Rediscovering Conservatism

One of the questions we addressed in the first meeting of our Tradition Project back in 2016 was this: is it possible to speak of an American conservatism? Isn’t what we call conservatism in America really just classical liberalism, a philosophy committed to individual rights, the free market, and a limited state that maintains neutrality with respect to religion and other big issues? In a new book from Regnery, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, Yoram Hazony (Edmund Burke Foundation) argues that American conservatism and classical liberalism are two separate things. Here’s the publisher’s description:

The idea that American conservatism is identical to “classical” liberalism—widely held since the 1960s—is seriously mistaken.

The award-winning political theorist Yoram Hazony argues that the best hope for Western democracy is a return to the empiricist, religious, and nationalist traditions of America and Britain—the conservative traditions that brought greatness to the English-speaking nations and became the model for national freedom for the entire world.

Conservatism: A Rediscovery explains how Anglo-American conservatism became a distinctive alternative to divine-right monarchy, Puritan theocracy, and liberal revolution. After tracing the tradition from the Wars of the Roses to Burke and across the Atlantic to the American Federalists and Lincoln, Hazony describes the rise and fall of Enlightenment liberalism after World War II and the present-day debates between neoconservatives and national conservatives over how to respond to liberalism and the woke left.

Going where no political thinker has gone in decades, Hazony provides a fresh theoretical foundation for conservatism. Rejecting the liberalism of Hayek, Strauss, and the “fusionists” of the 1960s, and drawing on decades of personal experience in the conservative movement, he argues that a revival of authentic Anglo-American conservatism is possible in the twenty-first century.

Legal Spirits Episode 035: With Gerald Russello of the University Bookman

In this episode, we talk with Gerald Russello of the University Bookman about his decades-long career editing the influential conservative review of books. Gerald talks about his plans for the Bookman, the varieties of American conservatism, his own intellectual journey and embrace of traditionalism, and the future of the American right. It’s a fascinating discussion. Listen in!

Pitts, “Boundaries of the International”


One of the many enjoyable nuggets in Patrick Deneen’s new book on liberalism is this one: John Stuart Mill, that great exponent of tolerance, argued that the West should impose liberalism on “‘uncivilized’ peoples in order that they might lead productive economic lives, even if they must be “for a while compelled to it,’ including through the institution of ‘personal slavery.'” By contrast, the Christian conservative Edmund Burke insisted, at an earlier moment in imperialist history, that colonial powers should allow local, non-European religious cultures to continue–as in India, for example. The difference is worth remembering, when people tell you how liberalism inherently promotes neutrality, and conservatism, bigotry. Things are a lot more complicated.

I thought about all this while reading the announcement for a new book from Harvard University Press, Boundaries of the International: Law and Empire, by University of Chicago political scientist Jennifer Pitts, which discusses both Mill and Burke. Looks interesting. Here’s the description from the Harvard website:

It is commonly believed that international law originated in relations among European states that respected one another as free and equal. In fact, as Jennifer Pitts shows, international law was forged at least as much through Europeans’ domineering relations with non-European states and empires, leaving a legacy still visible in the unequal structures of today’s international order.

Pitts focuses on the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the great age of imperial expansion, as European intellectuals and administrators worked to establish and justify laws to govern emerging relationships with non-Europeans. Relying on military and commercial dominance, European powers dictated their own terms on the basis of their own norms and interests. Despite claims that the law of nations was a universal system rooted in the values of equality and reciprocity, the laws that came to govern the world were parochial and deeply entangled in imperialism. Legal authorities, including Emer de Vattel, John Westlake, and Henry Wheaton, were key figures in these developments. But ordinary diplomats, colonial administrators, and journalists played their part too, as did some of the greatest political thinkers of the time, among them Montesquieu and John Stuart Mill.

Against this growing consensus, however, dissident voices as prominent as Edmund Burke insisted that European states had extensive legal obligations abroad that ought not to be ignored. These critics, Pitts shows, provide valuable resources for scrutiny of the political, economic, and legal inequalities that continue to afflict global affairs.

Conservative or Liberal? Take This Test

I greatly admire Jonathan Haidt’s work on moral psychology, particular his recent book, The Righteous Mind, on the differing moral intuitions of conservatives and liberals. So I was intrigued by a recent test Haidt published in Time–a series of questions that, Haidt says, predict where one falls on the political spectrum. The questions don’t relate to politics directly. They relate more to values (“Should kids be taught to respect authority?”, “Is self-control or self-expression more important?”) and lifestyle (“Do you like fusion cuisine?”)–what we might think of as culture. None of the questions relates to religion as such, though, to my mind, there are obvious overlaps. Also, none of the questions relates to economics; Haidt’s point, which seems right to me, is that politics remains largely a matter of moral intuition.

Anyway, I don’t want to say too much about the test and ruin it. Go ahead and answer the questions. For what it’s worth, they predicted my political leanings quite well. (H/T: Rod Dreher).