The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

August 20, 2017

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Learning From Conservative History: Main Trails . . . and Less-Traveled Paths
Allan C. Carlson - 01/02/09
diverging paths

This is part three of a symposium on contemporary conservatism hosted by ISI at Yale in November, 2008. Read part one. Read part two.

By training, I am an historian. I love the discipline and believe that historical mindedness—the ability to see and understand the grounding of current institutions, issues, and events in the complex matrix of the past—this is the superior way to make sense of reality.

All the same, I have been troubled for over a decade by the growing interest of American conservatives in the history of their cause. This is not to criticize fine books such as George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945. Nor is it to imply that ignorance is the better strategy for guiding a cultural, political, and intellectual campaign. Nor is it to deny that any movement calling itself “conservative” must, by definition, have a healthy—even determinative—regard for the past.

My concern is over a kind of triumphalism that has crept into American conservatism, a neo-Hegelian view that sees this cause rising out of the intellectual rubble of the Truman era, destined by the spirit to history to create mass publications, to control the radio airwaves, to found great think tanks, and to dominate a political party. This version of history sees the apotheosis of the movement in the creation of FOX News. This has actually tended, I believe, toward a narrowing of thought, and a closing off of healthy debate.

Well, I am not a Hegelian and I have agreed to speak about “Learning from Conservative History,” so let me turn to that. I will first examine four “Main Trails” that converged over the last sixty years to form American conservatism. I will then examine the legacy of the conservative ascendancy. Finally I will explore several “less-traveled paths,” forms of conservatism largely abandoned along the way.

The oddest thing about modern American conservatism is that it emerged during the late 1940’s and 1950’s, a time of perhaps unparalleled American power, economic expansion, and social order. The United States came out of World War II with an unprecedented military machine, and an astonishing global presence. The American industrial economy was the wonder of the world. The Bretton Woods agreement delivered stability to international finance and opened markets to American goods. American capitalists, demonized during the 1930’s, were heroes again, patriots all, and relatively humble in their compensation claims. Every year, hundreds of thousands of American families moved up into the middle class, becoming home owners in the burgeoning, optimistic suburbs. The American welfare state, organized around the New Deal’s social security, was modest in its claims and popular. The national debt was manageable, and shrinking as a percentage of Gross National Product. Most unexpectedly, negative family trends of a century’s duration had all reversed. A marriage boom commenced; the average age of first marriage fell to 22 for men and around 20 for women: records both. By age 40, 95 percent of American adults were married. More dramatic was the Baby Boom. Overall, the U.S. fertility rate nearly doubled between 1940 and 1957. Defying a law of sociology, the greatest rise in fertility was among women who had attended college. Following a post-war spike, even the divorce rate fell steadily through the 1950’s. Church construction was booming; the Sunday schools were bursting at the seams with little Christians. As LIFE magazine summarized in 1960, “the American people did all these things and more. They did them under the benign and permissive Eisenhower sun,” an era “in which so many age-old visions of the good life first became real.”

So, just what was the problem?

One set of answers came from a group of economists, loosely called the libertarians. A number of them had been raised and trained in Europe, only to become refugees from Nazism or Communism. Perhaps this grounding in Old Europe gave them a stronger sense of history, a deeper perception that allowed them to see beyond certain superficialities. They were vividly aware of how near the destruction of all human freedom had recently come. In 1940, Bolshevism and its collectivist economy dominated the earth’s greatest land mass, the Soviet Union. National Socialism in Germany was proving to be a remarkably effective vehicle for building racial empire through an economy planned for conquest. Other fascist variations—also harnessing the power of strident nationalism to socialist forms—were popping up around the globe: most effectively, the Japanese militaristic model. Historian John Lukacs has suggested that the United States and the British Empire, by themselves, could probably not have prevailed over this descending darkness.

Economist Friedrich Hayek’s masterpiece The Road to Serfdom, written in 1942 (but published after the war), ably captures the time. Pointing to both German Nazi and Russian Soviet examples, he concludes that “the cry for an economic dictator is a characteristic stage in the movement toward planning.” And economic planning was the great trap.

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