The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 20, 2019

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Why I Am a Conservative: Campbell, William F.
William F. Campbell (from MA 49:3, Summer 2007) - 06/11/08

Conservatism is not exhausted in abstract principles. The true conservative experience of the world is one rooted in particularity: in people and places that are meaningful to an individual and unique to that individual.


William F. Campbell

F.A. Hayek’s postscript to The Constitution of Liberty is titled, “Why I Am Not a Conservative.” We were asked to explain, “Why I am a Conservative.” A major part of my answer revolves around, “Why I am not a Libertarian.” I am a conservative for a variety of reasons, but chiefly because I have a lively sense of sin and human corruption, including my own. Libertarians have a healthy sense of sin and corruption, but mainly that of others.

I share the belief of libertarians that people are generally not to be trusted, particularly with power. Moreover, I have seen time and again that utopian expectations tend to infuse this sense of power with a self-righteousness that often leads to oppression and murder on a massive scale. These convictions about the human condition—pessimistic as they may seem to some—grow stronger the older I get, and I am convinced that they are an accurate description of the world in which we live.

The most powerful reinforcement of my conservative tendencies has come from the extraordinary people with whom I have interacted over the course of my personal and professional life. Sorting out the influence of both conservatives and classical liberals has resulted in a position of two cheers for the classical liberals and two and three quarters’ cheers for conservatives. The present essay dwells on these personalities as a way of making my own conservatism more intelligible. I recall those teachers, friends, and family whose ideas and actions helped shape my own personality because I believe that conservatism itself, properly understood, is an unavoidably particular phenomenon. Meaning, for the conservative, is found not in arid philosophical abstraction or (worse) dogmatic ideology but in particular families, particular communities, particular churches, and particular locales.

Let me begin with my family. My parents, Albert and Virginia Campbell, were free -market Christian conservatives. Born in Indianapolis, I was raised a Hoosier and Methodist.1 My father was a law partner of Pierre Goodrich. Pierre greatly influenced my father’s appreciation of free-market ideas. My high school graduation present from Pierre was a copy of Ludwig von Mises’s Human Action. Mises inculcated in me a love of economics, rational thought, and clear expression. I learned to cherish the fundamental economic principles of the market economy, private property, voluntary exchange, and freedom of contract. These are the institutions that create wealth and have effectively eliminated grinding poverty for almost all in the United States. Our family library also contained pamphlets, magazines, and books of a more conservative nature. A first edition of Russell Kirk’s Conservative Mind was an important item on our library shelf. Kirk nurtured in me a respect for beauty, rhetoric, and the mystery of life.

After surviving many religious crises as a teenager—I was saved several times— I majored in philosophy and religion at DePauw University thinking that I would become a preacher, but I soon decided that philosophy was the better fit. With this in mind I attended graduate school at the University of Minnesota, where I was confronted with the virulent scientism of May Brodbeck and the entire philosophy department. She reluctantly allowed me to write a master’s thesis on the methodology of Ludwig von Mises, but at the last minute refused to let me defend my thesis. This was an important lesson for me about the hostility of liberals and “scientists” toward conservative ideas, as well as about the lengths to which they would go in suppressing them.

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