Robert Nisbet: Conservative Sociologist

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“Conservative
sociologist” is as close to an oxymoron as you can get in academia,
comparable to “civil government.”

There have been four prominent post-1950 conservative American sociologists
with books to their credit, as far as I can figure out: Nisbet,
Ernest van den Haag, Peter Berger, and Will Herberg. The original
conservative sociologist was anything but prominent: Albert Hobbs.
He wrote The Vision and the Constant Star, The Claims
of Sociology, Social Problems and Scientism, and Man
Is Moral Choice
. I mention him because almost no one remembers
him today. He wrote mainly in the 1950’s. His name is not found
even in monographs on the history of American conservatism. He was
laboring unappreciated in the vineyard years before the others appeared.

There was one other possible candidate back in 1959: Stanford University’s
Richard LaPierre. He wrote a book that had some influence in the
conservative movement, The Freudian Ethic: An Analysis of the
Subversion of American Character, which in 1959 was about the
only book critical of Freud that the typical conservative, or even
the untypical Russell Kirk, had ever heard of. What his politics were, I have
no idea.

WHAT
IS SOCIOLOGY

The first law of economics is this: “TANSTAAFL — There ain’t no
such thing as a free lunch.” The first law of sociology is this:
“Some do; some don’t.”

The typical economist is formally a methodological individualist.
He begins his analysis with a resource-allocating individual in
a world of scarcity. Robinson Crusoe is his literary starting point.
The sociologist is a methodological corporatist. He begins his analysis
with social groups. Swiss Family Robinson could be his starting
point — or, these days, more likely the pirates. (” ‘Love Me
or Leave Me': Walking the Plank as a Homoerotic Symbol in South
Caribbean Pirate Brotherhoods, 1767—1821.”)

The irony of sociology, an academic discipline that has long been
dominated by collectivist political liberals and radicals, is this:
the foundations of the discipline were laid by Edmund Burke, in
his book, Reflections
on the Revolution in France
(1790). Burke was a classical
liberal in his political views, a supporter of four revolutions:
English, American, Indian, Irish. But he recognized before anyone
else the destructive power of the French Revolution, which was founded
on the twin doctrines of the rights of the individual and the role
of the centralized state as the sole legitimate protector of these
rights. He forecast accurately what would come in a society in which
the state identified every person as “citizen.” There was no other
judicial definition of an individual, and when the state classified
anyone as ex-citizen, he was as good as dead. The Soviet Union repeated
the procedure with “comrade.”

Nisbet observed that the conservative movement has twice gone to
Burke as its source: 1790—1810 and 1953—1970. Burke’s
affirmation of the legitimacy of intermediate institutions, associations,
and loyalties became the touchstone of nineteenth-century European
Continental conservatism and twentieth-century American conservatism.
But it was not through the conservatives, but through liberals (Tocqueville,
Acton) and radicals (Saint-Simon, Compte, Marx) that nineteenth-century
sociology developed, with Weber and Simmel in the early twentieth
century.

He viewed the discipline of sociology as an extension of two theories
of society, both as old as Classical Greece: monism and pluralism.
In Plato’s political monism and Aristotle’s political pluralism,
we find the war of the worldviews. For Nisbet, the bad guys were
Plato, Hobbes, and Rousseau. The good guys were Aristotle and Burke.

Nisbet believed in a three-fold division, however: conservatism,
liberalism, and socialism. He sided with conservatives and liberals
against socialism. He appreciated the classical economists, Tocqueville,
Acton, and Hayek. But he saw them — I think correctly — as anti-conservatives.
They were individualists. They lodged final sovereignty in the individual
conscience. For the liberal, institutions are important for maintaining
the freedom of conscience and decision.

In reading Nisbet, we find that he affirmed intermediate associations
from the beginning of his career — his 1943 essay on “Rousseau
and the Political Community,” which begins his 1968 collection,
Tradition
and Revolt
— to the end. In this, he was a fellow traveller
with philosophical conservatives. But was he a conservative? I don’t
think he ever was. I think he was a classical liberal, though with
less commitment to the principle of contractual rights than, say,
Murray Rothbard, though far more commitment than, say, the Chicago
School economist Ronald Coase. I shall pursue this theme later in
this essay.

NISBET’S
CAREER AS AN AUTHOR

From
1953, with the publication of The
Quest for Community
(Oxford University Press), until his
death in 1996, Nisbet was the best-known American conservative sociologist.
But his academic career had a hiatus. For a dozen years, he was
invisible to the academic community and the struggling conservative
movement, of which he became a part in 1953 after reading Russell
Kirk’s book, The
Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot
. Before 1953, he
had been a classical liberal more in Tocqueville’s tradition. He
had written his Ph.D. dissertation on French conservative social
thought in the early nineteenth century, so he was familiar with
European conservatism. But in 1939, that tradition was intellectually
dead, and what little remained as a cultural force in 1939 had been
overwhelmed by the devastation of the war. Total war sweeps before
it every intermediate loyalty.

Years later, he summarized the history of American political conservatism
and political liberalism with this phrase: “From Burke to Kirk,
from Condorcet to ADA.” (ADA = Americans for Democratic Action.)
Kirk was a major factor in his conversion. In 1953, National
Review was two years away, The Freeman in its incarnation
under Leonard Read’s Foundation for Economic Education was three
years away, Modern Age was four years away, and Eisenhower
had just taken the oath of office. That was a very different intellectual
world from ours. New Deal liberalism and its accomplices were in
their ascendancy.

In 1953, he was made dean of the college at the brand-new Riverside
campus of the University of California, which opened with 100 students
in the fall of 1954. That college for a decade would remain an experimental
campus: a university with no graduate school and no teaching assistants.
Undergraduates were expected to write a thesis comparable to a master’s
thesis. Only with rising costs and the faculty’s desire to become
a Ph.D-granting institution did UCR add a graduate school in the
fall of 1963. In that year, Nisbet left the administration. He took
a year’s sabbatical, 1963-64, and then returned to the classroom.

It was shortly thereafter that his national reputation began to
take off like a rocket. There was a reason for this, which he confided
to me in the late 1960’s. “I became the favorite sociologist of
the neoconservative movement sometime around 1965. They published
my articles in Commentary and The Public Interest.
Jews buy a lot of books. They bought mine.”

And
did he give them books to buy! Here are the main ones, though not
a complete list: The
Sociological Tradition
(1966), regarded by some as the finest
survey of the origins of sociology; Tradition
and Revolt
(1968); Social
Change and History
(1969); The
Social Bond
(1970 — a textbook, and the only dull book
he ever wrote); The
Degradation of the Academic Dogma: The University in America, 1945-1970

(1971); The
Social Philosophers: Community and Conflict in Western Thought

(1973); The
Twilight of Authorit
y
(1975); History
of the Idea of Progress
(1980); Prejudices:
A Philosophical Dictionary
(1982); Conservatism:
Dream and Reality
(1986); The
Present Age: Progress and Anarchy in Modern America
(1988);
and the oddest one of all, Roosevelt
and Stalin
(1988).

COMMUNITY
AND POWER

In
1962, Oxford University Press re-titled his then out-of-print book,
The Quest for Community. It was titled Community and Power
and released as a paperback. Two years later, the counter-culture
began to be felt in American life. It made its initial institutional
appearance on campus, and it ended on campus. It visibly began at
Berkeley with the free speech movement in the fall of 1964. It ended
at Kent State University with the National Guard’s killing of four
students in May of 1970. In between, the issue of gaining and retaining
power was to become a focal point in every public institution, especially
the university. But the counter-culture cloaked its agenda in the
language of the need for a new community. Nisbet’s book was perfectly
positioned. As he said in an interview three decades later, the
book took on a cult status in the New
Left
. (A few years later, the original title was restored. The
decision-makers at Oxford University Press understood marketing.)

The counter-culture proclaimed the need to overturn the Establishment.
In the excitement of youth, its members did not yet see the opportunity
of joining the Establishment, cashing in on it, and moving to the
upscale suburbs. Jerry Rubin, later to become a stock broker, was
about to launch his career of carrying plastic toy machine guns
and calling on students to kill their parents. The high-income fusion
of bourgeois and bohemian cultures, delightfully described by David
Brooks in Bobos
in Paradise
, was two decades away.

The thesis of Community and Power was that modern society
since the seventeenth century has eroded away ancient institutions
that had for millennia shielded men from state power. In the name
of individualism, liberty, equality, the free market, science, and
progress, modern society and modern social philosophy have undermined
families, kinship groups, churches, guilds, and all other local
and regional associations to which men had been loyal.

The book also argued that individualism and statism are symbiotic.
Men seek to escape the influence and demands of a multitude of local
associations and political units, and in this quest for personal
liberty, they appeal for deliverance to the nation-state, which
alone has had the power to challenge and even suppress these local
authorities. In exchange for their deliverance from local authorities,
men transfer their allegiance to the state. In this exchange, they
sever ties to those local institutions that for millennia had provided
meaning and purpose in men’s lives. Stripped of these moral guidelines
and restraints, men seek the restoration of community. They seek
community in mass politics, especially national politics. The quest
for community becomes the quest for political power through large-scale
collective association. The state invades and increasingly replaces
all other authorities in a unitary, political chain of command.

The counter-culture steadily moved in the direction of an expansion
of politics. This came as no surprise to Nisbet. But it did surprise
a group of former Trotskyite Marxists and ‘thirties radicals in
New York City. These men and women were the core of what became
by 1969 the neoconservative movement. In 1965, they began to attack
the worst of the welfare state aspects of the can-do liberalism
of the Camelot illusion. After 1965, pressured on one side by unwashed,
shouting, marching, drug-taking sons and daughters of Old Left radicals,
and from the other side by a cornpone Caesar from Texas, they began
to re-think the causes of this loss of the nation’s moorings. Nisbet
helped them along the path of self-awareness, although the quest
for self-awareness he saw as just one more excrescence of modern
liberalism.

But there was one major aspect of Nisbet’s social philosophy, not
easily visible in his published works in the late 1960’s, that separated
him from both the Buckley-era National Review brand of conservatism
and the post-1965 neoconservatives. Nisbet hated — no other word
will suffice — the military-industrial complex. He saw war, from
the Pelopponesian war to Vietnam, as the primary means of extending
state power, which always involves the uprooting or even destruction
of traditional loyalties and institutions. He made his position
clear in The Present Age (1988). He had no use for the American
empire, as he made equally clear in the chapter, “The New Absolutism.”
I appreciated Joe Sobran’s comments
on this book.

Many
of my favorite books are books that shook me up, even angered
me, when I first read them. One of these is The Present Age,
by the late Robert Nisbet.

I
knew Bob Nisbet slightly, and he was kind to me, especially considering
what a young fool I was. He had the wisdom to know that a young
fool can often be transformed by time alone. Or, as the poet William
Blake put it, “If the fool would persist in his folly, he would
become wise.”

Nisbet,
a distinguished sociologist and conservative philosopher, published
The Present Age in 1988. Though he hated Communism, he
harbored a profound skepticism about the Cold War. In 1988 I still
didn’t see how a man could hold both attitudes at the same time.
Yet I respected Bob Nisbet enough to listen when he said things
I didn’t want to hear.

Chief
among those things was this: If the Founders of the American Republic
could come back today, they would be most astounded, among all
the vast changes that time has wrought, by the militarization
of the United States. Since World War I, this country has been
totally transformed by war and constant preparation for war.

Nisbet defined totalitarianism in the same way that Hannah Arendt
did in The
Origins of Totalitarianism
: a society in which there is
no intervening authority between the state and the citizen. He believed
that modern totalitarianism began with Woodrow Wilson, not Lenin.
“I believe it is no exaggeration to say that the West’s first real
experience with totalitarianism — political absolutism extended
into every possible area of culture and society, education, religion,
industry, the arts, local community and family included, with a
kind of terror always waiting in the wings — came with the
American war state under Woodrow Wilson” (The Twilight of Authority,
p. 183). There are few American scholars with national reputations
who would have the courage to say that in print today. In 1975,
it was unheard of. In The Present Age, he devoted eight pages
to Wilson’s war state (42—50).

Nisbet was born in 1913. He commented decades later that in the
year of his birth, the only contact that most Americans had with
the U.S. government was the Post Office. He attended the Berkeley
campus of the University of California, beginning in 1932. As a
graduate student, he received a plum for a depression era grad student:
the right to be a teaching assistant. He taught six discussion sessions
several times each week. He also because a research assistant for
the amazing maverick scholar, Frederick J. Teggart, author of the
astounding and long-forgotten book, Rome and China (1939).
Teggart had a great deal of influence in Nisbet’s thinking and career,
as he admitted years later. He told me that being a gopher for Teggart
in the Berkeley library gave him the skills he needed for basic
research.

(Side note: my father-in-law, R. J. Rushdoony, was at Berkeley
in this same period. His mentor was Ernst Kantorovitz, an equal
to Teggart in both learning and sheer maverickness. Rushdoony
wrote a 600-page graduate seminar paper for him, “Visible Sovereignty:
An Analysis of the Problem in Church and State in England since
1500.” He told me that he would sit in the library with a letter
opener and slice uncut pages in books that had never been read
in 300 years. The Berkeley library was a marvel in its day.)

Nisbet took his Ph.D. in 1939 in what was then called the Department
of Social Institutions. He was made instructor in 1939, assistant
professor in 1942. He was made assistant dean of the College of
Letters and Science. Except for service in the Army in the South
Pacific, 1943-46, he remained at Berkeley until 1953, when he became
the dean of the new undergraduate campus of the University of California
at Riverside.

It was there that he developed his conservatism.

MY
ENCOUNTERS WITH NISBET

I
was fortunate to meet him early in my career, in my freshman year,
or perhaps early in my sophomore year: 1960. The Chancellor of the
University, a not-too-well-read former biologist, was a conservative.
Somehow, Russell Kirk had been invited to lecture on campus. I was
a member of the campus conservative society — maybe half a
dozen students. I heard about Kirk’s visit, and I contacted the
Chancellor’s office for details. I actually got to speak with the
Chancellor. The campus was still small then: about 1,000 students.
He invited me and another student to have lunch with him and Kirk.
Nisbet also attended. That was when I first heard of him. I began
reading his essays and reviews in Modern Age and other conservative
journals. At that stage, Quest for Community was out of print.
I graduated in the spring of 1963.

I
returned for graduate work in 1965. Nisbet by then had returned
from his sabbatical year at Princeton. He was working on The
Sociological Tradition. I took his upper division class, based
on that book, in 1967. I wrote “The Cosmology of Chaos,” the main
chapter of my book, Marx’s Religion of Revolution (1968),
as a directed readings seminar under him in 1967 or early 1968.
He was the perfect supervisor: he left me completely alone. I took
a graduate seminar with him on Max Weber in 1969. My paper, with
a few additions, became my chapter on Weber in Foundations
of Christian Scholarship
(1976), which has recently been
reprinted after being out of print for two decades.

Nisbet was a master classroom teacher. I have had some very good
teachers — but not as many as Pareto’s 20-80 rule would predict
— and Nisbet was by far the best. He was a spellbinding lecturer,
at least in small groups: under 40. I never saw him in front of
a large audience, but his style was suited for large audiences of
literate people. He was a raconteur, which helped to overcome the
normal deadly dullness of a graduate seminar. He was always “on”
in class. In private discussion, he was affable and a wealth of
suggestions on what was important in Western social thought. I did
my best to reciprocate over the years. Whenever I found anything
that I thought he might find useful, I would send a photocopy, which
he sometimes used.

He served on my doctoral dissertation committee. I made one major
error: I sent him chapter one. I received it back with a curt note
saying that it was standard procedure to submit only the finished
work. In short, no free proofreading here! He was quite correct.
Later, the committee of three decided not to make me return from
New York to California to defend my dissertation orally. It was
on a topic so obscure that they must have figured that it was accurate,
and even if it wasn’t, who would ever find out? (“The Concept of
Property in Puritan New England, 1630-1720.” The idea came to me
in response to a 1969 summer graduate-level seminar sponsored by
F. A. “Baldy” Harper — who was not bald — which introduced
a group of us to the hot new Chicago School topic of the economics
of property rights. The dissertation sank without a trace. Maybe
I should have written about pirates.)

It was not until I began writing this essay that I realized that
my timing had been nip and tuck. I submitted my dissertation in
the summer of 1972. Nisbet left UCR for the University of Arizona
a few weeks later: the fall semester. There, he was on both the
history and sociology faculties. In 1974, he accepted the prestigious
Albert Schweitzer Chair of the Humanities at Columbia University,
where he also served in both Departments.

He retired from teaching in 1978 at the age of 65. He had told me
a decade earlier that he did not intend to remain in the classroom
in his old age. He did not think it appropriate for any teacher
to stay on the job into his dotage, which he defined as an inability
to learn new things. The irony is that Nisbet at 70 would have better
in the classroom than anyone I can think of in his prime. After
his retirement, he went to the American Enterprise Institute for
two years, after which he retired to devote his time to writing.
He then produced six more books, including The Present Age.

I remember writing to him in 1977 to ask which sociology journals
he read. He wrote back to say that he had not read any of them in
years. It was about this time that I heard George Stigler ask this
rhetorical question at a Philadelphia Society meeting: “Why is it
that there is not one article worth reading in any academic economics
journal in a year?” There has been no deliverance for academia since
then. For all I know, it is worse. Fortunately, I escaped academia.

Nisbet never used academic jargon. He never used statistics. He
did not fill his books with footnotes to professional journals and
book-length secondary sources. In the case of History of the
Idea of Progress, there are no notes at all. What he did was
read the classics in social theory very carefully, and then think
very carefully about what he had read. He thought so creatively
about them that his secondary source, The Sociological Tradition
has become a standard introduction to the history of the discipline.
It may well become a primary source.

He always regarded himself as an historian of thought. He asked
the same sorts of questions that were asked by the founders of the
discipline during what he called the golden age of sociology, from
Tocqueville to Weber. He, like they, avoided jargon, which came
later with the arrival of the epigones. Nisbet wrote with verve.
A student at an Intercollegiate Studies Institute summer seminar
in 1972 asked me why I had majored in history. The answer just popped
out. “Because I couldn’t read fast enough to major in English, and
I wrote too clearly to major in sociology.” Nisbet was the model
for that answer. He had gotten through the academic gauntlet before
the jargon-masters took over.

CONSERVATIVE OR LIBERAL?

Was Nisbet a conservative or a liberal? I shall now make a statement
that may get me into a lot trouble: there have been no prominent
conservative philosophers in the Anglo-American conservative movement.
They have all been classical liberals. Nisbet was no exception.

What is my definition of a conservative? It is a person who believes
that the irreducible unit of civil law is not the individual citizen.
For a modern Anglo-American conservative, there is no irreducible
unit. There are multiple units, each possessing sovereignty within
its sphere of legitimate authority. What do I mean by sovereignty?
No higher court of earthly appeal. We are all taught
to hate the phrase, “the divine right of kings.” What does it mean?
It means “no higher court of earthly appeal.”

Consider Burke. A century after the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89,
he defended it. The Parliament had thrown out the king, a suspected
Roman Catholic, because his wife was pregnant. The Parliament did
what Oliver Cromwell had done a generation before: it removed the
king based on his theology. Yet Cromwell was regarded by one and
all as a radical. A century after Burke, Frederick Engels wrote
a defense of Cromwell. Marxist historians, most notably Christopher
Hill, have viewed Cromwell as the first modern revolutionary. By
supporting the principle of political revolution that Cromwell had
incarnated, Burke defied Tory conservatism.

Burke was a Whig. He thought Adam Smith’s Wealth
of Nations
was the greatest book of all time. Smith and
Burke were correspondents and friends. To label Burke as a the founder
of conservatism means that we don’t have any conservatives in the
family tree. Louis XIV was a pre-modern conservative: a believer
in final civil sovereignty, namely, kingship. Beyond him, there
was no lawful appeal. James I was a conservative. Charles I was
a conservative. James II was a conservative. Nobody today is running
off to the printers with a monograph on any of these historical
figures as founders of modern conservatism.

The British in 1689 substituted the divine right of Parliament for
the divine right of English kings. In 1776, delegates to the Continental
Congress declared the divine right of revolution, which in 1788
became — although they did not suspect this at the time — the
divine right of five justices of the United States Supreme Court.
(It took John Marshall to teach this principle to their successors.)

FINAL
SOVEREIGNTY AND DELEGATED AUTHORITY

Nisbet
understood the role of judicial sovereignty in social theory, although
he did not emphasize it. Yet it is the bedrock foundation of his
own social theory. In a recent book by Brad Lowell Stone, Robert
Nisbet: Communitarian Traditionalist
(2000), the author
surveys statements by Nisbet on the idea of the irreducible judicial
unit. These appear in The Quest for Community. The central
conservative principle is this: the sovereignty of social units
other than the individual. He writes:

For
much of history, communities — not individuals — were irreducible
units of society. In the Middle Ages, for example, honors, privileges,
immunities, and freedoms attached to communities, not to individuals.
One’s identity and status depended upon one’s communal membership:
“Whether we are dealing with the family, the village, or the guild,
we are in the presence of systems of authority and allegiance
which were widely held to precede the individual in both origin
and right.” For example, “As many an institutional historian has
discovered, medieval economy and law are simply unintelligible
if we try to proceed from modern conceptions of individualism
and contract. The group was primary” (QC, 81). The patriarchal
and corporate family “was a fixed institutional system within
which innumerable, indispensable functions were performed.” Taxes
were levied and honors bestowed on the family, not the individual.
“In corporate solidarity lay the ground for almost all decisions
affecting the individual — his occupation, welfare, marriage
and the rearing of children.” [Stone, pp. 19-20]

In modern political philosophy, there is always a final earthly
court of judicial appeal: a source of final justice. This is said
to be the state. Some political theorists — called internationalists
— want to lodge sovereignty in the United Nations. Others — called
secessionists — want to lodge it locally. But with the exception
of anarchists, who deny the legitimacy of civil government, modern
political philosophy lodges sovereignty in some unit of civil government
which serves as the final court of appeal, short of armed revolution,
which in turn seeks to invest a new entity with the same element
of sovereignty.

For Christianity, final sovereignty applies only to God. Western
political theory during the Middle Ages argued that God has delegated
authority to individuals and groups, especially churches and families.
There was no agreement, East vs. West, regarding the supreme authority
of church and state. In 1054, the Western church formally condemned
the Eastern church, a division which persists, especially in the
Balkans. In the West, the Papal Revolution of 1076-77 established
rival hierarchies, church and state, neither possessing final sovereignty
over the other. (The indispensable book on the legal implications
of the Papal Revolution is Harold Berman’s Law
and Revolution: The Formation of the Western Legal Tradition

[Harvard University Press, 1983].)

Nisbet understood that in medieval political theory, pluralistic
authority lodged in institutions other than civil government. He
did not develop in detail what this meant: legal sovereignty. Authority
is hierarchical, with final earthly authority lodging in some court
of final appeal. There was no single final court of appeal in medieval
political philosophy or theology.

The central political issue for medieval society was not contract.
It was covenant. People made covenants with each other before God.
The marriage covenant, the church covenant (baptism), the legal
covenant (liege loyalty) were permanently binding and officially
immune from lawful annulment or revision by another covenantal hierarchy,
except by highly specific customs. These covenants could not be
broken unilaterally at the will of the covenanting parties, for
God was seen as a partner in the covenant.

For earthly sovereignty to apply, someone had to represent God as
the voice of God. No one person or institution represented God in
medieval political or social theory. In this highly specific sense,
medieval culture was pluralistic: plural God-delegated sovereignties.
There was an irreducible messiness about legal authority in the
Middle Ages, a messiness rejected by modern political philosophy
and social theory. Medieval messiness was the basis of local pockets
of liberty. There was no earthly agent who possessed final sovereignty
in theory, and therefore did not possess power limited only by technical
or functional restrictions. There was also no possibility of empire.
The medieval Holy Roman Empire, as the canard goes, was neither
holy, Roman, nor an empire.

What made the system both tolerable and internally consistent was
the medieval concept of God’s temporal sovereignty. Appeal beyond
history to eternity could always be made to God: prayer, and in
some cases, lawful resistance in the name of God. God, as the final
judge, is the final sanctions-bringer: heaven and hell. But medieval
theologians did not restrict God’s role as sanctions-bringer to
the final judgment. God’s judgment is temporal as well as eschatological.
So, there is no divine right in history, no final court of earthly
appeal. God intervenes in history to overcome evil.

Modern political philosophy since the days of Machiavelli has steadily
abandoned the idea of God, especially God as a temporal sanctions-bringer.
It has therefore sought to lodge final temporal sovereignty in a
sanctions-bringing institution. Because the state has the power
to kill people, it has been seen as the final sovereignty: the divine
right of the state, beyond which there is no legitimate appeal.

Nisbet opposed such an operational view of the divine right of the
state. So have classical economists and other Whigs. But he, as
they, was unwilling to invoke the medieval West’s justification
of the judicial sovereignty of intermediate institutions, church
and family. That justification was theological in its original,
pre-modern formulation.

Nisbet adopted a functional pluralism. He believed that intermediate
institutions are indispensable for the maintenance of civil liberty:
church, state, family, kinship groups. Without these, the state
becomes tyrannical. The unitary state must not be trusted. This
is why he detested Rousseau’s vision.

Nisbet was a self-conscious heir of Edmund Burke. He was skeptical
of pieces of paper called constitutions whenever those pieces of
paper are not matched by strong, local, voluntary institutions that
are outside the jurisdiction of politics. Yet, also like Burke,
his concern throughout his career was the maintenance of civil liberty.
This is why I regard him as a liberal in the Whig sense. He trusted
the free market’s ideal of voluntary association and contract more
than he trusted the state.

CONCLUSION

Nisbet’s writings constitute a large body of material that challenges
many of the reigning assumptions of our age. The Present Age
presents his case against modernism by presenting the case against
the warfare state. He had no use for the welfare state, either,
but he believed that modern man’s commitment to the messianic state
begins with his commitment to war, not socialism.

If he was correct — and I believe he was — then making
the case against the modern messianic state is a far greater task
than merely marshalling graphs and data — let alone equations
— to show that the free market is more efficient than the centrally
planned economy. Hayek pointed out half a century ago that businessmen
who were brought into the planning systems of World War II never
lost their taste for the planned economy. The taste for power is
fed more by war than by any other human event, and power is consented
to in the name of war more readily by the masses than for any other
reason. Nisbet recognized this more clearly than any other scholar
in the conservative movement.

August
15, 2002

Gary
North is the author of Mises
on Money
. Visit http://www.freebooks.com.
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