It pains me to quibble with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which is one of the few conservative institutions of any value left in this country. Yet the ISI is only worth quibbling with because it’s so indispensable, so quibble I shall.
Recently they reposted an article from the Spring 2012 issue of the Intercollegiate Review called “The Pillars of Modern American Conservatism” by Alfred S. Regnery. Like the ISI itself, it was excellent on the main. But it suffers from the grave (albeit common) sin of believing there is such a thing as “modern” conservatism, which can be distinguished from historic conservatism.
As an aside, we should lay down this rule: whenever something is qualified as “modern,” we ought to approach it with grave suspicion. Generally, it means something old and inefficient is being repackaged and sold for more than it’s worth. This is especially true for the political. Imagine, for instance, an article called “The Pillars of Modern American Marxism.” We would assume it was Stalinism, only with more rainbow flags. And we would almost certainly be right.
The trouble with “modern” conservatism, however, is that historic conservatism didn’t fail. It has not been tried and found wanting, as Chesterton would say; it has been found difficult and not tried.
The traditionalism of Robert Nisbet, Peter Viereck, and Richard Weaver never advanced past the conceptual stage. Its champions tended to be philosophers and academics, which gave it extraordinary intellectual capital—but virtually no political capital. This is in contrast to libertarianism which, despite counting a number of talented economists among its progenitors, has always counted its principal supporters among think tanks, news magazines, and party committees.
The genius of fusionists (what is generally meant by “modern” conservatives) like William F. Buckley and Frank S. Meyer was joining the intellectual sophistication of traditionalism with the political credibility of libertarianism. The greatest traditionalists and libertarians of that age—Russell Kirk and Friedrich Hayek, respectively—protested vehemently against this fusion, insisting that their two schools were different species and could not intermarry. It was inevitable that “modern” conservatism would prioritize the first principles of one movement over the other. That is to say, this new conservatism would be either fundamentally traditionalist or fundamentally libertarian. It could not be both.
Regnery’s article proves that the latter came to pass. “Modern” conservatism is in fact not conservatism at all: it is a kind of libertarianism, albeit with an anti-progressive instinct.
Consider the subheadings: “The first pillar of conservatism,” Regnery writes, “is liberty, or freedom… The second pillar of conservative philosophy is tradition and order.” This is an inversion of the hierarchy put forward in What Is Conservatism?, a collection of essays edited by Meyer and published by the ISI in 1964. According to Meyer’s table of contents, essays with an “emphasis on tradition and authority” (Kirk, Willmoore Kendall) rank higher than those with an “emphasis on freedom” (M. Stanton Evans, Wilhelm Röpke, Hayek).
The ordering is no coincidence. This question of priorities became one of the principal logjams between the Kirkians and Hayekians. As Kirk explained in “Libertarians: Chirping Sectaries,” published in the Fall 1981 issue of Modern Age:
In any society, order is the first need of all. Liberty and justice may be established only after order is tolerably secure. But the libertarians give primacy to an abstract liberty. Conservatives, knowing that “liberty inheres in some sensible object,” are aware that true freedom can be found only within the framework of a social order, such as the constitutional order of these United States. In exalting an absolute and indefinable “liberty” at the expense of order, the libertarians imperil the very freedoms they praise.
This seems rather straightforward in terms of domestic policy, but we should consider its implications for foreign policy, too. The triumph of the “emphasis on freedom” is responsible for the disastrous interventionist tendencies that have plagued all modern Republican administrations.
We again turn to Kirk in his essay for What is Conservatism? titled “Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom.” Here he warned:
To impose the American constitution on all the world would not render all the world happy; to the contrary, our constitution would work in few lands and would make many men miserable in short order. States, like men, must find their own paths to order and justice and freedom; and usually those paths are ancient and winding ways, and their signposts are Authority, Tradition, Prescription.
That is why traditionalists oppose regime change in the Middle East. Freedom may follow tyranny only if (as in the Revolutions of 1989) the people themselves desire it and are capable of maintaining the machinery of a free society. If the public is not especially interested in self-government, they will succumb either to a new despot or a stronger neighboring country. We have seen both of these scenarios play out in post-Ba’athist Iraq, with the rise of ISIS and the expansion of Iranian hegemony.
It is also why traditionalist conservatives are tarred as pro-Putin by liberals and “modern” conservatives. If Putin is indeed a neo-Tsarist, we may hope to see Russia follow C.S. Lewis’s maxim: “A sum can be put right: but only by going back till you find the error and working it afresh from that point, never by simply going on.” Communism is the error, and while Putinism is by no means the solution, we may hope (though not blindly) that it represents a return to the pre-communist order. Those are, if not optimal conditions for true liberty to flourish, at least the best we can reasonably expect.
More important, however, is that we recognize the absurdity of “modern” conservatives’ hopes that Russia would have transitioned from the Soviet Union to a carbon copy of 1980s Britain. We do the Russian people a disservice by holding President Putin to the example of some mythical Tsarina Thatcherova. That is simply not the “ancient and winding way” Providence has laid out for them.
Such an unhealthy devotion to abstract liberty is embodied in Max Boot, the Washington Post’s new conservative [sic] columnist. Consider the opening lines of his essay “I Would Vote for a (Sane) Donald Trump,” published last year in Foreign Policy:
I am socially liberal: I am pro-LGBTQ rights, pro-abortion rights, pro-immigration. I am fiscally conservative: I think we need to reduce the deficit and get entitlement spending under control… I am pro-free trade: I think we should be concluding new trade treaties rather than pulling out of old ones. I am strong on defense: I think we need to beef up our military to cope with multiple enemies. And I am very much in favor of America acting as a world leader: I believe it is in our own self-interest to promote and defend freedom and free markets as we have been doing in one form or another since at least 1898.
Boot has no respect for Authority, Tradition, and Prescription—not in this country, and not in those manifold countries he would have us invade. His politics are purely propositional: freedom is the greatest (perhaps the sole) virtue, and can be achieved equally by all men in all ages. Neither God nor history nor the diverse and delicate fibers that comprise a nation’s social order have any bearing on his ideologically tainted worldview.
Boot, of course, was hired by the Post to rubber-stamp the progressive agenda with the seal of Principled Conservatism™. Even he can’t possibly labor under the delusion that Jeff Bezos hired him to threaten Washington’s liberal establishment. Yet his conclusions follow logically from the pillars of “modern” conservatism.
Two choices lie before us, then. One is to restore a conservatism of Authority, Tradition, and Prescription. The other is to stand by and watch the Bootification of the American Right. Pray that we choose correctly, before it’s too late to undo the damage that’s already been done.
Michael Davis is U.S. editor of the Catholic Herald. He tweets @MichaelDavisCH.