Conservatism: A Rediscovery


Yoram Hazony

 M. P. Ross 05-20-2022


“… darf a yeder zayn a shtickle mensch…”  Aaron Lebedeff.  Read on for translation and explanation.

An army of straw men

Conservatism continues the argument from the author’s previous political book, The Virtue of Nationalism, presenting the case that each nation has its specific character, and is best served by its own form of government.  For the United States, this means a conservative government based on Anglo-American Protestant traditions.  It reasonably asserts that man is naturally social, born into a family, which is generally accepted as the basic unit of political organization, followed by clans and tribes as society became more complex.  These hierarchical units are held together by mutual loyalty, where those of lower status respect and learn from those of higher status, are bound by obligation to the family, tribe, and nation, and are grounded in a belief in God and scripture.  And that’s how things were, until the Enlightenment.

In this telling, Enlightenment philosophers—Hobbes and Descartes, Spinoza and Rousseau, and especially John Locke—are guilty of exercising reason.  And, it’s true, their theories require buying into the first assumptions upon which the entire theory rests.  (Which is not to take sides for either reason or tradition, The Folly of the Pure Model cautions against either complete reliance on or outright dismissal of any one theory.)  At issue in Conservatism is the Enlightenment concept that man is born free.  Upon this contention, the book erects a great straw man, Enlightenment liberalism, which it populates throughout the book in order to do battle with it.

Well written and clearly presented, the book begins with a largely unobjectionable history of American conservatism and its British forerunner.  Soon, however, the book takes a hard turn into territory that is like My Big Fat Greek Wedding—with conservative substituted for Greek—played out on a set from a Thomas Kincaid painting.  Anything or anybody that enhances the book’s version of conservatism is given credit for its superiority.  On the other hand, the straw man Enlightenment liberalism is indicted for all the failings of our species and nation.

Conservatism makes for a frustrating read.  It does not ignore contrary views, in fact it supplies its own contradictions, only to set aside or ignore them, to return to an increasingly skewed and selective advocacy of its case.  Valid points, My Big Fat Conservative Wedding by Thomas Kincaid, pivot to the attack on the Enlightenment liberalism straw man.  That’s not exactly true.  Marxists are another straw man.  (Are there still Marxists in the United States?  Of any influence?  The book concedes that elements of the progressive left may not be Marxists in name, but are nonetheless Marxists in substance.)   Throughout the book, if not on every page then every section, this pattern repeats.  Ad absurdum, ad nauseam.

The founding fathers of our republic, and their sources of philosophical inspiration, are subjected to something of purity test that suggest the results have been tampered with.  George Washington appears as a pure conservative, as do Madison and Hamilton; Jefferson remains an unrepentant liberal.  Locke throughout is a caricature.  Peter Berkowitz’s review in the May 29, 2022 Washington Free Beacon provides a good account of the book’s inaccuracies and manipulations, especially with regard to Locke.

Coming to terms

Arriving at clear definitions is more difficult than it would seem.  If we were to plot sets of philosophy and policy on a Venn diagram the result would show many intersecting sets.  Diagrams plotted for different periods in history would show ideas and their supporters in different patterns for each diagram.  Terms and definitions are not universally agreed upon.  What passes for serious discussion devolves into raising tribal banners.  Labels and slogans rally supporters, people who in their day to day lives may be very similar and desire the same things,   to opposing camps with the real risk of serious civil conflict.

The meanings of the labels Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, even today, are relative and subject to disagreement.  Over history, the poles have reversed.  Up until sometime during the period between the Johnson and Reagan administrations, there were still conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans.  For the present, while there remains degrees of diversity within the parties, they like the nation now face off against the center line.

Left, center, and right are most commonly plotted on a line.  But, moving farther in either direction from the center, we find the world is round, not flat; the line forms into a circle.  At 180 degrees from center we arrive at totalitarian.  Left and right may not exactly meet there, but they occupy the same approximate territory.

Philosophers are at liberty, so to speak, to define terms within the context of their theories.  In The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony abused that prerogative.  Rather than using a term like the nation-state or national community, the author attempted to repurpose the word nationalism, which is burdened with a suite of negative connotations—fascism, racism, xenophobia.  Yes, it may also mean what the author intends, but with considerable risk of misunderstanding and misapplication.

Conservatism as defined by Hazony is a rather more wholesome concept worthy of informed discussion.  He summarizes the five fundamental principles of Anglo-American conservatism: historical empiricism; nationalism; religion; limited executive power; individual freedoms.  As the book rightly points out, it is not only liberals who breach these principles, but conservatives who fail to live up to them, thus the need for a conservative rediscovery and renewal.

Liberalism, however, receives unrelenting rebuke.  While it is well within the philosopher’s purview to create their own system, it is likely unproductive to match it against an imaginary foil bearing the name of a competing philosophy.  Liberalism, as commonly understood today, refers to a system based on the rule of law, with respect for the rights of individuals, which takes account of the general will.  Hazony focuses on one aspect of Enlightenment liberalism, that man is born free, then enlarges and distorts liberalism into a grotesque straw man which he then proceeds to set ablaze.  This depiction is not only inaccurate, but without historical context.  While we are unable to fend for ourselves at birth, born into our immediate hierarchical society of family and tribe, we are still, as pro-life advocates assert, a distinct life, born with an individual identity.  What the book neglects are the conditions that existed prior to the Enlightenment.  Individuals were born subjects of the monarch—however that ruler obtained sovereignty.  To assert that man is born free does not, cannot, eliminate all other relationships—familial, political, or otherwise.  The book rejects the idea that society is built on the free consent of its members, but provides no definition of what is encompassed by the concept of consent.

Consent is not binary, certainly not in the context between individual and state.  It exists on a continuum, with full, free, informed consent at one end, and compulsion upon loss of life on the other.  Indifference is somewhere in the middle, with ambivalence nearby.  Toddlers no less than adults give or withhold consent.  A parent can ask, persuade, or cajole a toddler’s compliance, but if he or she refuses to give it, it is either give up the fight for another day or rely on compulsion, bodily removing the child from the scene of offense.  That is consent.  An individual is free to give or withhold consent.  Even the liberal state, according to relevant laws, may then penalize or punish, suspend or curtail rights, to the point of revoking citizenship.  Man is born free, not without obligations or restrictions.

Theory and practice, some points briefly considered

At the fundamental levels of individual, family, and tribe, conservative society is bound together by the linked concepts of honor and mutual loyalty.  As a pure model, conservatism is hierarchical, in comparison to a flat communist society.  Within society, individuals honor one another, especially those above them in rank or status.  This is not, however, entirely based on relative status, as there is mutual loyalty at work, as the interests of one are best served by attention to the interests of the other–an interesting, useful perspective for understanding the dynamics of the various relationships between individuals and society.  It suggests the role of recognition in Hegel, and taking into account mutual loyalty, provides some resolution of the master-slave dialectic, in that while honor may be given unequally, society and its members are bound through mutual need.

All manner of inequality exists throughout humanity—of age, height, strength and ability, wealth and social position, with formal and informal hierarchies developing independent of tribe or state.  However that may be so, free societies, which certainly include our Anglo-American Protestant conservative nation, are based on equality.  The right to life, liberty, and property through equal treatment under the rule of law.  The referee calls “Point: Mr. Locke.”

This review concerns itself with political theory, not theology.  The conservative model expounded in the book is grounded in religious belief and practice.  Religion, in one form or another, including the orthodoxy of communism, has been part of government from tribe to state since the development of society.  Religion is in a key aspect a form of natural law, or man in the state of nature, political theory.  All theories have their primary assumptions, whether they emanate from the word of God or the mind of a philosopher.  From that point, through reason or experience, core beliefs proceed from theory to practice, becoming the basis for law, with the worthiness of any theory subject to the test of time.  Hobbes and Locke, Augustine and Aquinas, are all still part of the political theory canon.

As in most matters, we encounter a people problem.  Let us begin with the assumption that the religious scripture is the revealed word of God.  Let us further assume that it was faithfully and accurately conveyed to humanity through oral tradition or holy writ.  Infallible.  Here our difficulties begin.  It will be heard or read by all too fallible people.  I do not know about you, but my first century Koine Greek is kind of rusty.  Then, there are the translations.

History is replete with examples of societies torn apart by differing interpretations of the same scripture.  How then is a populous and diverse state like the U.S. to be governed, let alone brought together as a nation, if any one interpretation is given official status?  In our liberal democracy there is no prohibition on relying on one or any religious tradition.  There is the obvious free exercise of religious belief and practice.  Unitarians and Episcopalians are not at war.  Neither any one religious belief nor the complete absence of belief is persecuted.

Further, Americans can choose to send their children to a parochial school.  And, to be sure, there are many excellent such schools which attract both less religious students, and students from other faiths, due to their quality of education.  Yet, Hazony disparages public schools for failing to teach religion, when not only is that not their responsibility—as well, they may teach a version of belief contrary to what the child learns in church or at home—but it would be unconstitutional for the school to do so.  A prime role fulfilled by public schools is one and the same as that lauded by the book, creating a feeling of national unity among the population.

On two points.  The first regards empiricism, which the book credits to conservatives, while Enlightenment liberals know only rationalism.  To quote Spinoza, “absurd.”  Yes, rationalism was a key feature of the Enlightenment, and any individual’s reasoning could be faulty, if not outright false, from first assumption to conclusion.  To reduce Enlightenment thought to rationalism, however, is to neglect one of its other key features, the scientific method, that is, empiricism.  Let us not forget the punishments brought down on the empiricist, condemned as a heretic for contradicting state approved religious doctrine.

Before reading Conservatism, the lingering impression of The Virtue of Nationalism was just how much it was an exercise in deductive reasoning, of beginning with a principle then justifying it with examples.  Plato’s Republic is primarily deductive, where Aristotle’s Politics is inductive.  Aristotle builds his argument from his study of many states.  He and his students were known to have catalogued the constitutions of some 158 different states, providing an ample sample for comparison.  It then came as a surprise to read that it is the conservative who exercises inductive reasoning, building arguments from experience and tradition, while at the same time asserting the importance of religious teaching, which is grounded in faith.  While the two need not be mutually exclusive, as presented, the argument comes off as boldfaced contradiction, especially as it and like claims are repeated throughout.

Who are the conservatives?

Conservatism has a problem.  It will, no doubt, be positively received by a group of conservative thinkers who share Hazony’s views.  It will also meet with approval from the many conservatives who give lip service to its ideals while mostly ignoring them in practice.  If the book’s true intent is to effectively promote conservatism, to have it gain ground as the dominant model for American society, it fails.  It goes out of its way to alienate and offend a large part of the population who may meet most of its tests for conservatism, but identify as liberal or Democrat.  Not the way to make common cause with those who may share some of your fundamental values.

Just who qualifies as a conservative as defined by Hazony?  One way to determine who among the third of a billion Americans are conservative is by who they vote to represent them.  If by conservative it is meant that they conserve and protect our traditions of family and government, believe in God and abide by the Ten Commandments, then judging by events playing out before us, true conservatives are hard to come by.

Time to take out the Venn diagrams.  As the book suggests, calling oneself such does not a conservative make.  Does the individual live a “conservative” life?  We could plot it out to get the answer.  There would be a set circle for each conservative criteria, with perhaps subsets for greater nuance and detail.  Then, sets for claimed political identity, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican.  It is a good bet that many self-identified liberal Democrats will test positive for “conservative” just as many Republicans will fail the test.

One example: Jimmy Carter.  Regardless of how you feel about him politically, in his personal life, how is this man not a conservative?  He served his nation, as a West Point graduate and naval officer.  He served his family, leaving the Navy when his father died to run the family business.  He is a church-going Christian who lives his faith.

Two concluding points

The democratic liberalism the book so thoroughly decries encompasses the conservatism it promotes.  Liberalism accommodates a diversity of opinion, making the book’s nationalism possible.  Under the present system, however strained, we have neither experienced a communist revolution nor an ultraconservative take-over.  Could a country as diverse, populous, and spread out over such an expanse of geography as the U.S. be held together under the less flexible conservative model?  Would such conservatism itself be able to fend off efforts to pull it farther to the right, and away from its own fundamental principles?

Missing from this whole discussion is the term menschlichkeit, the quality of being a decent human being.  Aaron Lebedeff, that psalmist of 2nd Ave., wrote humorous and often poignant songs for an audience of Lower East Side immigrants striving to bridge the gap from the old country to America.  The relationship of individual and state orchestrated for the stage.  From one song: “Far nile, nokh nile, a bukher, a besule, darf a yeder zayn a shtickle mensch…”  Before and after the concluding prayers on the Day of Atonement, during which worshippers are exhorted to avoid a severe decree in the Book of Life through repentance, prayer, and acts of righteousness, there is a young man, a young woman, and the singer tells them, be to each other a decent human being.