Robert Nisbet on Conservatism

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Dream and Reality
is the best brief introduction to the
intellectual history of conservatism that I have read. It begins
where it should: with Edmund Burke’s rejection in 1790 of the French
Revolution. Russell Kirk also began here in The
Conservative Mind
(1953), a book that Nisbet says profoundly
influenced him. It was published in the same year as Nisbet’s first
book, The
Quest for Community

first met both Nisbet and Kirk at lunch in 1960. At the time, I
was impressed by the fact that I had been invited by the chancellor
of the university to meet Kirk. He had invited Nisbet, too: the
Vice-Chancellor. Little did I suspect that it would be Nisbet who
would later shape my thinking, not Kirk.

my previous
essay on Nisbet
, I surveyed his academic career, discussed his
impact on me personally in the classroom, and summarized several
of his more prominent books. I did not refer to Conservatism:
Dream and Reality, which was published by the University of
Minnesota Press in 1986. The republication of this book by Transaction
Books in 2002 has offered me an opportunity to discuss some of the
issues that he raised.

one of his many articles, which I do not have time to search my
files for, he put into a clever slogan the intellectual history
of both conservatism and liberalism: “From Burke to Kirk, from Condorcet
to A.D.A.” These days, the A.D.A. (Americans for Democratic Action)
is no longer prominent, but a generation ago, it was the best-known
representative organization within the liberal wing of the Democrat
Party. Conservatism is his survey of Burke to Kirk.

most unfortunate aspect of the book is its lack of footnotes. Prior
to 1980, Nisbet included endnotes in his books, but that changed
with History
of the Idea of Progress
(1980). He refers to titles in the
text, but not specific page numbers.


I written the book, I would have begun with a discussion of Hayek’s
Epilogue to The
Constitution of Liberty
(1960): “Why
I am Not a Conservative
.” There, Hayek sets forth his commitment
to classical liberalism, in contrast to European conservatism. This
essay is a convenient springboard into the important contrasts between
the two positions.

reason why this springboard would have helped Nisbet’s book is because
he begins his narrative with Edmund Burke. Burke was a member of
the Whig Party, which we generally associate with classical liberalism,
in contrast to the Tory Party. Second, as Nisbet points out repeatedly,
Burke and Adam Smith were as close to a mutual admiration society
as any two intellectual giants in history have ever been.

traces the conservative intellectual tradition back to Burke. The
book does not ask this question: How was it that nineteenth-century
conservatism should trace its intellectual origins back to a classical
liberal? Specifically, what was it about European conservatism that
Hayek rejected that legitimately can be laid at Burke’s feet? Hayek
called himself an “Old Whig.” He identifies Burke as an Old Whig.
Then when, where, why, and how did Old Whiggery turn into Toryism?
Nisbet never said, and Hayek never said. I wish someone would.


argued in his 1952 book, The
Counter-Revolution of Science
, that there are two kinds
of social rationalism: “constructivist” rationalism, or top-down
rationalism, and the rationalism of the free market, a bottom-up
rationalism. In terms of European thought, constructivist rationalism
could be described as the rationalism of Jeremy Bentham. Classical
liberalism favors the market-based form of rationalism. So did Edmund

opposed the rationalism of the armchair economist: the person who
believes, as Bentham believed, that a social philosopher who is
armed by the power of the state can successfully devise a legal
order that uses pleasure/pain civil sanctions to remake individuals
into new men. Those who dream, as Bentham dreamed, of a rationally
designed society that will provide the greatest good for the greatest
number, are dangerous.

finest one-word condemnation of such a planner and such a social
order was provided by Ludwig von Mises. He was asked what he would
do to make the economy better if he were appointed to the office
of chief government economist. He instantly responded: “Resign.”

believed in the rationalism of the free market. He was the intellectual
nursemaid of Hayek’s spontaneous social order, in which the most
marketable ideas available to society are called forth by the offer
of profit by means of competition. No central planner can possibly
know what these ideas are, who has them, and the most cost-effective
way to implement them.

archetypes of constructivist rationalism in The Counter-Revolution
of Science were the French grand ecoles: the elite state-funded
colleges that produced the bureaucrats who ruled France from the
days of Napoleon until today. Burke’s archetype of this same mentality
was the French Revolution that gave rise to Napoleon. In 1790, he
saw what was coming: the terror of 1794. He saw it because he recognized
the reality of top-down central planning — not just the economic
planning of the socialists but social reconstruction in general.

Nisbet shows, Alexis de Tocqueville was an heir of Burke. While
he does not mention it, there was a good reason for this. Tocqueville’s
great-grandfather, Malasherbes, had been one of the promoters of
the French Revolution, and one of its victims. He was appointed
to be the public defender of Louis XVI, and he was beheaded for
this service after Louis was.

in The
Ancient Regime and the French Revolution
, made the crucial
point that the revolutionaries inherited the massive bureaucracy
of the French monarchy. In this sense, the French Revolution was
an extension of the Old Regime. Richard Pipes has made the same
observation regarding Lenin’s takeover of the Czarist bureaucracy.
Burke was the original source of this insight into the nature of
top-down rationalism.

how did Burke’s legacy become the legacy that Hayek rejected? I
think it has to do with religion. Burke was an Anglican. As Nisbet
shows, he was in favor of complete religious toleration, including
Muslims. This was not picked up by those who saw themselves as followers
of Burke. The Burkeans of the nineteenth century were only rarely
theologically motivated. Those who were defenders of confessions
of faith were not in the Burkean mainstream. (The great exception
was the deeply Calvinist Anti-Revolutionary Party in the Netherlands,
founded by Abraham Kuyper in 1879. Kuyper was the only certifiable
intellectual in nineteenth-century Europe — or any-century
Europe — to found a university, two newspapers, a denomination,
a political party, write 80 books, and get elected Prime Minister
in 1901.) Burke’s conservative disciples, like Burke himself, were
advocates of an established church as a source of social order and
stability. They believed in the church as a unified social institution,
not as a called-out (ekklesia) community of the faithful.

was a believer in a tax-funded church. This was anathema, for obvious
reasons, to the classical liberals. Nisbet does not discuss this
as being the dividing point between Burkean conservatism and Burkean
classical liberalism because he does not trace the other aspect
of liberalism: from Burke to Hayek.

is the central question in the history of liberalism: how the Burke/Tocqueville
tradition of classical liberalism was sidetracked, and how the Bentham/A.D.A.
tradition took over the liberal movement.

think the dividing issue was Darwinism. There were two branches:
free market Darwinists and central planning Darwinists. It was spontaneous
evolution (“red in tooth and claw”) vs. planned evolution (“the
laws of evolution applied”). It was free market rationalism vs.
constructivist scientific rationalism. It was Herbert Spencer and
William Graham Sumner on one side, with Lester Frank Ward on the
other side. Ward’s side had won by 1900.

looked at the worldview of the Scottish Enlightenment — Adam Ferguson,
Adam Smith — and concluded that Charles Darwin applied their view
of unplanned social evolution to biological processes. But the constructivists
conquered both realms: economics and bioengineering.

looked at the economics of Adam Smith and concluded that tariffs
are inefficient. He wanted the state to legislate a low-tariff order
as part of an overall system of rational administration. The end
result of this outlook is the World Trade Organization (WTO) and
NAFTA: low tariffs enforced by small armies of international regulators.
The price is too high.

road to constructivist liberalism leads from Bentham to Robespierre,
Napoleon, Ward, Keynes, and NAFTA. This road is profoundly anti-Burkean.
It is also profoundly anti-Smithian.


insists that “the philosophy of conservatism has been adamant on
the sanctity of property” (p. 77). He quotes Russell Kirk and Richard
Weaver to this effect: property and freedom are linked inseparably.
In this sense, libertarianism and conservatism share a common assumption.

conservative, he says, has traditionally put more faith in landed
property than in corporate shares. The strict free market economist
says that he has no preference analytically regarding the form of
property. He argues that legal title to expected future income streams
is what ownership is all about, not the physical sources of those
streams, let alone the metaphysical sources. Furthermore, free market
economists have placed more faith in human creativity than in natural
resources. The conservative is a bit suspicious of this outlook,
preferring to place his trust in the ultimate raw material, land.
The farmer is slow and plodding, suspicious of new methods. So is
the conservative. This is why Hayek said he wasn’t one.

the case of Burke, so great was his commitment to private property
that he rejected entirely the concept of the welfare state. Nisbet
quotes from Burke’s little-known book, Thoughts
and Details on Scarcity
(1795). Burke argued that the civil
government should have nothing to say about wages and income. Even
in a famine, the state must not interfere with prices and wages.
Nisbet quotes this passage (p. 70):
Whenever it happens that a man can claim nothing according
to the rules of commerce, and the principles of justice, he passes
out of that department, and comes within the jurisdiction of mercy.
In that province the magistrate has nothing at all to do: his interference
is a violation of the property which it is his office to protect.
Without all doubt, charity to the poor is a direct and obligatory
duty upon all Christians, next in order after the payment of debts,
full as strong, and by nature made infinitely more delightful to
The road from Edmund Burke to modern conservatism’s acceptance of
the welfare state was marked by a series of detours. Let us hope that
some careful historian of economic theory, political ideas, and public
policy will someday identify those detours.


was a lover of medievalism. So were most of his conservative heirs.
Nisbet spends the second half of Chapter 2 on this subject.

liberals did not like medievalism. It was much too ecclesiocentric
for their tastes. It was much too anti-cosmopolitan.

there was another side of medievalism that is favorable to classical
liberalism: its decentralization. There were lots of petty tyrants
scattered across Europe for a thousand years, but they had one beneficial
characteristic: their kingdoms were equally petty. The Holy Roman
Empire, as we historians love to say, was neither holy, Roman, nor
an empire.

understand this aspect of medievalism, consider tariffs. Modern
libertarians do not like tariffs, which are nothing more than sales
taxes on imported goods. There are four ways to lower tariffs: unilaterally,
bi-laterally, multilaterally, or by a decree by some sovereign international
agency. Constructivist rationalists prefer option #4. The Rothbardian
libertarian prefers option #1. Conservatives either prefer #2 or
#3 or else prefer to keep tariffs but abolish the income tax.

the name of freedom, I have recommended tariffs
over the income tax
and surely over NAFTA. Some taxes are preferable
to regulation, especially regulation by international bureaucratic
fiat. So, you can be a tariff advocate and still be an advocate
of liberty, if the alternative is managed trade through the WTO.
Better to pay a sales tax than bow the knee to NAFTA.

and the conservatives took this same attitude toward the entire
social order. They preferred small-scale local interference with
economic liberties to international constructivist rationalism along
Bentham’s lines. So, they preferred medievalism to the French Revolution.
Their problem was, as Tocqueville’s Ancient Regime pointed
out, that Louis XIV destroyed the last remnants of medievalism.
By 1700, the medieval world was gone.

how do we get from here to there? How do we get from the world of
the United Nations and the WTO back to something like medievalism,
meaning guild socialism in one city and free trade in others? The
conservatives have never said. In this sense they have been utopians,
and in this sense, they have been thwarted by their own philosophy
of slow, steady, non-revolutionary change. Theirs is an ideology
without official blueprints. It is the philosophy of jerry-rigging.
Maybe we will get social order, or maybe we will get Las Vegas.
But at least we will not get Washington, D.C. or Brasilia.

we can say, “from Burke to Kirk.” But how can we say “from Burke
to Bush”? How do we get from Burke’s slow, organic change to neoconservatism?

dismiss the neocons as Jacobins. Yet Nisbet wrote for Commentary
from the year that it began to move from old-line liberalism to
neoconservatism: 1965/66. He did the same for The Public Interest.
He ended his career as an adjunct scholar at the American Enterprise
Institute, one of the chief think tanks of the neoconservatives.
Somehow, he found a place there in the early 1980s.

do not think he would be welcomed there today.


anti-war rhetoric in Conservatism matches what he wrote in
Present Age

the book’s final chapter, Nisbet gets to Reagan. He sees Reagan’s
success politically as the product of a coalition that is inherently
as unsustainable as Franklin Roosevelt’s coalition.

forces were polyglot indeed. The Far Right, veterans of the Goldwater
campaign in 1964, were interested in one thing — to capture
and hold power; the evangelicals, eager to implement by law, even
constitutional amendment, such moral goals as the prohibition
of abortion, and the opening of the public schools to prayers;
the libertarians were willing to suffer Reagan’s moral and social
views for his attitude on taxes; the populists saw in Reagan’s
charisma the driving force for attainment of an ever-more-direct
democracy; partisans of a more aggressive foreign policy and defense
build-up; and old-line conservatives who abominated big budgets
and bureaucracies, and who were by nature suspicious not only
of populists but also the commerce-threatening, budget-expanding
enthusiasts for great increases in military expenditure. All these
were pronounced ‘conservative’ (p. 111).

coalition will break apart, he predicted, just as the New Deal coalition
did. What he did not say, but surely implied, is that it would break
apart, just as Roosevelt’s did, over the issue of war.

all the misascriptions of the word ‘conservative’ during
the last four years, the most amusing, in historical light, is
surely the application of ‘conservative’ to the last-named. For
in America throughout the twentieth century, and including four
substantial wars abroad, conservatives had been steadfastly the
voices of non-inflationary military budgets, and of an emphasis
on trade in the world instead of American nationalism. In the
two World Wars, in Korea, and in Viet Nam, the leaders of American
entry into war were such progressives as Woodrow Wilson, Franklin
Roosevelt, Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy. In all four episodes
conservatives, both in the national government and in the rank
and file, were largely hostile to interventionism; were isolationists
indeed (p. 111).

Nisbet gets to the heart of his political analysis of contemporary
conservatism (1986).

and social democrats like death and destruction no more than do
conservatives. But they like some of the accompaniments of large-scale
war: the opportunities created for central planning of economy,
for pre-emption of legislative functions, and other pursuits dear
to the hearts of political rationalists and enthusiasts. President
Reagan’s deepest soul is not Republican-conservative but New Deal
Second World War Democrat. Thus his well noted preference for
citing FDR and Kennedy as noble precedents for his actions rather
than Coolidge, Hoover, and Eisenhower. The word ‘revolution’ springs
lightly from his lips, for anything from tax reform, to narcotics
prosecution (p. 112).

is his assessment in one sentence: “Reagan’s passion for crusades,
moral and military, is scarcely American-conservative” (p. 112).

neocons are heirs of this crusading spirit of Reagan’s administration.
Some of them were officials in it.


had few if any enemies in the conservative movement, at least few
who went into print against his ideas. He cooperated with many subgroups,
wrote in many journals. He had the respect of his academic peers
in sociology, and he had the respect of those literate liberals
who were aware of him. There are few men of letters, let alone academicians,
who have made so great a contribution to any intellectual tradition,
yet who gained so few enemies in their lifetime.

was never a partisan. That may have protected him. He was always
aware of the inescapable scarcity in this life: that every benefit
has a cost, that every advance imposes a price, that there are no
free lunches. If you want progress, you will sacrifice tradition.
If you want the division of labor that a city offers, you will lose
the community that small town life offers. There was not a trace
of utopianism in his writings. This is why he is so devastating
when he writes about utopian thinkers, of whom there have been many
in the West. He hated Plato but acknowledged his greatness. He had
the same opinion of Rousseau, who he regarded as the greatest single
influence for evil in Western social thought — far more important
than Marx.

little book serves as an introduction to conservative social thought
in all of its diversity and contradictions. I wish he had written
one for liberalism — not just Condorcet to A.D.A., but also
Smith to Hayek by way of Burke and Charles Darwin.

do not expect to get around to this. Do you want to give it a try?

1, 2005

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