The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

January 16, 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

The main focus of my teaching in the history of economic thought was to take morality seriously and not dismiss it with a methodological reductionism of the fact/value distinction. It is useful to make distinctions between is and ought statements. This is the positive/normative distinction. But it does not follow that ought or normative statements are subjective or simply relative to the individual. Economists had used this confusion to proclaim a practical relativism that enshrined subjective tastes and preferences. Given my sense of human sin, it became painfully obvious that I could not just accept people’s tastes and preferences as given and worthy to be satisfied.

My reading of Platonic dialogues and Greek myth further convinced me that there is no “economic problem of scarcity.” This sounds extreme. However, the usual formulation of the economic problem as trying to match infinite wants with scarce resources, implies a mathematical approach built on individualistic premises. “Infinite wants” is what the ancients would have called pleonexia. This is a spiritual disease not a condition to be celebrated.

Although my work was leading me into a radically conservative position, I did not repudiate the classical liberal part of my family heritage. In 1974 I became a member of the Mont Pelerin Society, which had been founded in 1947 by F.A. Hayek to provide a safe haven for the discussion of ideas relevant to a free society. The Society had always suffered tensions between the pure economists and those economic liberals who stressed the importance to liberty of a Christian and moral understanding of the human person. On the one side was a solid phalanx of Mises, Hayek, Knight, Stigler, and Friedman who represented pure economics; on the other side were Christian liberals like Erik Ritter von Kuehnelt-Leddihn and Wilhelm Roepke, both of whom resigned from the Society.

My attempt to create a conservative economics led me to read carefully everything written in English by Roepke. Russell Kirk induced me to write the introductions to the reprinting of The Social Crisis of Our Time and The Moral Foundations of Civil Society (previously titled Civitas Humana). Ironically, I still believe that this German economist, the thinker behind Ludwig Erhard and the German economic miracle, provides the clearest expression of what it means to be an American conservative. He combined the sharp analytical understanding of the Austrian economists with the respect for morality and religion of a Russell Kirk. Roepke was an American conservative through and through.

In 1976, the year of the Bicentennial, my attention was drawn to specifically American institutions and political realities. Still desiring a rapprochement between my economic liberalism and my moral and religious conservatism, I discovered that the American political tradition of federalism achieved just that. After the Civil War, the substantive due-process-tradition lived in a healthy tension with the police powers of state and local governments. The first satisfied my love of economic liberty when not taken as an all-encompassing ideological or methodological construct. The second satisfied my common sense concern that political order had something to do with the morals and manners necessary for the formation of character.

The American constitution was devised as a check on federal power, leaving large unspecified residuals for the state and local governments to decide on the grounds of prudence. There was no wall of separation between church and state— there was only a wall of separation between the federal government and an established religion.

My devotion to the American constitutional order was reinforced when I taught an adult Christian education class for St. James Episcopal Church in Baton Rouge. I discovered that the Anglican Church saved the American Revolution and the American Revolution saved the Episcopal Church. After the French and Indian Wars eliminated the political influence of France and Catholicism on the thirteen colonies, the Anglican church’s arrogance and the desire to establish bishops in the colonies became the focal point of opposition to the British tyranny. The arrogance of Britain’s bureaucrats, their parliament, and their soldiers ignited a puritanical backlash that provided the moral background to the American Revolution. It would have been disastrous for both the Anglican Church and the American colonies had there been an established Anglican Church. Fortunately the Episcopal Church was spared the trial of establishment. Christian churches have flourished in the United States because of the de facto tolerance guaranteed by the First Amendment.

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