Sunday, June 9, 2013

A Sunday Review: What is Conservatism?

What is Conservatism?
Frank S. Meyer
New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1964


In the continuing search here at the Secular Square for the meaning of conservatism, a review of another of those "conservative classics" published during the formative years of the post-WWII "New Conservative" movement.

As previous reviews of other books note, the post-WWII conservative movement began as an intellectual movement that lacked unity. One of the first--and enduring--works sought the roots of conservatism in Europe. Russell Kirk's The Conservative Mind traced conservatism from Edmund Burke through a line, or should I say, multiple lines of American successors. Early liberal critics argued that this was not conservatism at all. Other American conservatives such as Clinton Rossiter agreed.

William F. Buckley's National Review shortly afterword became the flagship periodical of the "New Conservatism." He provided a vehicle for traditionalists such as Kirk. He also offered considerable space to conservatives of a more "libertarian" view. One of Buckley's libertarian editors, Frank S. Meyer, strongly criticized the traditionalists and Russell Kirk in particular. (See here a review of his most detailed critique: In Defense of Freedom.

Meyer provided a more formal venue for traditionalist and libertarians to hash out their differences when he edited a collection of essays he entitled, What is Conservatism? (That's the question that I want answered!) Contributors include among others Frank Meyer,  Russell Kirk, M. Stanton Evans,  Garry Wills, Willmoore Kendall, and William F. Buckley.

Reviewing a book of essays by multiple authors may prove difficult, but here it goes.  If any coherent theme runs through these essays, it is the tension between the traditionalist and libertarian wings. The different writers express this tension in a variety of motifs: traditionalism vs. liberty, prescription vs. abstract reasoning, authority vs. autonomy, revelation vs. reason. And each author offers his solution to how the two wings can achieve theoretical or philosophical coherence. Most point back to James Madison and the Constitutional structure set up at Philadelphia in 1787 as common source for the two major streams of conservative thought.

A look at a handful of the essays will provide a sense of the tension.


Meyer's introductory piece, "Freedom, Tradition, and Conservatism" sets the theme for the essays that follow. The conflict within conservatism, according to Meyer, lay between

"those who abstract from the corpus of Western belief its stress upon freedom and upon the innate importance of the individual person (which we might call the libertarian position) and those who, drawing upon the same source, stress value and order (what we might call the traditionalist position.")

 Because both the libertarians and the traditionalists draw upon the same Western tradition, according to Meyer, the conflict between the two wings as one of emphasis. In Meyer's words, "when each side emphasizes so strongly the aspect of the great tradition of the West which it sees as decisive that distortion sets in."

Moreover, the tendency to see the libertarian and traditionalist views as antitheses  appears more frequently during what Meyer calls "this revolutionary era in which the tradition has suffered extensive subversion." This leads to his point of departure. This revolutionary era calls for restoration, not conservation.


This observation opens the door to reaffirming his criticism of the traditionalists. In earlier works Meyer criticized traditional conservatives for their lack of concern for freedom and their willingness to sacrifice freedom in the name of virtue.  According to Meyer, "Natural conservatism is a legitimate human characteristic, and in settled times it is conducive to the good. It represents the universal human tendency to hold by the accustomed, to maintain existing modes of life." Contemporary circumstances, however, have revealed  the need for a new conservatism. "What is required of us is a conscious conservatism, a clearly principle restatement in new circumstances of philosophical and political truth." This means libertarianism.

He ends his essay by appealing to the achievement of the founders, who he claims embodied the contrasting differences in the claims of the individual and that of order. Out of the dialectic between those two, the founders "created a political theory and a political structure based upon the understanding that, while truth and virtue are metaphysical and moral ends, the freedom to seek them is the political conditions to those ends."

An essay by another National Review editor, M.Stanton Evans, shadows Meyer. In an essay entitled "A Conservative Case for Freedom," Evans asserts that freedom and virtue rise and fall together. "In the conservative view," he writes, "right choice is the terminal value; freedom, an instrumental, and therefore subsidiary value." He tries, however, to position his view as more centrist or moderate.  He calls the traditionalists such as Kirk authoritarians, the libertarians liberals, and his own middle of the road position, conservative. He, too, traces the roots of his expression of conservatism to Madison. The problem of the tension between liberty and order is precisely the political problem that was faced, and in Evans' view, solved by Madison and the founders.

Russell Kirk offered up the traditionalist retort in  "Prescription, Authority , and Ordered Freedom."

He begins with the following axioms:

"Civilized man lives by authority; with some reference to authority, indeed, no form of civilized life is possible. Also, man lives by prescription--that is, by ancient customer and usage, and the rights which usage and customer have established. Without just authority and respected prescription, the pillars of any tolerable civil social order, true freedom is not possible."

The authority Kirk has in mind includes family, church, and government.

Kirk charges that the essence of liberalism is its subversion of authority by ignoring tradition and relying on abstract reasoning. And throughout the nineteenth century, liberalism degenerated into socialism. As readers might suspect, Kirk aims his charges at developments in European liberalism.

Kirk claims that "by revelation, by the insights of men of genius, mankind has acquired, slowly and painfully, over thousands of years, a knowledge of human nature and of the civil social order which no one individual possibly can supplant by private rationality." From this knowledge, Kirk derives two general principles of good government.

First, good government allows "the more energetic" among the citizens to fulfill their potential without becoming tyrants over the majority. Second, good government must be in accord with "the traditions and prescriptive ways of its people." This later principle leads to his skepticism about erecting free governments among people outside the Western tradition--something that the Bush administration should have considered before it began its adventures of national building in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Finally, an essay that seems out of place in many ways:  F. A.  Hayek's "Why I Am Not a Conservative."

Yet  he, too, finds him way back to Philadelphia in 1787.

He rightly begins noting that conservatism, in its proper sense, originated in Europe in response to the French Revolution. In this he agrees with Kirk. He notes, too, that until the rise of socialism, the opposing political tradition to conservatism in  Europe was liberalism.

No such dichotomy existed in the United States. According the Hayek, liberalism is the "common tradition" in the United States. He identifies himself as a liberal. He offers a caveat, though, by explaining that his liberalism differs from what goes by liberalism in contemporary America. Hayek calls them "progressives." He prefers the label, "Old Whig."

So why is Hayek not a conservative? He offers several reasons.

Conservatism does not offer any alternative to the contemporary liberal regime. All it seems capable of accomplishing is slowing down liberalism's relentless pull. Conservatives should not ask "how fast" change should come, but instead "in what direction." In fact, conservatives seem to dread change altogether rather than simply  fear its pace.

Conservatism lacks the kind of principles that enable him to work with others in creating on order in which people can pursue their own ends.

Conservatism claims that every society has an elite who should properly exert a greater influence in public affairs. Although this claim creates its own controversy, conservatism seem to reserve for itself the prerogative to decide just who are these elites.

Conservatism likewise expresses suspicion about democracy. Hayek calls this a self-deception. The problem in Hayek's eyes is government power. According to Hayek, the power exercised by the modern American government would be even more dangerous in the hands of an elite.

Conservatism shows inconsistency in its devotion to free enterprise. While conservatives generally oppose regulatory legislation, they historically have supported tariffs for industry and price supports for agriculture.

Conservatism appears suspicious of new knowledge, especially if it conflicts with conservatism's ideological stance or suggests undesirable consequences.

Finally, conservatism frequently resorts to "supernatural" knowledge when reason fails him.

Throughout his overview of conservatism, Hayek contrasts it not with socialism or progressivism, but with Hayek's own liberalism. So how does Hayek define his own liberalism?

On the same ground on which the the other essayists in this collection rested their conservatism:

"It is the doctrine on which the American system of government is based. In its pure form, it is represented in the United States, not by the radicalism of Jefferson, nor by the conservatism of Hamilton, or even of John Adams, but by the ideas of James Madison, the "father of the Constitution."

So what of it?

This conflict between traditionalism vs. individualism, however it is construed, in a way reflects a tension in historic terms between two different versions of republicanism.

 Classical Republicanism originated in classical antiquity though the writings of Aristotle, Cicero, and Polybius. Along with such ideas as government for the common good,  rule by law rather than men, and freedom from arbitrary authority,  Classical Republicanism embraced the public philosophy that the state should inculcate virtue in its citizens, especially the elites who were expected to participate in public affairs. The virtues to inculcate, of course, were those of the elites of classical Greece and Rome. This concept of virtue changed over time. With the triumph of Christianity in Europe, those classical virtues experienced subtle changes. More important was the emergence of a bourgeoisie and a different set of virtues that included hard work, thrift, and saving. And along with these new virtues came a new articulation of individual rights. This new emphasis on rights, combined with the new economic ideas of Adam Smith, eventually became known as liberalism.

With the birth of the United States, the founders of this new regime drew upon the idea of both the older classical republicanism and the new liberal republicanism. The United States has experienced this tension ever since--the slow receding of the public philosophy of classical republicanism and the relentlessly advancing of liberal republicanism. Occasionally we hear talk about the common good and of virtue or morality from liberals and conservatives. For the most part,  however, these seem to be sentimental reflections about a past that can never be recovered.
















3 comments:

CW said...

I don’t know that any one person can precisely define “conservatism” or “liberalism.” They seem to mean something different to everyone and the problem is exacerbated by the fact that anyone can call themselves a “conservative” regardless of what they stand for. Both John Boehner and Rand Paul probably consider themselves conservatives, yet they are really miles apart on many issues. The labels are further muddied by the fact that in the U.S. we have a two-party system where people tend to put themselves in one camp or the other (unless they cop out and call themselves a “moderate,” which means liberal), even though the range of belief systems is extremely broad.

IMO, one thing all true conservatives have in common that differentiates them from liberals is respect for honesty and the rule of law - providing they have a fair chance to participate in making that law. Even when Obamacare was (wrongly) ruled constitutional and conservatives had every reason to react to this legalized theft with violence, they did not. They continue to work within the law. Liberals, on the other hand, have done their best to evade honest debate and to alter the Constitution to suit them by underhanded means. I could go on all day but I guess I’ll spare you and leave it at that.

RightDetour said...

I am on a reading program of conservative books, going somewhat in chronological order. So far, most books that I have read open with the same statement with which you opened you comment: conservatism cannot be defined. At a certain point in my project, I will attempt a definition or explanation. Two preliminary observations: conservatism is partly timeless, transcendent principles,but it is also rooted in particular historical contexts in its political challenge to liberalism. Its difficult to sort that out in a coherent way.

CW said...

I look forward to reading what comes of your project, V.L.!