Raising the Standard at UGA since 2013.

BOOK REVIEW: What, Exactly, is Conservatism?

A well-used copy.


What is Conservatism?, edited by Frank S. Meyer. ISI Books, 260 pages, $14.40 from isibooks.org

The … question, asked alike by friendly and hostile listeners, is: “What is conservatism?” Sometimes the questioner — guarding against the windy evasiveness one comes to expect from lecturers — will add, “preferably in one sentence.” On which occasions I have replied: “I could not give you a definition of Christianity in one sentence, but that does not mean Christianity is undefinable.”

—William F. Buckley, Notes Towards an Empirical Definition of Conservatism


Conservatism. The term often confuses almost more than it clarifies. It has done so for decades and, still, lines are drawn haphazardly between, around, and through the likes of Fox News and The Ben Shapiro Show, Breitbart and National Review, Senator Ben Sasse and Newt Gingrich, or Senators John McCain and Rand Paul. For each reader who considers him/herself a conservative, the thought that at least one of those entities might be labeled conservative likely disgusts you. But despite their chasmic differences, they all are or have been at some point labeled as such (Some to the dismay of your humble Editor-in-Chief, even). The question then arises: What, exactly, is Conservatism?

A series of essays compiled in 1964, published under the title What is Conservatism?, seeks to answer just that — to find a common ground among the different factions worth observing of the conservative tradition. The main divide effectively exists between “traditionalist” conservatives and libertarians, i.e., between those who value the state’s role in establishing moral order and those for whom state authority is in and of itself a wrong.

The book does well to tease out the philosophy behind each position within the conservative spectrum: The philosophical libertarian (M. Stanton Evans in The Conservative Case for Freedom) prefers freedom for its inherent morality. The pragmatic libertarian (F.A. Hayek in Why I am Not a Conservative — which Jonah Goldberg states “should be Why I am Not a European Conservative”) prefers freedom because it is the most useful to a better society. The traditionalist (Russell Kirk in Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom) sees authority as substantially more essential to the keeping of moral order. Between these positions is a fusion of every sort simply regarded as “fusionism.” Some make their arguments contingent on the truth of religion (e.g., Stephen J. Tonsor in The Conservative Search for Identity), while most remain secular in their reasoning. What is Conservatism? highlights the various answers to the core question, When should the government be used and why?. Indeed, it illustrates the surprising variety (and also the overlap) underlying different brands of conservatism.

Most of the book’s content is concise, well organized, and contributes to the overall goal of the work, with the notable exceptions of Garry Wills’s essay, which I found at times to reveal his fondness for fluff. Also straying from the goal of the work, though I hesitate to admit it, is Bill Buckley’s informal essay which is interesting but seem a tad thrown together (they are “merely notes,” as he admits).

And it reveals so in a useful way. Rather than focusing only on the musings of Frank Meyer, himself an accomplished and articulate arbiter of the conservative cause, the book reflects the wealth of nuance and reasonable dissent that reside in the wellsprings of the conservative label. In this compilation of essays, you will find a healthy dose of thoughtful philosophy (e.g.., Russell Kirk’s Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom), pragmatic empiricism (F.A. Hayek’s Why I am Not a Conservative) and even personal anecdote (William F. Buckley’s Notes Towards an Empirical Definition of Conservatism). Again, the variety of approaches to the conservative philosophy within these pages supports the notion of intellectual variety within the Conservative Movement. This variety is highlighted with Frank Meyer’s addendum, in which he essentially summarizes and contrasts each essayist’s philosophical view (and, in the edition I review here, Jonah Goldberg offers a foreword to this effect as well). With so much dissension and contradiction between each featured author, Meyer’s Venn Diagram of sorts, so to speak, is a welcome assistant.

So, all this talk about variety seems to hint at the idea that maybe we are straying away from a definition. And yes, in truth, the book does less to define conservatism than to construct a Venn diagram of conservatism’s constituents. Thus, expect a broadening of your view of conservatism rather than a narrowing to a concrete definition. Nonetheless, upon completion of the book, one might find it a revelation that an entire 300 pages could be dedicated to different definitions of the word (the Movement? The ideology? The worldview? Even a categorization is difficult.). Differences in these 20th century thinkers’ interpretation of conservatism’s core values — freedom, order, justice, and tradition — can inspire insight into what brand of conservatism works best today.

Moreover, as many of its contributors note, the core goal at the time of this book’s publishing was ultimately to unite the right against a common enemy: the rising tide of communism. Indeed, it was this common enemy that served as the primary impetus for What Is Conservatism?: “In an era like ours the existing regime in philosophical thought, as in political and social actuality, is fundamentally wrong. To accept is to be not conservative, but acquiescent to revolution,” says Meyer. And, though published before the U.S.’s entrance into the Vietnam War, a similar goal remains in 2018, to counter the rising tide of statism. And if we are to do so, then what is needed is an appropriate, marketable, principled, and well-stated arrangement and articulation of freedom, order, justice, and tradition. In furtherance of that end, what follows are excerpts from the book that I find to be of continuing  relevance:  


Michael Oakeshott tells us, “It is not at all inconsistent to be conservative in respect of government and radical in respect of almost every other activity.” I have no doubt Russell Kirk would disagree … These debates run straight through the conservative heart.

Jonah Goldberg, Foreword to the New Edition


The whole point of seeking to conserve that which is good and just must begin with a sense of gratitude.

Jonah Goldberg, Foreword to the New Edition


This is our situation. What is required of us is a conscious conservatism, a clearly principled restatement in new circumstances of philosophical and political truth.

Frank S. Meyer, Freedom, Tradition, Conservatism


We see so far only because we are elevated upon the accomplishment of our ancestors; and if we break with ancestral wisdom, we at once are plunged into the ditch of ignorance.

Russell Kirk, Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom


It is one of the saddest illusions of the Liberal era, the notion that political manipulation can make men happy.

Russell Kirk, Prescription, Authority, and Ordered Freedom


An assault on individual freedom, in the authoritarian manner, will not restore us to virtue, because virtue cannot be legislated.

M. Stanton Evans, A Conservative Case for Freedom


The authoritarian, like the libertarian, believes that value and enforcement go hand in hand; unlike the libertarian, however, he accepts both. He merely wants to be the person doing the enforcing … It is the immemorial habit of man to be unable to see his long term interest when a short term one appears before him.

M. Stanton Evans, A Conservative Case for Freedom


… the fact that I prefer and feel reverence for some of the traditions of my society need not be the cause of hostility to what is strange and different.

Friedrich A. Hayek, Why I am Not a Conservative


The optimistic Liberal does not recognize that society is ultimately hurt less by individuals who catch at an instant advantage than by the messiahs who undertake great missions with long-range planning, ingenuity, patient endurance, and conviction of ultimate triumph.

Garry Wills, The Convenient State


[In conclusion, ] The “planning” of human life, so characteristic of the liberal ethos, is anathema to every one of the contributors.

Frank S. Meyer, Consensus and Divergence

Want more? Check out this Deeper Look Podcast on the same subject for Ross, Reed, and Nick’s discussion of conservatism.

Nick Geeslin is Book Editor of The Arch Conservative.

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