Crash-Course for Conservatives

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"Have pity on the kids in college who take their politics from the new conservative leadership in the reign of Bush. To them, conservatism will be synonymous with the uncritical celebration of war, power, and violence. Forget about reading Edmund Burke or Eric Voegelin. To flex your conservative muscle, call for more government consolidation and shout down anyone who has doubts about US global hegemony. Power, control, coercion: these are the new watchwords of American conservatism 2002." ~ Lew Rockwell, April 4, 2002.

Lew is right, and not just because this is his website. I’ve seen for myself during six years of college as a graduate and undergraduate just how little campus conservatives know about the history of their own beliefs. That’s true at Washington University and it’s true on most other campuses too, in my experience. For that matter the story isn’t any different outside of academia. No wonder then that neoconservatives can pass themselves off as representatives of the right; the real right has little sense of its own heritage — a very complicated heritage at that.

In February my friend and colleague Stephen Carson wrote about our conservative and libertarian student activities here at Washington University). Kindly to a fault, Stephen gave me too much credit in that piece, but it is true that I’ve encouraged other students to learn more about the intellectual history of the right. To that end I put together a couple of reading groups, including one on the basic "Roots and Branches of the American Right." Most "denizens of LRC" (in the War Street Journal’s famous phrase) are already well-versed in these basics, but my own experience with the reading group has been that re-reading conservative classics taught me much that I’d missed the first time and brought me to a greater appreciation for Edmund Burke and Frank Meyer in particular.

The "Roots and Branches" group began with a look at the Constitution’s ratifying debates. We read Federalist #51 and Federalist #10, both by James Madison and arguing in favor of the proposed Constitution. From the anti-Federalists we read "Brutus" #1 and Patrick Henry’s speech to the Virginia ratifying convention. When the group met to discuss the readings the others told me that they had not even known such opposition to the Constitution existed, nor that criticisms of the Constitution were not limited to its lack of a Bill of Rights. These students are no dummies, most are upperclassmen at one of the country’s top liberal arts universities. They simply had never encountered these writings at public or private schools, nor even at the university. The ratifying debates just are not taught, or if they are it is with an overwhelming overemphasis on the Federalists.

I certainly learned something too. I had always been told that Patrick Henry was a proto-libertarian while Madison was a "conservative." But it’s Henry who defends organic institutions as the only effective checks and balances on government, and Madison who appears to be the more abstractly rationalistic. There’s much more to both men than just these three selections from their work; nevertheless it goes to show that the history of the American right is not necessarily what it is commonly assumed to be. To judge from his comments at the Virginia convention, you would conclude that Patrick Henry was a true Burkean.

Burke was the next source we read, specifically the selections of his works found in The Portable Conservative Reader. The most exclusively libertarian student in the group loved Burke, unaware that Burke was supposedly the fountainhead of "traditionalist" conservatism and enemy of "libertarian" tendencies. The same student was less impressed by the next week’s reading, Bastiat’s The Law (buy here or read the text on-line here), although what he disliked about The Law was not what it said but what it didn’t say — Bastiat wrote more about the socialism he opposed than the liberty he supported.

Burke appealed to me more than he had in the past. I was always skeptical of the notion that one man from the late 18th century could be considered the founder of conservatism, when the things I wanted to conserve all preceded him by six hundred years or more. Burke, I thought, was a modern and was really more pragmatic than principled on all but a few matters. Re-reading him though I was finally impressed by how hard, and how originally, he was fighting to preserve civilization against not only the French Revolution but also imperial overreach, degradation of the traditional rights of Englishmen, and religious intolerance.

I have to digress upon Burke for a moment. Part of my renewed appreciation for him comes from material we examined later in the reading group. Freedom and Virtue: The Conservative/Libertarian Debate, edited by George Carey, begins with a piece by Morton Auerbach arguing for the incoherence of modern conservatism. It tries to unite what to Auerbach cannot be joined, Burkean "medievalism" and classical liberalism. My complaint with Burke, however, was precisely that I didn’t think he was medieval enough. I had simply taken it for granted that that was what he was "supposed" to be. Friedrich Hayek set me straight: in his famous "Why I Am Not A Conservative," Hayek classifies himself as a member of the same tradition as Gladstone, Acton…and Burke. For Hayek, Burke was what we might call a "traditionalist-liberal" (as opposed to the later utilitarian liberals). An "Old Whig," in Hayek’s phrase (and Burke was literally a member of the Whig Party to boot). He was not a "medievalist" at all. This insight not only resolved Auerbach’s contradiction but also my hang-up. Burke was properly a "liberal of the right" and not a true reactionary, and I could no longer fault him for failing to be medieval enough. Burke made sense to me when I understood to which tradition he properly belonged.

(For a more thorough and scholarly discussion of Burke-as-traditionalist-liberal, consider these articles by Joseph Stromberg and Murray Rothbard.)

After covering Burke and then the classical liberalism of Frederic Bastiat the reading group turned to the pre-WWII "Old Right" in America. We read the introduction and selections from The Superfluous Men: Conservative Critics of American Culture, 1900-1945, edited by Robert Crunden. It was a right to which none of the other students in the group had been exposed before, although I’m afraid what we read could only give an inkling of the diversity (and even eccentricity) of the Old Right. We read Nock and Mencken, but time wouldn’t permit us to delve into Southern Agrarians or New Humanists. There simply is no way that I know of to summarize the eclectic Old Right in one week’s worth of undergraduate reading.

This week we read Frank Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom, which today is considered something of a definitive statement of post-war conservatism, although at the time of its publication (1962) it was highly controversial. Meyer’s approach was called by his critics "fusionism" because, they claimed, he tried unnaturally to combine libertarianism with traditionalism. Four years ago when I first read the book I was inclined to agree with those critics. Now I’m not so sure. Meyer is right to emphasize the need to apply reason to tradition, not only to decide which traditions are right (Marxism is a Western tradition, after all) but also to extend and renew tradition in the revolutionary modern world. My complaint with Meyer now is that he overemphasizes the division of reason and tradition in 19th century Europe, between classical liberals and continental conservatives, when the American tradition had largely remained unified all along. By 1962 the American right had been greatly "Europeanized," so Meyer was dealing with the reality he faced; nonetheless American conservatisms deserved more attention.

Meyer somewhat polarized the reading group, with one student saying that Meyer should have chosen sides between traditionalists and libertarians because only one could be right, and another saying that Meyer described conservatism just as she had always believed it to be. Next week’s readings should further illustrate the divergence between traditionalists and libertarians, as we’re reading selections from the opposing sides of Freedom and Virtue. Specifically we’re reading Brent Bozell’s and Russell Kirk’s polemics against libertarianism and Tibor Machan’s defense. But even here the conflict may not be so sharp as left-libertarian lifestyle radicals and crypto-statist "conservatives" might like us to believe. Kirk notes in his "A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians" that libertarians "do not believe that the United States should station garrisons throughout the world; no more do I…." Kirk has a lot to teach any misguided student today who believes that US global hegemony is in any way a "conservative" cause.

In future weeks the reading group may cover the paleo- / neo- conservative dispute and the "crack-up" of the right after the collapse of the USSR. We haven’t chosen any firm readings for that yet, though. There are of course many, many topics that deserve to be covered by the group but that time does not permit. I have tried to keep the focus narrowly on the largest and most important roots and branches of the right, and what those are has been a subjective call on my part. Still, as an introduction to the right and its tangled heritage I think the group has been successful and demonstrates one way to teach today’s conservative students about their own tradition.

One need not be in college to organize a reading group such as I have described. For that matter even individual study of conservative classics is hardly fruitless. Most of the sources I have mentioned above are available either on-line in their full text or are fairly inexpensive to purchase. If you are a student, you should consider contacting the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which exists to promote conservative intellectual activity on campus and has been invaluable in helping with the Washington University reading group. See also the materials at the Ludwig von Mises Institute website, such as this study guide and these e-books. There are resources out there for everybody who wants to learn about the real right.

Daniel McCarthy [send him mail] is a graduate student in classics at Washington University in St. Louis.

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