Robert Nisbet on Conservatism

Nisbet’s Conservatism: 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.

I 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.

In 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.

In 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.

The 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.


Had 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.

The 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.

Nisbet 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.


Hayek 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 Burke.

Burke 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.

The 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.”

Burke 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.

Hayek’s 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.

As 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.

Tocqueville, 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.

Then 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.

Burke 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.

This 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.

I 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.

Hayek 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.

Bentham 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.

The 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.


Nisbet 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.

The 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.

In 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 us.

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.


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

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

But 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.

To 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.

In 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.

Burke 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.

So, 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.

So, 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?

Paleoconservatives 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.

I do not think he would be welcomed there today.


His anti-war rhetoric in Conservatism matches what he wrote in The Present Age (1988).

In 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.

Reaganite 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).

This 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.

Of 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).

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

Liberals 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).

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

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


Nisbet 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.

He 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.

This 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.

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

April 1, 2005

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit

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