I begin with an aphorism: “Moral ideas without institutional sanctions are impotent. Institutional sanctions without moral ideas are tyrannical.”
Every civilization attempts to deal with this aphorism. So does every political movement. There is never universal agreement on either the content of morality or the efficiency of the sanctions. This is a battle for the minds of men. It never ceases.
I have been active in the conservative movement ever since 1956. By 1960, I had come to this realization: American conservatism after World War II has lacked anything remotely resembling a consistent philosophical defense. This has made it impossible to create a coherent conservative political movement. Ideas Have Consequence... Best Price: $6.54 Buy New $13.30 (as of 09:40 EDT - Details)
Think of the great books expounding conservative political philosophy — books that are quoted, defended, and developed by articulate political leaders. You can’t. There aren’t any such books.
How consistent is political conservatism? Consider these two examples.
Ronald Reagan in 1982 expressed his admiration for Franklin Roosevelt’s leadership. He did so at a luncheon honoring FDR.
Newt Gingrich, in his 1995 inaugural address as Speaker of the House, waxed eloquent: ” . . . I think the greatest Democratic President of the 20th century, and in my judgment the greatest President of the 20th century, said it right.” He then quoted Roosevelt’s inaugural address: “We have nothing to fear but . . . fear itself.” He passed over the rest of that ethically monstrous speech, including Roosevelt’s rhetorical invocation of the politics of envy:
. . . the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and have abdicated. Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
The conservative moment has no map, no rudder, and not much common sense. It never has.
At the heart of the conservative movement there is a philosophical and moral void. It is a movement whose leaders do not take seriously either political philosophy or ethics. Its intellectuals have been unable to develop a systematic yet compelling case for a conservative political agenda. There is no conservative agenda, other than this: “Throw the rascals out!”
This lack of coherence can be seen in a single book: Richard Weaver’s, Ideas Have Consequences. The title has had consequences. The book has not. There is no coherence linking the title and the content of the book. Conservative intellectuals have long referred to the book as a classic. It is not a classic book. It is a classic title.
Let me provide some background.
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In 1961, Murray Rothbard wrote an article for Modern Age, the main academic outlet for the conservative movement. He commented on the work of Frank Meyer to reconcile — fuse — libertarianism and conservatism. He wrote this:
Meyer recognizes the primacy of reason, and realizes that simple reliance on tradition is an impossible task. Because of the infinite number of historical traditions handed down to us, we must select and choose; and our only weapon in this selection is our reason. And yet, despite his basic recognition of the primacy of reason, Meyer leans too far over on the “conservative” side of this dialogue by emphasizing that reason must operate “within tradition,” and not in any sort of “ideological hubris… ignoring the accumulated wisdom of mankind.” Now when Mr. Meyer recognizes that the conservatives must employ reason to select between true and false traditions, he has placed himself above and not within tradition, and necessarily so. A man cannot be within something, and yet judge it from all outside standard.
He challenged the conservative movement to quit talking about tradition, which is a morally and philosophically empty concept, and start taking seriously the concept of economic cause and effect. He argued that the free market’s concept of private property, voluntary exchange, and competitive pricing leads to a system of accounting that enables men to count the cost of their actions. Free-market economists have a conceptual system to defend economic causation in history. Conservatives have nothing comparable to this.
He could have gone on to say this: from the time of Edmund Burke until the present, conservatives have rejected the idea of any kind of rationalism that would impose some kind of systematic order in society. Conservatives from Burke to the present have rejected the idea of intellectual systems as such as a way to explain society or to change it. Yet Burke and Adam Smith were friends, and they spoke well of each other’s ideas. Smith was an economist: a system builder. Burke was not. How could they cooperate? But they did.
How is it that the same intellectual schizophrenia also marks today’s conservative movement — a denial of the legitimacy of grand systems of logic and the simultaneous invocation of economic theory? Why is it that conservative intellectuals only rarely mention this obvious dualism, and never write books about how it can be overcome? This dualism has been the elephant in the library ever since 1790: Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.
Actually, it goes back a lot further.