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Have You Read “The Federalist Papers of American Conservatism”?


The following is adapted from Jonah Goldberg’s foreword to the brand-new edition of What Is Conservatism? This classic 1964 book, featuring essays by F. A. Hayek, William F. Buckley Jr., Russell Kirk, and other giants, is as relevant today as ever. Here’s why.

What Is Conservatism? is one of my favorite books, despite being what you might call a successful failure. I don’t mean commercially. Frankly, I have no idea how well this book sold, but going by the history of philosophical anthologies, I think it’s safe to assume that it never threatened to hit the bestseller lists. On the other hand, more than a half century later it remains an oft-cited and significant book in its field. Given that most anthologies aren’t read even by their contributors, you could argue that it’s a giant of the genre.

But what I mean by success and failure is something different altogether. First, it succeeds because it is a wonderful book. More important, it served a high purpose. It is The Federalist Papers of American conservatism. Like the patriots who convened in Philadelphia to hammer out a new charter for a new nation, the contributors to this book laid out a new consensus for a new movement. That effort was led intellectually by Frank Meyer and politically by my old boss William F. Buckley Jr. (whose intellectual contributions to the effort were prodigious as well).

The project, commonly called “fusionism,” was laid out most forcefully in Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo (1962). He argued that a love and respect for freedom must unite all factions on the right. To the traditionalists he argued that virtue not freely chosen isn’t virtuous. To the libertarians (or, to use an older word, “individualists”), he explained that individualism absent morality is an invitation to chaos, and chaos is, in turn, an invitation to oppression of one kind or another. Meyer writes in What Is Conservatism? that “truth withers when freedom dies, however righteous the authority that kills it; and free individualism uninformed by moral value rots at its core and soon brings about conditions that pave the way for surrender to tyranny.”

Meyer did not lack for critics. Murray Rothbard condescended that Meyer was a “libertarian manqué” who failed to unite the two camps. Meyer’s friend and colleague Brent Bozell, a Catholic traditionalist, found fusionism (a term Bozell coined) a failure as well, though for different reasons. Bozell argued that the purpose of politics is to promote not liberty but virtue. And when the two are in conflict, virtue must triumph. (Perhaps that’s why Bozell left National Review to found his own ultramontane Catholic magazine, called Triumph.)

Although I still consider myself a fusionist, I agree with the critics that, philosophically, fusionism has its flaws, or at least vulnerabilities. Taking his credo to its logical conclusion, the fusionist must always err on the side of permitting everything, or almost everything, in order to allow every individual to make a free—and therefore virtuous—choice. But is it really true that a virtuous society cannot consider some questions settled? Isn’t the whole point of conservatism to “pocket” the moral victories of the past and to conserve them, at least for as long as possible? Is it conservative to leave such victories like chips on the table to be wagered on a hunch that society will make the right choice with every new deal of the cards? Must we debate the “merits” of pedophilia, incest, bestiality, cruelty to animals, etc., every generation?

But Meyer is surely correct that freedom cannot be sustained in a society that abandons traditional morality—an argument that vexed many of his purer libertarian friends. Even the free market is heavily dependent on values, customs, and mores that are upstream from capitalism. As Friedrich Hayek said, “Capitalism presumes that apart from our rational insight we possess a traditional endowment of morals, which has been tested by evolution but not designed by our intelligence.” Social trust, respect for law, tolerance for delayed gratification: these things are all essential to a free economy, but they are not simply economic phenomena. In every generation, we see capitalism threatened not by dangerous economic arguments but by seductive moral claims. Left to defend themselves against strictly economic attacks, free-market economists would prevail. Proponents of the minimum wage cannot make a better case empirically or theoretically, but they can do so emotionally. As Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman learned, the true defender of free markets, and of liberty itself, must go outside the walled citadel of capitalism and fight on the muddier battlefields of morality.

Is ever more liberty the best tool for sustaining—never mind restoring—a virtuous and free moral order? A decent society can tolerate a fair number of moral free riders, people who reject the lessons of the past while enjoying the prosperity and order provided and sustained by others. But eventually the logic of the tragedy of the commons kicks in. Every civilization must take seriously how the next generation shall be civilized.

Children aren’t the only ones who need order and authority. “Civilized man,” Russell Kirk writes in What Is Conservatism?, “lives by authority.” He continues: “Without some reference to authority, indeed, no form of human existence is possible. . . . Without just authority and respected prescription, the pillars of any tolerable civil social order, true freedom is not possible.” One can think of countless scenarios where the last thing required to solve a problem or end a crisis is more freedom. During the Baltimore riots in the spring of 2015, for example, Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake explained that, to “those who wished to destroy,” she gave “space to do that.”

On the other hand, the claim that order and virtue should always prevail has its own set of problems. These problems are probably more familiar to most readers, because our educational system and popular culture have been at war with nearly all forms of traditional authority for decades. We are taught to respond “who are you to judge?” at the slightest provocation. We distrust figures who lecture us about virtue and rebel against anyone who might impose order we find inconvenient, never mind morally undesirable. This instinct often takes on a partisan pigment—the left’s definitions of tyranny and the right’s drift further from each other by the day—but the arguments against government-imposed virtue still seem less necessary to rehearse, particularly when so many contributors to this volume make them better than I could.

Conservatism, Realism, and Gratitude

Which brings us back around to why this book was a successful failure. I likened What Is Conservatism? to The Federalist Papers earlier. Such analogies are like toupees; they do their best work so long as they don’t invite close inspection. Under scrutiny, the analogy’s flaws become apparent. The Federalist Papers were written to rally support for the new Constitution. The essays in this collection were commissioned to rally support for a new consensus around the question “What is conservatism?” The problem is that only the editor, Frank Meyer, was fully committed to the fusionist idea. The other contributors subscribed to their particular views of conservatism—and libertarianism—and only occasionally lined up with the agenda of the editor. The diversity of thought is so great at times, it is as if The Federalist Papers included essays not just from Anti-Federalists but even from an occasional monarchist and loyalist as well.

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This diversity of thought illuminates one of the great glories of conservatism. Detractors and adherents alike tend to operate on the assumption that conservatism is a set of clearly defined principles, a set of First Things from which all other important Things derive their meaning and legitimacy. For some conservatives the American Founding is the foundation on which all principles are built. But that foundation rests upon other foundations, from John Locke, Adam Smith, and Montesquieu all the way down to the Bible and Aristotle.

Many Catholic conservatives will tell you that their philosophical commitments are extensions of natural law, as laid out by the Bible and the Church Doctors. That’s fine, but many titans of conservatism couldn’t tell you the first thing about Saint Augustine or Aquinas. And while many conservatives reverently identify the Judeo-Christian heritage as the wellspring of conservatism, it’s not hard to find atheists who stand as conservatives in full. (Is George Will really not a conservative?) Nor is it written anywhere that Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims cannot be conservatives.

As for the left, their views of conservatism tend to be caricatures, portraying conservatives as rigid ideologues, theocrats, or simply bigots. Even the most generous left-wing critics argue that conservatives are the dogmatists and liberals the pragmatists. Indeed, as a matter of ideological fixation, contemporary liberals have convinced themselves that they have no ideological fixations. The reality is that they are profoundly dogmatic—so dogmatic, in fact, that they are blind to their own dogma about the wisdom and efficacy of the state, and the incapacity of liberals to use the state to carry mankind to the sunny uplands of History.

Conservatives have their dogma, to be sure, but we acknowledge it. We debate it. We are constantly grappling with the question of how to draw the line between virtue and freedom, order and liberty. And we don’t stop there. We debate whether conservatism is an ideology or a temperament, a time-bound political agenda or a timeless philosophical orientation. Does conservatism speak to the ends of man or simply the means? Is it a doctrine of government or a doctrine of personal conduct? Michael Oakeshott tells us, “It is not at all inconsistent to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity.” I have no doubt Russell Kirk would disagree.

These debates run straight through the conservative heart. Every thoughtful conservative I know recognizes a little bit of himself or herself in those who are more purely traditionalist and those more ardently libertarian. We all understand that libertarian arguments and traditionalist arguments have merit, which in turn requires us to apply reason to the question of which side is more right than the other for any particular circumstance.

One thing all conservatives believe is that utopias are impossible. The word itself means “no-place.” The best we can hope for is a eutopia—a “good place.” A perfect society requires perfect men, but conservatives understand that man is fallen—or, for the more secular, flawed. Moreover, while all men are flawed, they are not all flawed in the same way. There will always be inequality. There will always be hierarchies. Conservatism, which is a form of realism, recognizes this.

As a consequence, conservatism understands that life is about trade-offs between competing desires and preferences. In our personal affairs, we understand that career and family, friendship and duty, and a thousand other competing goods can be in conflict, and we do our best to balance them. Governing, likewise, is about choosing between competing preferences.

In short, at the very core of conservatism lies comfort with contradiction, acceptance of the fact that life is not fair; that ideals must forever be goals, not destinations; that the perfect is not the enemy of the good but one standard by which we understand what is good in the first place—though not the only standard. Conservatism also recognizes the authority of the past and the lessons it teaches. Nothing is ever good enough when measured solely against an ideal. Only when measured against the experience of the past can we truly understand what counts as progress. And with that understanding comes perhaps the most indispensable conservative orientation: gratitude.

The whole point of seeking to conserve that which is good and just must begin with a sense of gratitude. Yuval Levin of the Ethics and Public Policy Center offered one of my favorite meditations on conservatism when he said: “To my mind, conservatism is gratitude. Conservatives tend to begin from gratitude for what is good and what works in our society and then strive to build on it, while liberals tend to begin from outrage at what is bad and broken and seek to uproot it.”

Gratitude is the bedrock of patriotism. Without it, patriotism is nothing more than nationalism. We are lucky to be Americans, because America is special. The American Revolution was a successful revolution precisely because it was grounded in both realism and idealism. Written deep into the structure of our Constitution is a profound comfort with contradiction. It sets faction against faction, pits each branch of government against the other, dilutes the excesses of democracy, and holds the executive accountable to the people. By being so grounded in realism, it can hold the weight of our ideals.

Which brings me to Friedrich Hayek’s essay, “Why I Am Not a Conservative”—the only essay in this book that wasn’t commissioned by Meyer. It is one of Hayek’s most widely abused and misused works. Its proper title should be “Why I Am Not a European Conservative.” Hayek writes:

Conservatism proper is a legitimate, probably necessary, and certainly widespread attitude of opposition to drastic change. It has, since the French Revolution, for a century and a half played an important role in European politics. Until the rise of socialism its opposite was liberalism. There is nothing corresponding to this conflict in the history of the United States, because what in Europe was called “liberalism” was here the common tradition on which the American polity had been built: thus the defender of the American tradition was a liberal in the European sense.

In other words, America is the one place in the world where being a conservative has always meant being a liberal in the classical sense. (Hayek goes on in that essay to describe himself not as a “libertarian” or an “individualist” but as an “Old Whig”—precisely the term preferred by Edmund Burke, the founder of conservatism according to Russell Kirk.)

The American Founders were classical liberals. Modern American conservatives are dedicated to the task of defending that tradition of liberty. National Review’s Felix Morley made this point in his 1964 review of What Is Conservatism?, in which he concluded, “American conservatism, to this reviewer, is simply Constitutionalism, in a strict rather than pliable interpretation.”

Ultimately this book matters, and is a successful book, because it illuminates that American tradition of liberty. Fusionism as a political philosophy falls short (as do its modern analogues, such as “conservatarianism”) because, at the end of the day, liberty and order or freedom and virtue cannot be permanently reconciled. They are at once mutually dependent and at war, a bickering couple that cannot live without each other. At any given moment, one may have the better argument than the other, but tomorrow is another day. Life is full of contradictions and conflicts, and the story of Western civilization—the only true fundament of modern conservatism—is the story of these contradictions and conflicts being worked out over millennia. Fusionism is a failure if one looks to it as a source for what to think. But it is a shining success if one sees it as a guide for how to think. It tells us that we must always try to balance these conflicting principles—albeit with a thumb on the scales of liberty. That’s fine, because in the classical liberal tradition, the benefit of the doubt should always go to liberty, while the forces of coercion should meet an extra burden of proof.

Jonah Goldberg is the author of two New York Times bestsellers, Liberal Fascism and The Tyranny of Clichés. He is a nationally syndicated columnist, a Fox News contributor, a contributing editor to National Review, the founding editor of National Review Online, and a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is adapted from Goldberg’s foreword to the new edition of the classic book What Is Conservatism?, available now at a special 30 percent discount.


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