The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

August 20, 2014

American Conservative Thought

ISI recommends reading through the introductory essay before following the embedded hyperlinks or before working through the course itself. The essay can orient your reading and reflection so that like Caleb and Joshua you are calm and perceptive in the face of the intellectual giants you will find in this land.

A survey text on modern Western ideologies published in the Soviet Union during the Cold War identified conservatism as the oldest—indeed the original—ideology. In that work of Soviet social science, conservatism was described as the belief common among ancient Greeks and Romans, perhaps common in all traditional societies, that a “golden age” lay in the past, that our ancestors were heroes and demigods and that we are but mortal men. This interpretation, which reduces conservatism to mere pious veneration of the ancestral, marks the remotest extreme into the past that scholars have gone in the effort to discern the “roots” of conservatism. Among Western academics, less remote yet still distant origins have been suggested. At least one American political theorist has tried to tie the conservative tradition back to Plato’s “philosophy of harmony”—in contrast to those political philosophies descending from Hobbes that consider a state of conflict to be fundamental for man. Others have suggested medieval progenitors, such as Thomas Aquinas, with his doctrine of natural law. Still others have considered David Hume, with his decidedly pragmatic and antifoundational approach to politics, as the source of a conservatism identified with “historical utilitarianism.” For the most part, however, conservatism as we know it is understood to have made its first appearance in the world with Edmund Burke’s 1790 polemic, Reflections on the Revolution in France.

Storming the Bastille, 1789

This fact is significant, for it means that conservatism is really the second “ideology” to make its appearance in the modern world. Conservatism comes not before but rather after the revolutionary imposition of a species of ideological liberalism in the French Revolution: it is newer than liberalism, a reaction to an ideological fait accompli. This origin has stamped a consistent character on succeeding conservatisms in at least four ways:

  1. Unlike other political-intellectual tendencies in the modern era, conservatism is identified more by what it opposes than by what it is seeking to achieve: it is “naturally” oppositional, more certain of what is wrong than of what is necessarily right.
  2. As a result, conservative governance traditionally emphasizes prudence, thoughtful action with respect to contingent particulars, as its cardinal virtue. It is not given to grand projects or “transformational” politics.
  3. Another result of conservatism’s natural oppositionality is that there is genuine intellectual substance to conservatism, because there are consistent substantive social effects of the progressive ideologies which conservatism opposes.
  4. Finally, as Joseph de Maistre argued, what conservatives do want is not a “counterrevolution” but rather the contrary of revolution.

In the end, as Russell Kirk always maintained, conservatism is not really one ideology among many, with its own set of pat reductionisms and abstractions; rather, it is the “negation of ideology,” with a corresponding openness to reality in all its multitudinous complexity. In an ideological age, conservatism opposes ideology.

Turning to American history, it is difficult at first to give a satisfactory account of conservatism through the years. The most notable attempt has been that of Russell Kirk, whose Conservative Mind is widely recognized as one of the founding texts of the American conservative revival after 1945. But Kirk’s genealogy, which weaves together British and American thinkers into a seamless garment, has never lacked for critics.

The problem is that America, viewed in a certain aspect, would appear to be an overwhelmingly “ideological” nation—a “propositional” nation. The Harvard political theorist Louis Hartz famously observed in the 1950s that America is the Lockean country par excellence, arising from an aboriginal condition closely resembling Locke’s state of nature and a founding compact reflecting Lockean principles of consent. Consequently, it is said, all Americans are “naturally” Lockeans, committed bourgeois liberals, and there never has been, nor ever can be, a genuinely conservative party—in the “European” or authentic sense—in American life. While this view of the meaning of America and its attendant political-intellectual limitations has been challenged pointedly on historical and other grounds, it remains a dominant position in academic political theory.

From this perspective, those whom Americans call “conservatives” are really nothing more than “right-wing liberals.” Indeed, for a considerable period it was common to equate American conservatism completely with the so-called Manchester School of classical liberalism, with its unabashed embrace of free-market capitalism and its advocacy of a minimalist “night watchman” state. Such an equation, however, was described scornfully as the “Great Train Robbery” of American intellectual history by Clinton Rossiter, and justly so. While an appreciation of free markets and limited government is indeed an element of modern conservatism, such a stance does not exhaust its meaning. Nor are the reasons conservatives give for affirming these principles the same as those adduced by classical liberals.

National Review cover

In his seminal work, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, George Nash chronicled the emergence of modern American conservatism in the period just after the Second World War through the prism of the magazine National Review, undoubtedly the central organ through which modern American conservatives came to recognize themselves as a coherent movement. Nash identified the three main intellectual tendencies that found a place in the charismatic William F. Buckley Jr.’s magazine: libertarianism, anticommunism, and traditionalism.

The libertarians were more or less the direct heirs of the prewar critics of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Road to Serfdom, by Friedrich Hayek, was the bestseller that served as their touchstone. In that book, Hayek argued that Soviet-style collectivism need not be achieved by revolutionary violence only: the slow and seemingly inexorable advance of the welfare state could lead to the same oppressive end. Thus, a self-reliant “individualism” must always be championed and the lure of socialist solutions resisted. Most libertarians viewed social questions through the lens of economic thought, particularly the theories of Austrian-school economists such as Ludwig von Mises. They stressed the efficiency and productivity of the free market—arguments that subsequently have been widely accepted. But they also celebrated the virtues of freedom in more broadly humane terms, and they took pains to counter those leftist critiques which equated the operation of markets with exploitation and injustice.

The anticommunists in Nash’s account were a group of writers and intellectuals who in many cases had themselves been members of the Communist Party in their younger lives. As a result, they had a lively sense of the attraction of Communist ideology and a troubled respect for the efficacy of the Communists’ disciplined cadres. In the National Review circle, these ex-communist anticommunists included James Burnham and Frank Meyer. The anticommunists’ concerns about domestic subversion led them to a generally (though not always) favorable attitude toward the campaign of Senator Joseph McCarthy, but they also addressed, in detail, questions of national strategy in the emerging Cold War. The great anticommunist testament that galvanized a generation of conservatives was Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. The difficulty the early anticommunists faced was that much American liberal and progressive opinion did not fundamentally object to communism, which was sometimes described benignly as “the New Deal in a hurry.” After all, had not the Soviets been our allies against Hitler and were they not on the side of “progress”? Against this perception, the anticommunists argued that communism and Nazism were in fact two species of a common genus: totalitarianism. A common fear was that, steeped in suicidal liberalism, Western societies lacked sufficient will to resist the determined assaults and seductive attractions of the totalitarians.

The traditionalists, who in the early 1950s were referred to as the “New Conservatives,” comprised a group of writers who attempted to situate American conservatism in a broader context, drawing a connection explicitly to European conservative traditions. Prominent among these were Russell Kirk, author of The Conservative Mind, and Richard Weaver, author of Ideas Have Consequences. Peter Viereck, author of Conservatism Revisited, and Robert Nisbet, author of The Quest for Community, may also be numbered among the traditionalists. For the traditionalists, modernity as such was usually recognized as problematic—giving rise to moral, social, religious, economic, and political problems, all driven by ideology in one way or another. They looked with affection on societies that had resisted modernity in the name of tradition, whether in the American South or as far afield as Spain. In light of the devastation of the Second World War and the threat of Soviet communism, the traditionalists understood Western civilization to be in a state of crisis. They sought to address this crisis through a recovery of tradition, a reconnection with the West’s moral sources, whether classical or Christian. Such a project frequently took traditionalists in the direction of intellectual history and high theory; this direction can be seen especially in the work of thinkers such as Eric Voegelin and Leo Strauss, both of whom were traditionalists of a sort—though today that connection, especially with respect to Strauss, is contested.

Russell Kirk

It should immediately be apparent that there was no small degree of tension among—and within—these three intellectual tendencies within the nascent postwar conservative movement, giving rise to sometimes acrimonious debates.

From the standpoint of the libertarians:
From the standpoint of the anticommunists:
  • the libertarian devotion to individualism in fact hastened the appearance of the mass man, detached from traditional social authorities in a state of anomic alienation, and it was precisely this type of human being—as the experience of Nazi Germany had shown—that was most prey to the totalitarian temptation;
  • traditionalists on the other hand were thought to be sometimes insufficiently alarmed at the threat of communism; they were too attracted to an isolationism that would cede the globe to communist oppression.
From the standpoint of the traditionalists
Frank Meyer

In the pages of National Review, Frank Meyer (acting in effect as chief ideologist) proffered what became known as “fusionism” as a consensus doctrine for the movement: Conservatives are those who pursue traditionalist ends (virtue) by libertarian means (freedom). Of course, almost as soon as it was proposed, fusionism was subject to objections from libertarians and traditionalists alike.

Was the conservative intellectual movement then nothing but a “shotgun marriage” in the face of the Communist threat, and was fusionism nothing more than a rhetorical sleight of hand to paper over irreconcilable theoretical differences for the sake of political success? While at first glance this would seem to be so, the reality is more complex. For one thing, each of these three tendencies really did authentically represent part of the mind and personality of Buckley, the movement’s impresario and archetypal figure. For another thing, each of the three tendencies understood itself to be resisting the tides of history, and so each took on the “form” of a conservatism. Also, as M. Stanton Evans and Willmoore Kendall emphasized, whether we understand ourselves primarily as inheritors of Western civilization or as American citizens, our tradition really is a tradition of freedom; Meyer’s formulation captured in general terms the fundamental moral, social, and political intuitions of a broad class of dispositionally conservative Americans. Finally, the intellectuals drawn to the nascent conservative movement “felt” themselves to be engaged in a common cause. Against the regnant liberalism, they were locked in dialogue, seeking common ground.

What is more, there was genuine common ground to be found. Any account of the tensions among these three intellectual tendencies must be balanced against the subtle connections and areas of agreement among the same three groups.

For libertarians,
  • a central thinker was Albert Jay Nock, who insisted that true liberty is something demanding, difficult, hard; in fact, liberty is only really possible for those who have undergone an intense cultivation in high culture and great books. In other words, Nockian libertarians shared something very important with the traditionalists.
  • Moreover, the libertarians could certainly affirm that the anticommunists were right that communism represented an extreme violation of the liberty of the individual and so must be resisted.
For the anticommunists,
  • the libertarians were correct in their fear that “it can happen here”: domestic communism was indeed a genuine threat, not a chimera, and we might well be on the “road to serfdom.”
  • What is more, the traditionalists were right in their critique of mass society, for the emergence of the mass man was indeed the enabling condition for totalitarianism; the traditionalists were also right when they contended that a flourishing civil society, richly settled in tradition, was the best possible domestic defense against the totalitarian temptation.
For the traditionalists,
William F. Buckley, Jr.

The truism, however, is true: anticommunism was the “glue” that held together the classical postwar conservative intellectual movement. With very few exceptions, all conservatives could agree that communism represented a kind of summum malum, the preeminent civilizational challenge of the second half of the twentieth century. On this great question, the Cold War conservatives were right—and many on the left were wrong. Conservatives therefore rightly celebrate the presidency of Ronald Reagan as an exemplary era of conservative governance. But the emphasis on anticommunism as a unifying theme also had a price: because of it, the largely unanticipated collapse of Soviet communism in 1989–91 threw American conservatism into a state of uncertainty from which it has yet to fully emerge.

For a time during the 1990s, it looked as though a new, post–Cold War conservative consensus was building along rather traditionalist lines. While some younger libertarians began to forge an independent, non- or even anticonservative identity emphasizing the attractions of a “dynamist” social and political ethic, the conservative mainstream addressed itself to shoring up what was seen as a declining and often toxic American culture. Neoconservatives brought their formidable social-scientific skills to the study of family breakup. They offered the Victorian Age as a model for the re-moralization of society. The secularization of American public life, driven in no small part by decisions of the Supreme Court, was vigorously critiqued by Evangelicals and others, and a more prominent role for religion was advanced, including in the university. Virtue became a widespread theme, and America’s regime of abstract rights was subject to powerful theoretical criticisms. The best social science confirmed the longstanding traditionalist view that the health of a polity depends on a vigorous civil society. The end of the Cold War meant in any event that American society need no longer be mobilized for war.

World Trade Center, Sept 11, 2001

This emerging consensus—the rudiments of a new “fusionism” bringing neoconservatives and traditional conservatives together—was cut short, however, by the events of September 11, 2001. In the wake of the terrorist attacks on that day, neoconservative intellectual energies were thrown into foreign policy. In effect, anti-Islamofascism was proffered as the new anticommunism, a potential “glue” to hold together conservatism’s disparate tendencies. Questions of culture were displaced by an emphasis on political regimes. A decade of critiques of American culture and society gave way to a new literature championing America’s progressive, liberationist modernity against a backward, “medieval” foe. The transformation was vertiginous. But what exactly was “conservative” about progressive, liberationist modernity? The conflict with radical Islam had revealed an important piece of unfinished intellectual business left over for conservatives from the end of the Cold War.

One of the paradoxical difficulties for conservatives after the Cold War was the very success they had had in arguing that communism represented a species of totalitarianism. By yoking communism together with Nazism, there was a loss of the sense of the “leftism” of communism. Now understood as a species of the genus totalitarianism, and therefore as a form of “tyranny,” communism for many Americans was translated in effect from the progressive Left to the retrograde Right. The West’s victory over communism, therefore, tended to lose its specifically conservative character. If communism was not the historically inevitable “wave of the future”—as it claimed to be, and as many, including its enemies, understood it to be for many decades—then our victory over communism could more readily be understood not as the victory of a conservative resistance movement but rather as a victory for “true progress.”

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

What might have been learned from the defeat of communism—what perhaps should have been learned—is that there are no historical inevitabilities. While modern ideologies had subsumed free and responsible individuals to inexorable collective processes of one sort or another, in fact it was the individual choices of such leaders as Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II, together with the irreducible individual moral witness of such figures as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, which precipitated the Soviet collapse. In other words, our victory over communism might have been understood as a vindication of the traditional Western conviction about the dignity, freedom, and responsibility of every human person—a conviction shared by libertarians, traditionalists, and anticommunists.

But that is not what happened. In a fateful intellectual development, Francis Fukuyama argued instead that communism’s defeat revealed that we have now arrived at “the end of history,” and that it is the triumph of Western liberal democracy which has been shown to be historically inevitable—not the victory of communism. The Communist Party was not the vanguard of the proletariat, but America with its liberal-democratic way of life stands as the vanguard of all mankind: the whole world will eventually, inevitably, follow. Such a view is certainly flattering to American sensibilities and it viscerally appeals to our patriotism; in its embrace of a kind of American exceptionalism, however, it oddly fails to recognize the very exceptional cultural and historical circumstances which allowed for the success of America’s unique regime of freedom. In the contentious intra-conservative arguments surrounding the Iraq War, nonetheless, Fukuyama’s view became a background tenet of what has been called the “second neoconservatism.”

The first generation of neoconservatives were, famously, liberals “mugged by reality.” In the face of the 1960s counterculture, they came to a new appreciation for what they earlier might have scorned as the “bourgeois virtues.” In the face of the policy failures of Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society welfare programs, they came to recognize that all public action brings in its wake unintended consequences—and so they embraced a more cautious approach to public policy, one less given to state intervention in free markets and civil society. The neoconservatives even came to recognize the importance of culture. Such was the extent of the conversion of these former leftists that at length, Russell Kirk opined that Irving Kristol, the “godfather” of neoconservatism, was in fact not a neoconservative: he was a conservative, simply. And indeed, owing to their public prominence, such neoconservatives clearly represented the leading voices of conservatism after Reagan.

Emboldened after the fall of communism by America’s position as the globe’s sole “hyperpower,” armed with Fukuyama’s theory about the meaning of history, and rightfully alarmed at the emergence of the Islamic threat after 9/11, leading members of the second generation of neoconservatives seemed to their conservative critics to have been “mugged by ideology.” They advanced a vision of permanent U.S. hegemony around the globe that critics saw as a form of empire. They also pursued a policy of regime-change in Iraq and promised a grand “transformation” of the politics of the Middle East that paid little heed to cultural particularities. Wars are always contentious affairs in the politics of a nation, and so too was the Iraq War.

The political and cultural difficulties encountered in America’s engagement in Iraq have led neoconservatives to reflect on the experience in fruitful ways. Francis Fukuyama for his part has sought to distance himself from the very body of ideas to which he gave birth. What conservatism now will be remains to be seen. But as Iraq wanes in importance and its lessons are assimilated, the prospects are certainly good for a new reconciliation. Those prospects will be especially bright if younger conservatives make the effort to learn the often colorful and contentious history of their movement.

Lesson 1: Edmund Burke

  1. Burke, excerpt from Reflections on the Revolution in France. [On this webpage, do a text search for the section from “You will observe, that from Magna Charta...” to “...but you are at war with nature.”]
    • How is Burke’s concept of “nature’s teaching” different from his opponents’ doctrine of “the rights of men”?
    • The case is often made that the American and French Revolutions were fundamentally different in nature. Did the American revolutionaries “act as if you had never been moulded into civil society, and had every thing to begin anew”?
    • What does it mean to have a tradition of liberty?
  2. Burke, Speech on the Reform of the Representation of the Commons in Parliament
    • Is the existence of a prescriptive constitution necessary to conservatism?
    • Does “the true touchstone of all theories” exclude the use of political theory, Burke’s protestations to the contrary notwithstanding?
    • What does it mean that “every man ought to govern himself,” a notion Burke disparages?
  3. Burke, “Letter to William Elliot, May 1795” from Further Reflections on the French Revolution
    • How is elitism connected to an ideological style in politics?
    • What are Burke’s reasons for favoring the past over the future?
    • What is the distinction between innovation and reform?

Summary question: Is it proper to speak of a conservative canon of principles that we can glean from Burke? What distinguishes conservatism from other political opinions, ideologies, and philosophies?

Further reading:

  1. The Enduring Edmund Burke, ed. Ian Crowe
  2. Peter Stanlis, “The Basis of Burke’s Political Conservatism”
  3. Russell Kirk, Edmund Burke: A Genius Reconsidered
  4. Russell Kirk, “Edmund Burke and the Constitution”
  5. Jeffrey Hart, “Edmund Burke and the English Revolution”

Lesson 2: British liberalism

  1. David Hume, “That Politics May Be Reduced to a Science” from Essays Moral, Political, Literary
    • Is the moral virtue of the ruler a sufficient condition for good government?
    • What role does history play in our political thinking?
    • What distinguishes wisdom in politics from political zealotry?
  2. John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, Ch. II, VII, VIII, & IX
    • What are four arguments for the existence of a state of nature? What are four arguments against it?
    • How is liberty distinguished from license? What does this have to do with natural law, and is Locke a natural law thinker?
    • Does voluntarism void the binding nature of a compact, ensuring its eventual disintegration?
  3. Adam Smith, “Of Public Jurisprudence” from Lectures on Jurisprudence
    • What does the presumption of a time without civil society mean for the stability or instability of civil society?
    • Does Smith’s “nation of hunters” live in a direct democracy?
    • Must a polity enslave some to ensure the liberty of others? Compare ancient Greece to post-Civil War America, for one case study.

Summary question: Is conservatism in America and England necessarily the conservation of liberalism?

Further reading:

  1. Eugene Miller, “Hume on the Development of English Liberty”
  2. Donald W. Livingston, “David Hume: Ambassador from the World of Learning to the World of Conversation”
  3. Donald J. Devine, “John Locke: His Harmony between Liberty and Virtue”
  4. Willmoore Kendall, “John Locke Revisited”
  5. Paul A. Rahe, “John Locke’s Philosophical Partisanship”
  6. Russell Kirk, “Three Pillars of Order: Edmund Burke, Samuel Johnson, Adam Smith”
  7. Paul Gottfried, “Adam Smith and German Social Thought”

Lesson 3: European nineteenth-century conservatism

  1. Joseph de Maistre, Essay on the Generative Principle of Political Constitutions, §I-XIV & XXVI–XLVII
    • Can an American adhere to de Maistre’s conception of a constitution? If so, what would America’s unwritten constitution consist of?
    • How does one discern a nation’s unwritten constitution? By what mechanism is the unwritten constitution authoritative?
    • What place does infallibility have in political thinking? Is there a polity or man that is infallible? Cf. Maistre’s comments on the English Constitution.
  2. Abraham Kuyper, “Calvinism and Politics” from Lectures on Calvinism.
    • Could Kuyper’s politics function in a state that does not recognize Christian revelation?
    • Is Calvinism the source of the historical liberties of Englishmen, Americans, and other nations with historically significant Calvinist populations?
    • How are there spheres outside the state’s purview? How do their individual authorities relate to one another?
  3. Friedrich Julius Stahl, Speech on the repeal of the Prussian constitution.
    • On what sort of reasoning does Stahl base his argument? Is it antithetical to ideology?
    • Is Stahl’s rejection of “unlimited freedom” an affirmation of Kuyperian sphere-sovereignty?
    • To what end would a “well-placed, harmonious legal whole” exist, if it did?

Summary question: Are European and American conservatisms fundamentally different? If so, how? And if not, how do we assess America’s Lockean legacy?

Further reading:

  1. T. John Jamieson, “A Joseph de Maistre Revival”
  2. Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition, ed. Christopher O. Blum
  3. Aurelian Craiutu, “The True Joseph de Maistre”
  4. James Skillen, “Philosophy of the Cosmonomic Idea”

Lesson 4: American nineteenth-century conservatism

  1. John C. Calhoun, A Disquisition on Government. [Read from the beginning to “I shall begin with the former.”]
    • Is the antagonism that Calhoun assumes at all levels of politics endemic to government?
    • Is the conservative principle of the contemporary American government force or compromise? Can or does a concurrent majority exist in America?
    • Is the principle of nullification essential to the American constitution?
  2. John Taylor, “The Principles of Our Revolution,” from Construction Construed and Constitutions Vindicated.
    • What is the particular danger of avarice in a republican government?
    • Was the American Revolution a puritanical war similar to the English Civil War? How and in what sense(s)?
    • How are authorities between the individual and the nation bulwarks of and hindrances to liberty?
  3. James Fenimore Cooper, “On the Republic of the United States of America” (p. 17) from The American Democrat
    • Could America have preserved liberty without the authority of the national government as the Constitution established it?
    • Is Cooper’s exegesis of the establishment clause correct?
    • Is the existence of an aristocracy necessary to conservatism?

Summary question: What should and/or does American conservatism conserve? Is there an American conservatism, or must there be multiple American conservatisms?

Further reading:

  1. Felix Morley, “The Actuality of Calhoun”
  2. George Anastaplo, “The American Alcibiades?”
  3. J.W. Cooke, “Old-Fashioned Men”
  4. Michael Clark, “Democrats and Gentlemen”
  5. Grant Morrison, “James Fenimore Cooper and American Republicanism”

Lesson 5: The Old Right

  1. Garet Garrett, The People’s Pottage, pp. 126-154, “The Rise of Empire: Properties of Empire”
    • Is a republican empire desirable and/or possible? What would its telos be?
    • Are there conditions of war or national defense that justify the measures Garrett deems unconstitutional?
    • How does Garrett envision the constitutional system of checks and balances?
  2. Albert Jay Nock, “Life, Liberty, and...”
    • What does “the pursuit of happiness” mean? Would the phrase “life, liberty, and property” have been better in the Declaration? Why or why not?
    • For what purpose or purposes does government exist? Does Nock consider any of these?
    • What place, if any, do families, churches, and other groups larger than the individual—but smaller than the state—have in Nock’s essay? Why are they present or absent?
  3. John Flynn, Part III, Chapter 3 “The Righteous Autarchy” from As We Go Marching
    • Do you agree with Flynn’s assessment of the significance of World War I? Why or why not?
    • Is any degree of government planning compatible with a free society?
    • To what extent is Flynn’s comparison of the New Deal to fascist and communist regimes an apt one?

Summary question: What are the main features of Nock, Flynn, and Garrett’s common vision of America? Why do they desire that the American state do so little?

Further reading:

  1. The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of American Culture, 1900-1945, ed. Robert M. Crunden
  2. Justin Raimondo, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement
  3. Who Owns America? A New Declaration of Independence, ed. Herbert Agar and Allen Tate
  4. Edmund Opitz, “The Durable Mr. Nock”
  5. Robert Thornton, “A Stroll with Albert Jay Nock”

Lesson 6: The libertarians

  1. Murray Rothbard, “Myth and Truth About Libertarianism”
    • Are there types of coercion that can produce authentic virtue and not merely “good behavior”?
    • Why would Rothbard’s “myths” arise in the first place? Are they logical extensions of libertarianism?
    • Is the doctrine of natural rights compatible with traditional Judaism or Christianity?
  2. F.A. von Hayek, “Principles or Expediency?”
    • Is the concept of “spontaneous order,” especially in the market, essential to libertarianism?
    • What does Hayek mean by “ideology”? Is an a priori commitment to the idea of liberty un-conservative or, at least, un-Burkean?
    • Does conservatism presume the kind of knowledge essential to making decisions for others (e.g. in the family, in the state, in the church) that Hayek rejects?
  3. Frank Chodorov, “Government Contra State” from Fugitive Essays: Selected Writings of Frank Chodorov
    • How are natural rights related to each other, if at all? What does it mean when one of them (e.g. the right to life) is openly denied to some in the polity in the name of another (the right of privacy)?
    • What place does custom have in determining a government’s legitimacy?
    • Does taxation have any purpose more legitimate than the one named by Chodorov?

Summary question: Can libertarians be considered conservative? If yes, define the senses in which they are; if no, why have they been allied with conservatives in the past?

Further reading:

  1. George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in American Since 1945 (an excellent introduction for all modern strands of American conservatism)
  2. Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate, ed. George W. Carey
  3. Murray Rothbard, “Conservatism and Freedom: A Libertarian Comment”
  4. Dyer & Hickman, “American Conservatism and F.A. Hayek”
  5. Frank Chodorov, “Debunking the State”
  6. Russell Kirk, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries”

Lesson 7: The anticommunists

  1. Whittaker Chambers, foreword to Witness
    • How can man become a beast?
    • Is it true that the crisis of the Western world exists to the degree to which the West has grown indifferent to God?
    • How does Chambers’ vision of the common crisis of the modern West as Man without God reorient our understanding of communism, and of the “free world”?
  2. James Burnham, “The Circular Travels of the Professors”
    • Why would intellectuals be particularly susceptible to ideological thinking?
    • Is the argument against communism’s effects (mass murder and mass poverty, among others) more pertinent today than the argument against its premises (atheism, materialism, etc.)?
    • Writing in 1960, does Burnham turn out to be at all prophetic about the future of communism? Or was he a failed prophet?
  3. William Henry Chamberlin, “Communism in Disarray”
    • Is permanent revolution intrinsic to communism?
    • Why does Chamberlin iterate communism’s dreary history with such thoroughness?
    • Did communism in fact die for the reasons Chamberlin provides or predicts?

Summary question: Now that communism has been consigned to history’s “ash heap,” are the writings of the anticommunists relevant any more? Why or why not?

Further reading:

  1. Jeffrey Hart, The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and its Times
  2. Daniel Mahoney, “Whittaker Chambers: Witness to the Crisis of the Modern Soul”
  3. Alger Hiss, Whittaker Chambers, and the Schism in the American Soul, ed. Patrick A. Swan.
  4. William McGurn, “The Witness of Whittaker Chambers: A Bitter Hope”
  5. Daniel Kelly, James Burnham and the Struggle for the World: A Life
  6. Samuel Francis, “Power and History: The Political Thought of James Burnham”
  7. Albert Weeks, “Communist Illusion and Scourge”

Lesson 8: The traditionalists

  1. Russell Kirk, “Enlivening the Conservative Mind”, pp. 23-26 of “The State of Conservatism: A Symposium” pdf.
    • Review Kirk’s list of items to which the conservative subscribes. How does adherence to these ideas differ from adherence to an ideology?
    • What are the “certain large questions” on which thinking conservatives can agree? Does this exclude any of the groups listed a few paragraphs earlier in the essay?
    • Is conservatism a “movement”?
  2. Richard Weaver, “Up From Liberalism”
    • Why did Weaver write an intellectual autobiography rather than a compendium of his ideas?
    • Does a denial of one part of Weaver’s orthodoxy entail a denial of all the others? In other words, do all Weaver’s contentions stand and fall together, or can one appropriate them selectively?
    • Compare Weaver’s description of war under the auspices of chivalry with Garrett’s American imperial war. How does each author deal with the history of war, and what does he assume or claim about its participants?
  3. Robert Nisbet, “Conservatives and Libertarians: Uneasy Cousins”
    • What aspects of American conservatism are Burkean, and which are un- or anti-Burkean?
    • Is there a conservatism that is not opposed to libertarianism?
    • Can one believe that “human nature” changes or is nonexistent and still remain a conservative?

Summary question: In the end, is the “unorthodox defense of orthodoxy” an impossibility?

Further reading:

  1. Bruce Frohnen, “Redeeming America’s Political Culture: The Kirkean Tradition in the Study of American Public Life”
  2. Russell Kirk, The Roots of American Order
  3. Russell Kirk, The Politics of Prudence
  4. Russell Kirk, The American Cause
  5. Henry Regnery, “Russell Kirk: A Life Worth Living”
  6. Richard Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time
  7. John Bliese, “Richard Weaver, Russell Kirk, and the Environment”
  8. John East, “Richard Weaver: The Conservatism of Affirmation”
  9. Brad Lowell Stone, “A True Sociologist: Richard Weaver”

Lesson 9: Neoconservatism

  1. Irving Kristol, “The Neoconservative Persuasion”
    • Why does Kristol cite hopefulness, being forward-looking, and cheerfulness as “in the American grain,” rather than lugubriousness, nostalgia, or dyspepsia? Do the latter characteristics have a place in conservatism? Do they have a place in American life?
    • Does neoconservatism have a contribution to make that is extra- or non-political? Is neoconservatism anything besides a political movement?
    • Is neoconservatism primarily valuable for its contributions to domestic policy?
  2. Tod Lindberg, “Neoconservatism’s Liberal Legacy”
    • Is American conservatism the conservation of liberalism?
    • Is the “neoconservative turn” in public policy a conservative “turn” in any sense?
    • Is neoconservatism an ideology?
  3. Gary North, “An Introduction to Neoconservatism”
    • What is neoconservatism’s relation to the Old Right?
    • Why is neoconservatism not fundamentally opposed to the expansion of government for the public good?
    • Re-read what North calls his fundamental insight about neoconservatives’ societal position. Does it matter more, as much, or less than he thinks it does to neoconservatism?

Summary question: Is neoconservatism actually conservative? In what ways?

Further reading:

  1. The Future of Conservatism: Conflict and Consensus in the Post-Reagan Era, ed. Charles W. Dunn
  2. Samuel Francis, “The Harmless Persuasion”

Lesson 10: Paleoconservatism

  1. Samuel Francis, “The Paleo Persuasion”
    • Is America a “proposition”? Why or why not?
    • Should paleoconservatives hold out hope for electoral success in America?
    • What degree of continuity is there between the Old Right and the paleoconservatives? What is the degree of continuity between paleos and traditionalists?
  2. Paul Gottfried, “Paleoconservatism”
    • To paraphrase Tertullian, what hath paleoconservatism to do with neoconservatism?
    • Who are the libertarians with whom paleoconservatives could make an alliance? Is this a political or philosophical meeting of minds?
    • Does the paleoconservatives’ rejection of ideology necessarily lead to the embrace of relativism in their politics?
  3. Douglas Jeffrey, “Confused About Conservatism”
    • What is the responsibility of the American people in light of their history?
    • What is it the task of American conservatism to conserve?
    • What does it mean that conservatives “defeat[ed] the Soviet Union”?

Summary question: Is paleoconservatism more than a reaction to neoconservatism? If so, what is that “more”?

Further reading:

  1. Gerald Russello, “The Need for Self-Scrutiny”

Lesson 11: The agrarians

  1. Wendell Berry, “The Agrarian Standard”
    • Notice Berry’s phrase, “make people truly native to their places.” How does a process of “making native” occur?
    • Must industrialization be anathema to conservatives?
    • What does the phrase “healthy people in a healthy land” mean? Can it be reduced to quantifiable measures of health (e.g. incidence of cancer, parts-per-million of a given pollutant)? Is Berry’s vision more holistic than that?
  2. Allan Carlson, “Compassionate Conservatism: Ten Lessons from the New Agrarians”
    • Is an “activist” or “compassionate” conservatism oxymoronic?
    • Compare Carlson’s list of agrarian virtues to Garrett’s marks of empire. Is the cultivation of such virtues and prejudices compatible with an empire? Why or why not?
    • Can a wide diffusion of property be achieved without massive state intervention in the market? If so, does this mean that agrarianism is fundamentally unjust?
  3. David Gordon, “We Will Berry You!—The Flaky Socialism of the Crunchy Cons”
    • Is agrarianism a necessary consequence of being a traditionalist?
    • Why are restrictions on personal freedom categorically wrong?
    • It would appear that agrarianism would necessarily result in much less wealth for a society overall. How does an agrarian rationally defend his positions?

Summary question: Reread the beginning of Berry’s essay in which he discusses his hoped-for but elusive obsolescence as an agrarian writer. Is agrarianism in particular, and conservatism in general, nothing more than a striving in vain for glorious—but hopelessly lost—causes?

Further reading:

  1. Allan Carlson, Third Ways
  2. Bill Kauffman, Look Homeward, America: In Search of Reactionary Radicals and Front-Porch Anarchists
  3. George Panichas, “In the Agrarian Conservative Tradition”
  4. Andrew Foshee, “The Political Economy of the Southern Agrarian Tradition”
  5. Andrew Lytle, “They Took Their Stand: The Agrarian View After Fifty Years”
  6. Jeremy Beer, “An Alternative Conservative”
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