The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

March 21, 2018

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.

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.

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.

For the Episcopal Church, this spirit of tolerance is built into its very fiber. It stemmed from the tradition of the indifferent things, or adiaphora, on which men can reasonably disagree—color of vestments, hymn music, and the order of service. But, by definition, if there are “indifferent things” there are also the essentials of orthodoxy that C.S. Lewis would call Mere Christianity. The clearest formulation which affirms both the truths of the Gospel and the occasional need for change can be found in the Preface to the Book of Common Prayer written in Philadelphia, October 1789, under the watchful eye of Bishop William White. It is a formulation worthy of Edmund Burke.

After teaching for thirty-two years at LSU, I retired and took a full-time position as Secretary of The Philadelphia Society. I am often asked about the nature and purpose of The Philadelphia Society, and it is worth saying a few words about it by way of explanation. Founded in 1964 by Don Lipsett, The Philadelphia Society was conceived as a strictly academic and social society—the American counterpart to the Mont Pelerin Society. The Philadelphia Society focuses on principles by inviting speakers to present papers that provoke conversation and, often, spirited debate. The Society does not take party positions nor does it promote specific policies. The policy implications are left through a wise division of labor to organizations like The Heritage Foundation, run by Don’s close friend, Ed Feulner. And the battle in the colleges was left to ISI.

Don Lipsett was so crucial to the formation of The Philadelphia Society because he personally knew and was trusted by Milton Friedman, Bill Buckley, and Russell Kirk. Libertarians and traditional conservatives could all fit within the rubric of “ordered liberty” which has been the hallmark of the Society. Although the Society was broader in scope than the Mont Pelerin Society, Don modeled it as the American counterpart to Mont Pelerin.

When Don was dying in the summer of 1995, I was approached about the possibility of becoming Secretary. Don was the “permanent Secretary” from its founding in 1964 until the fall of 1995—thirty-one years of devoted service. Although his unique personality and abilities could not be replaced, I shared with him his Hoosier roots and devotion to midwestern conservatism. Perhaps my best quality to serve as Secretary of this important Society was the fact that I continued to hold in tension the balance between freedom and virtue.

The privilege of working with a wide variety of Presidents of The Philadelphia Society has been something that I would not change for a minute. Each President has contributed to my understanding of the conservative movement. Space prevents me from listing the names and unique insights of each of them, but I think that they would agree that the man who most steadfastly preserves the essence of American conservatism is M. Stanton Evans. I had known Stan from my Hoosier days when he was editor of The Indianapolis News. He not only played ping-pong with my father, but he also roomed with Don Lipsett in Indianapolis. In addition to his irrepressible humor, I would challenge anyone to find a statement or policy position of Stan Evans that has been wrong.

Let me conclude by returning to family and to its importance in forming my conservative disposition. I take great pride in the fact that my family is the only three-generation family in The Philadelphia Society. My father, Al Campbell, was both a charter member in 1964 and a Distinguished Member. I was also a Charter Member of The Philadelphia Society and was fortunate enough—through the good auspices and guided democracy of Don Lipsett—to serve as President from 19861987. My daughter, Elizabeth, and her husband, David Corey, have continued the family tradition by becoming members of The Philadelphia Society, and I have high hopes that my grandchildren, Anna Katherine and John, will follow in their parents’ footsteps.

It is a cliché to say that your wife is your better half. In my case, Helen is my better two-thirds. The other third is Julie Flick, the steadfast secretary of The Philadelphia Society since the early 1990s. Helen, like my mother, is more reliably conservative than I am. In the grand scheme of things, men are too often similar to the America that appears in the quote beloved by Albert J. Nock, “American society is the only one which has passed from barbarism to decadence without once knowing civilization.” Helen has been my civilizing influence.

While men may be good at dealing with abstract ideas (which can too easily become strict ideologies or second realities), women do the important work of the world as they manage all those “little platoons” of Edmund Burke’s fervent imagination. Their basic instincts are conservative—preserving, nurturing, and cherishing the permanent things without qualification or equivocation.

As I have emphasized throughout this essay, family, friends, and teachers have all been instrumental in forming my conservatism—both explicitly, by instruction, and implicitly, by example. 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. As such, they cannot be reproduced but only documented for others to observe. Indeed, such an understanding has long stood at the center of the conservative intellectual movement in America, and so it has in my own experience as a conservative.

  1. I have described the importance of my father and my conservative family upbringing at greater length in “An Economist’s Tribute to Russell Kirk,” in The Intercollegiate Review, Fall 1994; it can be found online at the ISI website, or at The Philadelphia Society website,
  2. For my relationship with Don and Norma Lipsett, I expanded on this relationship in my “Tribute to Don Lipsett, Founder of The Philadelphia Society,” in the Program for the Fortieth Anniversary Gala, 1964–2004.
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