If one were to summarize why Buckley-style conservatism failed, the clearest answer is that it stopped being conservative. The central tenets of conservatism are tradition, organic society, hierarchy, authority, property rights and prudence. In the Anglo-Saxon model, ordered liberty can also be included. The limits on authority are the logic of a fixed and orderly legal system. Probably the most concise explanation of American conservatism came from Russel Kirk seventy years ago.
Buckley conservatism, in contrast, was never deeply rooted in social philosophy and this was a deliberate act. The Buckleyites wanted a create a political movement that could compete with Progressives. In order to do that it meant winning elections and that meant providing a practical platform for governance. As a result, Buckley conservatism was always a compromise. In order to fashion a practical political platform, it meant deviating from conservative dogma as necessity required.
This lack of ideological moorings, however, led it to drift away from conservatism toward something that is better described as marketism. Libertarians see property as the key to individual liberty. All human rights derive from ownership of self and property is the fruit of labor, so absolute property rights safeguard individual liberty. Marketism, in contrast, views liberty as the unfettered right to trade property and labor. Therefore, liberty is maximized only through the free and unregulated marketplace.
In both cases, the definition of individual liberty is at odds with conservative conceptions of individual liberty, as well as the tenets of conservatism. The Right has always understood that a man could only be free within the context of society. To exist within a society, he must gain control of his passions and master himself. Customs and traditions, which habituated him to his duties as a member of society, also channeled his energies to that which served the good of his society.
This conception of ordered liberty, in which man can only be free within the context of his role in society, is the wellspring of conservative thought. Respect for hierarchy, for example, is not just an observation of man’s natural state, but an acceptance of the fundamental nature of human society. Similarly, the right of property can only be a coherent concept within a human society, not outside it. There can be no property rights without society, so property rights must ultimately serve the good of society.
For libertarians and market absolutists, any restraint on how you can dispose of your property or how you trade property with others is seen as a violation of your individual sovereignty. Inevitably, it means taking the side of the market when it bumps up against custom or tradition. It means siding with novelty that promises more market freedom, even when it undermines the organic institutions of society. Inevitably, conservatives became the defenders of the wrecking ball that destroyed American culture.
It’s why a Kevin Williamson could gleefully cheer for the destruction of small-town America and their customs, in the name of the free market. From his perspective, the limitations of localism are a gross violation of freedom, so destroying those local communities sets the residents free to maximize their economic utility. Buckley conservatism has drifted so far from its alleged starting position, it now stands in opposition to that which defined its alleged starting position.
This recent piece by David French is another example. In it, he turns conservatism on its head in order to promote marketism. The problems of college athletics, however you wish to frame them, are not the result of too little commercialism. Only a blithering idiot could come to such a conclusion. The trouble with college sports, and the college system as a whole, is it is now almost entirely free of the system of customs and traditions that created it. Higher education is a market that strives to be a racket.
David French, of course, has become the comical front man for Buckley conservatism over the last few years. His blend of sanctimonious finger wagging and principled mediocrity is the exaggerated version of the dissident critique of conventional conservatism. He is the clown nose of Conservative Inc. This is not solely due to his many personal defects. His embrace of unconditional marketism has led him to adopt an entirely transactional view of human existence.
There used to be a time when both sides of the Progressive orthodoxy understood the limits and liabilities of the marketplace. The Left would howl about consumerism at the expense of authenticity. The Right would point out the dangers inherent in an unfettered marketplace. Buckley famously said, “The trouble with socialism is socialism. The trouble with capitalism is capitalists.” The modern conservative would not understand that juxtaposition. For him, the marketplace is supreme.
The underlying truth of radicalism is that it not only seeks to free men from the human condition, but it seeks to have them rise to the heavens and become gods. For the modern conservative, something similar has evolved. Whether it is a fetish for property or a fetish for markets, the Buckley conservatives imagine men breaking free of their constraints in order to become fully engaged market participants. For them, the paradise at the end is a shopping mall full of atomized strangers.
That’s why Buckley conservatism has failed. It is a primal call for a war of all against all, where atomized bugmen jostle to maximize their utility in the market. To consume product is the end point of existence. It is a crude and vulgar existence that celebrates man’s worst instincts at the expense of his nobler aspirations. What is on offer from so-called conservatives is a different type of hell than what is on offer from their partners on the Left, but it is still the same Progressive sandwich.
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