While in its current iteration conservatism embraces classical liberalism, there is writing on the wall that suggests the conservative movement may revert towards a more traditional conservative way of thinking. This can be seen in the rise of current thinkers like Notre Dame professor Patrick Deneen whose political philosophy shares a good deal in common with traditional conservatism.
Deneen’s arguments are flushed out in his book Why Liberalism Failed. Like Burke and Kirk, he desires a return for Western Civilization to its traditional practices and institutions. In the introduction, he argues that the reason liberalism is appealing is because it builds off the longstanding Western belief in protecting liberty and human dignity from tyranny. He argues though that these ideas are not liberal in origin, but rather have their roots in the centuries long development of Greco-Roman and Christian ideas and practices.
So what do these ideas teach regarding liberty and tyranny? As he notes, the Greeks taught that only by living a life of virtue can one self-govern and prevent tyranny. He continues on by describing how Roman thinkers and later on Christian thinkers would build off these ideas especially with respect to how they checked the power of government. Some of these checks include constitutionalism, separation of powers and rule of law among others. With respect to liberty, he writes that liberty to these thinkers meant the ability to live in accordance with the virtues necessary for self government. They saw it as something that requires a good deal of learning and discipline as one had to be able to restrain their self interests and desires and order themselves in accordance with virtue. In essence, they saw liberty as the ability to free oneself from their corrupt nature and live a life of virtue. As to how liberty and virtue are fostered in society, he believes that they are fostered by living by societal practices and structures such as the government, family, church and so on and so forth.
In response to this, a modern conservative would rebut that classical liberalism is consistent with this as it believes in self-government and in protecting liberty from tyranny. Deneen however argues that this is not the case and in-fact that it operates against these principles of Western Civilization. His rationale for this is that not only does he see liberalism as rejecting the precedents needed for these values be strong, but that it also fundamentally redefines liberty itself. In discussing liberty, he notes how starting with Machiavelli, modern thinkers rejected the classical and Christian understanding of liberty. Rather than focusing on virtue, Machiavelli argued that society should embrace humanity’s inherent self interest and desire to acquire material goods as a means of building society. This line of thinking is similar to that of classical liberals who believe that maximizing the ability of individuals to live life according to their own desires will lead to a better more advanced society.
In order to accomplish this however, Deneen believes liberals needed to tear down what they perceived as chains to individual liberty. As he notes, Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes and Descartes came to see custom and tradition especially religious ones as being roadblocks to individual liberty. In its place, they desired a system based on individual rationality and where deviations would be handled by a centralized state. In essence, not only is liberalism’s definition a contradiction of what Deneen conceives as true liberty, but to build a society centered around it, liberalism attacks the foundations needed for a society based on true liberty. His arguments against liberalism reflect those of traditional conservatives. Both Deneen and traditional conservatives see humans as being innately prone to follow their selfish passions and desires. They also both as a result believe that for society to work, individuals needs to learn to live with morality and virtue and see traditions and institutions as playing a key role in shaping those. In addition, both see liberal definition of liberty as being toxic to society.
While some might be inclined to dismiss Deneen as a minority within the conservative movement, it would be foolish to do so. Since Donald Trump first ran for President, there has been a resurgence in right wing populism amongst the conservatives who make up the base of Trump’s support base. Like traditional conservatives, they see societal traditions and institutions as being the base of society. Also like traditional conservatives, they see liberalism as undermining society. This can best be seen in how Trump’s base supports policies like tariffs to protect American businesses from being driven out by foreign industry. This can be seen even more in how they are skeptical of big corporations like Walmart who they see as a threat to the small businesses that make up their local community.
While this all could just be a temporary thing, the nomination of more populist-minded candidates by the GOP suggests a potential shift in thinking. While right wing populists certainly are not traditional conservatives (as they would reject the elitism supported by Burke), their skepticism of liberal values and ideals would represent a shift back towards traditional conservative thinking. As Professor Deneen argues convincingly, this trend within American conservatism may very well continue to gain traction.
Patrick J. Deenen, Why Liberalism Failed, (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2018)
In my previous essay about the intellectual legacy of Edmund Burke and Russell Kirk, I discussed the tenets of classical conservatism also known as Burkean or traditional conservatism. I also mentioned that the modern conservative movement in America is divided in thirds between classical liberals like Rand Paul, more traditionalist-minded leaders like Ted Cruz, and populists like Donald Trump. In this essay I intend to further examine the first two branches as they make up the vast majority of the American conservative movement (and have since the days of the Reagan presidency). A natural question to ask is why the division in the movement exists in the first place. The answer lies in the nature of the fusionist philosophy that has been the backbone of modern American conservatism and the Republican platform since Ronald Reagan.
Back in the 1950s two major cultural events were occurring in the world. In the U.S, the culture started to become more liberal. The government reflected this by continuing the FDR trend of expanding the bureaucracy and regulations on the market. In Europe, the Soviet Union was openly challenging long standing Western institutions and religious notions such as Christianity, nationalism, the traditional family, respect for individual rights, and the free market system. This triggered a response from American right wingers who supported small government, free market principles, and individual rights.
Other than responding to the communist threat, however, there was no sense of agreement among the American Right. On one side were classical conservatives like Russell Kirk who believed that the government should promote the common good by protecting traditional Christian and Western values and institutions. On the other side were classical liberals such as F.A. Hayek who had a more individualistic and enlightenment-based view of society. This led to massive infighting that almost tore apart the right. In an effort to save it, William F. Buckley formed The National Review and brought in several right wingers from both camps in hopes of unifying them under a common cause.
One of these writers was ex-communist Frank S. Meyer. In the 1960s, Meyer attempted to synthesize classical conservatism and classical liberalism into a unified philosophy through his writing. Since this philosophy was a mesh of these two philosophies, it would become known to many as fusionism. Just like classical conservatism, fusionism put a strong emphasis on the Christian religion as the moral fabric of civilization. In his book In Defense of Freedom, Meyer wrote, “the Christian understanding of the nature and destiny of man, which is the foundation of Western Civilization, is always and everywhere what conservatives strive to conserve.”
In addition to adhering to the Christian understanding of human nature and morality, Meyer also saw religion as essential to the development of individual freedom in the West. In his article “Western Civilization: The Problem of Political Freedom," he argued that in early human civilizations, there was no distinction between individuals but rather distinction based off of social class. These social orders to these societies were divinely ordained and the beliefs regarding one's class would define them forever regardless of their individual capabilities or beliefs. While societies such as Greece and the Jews challenged this view in favor of judging an individual based off their virtue, they both fell to Rome. It wasn’t until the ministry of Christ and the spread of his teachings throughout the Roman Empire that this view of humanity took charge. As a result of this change in view, the Western world overtime came to believe that by one's own capabilities one could choose the life they wanted to live. One's character was not determined by their social standing but by their free will to choose good or evil.
In regards to culture, funionism agrees with classical conservatism regarding the importance of upholding the traditions and customs that have long upheld Western Civilization. In discussing the philosophical differences between traditional conservatism and libertarianism in his essay “Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism," Meyer argued that both ideologies have their foundations in different aspects of the traditions of Western Civilization. He says that traditional conservatives put an emphasis on the Western values of morality, virtue, and order while libertarians put an emphasis on the Western values of individual rights both politically and economically.
Meyer then argued that the reason there is such division among them is that there are extremists among both groups who present a danger to society. Meyer claimed that if the conservative extreme were taken, the resulting government would risk losing sight of individual liberty and might become authoritarian. If the libertarian extreme were taken, then the sole focus of society might become individual liberty with no regard to morality and the result would pave the way for future tyranny. In further discussing what order conservatives seek to preserve in society, he wrote
“ For what the conservative is committed to conserve is not simply whatever happens to be the established conditions of a few years or a few decades, but the consensus of his civilization, of his country, as that consensus over the centuries have I reflected truth derived from the very constitution of being.”
In essence, Meyer's fusionism seeks to preserve the morals, values, traditions, and institutions that are integral to the well being of society.
Where fusionism disagrees with classical conservatism is the function of government in relation to individual rights. While Meyer agrees with classical conservatives that rights are limited by morals and values as a means of promoting virtue, he disagrees with the notion that government’s purpose is to protect the common good by promoting morality and virtue. As referenced earlier his main argument against it was that in the event that a corrupted individual were to take power, he could use the power meant to promote morality and virtue for tyrannical authoritarian purposes. In addition to this, he argued in his 1962 National Review article “The Twisted Tree of Liberty” that government policy cannot make someone be moral or practice virtue. Instead it should be taught and promoted by institutions like the church, the school and the family and that it is up to the individual to choose to accept morality and be virtuous. In describing the functions of government in his book In Defense of Freedom:A Conservative Credo, Meyer argued that the sole purpose of government is to defend freedom by executing the following functions: defense from foreign threats, a justice system to resolve disputes, and defense from domestic threats. In essence, Meyer's believed that morality and virtue were important, but they could not be coerced by government and must be an individual choice learned from churches, schools, and families rather than the government itself.
Meyer's philosophy would go on to influence both Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. President Reagan himself acknowledged Meyer’s influence on him in a 1981 speech in which he said,
“It was Frank Meyer who reminded us that the robust individualism of the American experience was part of the deeper current of Western learning and culture. He pointed out that a respect for law, an appreciation for tradition, and regard for the social consensus that gives stability to our public and private institutions, these civilized ideas must still motivate us even as we seek a new economic prosperity based on reducing government interference in the marketplace. Our goals complement each other. We're not cutting the budget simply for the sake of sounder financial management. This is only a first step toward returning power to the states and communities, only a first step toward reordering the relationship between citizen and government."
Reagan would go own to become a legend and heavy influence upon the GOP causing fusionism to play a heavy influence on the modern Republican Party platform.
So why is there such an apparent division among American conservatives, namely between traditionalist thinkers and those who lean classically liberal? The answer lies in the philosophical legacy of fusionism and its combination of those two philosophies. On one side, you have people like Ted Cruz who are more supportive of morally-based government policy and on the other you have people like Rand Paul who put more emphasis on free markets and civil liberty. The division therefore has to do with the fact modern American conservatism is actually a fusion of two political theories -- with some people within the movement putting more emphasis on one philosophy rather than the other.
One of the major differences between classical conservatism and modern conservatives is a difference in perspective concerning human rights. While Classical Conservatives like their modern counterparts cherish and support natural and civil rights, their understanding of them is far more different than those who adhere to the classical liberal (or Lockean) understanding of natural rights. John Locke’s view of natural rights was that humans have them on the virtue of their species and the only restraint on them is that one cannot use them to inflict physical harm upon another individual. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke condemns this understanding of rights as being one that is too abstract. He argues that if liberty was such an abstract concept, then it can be used to justify horrendous actions in the name of fighting for or defending liberty -- which is what ultimately happened in France a few years later during the Reign of Terror.
So then how do rights originate then according to Burke? Well later on in Reflections, he argues that whenever there is a law, there exists rights to act within that law or in other words, rights are auxiliaries to laws. But theses laws don’t refer to arbitrary acts of government legislation, they refer to Christian moral laws, and the values and customs mentioned several times throughout this essay. Another question Burke considered regarding rights was not only their consistency with the morals and values of a just civilization, but also how such rights would benefit the common good of society. It was also using this standard that Burke argued rights can be limited on an individual to individual basis. For example, he opposed allowing the homeless to vote in Parliamentary elections in the House of Commons because he felt that since they didn’t participate in society at large, they are more likely to vote for their own wants at the expense of the pressing issues facing society. A more modern example of this in the US would be how the mentally unfit, felons, and domestic abusers are not allowed to own guns as they pose a threat to the safety of those around them.
Russell Kirk’s views on natural rights are explored in his 1957 book The American Cause. Here he argues like Burke that natural rights arise from the Christian moral law and from rights that would benefit society as well as their non abstract nature. The first area arises from ones partnership with God meaning the freedoms they have given their human ability within the constraints of God’s laws. The other area is how such rights would benefit society and here he directly quotes Burke in saying, “Men have no right to what is not reasonable, and to what is not for their benefit.”. To put it plain and simple, Burke and Kirk argue that natural rights arose from the morals and values that have upheld society as well as in how they benefit society and that it is by these principles that they are also limited.
Another area in which classical and modern conservatives are similar but different, is economics. While both support free market principles, modern conservatives like classical liberals tend to support a laissez faire economy where as this mindset is condemned by both Burke and Kirk. When discussing Burke and economics, it is important to under that by the time he died, Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith was only 21 years old so capitalism was only really beginning to be tried out. However, many of the underlying principles of capitalism such as the right to own property and the belief that one can improve their own social status by utilizing their resources and ingenuity had long been ingrained in western culture and also its important to know that Burke did live long enough to have an opinion on the start of the Industrial Revolution. With this all in mind, let’s analyze Burke’s economic views. When Parliament attempted to set minimum wage laws in the agricultural sector, Burke condemned this as he felt prices were best set by the balance of consumption and production(the supply and demand equilibrium) and that this philosophy had been working just fine and that Parliament would be disrupting an efficient economic order. 150 years later when Kirk starting writing, capitalism had grown to be an essential part of the western world so his views were much more flushed out in his 1963 essay The Meaning of Capitalism. Here he praises how the private ownership and competitiveness of the free market have enabled wealth and property to be more widespread and how it has led to a very high standard of living. So while both Burke and Kirk support the philosophical tenets and principles of the free market, as mentioned earlier they condemned the laissez faire mindset. In that same essay, Kirk condemns the mindset of many Americans of finding happiness through wealth and capital for he felt that it would lead to a materialist society and would lead people to abandon religion and the orders of civilization which would lead to the decadence of society. Burke’s ax to grind was with how many industrialists at the start of the Industrial Revolution were very profit centered to a point where they ignored the environmental consequences and the well being of their workers. In essence, the economy Classical Conservatism envisions is one where it’s based on free market principles but is regulated and adheres to the morals and values of society just as the culture and government should.
A final point commonly associated with Conservatism is federalism. While Burke never really advocated for federalism, he did argue that by empowering societal groups of the smallest denominator like, local churches, families, schools aka “the little platoons of society”, one helps to improve society as a whole which is similar in spirit to federalism. Kirk on the other hand did define federalism as a key tenet of conservatism. In his 8th Point of Conservatism, argues that society is comprised of multiple small groups and that decisions should be made by those mostly affected by them. So a family would make family decisions, businesses would make business decisions, local governments would make local decisions and national government would make decisions regarding national issues.
To summarize, when it comes to culture, the classical conservative adheres to and promotes Christianity as the moral fabric to society and to the customs and traditions of western civilization as the vehicle that promotes order and prosperity in society. In regards to societal progress, the conservative welcomes change as a means to progressing and helping society grow but at the same time believes change should only be implemented if it doesn’t contradict the foundations of society and if such change would be proven to improve society. It also believes that such change should be implemented slowly as to help prevent any societal unrest it could cause. As it relates to human rights, the classical conservative believes rights both originate from and are limited by the aforementioned moral and philosophical foundations of a just civilization and that rights are also granted and limited by how such a right would benefit the common good. From an economic standpoint, the classical conservative adheres to the basic principles of free market economics but condemns the materialistic and laissez faire mindset that has dominated modern free market economics on the right and believes that the same morals and values that govern society culturally and civically also govern the economy. In addition to all of this, classical conservatism teaches that decisions should be made for the most part by those most affected by them directly such as a family making family decisions or a local government making local decisions vs a national government making decisions at even the smallest levels of society. To sum up more precisely, classical conservatism is the promotion and adherence to the institutions, morals, and philosophies that have enabled the West to grow and thrive over the centuries.