In January, The New Criterion organized a symposium around the topic of the changes in the conservative movement. They invited several writers to respond to the main essay written by Kim R. Holmes, the former Executive Vice President of The Heritage Foundation and former Assistant Secretary of State in the G. W. Bush Administration. The respondents are Ryan T. Anderson, Josh Hammer, Charles R. Kesler, Daniel J. Mahoney, James Piereson, Robert R. Reilly, and R. R. Reno.
Now, if this were a boxing match, it would have been called in the second response to Holmes, written by Josh Hammer, a member of Yoram Hazony’s National Conservatism movement. Hammer offers a lengthy critique of conservatism but the subtext is a bit of inescapable reality. The conservative movement, whatever its intensions, was a complete failure. It conserved nothing. In fact, it may be the biggest failure in the history of political movements.
Conservatives often respond to this with the claim that it was conservative foreign policy that defeated communism in the last century. That is true, but the point of defeating communism was to preserve American’s way of life and protect the ancient liberties of Western people. Winning the Cold War was supposed to be a means to an end, not an end in itself. Instead, the peace dividend has been spent up-armoring the administrative class and the increasingly tyrannical security regime.
One reason conservatism is in a crisis is the defenders of the movement refuse to acknowledge this reality, which calls into question their sincerity. The Holmes essay does not mention this fact and instead offers a long critique of the critics. In so doing he inadvertently reveals the source of the crisis within conservatism and the cause of its failure. His defense of John Locke displays an ignorance of why Locke mattered to the Founders and why he matters today.
Locke is considered the father of liberalism because he solved an important problem. Upon what authority should political philosophy rest its claims about politics and human society? If it is not the king and the social order that was passed down to the 17th century, then what should it be? If it is God, then it logically must be Scripture, but the Gospels are not much help when it comes to creating a political structure to govern society. Jesus had no opinion on parliamentary order.
Locke was a Christian who accepted that God created the world. Since God must be rational, it follows that his creation is rational. Further, it follows that he knew what he was making when he created the world. He would have no need to change those rules, as God does not make mistakes, so it follows that the rules of nature are fixed. Mankind lives in a world of fixed and discoverable rules, which means we can discover the rules that should govern human society.
Simply put, Locke removed religion and Scripture from the equation so that a moral philosophy could rest upon the authority of nature. It is not an accident that the Founders used the phrase, “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the Declaration of Independence. They were not basing their claims against the King on the words of their favorite philosopher. They were basing their claims on the same authority as their favorite philosopher.
Unlike the Founders, modern conservatives are not interested in the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” and instead rest their authority on their favorite historical figures. They are fond of quoting Locke, Jefferson, or Lincoln, especially Lincoln, but these are just men. They can only offer a path to an authority upon which to build a political philosophy. Otherwise, they are as flawed as every man. Locke, for example, believed in the blank slate, which is complete nonsense.
This is why conservatism has been a failure. Without some authority to base their political claims, their opponents are free to dismiss them as mere tactics. From the perspective of the Left, the Founders were just men. On the other hand, the historical process is science and the foundation on which they make their moral claims. Legal and economic arguments are no use against moral arguments, which is why the Left has swept conservatism from the field.
To his credit, Holmes is correct to point out that the National Conservatives are terrified of being associated with identity politics. The trouble is, there is no way to have nationalism without national identity, even if you try to hide that identity behind talk of customs and traditions. Those customs and traditions did not fall from the sky. They are the product of a people defined by the mating decisions of their ancestors and the location of those decisions.
Holmes is also correct to point out that the National Conservatives are wrong about Burke’s influence on the thinking of the Founders. This is an attempt on their part to replace one favorite philosopher with another in order to claim the high ground against establishment conservatives. Further, to pretend that Burke was not well aware of what it meant to be British, to have a British identity, when he was defending the traditions and customs of the empire is to exempt oneself from reality.
The most curious response to Holmes on behalf of the “common good conservatism” side is from Ryan T. Anderson, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center. The group describes itself as “dedicated to applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy”. He correctly points out the fatal flaw in social contract theory, which is the bedrock of the conservative movement. There is nothing in nature or in Locke’s writing that requires a social contract that only guarantees rights.
The proto-society that is coming together could plausibly agree to sacrifice their rights entirely in order to preserve the commonly held property of the members. The human sciences tell us that this is probably the basis of the first human settlements. Kin groups collaborated with related kin groups to maintain hunting grounds and water supplies. Similarly, they could have come together to protect some natural curiosity with which they held a shared spiritual meaning.
The archeological record suggests that what first brought disparate kin groups together was not an agreement to respect each other’s rights. Instead, it was common spiritual belief. Göbekli Tepe, in what is now Turkey, is known as humanity’s first temple. It was constructed by pastoral people as some a shared religious site. It is assumed that agriculture caused people to settle down, but this site offers another plausible reason to settle and cooperate, shared belief in a common set of gods.
That has always been the trouble with social contract theory. It is a thing that exists as a logical construct to solve the problem of natural rights theory. That is, lacking an authority on which to base natural rights, this imaginary contract between people is conjured from thin air to be that foundation stone for the theory. Natural rights theory assumes an axiom for which there is no evidence in history. Further, if such a contract existed, it probably had nothing to do with rights.
An interesting observation by Robert R. Reilly in his critique of the integralists is that “They wish to find themselves in a pre-Reformation Christendom.” Integralism is revanchism, which has run through the conservative movement since the 1960’s. The integralists may dream of returning to Camelot, but the current conservatives dream of returning to 1980. The neoconservatives dream of returning to 1950’s Brooklyn. Conservatism is the promise of a “do-over” where this time the good guys win.
Reilly also offers up this strange argument against the common good. “A love of one’s own can only take one so far. One naturally loves one’s own, but is one’s own always deserving of love? If this love lacks grounding beyond a bare attachment to one’s own, how is it different from others’ preference for their own? Strict nationalism fails to the extent that it does not take into account natural law and natural rights, which together condemn the universal state and expose its inherently tyrannical nature.”
Conservatives used to condemn this sort of universalism to the woolly-headed intellectuals who spent too much time reading Marx. Conservatism simply assumed that custom and convention are what allowed people to live peaceably. Civil society was the product of generations of trial and error, the result being a collection of compromises we call culture. There could never be a universal state, as there can never be a universal culture, because there is no such thing as universal man.
Like all modern conservatives, Reilly is terrified of what naturally flows from putting the interests of your own ahead of strangers. Conservatives have accepted the left-wing claim that anything exclusionary is exploitive and immoral. Loving your child more than the child of the stranger inevitably leads to fascism, according to the theology of the modern Left. Whether it is out of fear, cowardice or stupidity, contemporary conservatives have accepted the morality of the open society.
As a result, they have no choice but to reject that the common good can even exist and they busy themselves making the conservative case for the open society. In fairness, the common good conservatives suffer from this same affliction. Yoram Hazony’s book, The Virtue of Nationalism, tries to make the case for nationalism, but is repeatedly poleaxed by the fact that nationalism can only be rooted in biology, history and location. It also must be exclusive.
This is the problem faced by all of the common good conservatives. Unless they are prepared to make the case that their program includes all of humanity, they must define the who and whom of this new utilitarian conservatism. Who is inside the domain covered by the common good and who lies outside of that domain? More important, who decides? Further, upon what authority will this person be selected and what is the authority upon which they will rely to draw the boundaries?
The common good conservatives are silent on this, even though they privately will confess that their concept of a nation is the same one anathematized by the Left. The Finns should decide what is best for the Finns, even if that means excluding non-Finns from their lands. By nature of the mating decisions of their ancestors in their ancestral lands, they have the sole authority over what it means to be Finnish and what is in the best interests of the Finnish people.
Again, the common good conservatives understand this reality, but they also know that they will be hurled into the void if they acknowledge the obvious. To their credit, the neoconservatives have always understood this and limited their scope to foreign affairs. Their social criticism was always just window dressing that never dared question the morality of the open society. Kim Homes, someone who has traveled in neoconservative circles his whole life, certainly gets this.
Taken as a whole this debate bumps into the question of whether or not it is possible to have conservatism in a democratic society. As Russell Kirk pointed out, the first principle of conservatism is the belief that there exists an enduring moral order. In a political system where the truth, including moral truth, is decided by 50% plus one, there is no room for an enduring moral order. The evidence of this is all around us as men put on sundresses and declare themselves women.
The Founders understood the danger of democracy. This is why they explicitly said the new constitution provided checks against it. The democratic elements included in the new political order were bounded by limits on the state. Modern conservatives reject this and instead think they can achieve conservative ends by convincing 50% plus one to support their claims. They excitedly talk about democracy, because they are operating under the belief they can win over the fickle mobs.
This is because modern conservatism has abandoned that first principle of conservatism. The libertarians, the neoconservatives and the civic nationalists find the idea of an enduring moral order as horrifying as their supposed enemies on the Left. Like the modern Progressive, the modern conservative has made the shifting will of the people the sole authority. In such a world there can be no permanence, no tradition and no appeal to custom. Therefore, there can be no conservatism.
Whether it is the revanchism of the integralists or the sterile nationalism of Hazony’s brand of conservatism, they fail for the same reason mainstream conservatism has failed. Without a moral foundation upon which to make political claims, conservatism is nothing more than a negotiating position within the democratic system. It is why today’s Progressive fad turns into tomorrow’s conservative principle. The modern conservative always starts from the last Progressive victory.
That is the crisis in modern conservatism. For there to be a legitimate conservative movement, it must first come to terms with what it is it seeks to defend. Then it must answer why this must be preserved. These are moral questions that Locke answered by looking at the natural world as an orderly place that operates by fixed rules. As such, human happiness lies in the orderly society that operates under a rational and persistent set of rules.
This naturally means a rejection of the Hegelian theory of history that is the moral basis of both the Left and the prevailing moral order. The hand of history is not carrying mankind to some promised land where all moral questions are answered. A genuine alternative to the prevailing orthodoxy is not a debate about its factual inaccuracies, but a rejection of it on moral grounds. That requires a courage that modern conservatism and common good conservatism are unable to muster.
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