Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Conservatism: what is it?

"Conservatism, though a necessary element in any stable society, is not a social program;  in its paternalistic, nationalistic, and power-adoring tendencies it is often closer to socialism than true liberalism.   And with its traditionalistic, anti-intellectual, and often mystical propensities, it will never, except in short periods of disillusionment, appeal to the young and all those others who believe that some changes are desirable if this world is to become a better place.  A conservative movement, by its very nature, is bound to be a defender of establishment privilege and to lean on the power of government for the protection of privilege."

The quotation above was written by F. A. Hayek for his introduction to the 1955 re-issue of his famous book The Road To Serfdom. 
I have set out to investigate the history of modern conservatism in the United States.  This effort is strictly personal and for my own understanding of the forces at work today in our polity.
I began by trying to find a workable or satisfactory definition of a conservative and have concluded that there isn't one.  Political conservatism in America contains divisions of great importance to their adherents.  There maybe three or four definitions of conservatism.
I don't believe that Hayek's is a true definition.   I see it as reflecting  a problem within the domain of conservatism that has not been understood or reconciled with the philosophy.
There are other contradictions that exist within the conservative movement.  The result is unwillingness to call  myself a conservative when a well-known public conservative preaches ideas with which I disagree mightily.
I am using two books for a general history of the conservative movement:  "The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945" by George N. Nash and "From Dawn To Decadence" by Jacques Barzun.
I chose these two books because their authors are conservative and they are excellent sources for additional reading.
My first choices for additional reading are:  "The Wise Men Know What Wicked Things Are Written On The Sky" by Russell Kirk, and "The Law" by Frederic Bastiat.
Challenging works.  I'll see what comes of it.


  1. Many years ago, I actually worked in the conservative movement. It was divided then and remains divided. It was then a marriage of convenience between people united only in their opposition to communism. So you has old-guard Republicans (not much different from the largely extinct conservative Democrats) mixing with people who were classical liberals (like Hayek, who wrote an essay called "Why I am Not a Conservative") for whom the maximization of individual freedom is the actual point of politics (my own position). The latter is naturally suspicious not so much of government as of the state, which is government that is no longer the servant of citizens but their self-appointed master (see Nock's Our Enemy, the State). "Ask not what your country can do for you? Ask what you can do for your country? Sorry. I would rather ask neither.
    Conservatism, of course, is not a philosophy. It is a disposition. Everybody is conservative about something. The best formulation of it is Lord Falkland's: "When it is not necessary to change, it is necessary not to change."

  2. Linc/Frank,

    My wife says that a conservative is someone who considers the past better than today but rather than trying to improve today they wish the future to be just like the past. Hence all the talk about the good old days, i.e. Reagan, etc.


  3. I think, Joe, what your wife is describing is a reactionary -- which, interestingly, is what many revolutionaries become. But these terms tend to be used rather haphazardly, thanks mostly to the media. A traditionalist, for example, should not be mistaken for a conservative, because a living tradition grows and develops continuously. I give you T.S. Eliot. And the self-styled progressive can become calcified by his ideology and unable to adapt to changing circumstances. Once we start seeing things in ways that are too boldly demarcated, we tends to lose all sense of ambiguity and nuance. And life is mostly ambiguous and highly nuanced.

  4. By the way, I think that Jacques Barzun, who once said that "a man who has both feet planted firmly in the air can be safely called a liberal as opposed to the conservative, who has both feet firmly planted in his mouth," would probably object to being called a conservative.

  5. LOL, Frank. By that definition almost anyone would object to the label of conservative. But what else could a man of his high standards be but one who preserves the best of thought and law. I also summon to the stand one Gertrude Himmelfarb who will testify to his conservatism.
    BTW, I remember the JFK inaugural speech. I watched it on TV in my Miami, Florida hotel room, having just arrived from NY by train that morning. I didn't have the same reaction you had, but I remember that it struck a discordant note. It seemed inappropriate. I wasn't sure then and am not now ready to say that I know what he meant by 'what you can do for your country'.

  6. JOE: your wife has named one kind of conservative. There are so many: fiscal, social,, political, evangelical, neo-, traditionist, classic, etc, etc. We need a Linnaeus to classify and organize the many animals of this family.
    That said, I find the past preferable, as much for nostalgia as anything else. The songs, the slower pace, the parity between price and wage,
    a stronger social fabric. It goes with being old, I guess.

  7. I don't know how old you are, Lincoln -- I'm 69 -- but it's hard to get around the fact that much of the past was indeed better than some of the present. What you cite are good examples. You are also correct that the term conservative covers a wide range of life forms.


  9. phaedra: Yes, Burke is the standard. I have read portions of his work. Michael Oakeshott is mentioned in Nash's History (cited in post) as a British conservative more in the tradition of Hume than Burke. I presume you disagree with that. I've put Oakeshott on the list.
    Thanks for your comments.