The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 11, 2018

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

During my stay in Minnesota, I became increasingly immersed in the economics of Ludwig von Mises, F.A. Hayek, and Milton Friedman. I was drawn to these men by their clear rational approach that defended individual freedom by destroying the humbugs of most state interventionism. Unfortunately, I was also attracted to the lingering positivist-relativist aspect of their positions. If value judgments are subjective to the individual, and human liberty consists in the defense of individual autonomy, then my own individual will could remain at the center of the universe. For most economists, individual choice is the trump card for judging all human institutions. This suited me quite well because as a young man I did not want anyone else, not even God, interfering with my own self-chosen path.

Throughout this period of the late 1950s and early 1960s, my conservative intellectual life was greatly affected by my affiliation with ISI, the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists, later to become the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. My father served on the Board of Trustees of ISI and worked closely with Don Lipsett who was their Midwest director.2 The personal authority of lecturers like Gerhart Niemeyer and Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn at ISI Summer Schools was life-changing. The contrast to the tepid university professoriate caught my attention.

After Minnesota, I went to Italy, where I had the good fortune to study under Professor Bruno Leoni at the University of Pavia for a year. He provided me with the model of the cultured classical liberal who knew his economics but also European culture. During my time in Europe I had begun to read C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, and Hilaire Belloc. This was the beginning of the renewal of my faith on more rational and liturgical grounds and culminated in my joining the Episcopal Church after I later settled in Baton Rouge.

In 1963, I returned to the U.S. for my Ph.D. in economics at the University of Virginia. These were the glory days for economics at the University. Public choice was in full bloom with Jim Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Hard-core anti-communists like Warren Nutter knew the weaknesses of Soviet statistics from a scholarly standpoint, and there were excellent teachers like Leland Yeager for monetary theory. During my time at Virginia, I studied with the delightful Ronald Coase for two semesters of the history of economic thought—one semester devoted to Adam Smith and the second semester devoted to Alfred Marshall. I continued to nourish my growing anti-positivist position by reading Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss. Gordon Tullock one time caught me reading Eric Voegelin and had me pegged from that moment on as a Voegelinian. My increasing conservative predilections got me into trouble since they made me skeptical of the public choice movement as a normative enterprise.

I had no quarrel with public choice as positive economics with testable propositions. It was, and is, a good corrective to utopian assumptions that the state is benevolent and knows what it is doing. But there was an individualistic foundation to the enterprise that bothered me. It started from the sanctity of individual preferences and tastes. Public choice theory, however, with its focus on individual preferences and tastes, seems unable to move toward the more substantive moral questions about what human beings ought to desire and pursue. The very title of Buchanan and Tullock’s book, The Calculus of Consent, makes it very easy to understand the hostility toward conservatism. Even though Buchanan and Tullock are more interested in consent than mathematics, the core question of the defense of liberty as individual autonomy is the fundamental issue.

When it came time for writing my dissertation on the relationship between Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and The Wealth of Nations, Ronald Coase had left for the University of Chicago. I was fortunate enough to find an exceptional advisor in Bill Breit. Bill had come to Virginia from Louisiana State University where he brilliantly and wittily taught the history of economic thought. Since LSU had not filled his position, I left blizzard conditions in Virginia to interview at LSU in February of 1966. Since the flowers were in full bloom, the weather was balmy, and the people were pleasant, I accepted a full-time teaching position that lasted for 32 years.

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