to preserve the Founders’ Constitution of liberty. As a consequence, Hayek developed a far larger and more influential following in the United States than he was able to muster on the other side of the Atlantic.

The traditional conservatives, led by Buckley, Kirk and Chambers, found this approach too narrow and inadequate for the challenges posed by Communism and the Soviet Union. The Cold War, they argued, was not solely about preserving liberty but also about the conservation of the religious and moral tradition of the West. Because of their efforts, the postwar challenge to socialism was framed in terms of “conservatism” rather than in terms of Hayek’s vision of liberty and individualism.

The neoconservatives, for their part, developed their own synthesis in response to the unraveling of the American welfare state in the 1960s and a parallel rise in anti-American sentiment. From their point of view, the problem with the expanding social safety net was not that it threatened liberty but that it increasingly promoted disorder, crime, broken or unformed families, poor schools and a general loss of authority in society. The problem, in other words, was not that it led to collectivism but that it undermined the middle-class values upon which a successful commercial civilization must be based. Unlike the classical liberals and traditional conservatives, the neoconservatives were not in principle opposed to the welfare state but only to a liberal welfare state that did not uphold the ideals of family, order and community.

All of these writers were conservatives in one or another fundamental sense. An essential aspect of conservatism is the conviction that liberal institutions cannot prosper or even survive on the basis of their own internal resources; they will consume themselves by pushing one or another of their themes—freedom, equality or democracy—to a point of no return. According to the Whig tradition of liberty, republics follow a cycle of rise and inevitable decline as the people or their leaders gradually sacrifice their principles in the pursuit of money, security or power. Conservatives, most of whom respect this tradition of thought, are thus skeptical of liberal notions of inevitable historical progress that do not take into account the ever-present possibilities of corruption and decline. This is one of the key reasons conservatives have always looked for external supports for representative institutions, whether innationalism and patriotism, religion, family and community, or the various “little platoons” of society, as Edmund Burke called them, which provide direction and discipline for liberty and self-interest. Conservatives thus oppose liberal reforms and the further advance of the welfare state because they fear that these developments will erode those private associations and loyalties which sustain and support representative institutions.

As a consequence of this, conservatives look to authors and statesmen like Alexis de Tocqueville, James Madison, Joseph Schumpeter and, of course, Burke as important sources for their ideas. It was Tocqueville who wrote that American democracy needed to maintain an appreciation of aristocratic excellence to prevent the passion for equality from overwhelming liberty. Schumpeter, fellow Austrian to Hayek, argued that capitalism needed support from precapitalist institutions like the family and church to uphold the moral values that allowed it to thrive. Even James Madison, who hoped that the Constitution contained sufficient internal protections to maintain itself, acknowledged that an element of virtue in the public was necessary to the success of the republican experiment. The seminal conservative thinkers of our era are generally agreed on this larger point, though they have identified these external supports in different areas—Hayek in the founders’ Constitution, Buckley and his colleagues in religion, family and tradition, and Kristol and the neoconservatives in bourgeois virtues and patriotism.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at December 21, 2010 6:13 AM
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