Left: William F. Buckley Jr., Right: Milton Friedman
The following meditation concerns the meaning of American conservatism on the level of its core animating ideas, with a particular bent toward their constructive possibilities. In the course of its engagement with some of the major philosophical sources of Anglo-American conservative thought, it attempts to articulate a prospectus for what conservatism’s self-understanding and vocation could be in the future.
In forwarding this enterprise I take on three bedrock commitments. First, I agree with Russell Kirk and Corey Robin that, for all its adaptability and the wide range of diverse views that consider themselves “conservative,” there is a coherent tradition of conservative thought, beginning with Edmund Burke, that persists through its various historical iterations. Second, I treat conservatism with the spirit of critical reverence that is owed to any great tradition. Like other lineages that wed high reflection with concern for the political issues of the day, its history is fraught and complicated, marked by moments of great insight as well as tactical and moral failures. If, therefore, conservatism is to evolve so as to remain essential to the issues of our day, it must see the revision of its parameters and the redemption of its heritage as part of the same task. Third, I believe that a future cast of conservative imagination, redeemed through reconstruction, could serve as a productive and even indispensable viewpoint within the greater ecosystem of American democracy.
As already intimated, historically speaking the conservative mind is vast and variegated, and unsurprisingly it means different things to different people. Moreover, the constructive ambition of this paper implies that its philosophical bent can and ought to change for the better—albeit in a way that redeems the best of its own heritage. But we have to start somewhere, and I propose beginning with its most recent iteration as a coherent movement: the conservative renaissance in the decades after World War II. While recent conditions have begun to obscure this consensus, it remains the basic framework for many self-conscious conservatives and still captures a wide range of conservative intuition.
According to George Nash, the conservative movement that emerged in the post-war decades was built out of three main pillars: traditionalism, free-market libertarianism, and anti-communism. All three set themselves in opposition to the spectre of “liberalism,” albeit for different reasons. The traditionalist wing came out of the work of Russell Kirk, whose book The Conservative Mind gave credence to the idea of a continuous and intellectually formidable conservative tradition going back to Edmund Burke. For Kirk and like-minded conservatives, the true spirit of conservatism centers around minimal deviation, prudent statesmanship, and the preservation of the institutions, customs and wisdom traditions which are necessary for an ordered and virtuous society. They saw the catastrophes of the world wars as indicative of worsening moral anomie and rootlessness, further exacerbated by the secular creed of “liberalism.”
The free-market libertarian wing had precursors in conservative opposition to the New Deal in the 1930s, but became more articulate in the postwar period. Taking inspiration from the work of Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman, this camp defended free market economics against central planning and socialism. It emphasized the fragility of free society, the limits of government regulation, and the dangers of government expansion, extolling freedom as the highest political value. And while Hayek and Friedman considered themselves old-school liberals of the 19th century sort, the proponents of free-market libertarianism (as well as American liberals themselves) came to view “liberalism” as synonymous with the bureaucratic welfare state exemplified by the New Deal. For these libertarians, this sort of liberalism posed a threat to the promise of freedom.
Even at the time, conservatives were aware that the contrasting preferences of the traditionalist and free-market wings made for a tenuous unity, and this tension naturally gave rise to the “freedom-virtue debate.” This is where the introduction of “a militant, evangelistic anti-Communism” played a crucial role, for it identified in the Soviet Union a common enemy that both the traditionalist and the libertarians could stand against. As Nash points out, the “Soviet Union, the mortal foe of liberty and virtue, of freedom and faith—was a crucial, unifying cement for the nascent conservative movement.” And like the traditionalists and libertarians, the anti-communist perspective saw “liberalism” as an insufficient defense against communism and in turn part of the dubious left.
With this adhesive at hand, the three elements of the conservative movement were effectively synthesized in the work of William F. Buckley Jr., and eventually canonized in the conservative imagination by Reagan’s presidency. Even decades later in our own day, when the threat of communism has waned considerably and anti-communism no longer plays the unificatory role that it initially did, the unique imprint of these three elements persists, most acutely in the conservative aversion to anything considered “socialist.” If deemed “socialist,” a proposal is denounced as antithetical to both the American tradition and the preservation of a free society.
Moving forward, I assume this rough collection of ideas to be representative of American conservatism in our day. This no doubt raises questions about the exclusion of the Christian Right, whose particular social conservatism, evangelicalism, and Christian nationalism have defined much of the conservative agenda and image. I omit focused consideration of the Christian Right for a couple of reasons. The first has to do with my general ignorance of the subject-matter, as I am only cursorily acquainted with its history and theology and would be better off deferring to others on the matter. Second, from the little that I have gathered about it, I see little that would be amenable to the reconstructive enterprise I have in mind. Third, and most importantly, my guiding intuition is that the future of conservatism will depend on its ability to address the problems of the day without circumscribing its vocation around the rather narrow moral agenda that the Christian Right has put forward. This is not to say that conservatism should become anti-religious; on the contrary, latent in the very best of conservative thought is an essentially religious element. But we must find a way of establishing this religious element upon a more capacious set of premises that reflect the spirit of the upcoming generations and the future of American democracy. It is for this latent, and largely unconscious, conservative possibility that I offer this preliminary mediation.
II. Conservatism’s Philosophical Thread of Continuity
Faced with the amalgam of ideas that came to define conservatism in the postwar period, it is difficult to discern a philosophical thread of continuity beyond a concerted aversion to “liberalism.” But even here the issue remains ambiguous. Liberalism meant existential uprootedness and moral anomie to the traditionalist, whereas it meant central planning and the continuation of the New Deal to free-market libertarians. Was their coming together more a matter of political expediency than a genuine synthesis of ideas rooted in a common origin—and thus merely a necessary alliance against the foe of communism? Is their cohabitation in the conservative mind at best an array of unrelated intuitions or, at worst, a tension between contradictory convictions that render psychic dissonance inevitable? To get an initial grip on this dilemma, let us begin by considering Buckley’s characterization of the problem posed by “Liberalism:”
Our most serious challenge is to restore principles—the right principles; the principles Liberalism has abused, forsaken, and replaced with “principles” that have merely a methodological content—our challenge is to restore principles to public affairs…I mentioned in the opening pages of this book that what was once a healthy American pragmatism has deteriorated into a wayward relativism.
Buckley’s point about the loss of principles and the rise of relativism echoes one of Kirk’s core arguments: that a combination of secularism, naturalism, egalitarian levelling, and experimentalist reform—all of which are most thoroughly crystallized in Dewey’s pragmatism—has undermined the moral fabric of society. Uprooted from the wisdom traditions of the past, our conceited belief in our own reason and virtue has reinforced the idea that we can do away with the teachings of tradition and remake the world according to our own impulses. We deny the predominance of transcendent principles and reduce governance to a techno-democratic “method” that somehow retains within itself self-corrective mechanisms of improvement.
In opposition to these maladies, the Burkean conservative is called to defend the prudent application of principles that have stood the test of time; to conserve a living link to the traditions that have helped make society possible; and to offer a sober reminder of human fallibility—especially when left to navigate the world with only the paltry guidance of individual reason and desire. His is an organic society held together by a partnership committed to the transgenerational tasks of civilization—inclusive of all manner of scientific, artistic, and moral flourishing—“not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” Meaningful progress towards these ends takes time, for it must develop organically within the manifold layers of a complex society. “Every sort of moral, every sort of civil, every sort of politic institution, aiding in the rational and natural ties that connect the human understanding and affections to the divine, are not more than necessary, in order to build up that wonderful structure; Man.” Hasty reform and attempts to level society according to the designs of abstractions misunderstand the organic nature of this development and overestimate the intelligence of the individual or even the present generation, and may very well lead to more harm than good. To be a conservative is to attribute primacy to great lengths of time over the capricious desires of the present, to the permanent things as opposed to the whims and designs of the hour. Wary of the ambition and short-sightedness of the spirit of innovation, conservatism stakes its faith in the wisdom of the species, as instantiated in the living traditions and customs bequeathed to us from the past.
Where do the free-market libertarians, with their faith in the productive power of free enterprise and fundamental appeal to the freedom of the individual, fit into this mix? Do they fit together coherently, and if so, what is the thread they share? At a first pass, one might propose that the traditionalist and the libertarian share an opposition to large concentrations of government power. Traditionalists would oppose large government on the grounds that it could usurp the functions of extragovernmental institutions, which preserve traditions and mores while mediating the complex forces of social life. Libertarians would oppose it because of its inherent tendency to limit free enterprise and overregulate our lives. Anti-communists would agree on both fronts.
But while both of these positions have precedent in the conservative lineage, and have resonated strongly since Reagan’s denouncement of government as the problem and not the solution, the matter is too contingent to provide a solid unificatory basis. For the traditionalist the issue is not so much big government as the balance of powers that exist in any given context. Provided the hierarchical orders of society remain in a viable equilibrium and wield the appropriate amount of relative power, the rule of law is preserved, and the constitution ensures a separation of powers, government may indeed become a site of monumental power and enterprising ambition. And even though the libertarian wing often defines itself in opposition to big government, that opposition is a remnant of the conditions of its nascence, in which the main barriers to free enterprise were government control. Insofar as its true philosophical core resides in the old-school liberalism of Hayek and Friedman, its fundamental appeal to the uncoerced freedom of the individual need not imply a consistent defense of laissez-faire—for this fundamental conviction is “capable of an infinite variety of applications.” The premises that animated old-school liberalism could just as easily manifest a wariness of big business as a potential center of disproportionate power.
A psychological or religious reading might lead us to conclude that the common thread uniting conservatism is a view of human nature as inherently fallen (and therefore weak-willed, impotent in its capacity to reason, and capable of great evil). Traditionalists in the line of Edmund Burke and John Adams do indeed take on this sober view, as is evident in their arguments for prudent governance and the necessity of complex legal and cultural structures that can mediate the constants of human nature (e.g. ambition, greed, envy, and volatile desire). On the other hand, advocates for capitalism have also expressed a comparable view of human nature and incorporated it into their arguments. Religious proponents of free enterprise like Michael Novak and Richard Neuhaus defend the view that democratic capitalism integrates a view of original sin into its guiding matrix. Its emphasis on the rule of law and the diffusion of power in a free market economy, they argue, tacitly assumes the depravity and short-sightedness of the human being. The solution of democratic capitalism assumes these constants and seeks to accommodate them in a system that harnesses the productive creativity and ambition of individuals while dispersing their power in the diffuse networks of the market economy and democratic politics.
I think that this shared insight into human nature is compelling, but its negative bent—and at that, on the highest level of generality—prevents it from galvanizing the constructive power needed to re-imagine a conservative ethos of the future. It is a great insight of enduring religious, psychological and historical gravitas, and one that the conservative mind should preserve as a live variable for consideration. But it seems unlikely that an intuition of something like original sin could provide the affirmative principle needed to embody a livable conservative temperament.
While each of these proposals has its merits, I think there is a more promising philosophical thread that not only sustains the union among traditionalism, libertarianism and the obscure residuals of anti-communism, but that also charts a path forward for the conservative imagination. This is the widely shared preference for what Hayek calls “the spontaneous forces of society,” and the belief that we should rely on these forces to order our lives as much as possible without coercion. On the traditionalist side, this conviction finds expression through a protectiveness over traditions and customs, as well as a view of society that is complex, organic, and made up of diverse hierarchical orders that should not be meddled with lightly. The entities and mores that animate civil society are natural outgrowths of a long arc of social experience; and when allowed to flourish uninterrupted, they come to reflect the accumulated wisdom of collective experience. Furthermore, conditions of inequality may very well reflect natural dynamics, and not the subjugation of an oppressed group by a powerful oppressor. Human beings are morally and legally equal, but their inherent differences generate natural inequalities which only a power equal to nature or God could overturn. Hierarchical relations are manifold in both human and non-human relations, and provide the conditions for stability and individual self-expression.
For the libertarian, affinity for the spontaneous forces of society takes the form of an appeal to the regulatory and productive superiority of a free enterprise system. Its key addition is to incorporate the individual’s pursuit of his own objectives to the spontaneous forces of society, and to call attention to the stability that can arise out of the decentralized relations of a free economy. Like old-school liberalism, libertarian conservatism defends the dignity of the uncoerced individual as a center for open creativity and self-determination (that is, as long as it keeps itself free from a fixed dogma of laissez-faire). Provided our legal and cultural systems remain conducive to the preservation of an orderly and moral citizenry, we ought to leave people free to make their own lives according to their own values and interests. For in doing so we allow wider scope to the self-expression of humanity and compel artificial inequalities to give way to true natural differences.
On this view, the conservative might be likened to a gardener of civilization, or a guardian of society’s transgenerational integrity. She conserves the balance of the ecosystem so that its rich proliferation of expression can proceed naturally and without coercion. As a guardian of this balance, the conservative temperament seeks to create conditions favorable to the growth of society’s elements, not through the imposition of a uniform standard, which generates eutrophic stagnation, but through knowledge of their respective structures and functions as elements capable of open-ended growth. Change must be gradual so as to not shock the ecosystemic balance, and power must remain diffused so that each element of society can continue to develop itself while nourishing the others. Aversion to large concentrations of government power and awareness of human weakness and depravity are contextual derivatives that follow from this more fundamental attunement to the power and complexity of the spontaneous forces of society. The conservative’s faith in the collective wisdom of the species is noble and marked by a deep historical intuition. But it is also diligent and sober—ever aware of the will to power inherent in each constituent element of society, and determined to prevent any would-be rabble-rouser, narrow faction, or levelling force from disrupting its hard-won harmony.
At this point, someone like Corey Robin might counter by insisting that conservatism has a will to power of its own. Mirroring the title of Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, Robin’s book The Reactionary Mind also argues for a coherent conservative intellectual tradition, but attributes to it a very different unity in identity. Where Kirk saw in the conservative mind an honorable commitment to “keep to the old ways,” Robin maintains that conservatism’s animating theme has been reactionary resistance to emancipatory movements. Wherever those with less power have called for “freedom, equality, rights, democracy,” or “revolution,” conservatives have sought to preserve the superiority of those in power. “For that is what conservatism is,” says Robin: “a meditation on—and the theoretical rendition of—the felt experience of having power, seeing it threatened, and trying to win it back.” In their opposition to efforts as diverse as abolitionism, the New Deal, and the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements, conservatives have consistently resisted “the agency of the subordinate classes,” deeming it a threat to the hierarchies which ought to prevail in the public and especially the private realms.
In calling conservatism reactionary, Robin does not imply that it lacks principles and merely attempts to thwart the ambitions of its progressive adversaries. Like Kirk, he thinks conservatism is “an idea-driven praxis” that has enduring principles; but unlike Kirk, he casts that praxis in a profoundly Nietzschean light:
Conservatives will likely be put off by this argument for a different reason: it threatens the purity and profundity of conservative ideas. For many, the word “reaction connotes an unthinking, lowly grab for power. But reaction is not reflex. It begins from a position of principle—that some are fit, and thus ought, to rule others—and then recalibrates that principle in light of a democratic challenge from below.
Robin’s argument is challenging and would require a separate statement to engage fairly and thoroughly. But as a standing possibility its implications for our constructive enterprise are considerable. Suppose we are both right, and conservatism is committed to both the protection of the spontaneous forces of society and the preservation of elite power and privilege. Would this confluence of principles prove inherently self-destructive? Or is the elitist dimension but the shadow of the gardener—an impetus of the unconscious that could play a positive role if properly integrated? Could the conservative mind integrate both the gardening and the elitist aspects, and in doing so remain a viable component of American political culture?
III. Conservatism’s Vocation
We can make some headway on this dilemma if we take a step back and consider conservatism’s relationship to the faith of democracy, which affirms the capacity of men and women from all orders to govern their own lives and contribute to the constructive genius of political life. Uplifted by the innovative capabilities of capitalist free enterprise and the political revolutions that gave rise to constitutional republicanism, the democratic promise has come to animate the aspirations of peoples the world over and has established itself as a foundational creed, despite considerable constraints on its liberation. In consequence, we have ushered in precisely what Burke and Tocqueville foresaw in their own day: a fluid, dynamic world in which the fixed orders of the past give way to the flux of an open society, and preordained design gives way to a world of intelligent reconstruction and emergent probability. As Robin points out, however, this transformation has presented a veritable challenge to the conservative vocation:
The conservative faces an additional hurdle: How to defend a principle of rule in a world where nothing is solid, all is in flux? From the moment conservatism came onto the scene, it has had to contend with the decline of ancient and medieval ideas of an orderly universe, in which permanent hierarchies of power reflected the eternal structure of the cosmos…Reconstructing the old regime in the face of a declining faith in permanent hierarchies has proven to be a difficult feat. Not surprisingly, it also has produced some of the most remarkable works of modern thought.
On this reading, conservatism is profoundly anti-democratic at its core and perhaps even anachronistic in a world marked by flux and greater social mobility. If, as Robin argues, the conservatives represent the camp that tends to resist the agency of the subordinate classes, do they have a place in the ecosystem of an aspiring democratic society that is not merely negative but positively connected to its promise? When pushed to reveal their deepest convictions, would they really follow someone like Lincoln when he asks, “Why should there not be patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people?”
I think the conservative mind has already integrated the faith of our democratic prophets, if by a process of gradual osmosis. As representative democracy and capitalism have proven their worth as superior alternatives to the aristocratic and mercantilist systems of the past, conservatism has evolved to accommodate a world marked by dynamism, continuous enterprise, sustained growth, and social mobility. It has expanded the scope of the spontaneous forces of society to include the liberal doctrine of the free individual as the primary locus of dignity and spontaneous activity. However, this osmosis has not occurred directly, but circuitously through the rise of capitalism. This should come as no surprise in light of what Robin has suggested about the conservative temperament, for the conservative reactionary is not only concerned about the loss of individual or class advantages, but the disintegration of the values that hierarchies embody: distinction, competition, excellence, greatness, power, and refinement. The conservative accepts the natural inequalities that mark our condition, and dreams of a world where genuine “excellence is revealed and rewarded” and “true nobility is secured.” Thus these conservative energies found in the competitive world of capitalism a replacement for the aristocratic and warlike virtues that they embodied in the past, and were redirected into an arena that, perhaps unbeknownst to them, would in the long run prove more democratic. From a democratic standpoint, we might say that capitalism has drawn conservatism out of the medieval world and made it amenable to the currents of the era—and so effectively that now in our own day, it is the conservatives who insist on the intimate link between capitalism and democracy.
For someone like Michael Novak, this development is no accident. In his view, democracy and capitalism in the United States are animated by a unified ethos of democratic capitalism. In the course of his exploration of the moral, philosophical and theological ideas that animate democratic capitalism, one is struck by how it seamlessly integrates both conservative and progressive ideas, weaving them into a livable and demonstrably powerful cultural ethos. On the one hand, democratic capitalism is experimental, dynamic, enterprising, and committed to sustained growth through the application of practical intelligence. In a deep sense its underlying metaphysic is pragmatic (which Kirk deems the culmination of the radical impulse), and its view of the world is one in which open possibility and emergent probability abound. On the other hand, it is informed by plenty of emphatically conservative ideas, particularly its views on the human capacity for sin, the limits of human reason, the importance of rule of law, the dangers of concentrated power, and its proclivity to defer to the spontaneous forces of society whenever possible. Thus, to the degree that Novak’s account maps onto our culture, we already inhabit a livable unification of progressive and conservative ideas.
The conservative of today is as much an exemplar of the spirit of democratic capitalism as the progressive, for he has come to recognize that order may be preserved through diffuse networks of individual activity, and that excellence and distinction may be achieved in the world of market competition without the edifice of fixed social orders. Even though he has often pitted himself against the democratic impulse and may very well continue to play the important role of defending hierarchical order, he has learned to embrace the underlying faith of his adversaries. Not as the conservator of the aristocratic hierarchies that prevailed in previous eras, but of the forms of hierarchy appropriate to democratic capitalism (e.g. hierarchies of competence), the conservative affinity for elitism and the calling to be a guardian of the spontaneous forces of society can come together. A conservatism that owned both of these characteristics of its identity in a spirit of self-reflection and magnanimity could serve a much needed role in our democracy: namely, that of the preserver of those conditions that both channel and constrain our creative will to power, as well as those conditions that make our nation not only more fair, equal, and compassionate, but also illustrious and formidable—affirmative of power, excellence, self-reliance, reverence, and a national continuity worthy of them. As Burke put it so long ago:
These public affections, combined with manners, are required sometimes as supplements, sometimes as correctives, always as aids to law…There ought to be a system of manners in every nation which a well-formed mind would be disposed to relish. To make us love our country, our country ought to be lovely.
Buckley, William. Up from Liberalism. (1959)
Burke, Edmund, Reflections on the Revolution in France. (1790)
Hayek, Friedrich, The Road to Serfdom. (1944)
Lincoln, Abraham, “First Inaugural Address.” (1861)
Nash, George, “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America: Then and Now.” (2016)
Robin, Corey. The Reactionary Mind. (2017)