Posts tagged with: conservatism

Long-time Acton Institute friend and Markets and Morality contributor Jean-Francois Orsini has a new book out. In Fight the Left (yes, it has a polemical edge!), Orsini argues that there are essentially two approaches to the world: liberalism and conservatism. His use of liberalism is decidedly contemporary (i.e., modern, not classical liberalism). His conservatism is sympathetic to the free market but, more importantly, it is “first principled,” meaning that he lays out the foundation on which conservatism must be based. In particular, it must recognize the truth about man: a being, created by God, endowed with the ability to choose good or evil. From this anthropology flows the rest of Orsini’s discussion, including a brief historical survey of conservative giants (Buckley, Goldwater, Reagan); an exposition of Catholic social teaching; and a few policy applications.

If you’re looking for a brief, easy, but nonetheless thought-provoking read, check out Fight the Left.

Political commentators have spilled a septic field of ink explaining what drives the Tea Party movement; and, sure, the movement is complex and varied, resisting any single attempt to blah blah blah. But the core of it boils down to the Saturday Night Live skit below. The analogy runs like this: The Steve Martin character and his wife represent the ruling political class in Washington; and the Tea Party is the book author.

I realize it’s not a perfect analogy. If it were a perfect analogy, the book author wouldn’t be nearly as detached, because the couple has been spending the author’s money using a credit card he had idiotically loaned them a few years before. Oh, and the husband would be accusing the book author of racism, or of being a flyover country yahoo without the sophistication to understand Keynesian economics or something.

[Hat Tip to Luke at Cornerstone University for the SNL skit.]

Acton’s The Birth of Freedom comes to six PBS stations this Independence Day weekend, and AEI’s Enterprise blog has a good post about the Christian foundations of American freedom and The Birth of Freedom: “It’s a good place to start if you’re interested in recalling, learning, or helping others to learn about the deep roots of the freedom we celebrate every Fourth of July. Those roots define, in part, what it means to be an American citizen.”

PBS Airings This Weekend
Tampa Bay, WEDU–July 4th, 9:00 p.m.
Carbondale, Illinois, WSIU/WUSI–July 4th, 1:00 p.m.
San Diego, KPBS–July 5th, 12:00 am (also July 7th, 4:00 am and July 11th 3:00 a.m.)
Baton Rouge, Louisiana Public Broadcasting–July 4th, 8:00 a.m. on LPB2
Grand Rapids, Michigan, WGVU–July 5th, 12:30 a.m.
Syracuse, New York, WCNY–July 4, 3:00 p.m.

Here’s the PBS station finder if you want to thank your station for airing it or find out if your station plans to air it later.


Lee Edwards calls William F. Buckley Jr. “The St. Paul of the conservative movement.” No other 20th century figure made such a vast contribution to the intellectual force of political conservatism. He paved the way for the likes of Ronald Reagan and all of those political children of Reagan who credit the former president for bringing them into politics. He achieved what no other had done and that was his ability to bring traditional conservatives, libertarians, and anti-communists together under the same umbrella. Late in life, when asked why he continued working so hard despite fame and wealth, a surprised Buckley said, “My Father taught me that I owe it to my country. It’s how I pay my debt.”

Lee Edwards offers an excellent story of Buckley’s founding and overseeing of the modern conservative crusade in William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement. Edwards traces the roots of those who influenced Buckley, from libertarian author Albert Jay Nock, conservative political scientist Willmoore Kendall, the anti-communist Whittaker Chambers, and political theorist James Burnham. Buckley fused together these right of center factions that were often feuding with each other more than with their common foes, the statists. Kendall, Burnham, and Chambers were all closely associated with National Review, launched by Buckley in 1955. Russell Kirk was also an essential conservative voice in the mix who agreed to become a contributor to the magazine. Buckley purged Ayn Rand and her anti-Christian and morally bankrupt philosophy of Objectivism from mainstream conservatism. He dismissed anti-semitism from the movement by dismissing it from his publication. The conservative historian George Nash simply said, “Much of the history of American conservatism after 1955 is the history of the individuals associated with the magazine William F. Buckley Jr. founded.”

A significant aspect of this book, and one that has received more attention since the death of Buckley, was his magnanimous personality and financial generosity. It is estimated that since he was paid a nominal salary by National Review, he diverted $10 million to the magazine because he forwarded speaking fees, lecture fees and other fees to National Review’s coffers. He waived his speaking fee for the Acton Institute in 1992 because according to Edwards, “He was taken with the idea of an organization dedicated to explaining the relationship between-free market capitalism and Christian morality.” Edwards offers other points of generosity:

He once visited a young man in a Texas hospital recovering from wounds in Vietnam. The soldier’s doctors had told him he would never see again. Buckley paid for his flight to New York City, where after an eye examination by one of the world’s leading eye surgeons and three operations, the young veteran’s eyesight was restored.

Buckley’s wit, sunny personality, and charm was infectious. Edwards tells a story about how Buckley was wildly cheered by Harvard students at a debate because of his biting wit and intellectual prowess. It became apparent that Buckley was cut from a far different mold than the stereotypical angry or dour faced conservative.

The weight of his commitments to National Review, Firing Line, his column and book writing, lecture schedule, and assisting other conservative organizations was staggering. He even found time to run for mayor of New York City in 1965. Buckley wanted to raise national awareness of conservative and libertarian ideas and when asked what he would do if he won he famously quipped, “Demand a recount.” He called for welfare reform in the campaign, saying recipients should work for assistance, outlining the ideas future Republican lawmakers would embrace in their own calls for reform. He supported free enterprise zones in ethnic minority neighborhoods long before Jack Kemp would popularize the idea. Buckley shocked many pundits with a respectable showing in the race, garnering support from many ethnic, Catholic Democrats and middle class Republicans. These, of course, were the same groups Ronald Reagan would later tap into in his presidential campaigns.

Buckley’s Roman Catholic faith was intricately tied to his conservative views. He believed in human liberty but understood that liberty itself could not lead to an earthly utopia. He penned a meditative account of his Catholic faith in Nearer, My God. Edwards reminds us his anti-communist views stemmed “not just because it was tyranny but also because it was heresy.” When he was asked by Playboy Magazine what he wanted as an epitaph, he replied, “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”

Buckley’s friendship with Ronald Reagan was deep and abiding, even among the occasional political disagreements. Both men shared a passion for not merely containing communism but defeating it. Buckley called Lech Walesa, Alexandr Solzhenitsyn, and Andrei Sakharov the great heroes of the 1980s and they had earned their place in “freedom’s House of Lords.” But the political leader was Ronald Reagan, with his strategic vision. Reagan too praised Buckley saying at the 30th anniversary celebration of National Review:

You and I remember a time of the forest primeval, a time when nightmare and danger reigned and only the knights of darkness prevailed; when conservatives seemed without a champion in the critical battle of style and content. And then, suddenly riding up through the mists, came our clipboard-bearing Galahad: ready to take on any challengers in the critical battle of point and counterpoint. And, with grace and humor and passion, to raise a standard to which patriots and lovers of freedom could repair.

No less praising is the truth Edwards articulates when he says Buckley, who was born into wealth, could have simply been a playboy of the Western world. But Buckley ferociously served and sacrificed in order to raise up the conservative cause and place it into the mainstream of American politics. He uplifted the intellectual debate of conservatives and the country, and always asked probing questions of the direction of the movement, most recently questioning the continued conflict in Iraq before his death. But never a quitter his last public comment on the war was “stick it out,” despite his skepticism of nation building in the Middle East, which he called “Wilsonian.”

William F. Buckley Jr. was a conservative icon. Generations of young conservatives grew up learning from him and tried to emulate his ideas and values. One of the greatest losses to conservatism with his death is the power of his ideas in times such as these. Many conservatives are reminded of this when we hear or read the anti-intellectualism and lack of critical thinking echoing from talk radio or the blogosphere. Buckley was the one who not only made conservatism respectable and mainstream, but reminded us too that it could tower over the liberals of the academy.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I reviewed a new book by George H. Nash on the history of the American conservative movement:

Reappraising the Right

By Bruce Edward Walker

In his 1950 work, “The Liberal Imagination,” Lionel Trilling famously stated that American liberalism was the one true political philosophy, claiming it as the nation’s “sole intellectual tradition.”

Unknown to him, two young men — one toiling as a professor at Michigan State Agricultural College (now Michigan State University) and the other finishing his degree at Yale University – would publish two articulate, galvanizing works. The first, Russell Kirk, unleashed “The Conservative Mind,” in which he defined conservatives as being wary of change, revolutions and ideologies in the manner of Irish statesman Edmund Burke. The second, William F. Buckley, first published “God and Man at Yale” and later inaugurated The National Review, the first issue bearing Buckley’s definition of a conservative as one who stands “athwart history, yelling stop!”

Slight differences, to be sure, but, as George H. Nash notes in his excellent “ Reappraising the Right ,” these variations are indicative of the inherent schisms in the modern American conservative tradition from its beginning.

Both Kirk and Buckley agreed that the conservative tradition had its roots in spirituality –specifically, the Judeo-Christian tradition. Morality and right-thinking come not from man, but from a higher power. Furthermore, humankind will continue to succumb to the temptations and appetites of the flesh it has been heir to since the Fall. The two men took as articles of faith that humanity is not perfectible and that the striving for earthbound utopias is foolhardy.

Kirk, writing from the “stump country” of Mecosta, Michigan, and Buckley, writing and speaking in his Brahmin-drenched New England patois, differed in their views of where conservatism derived, what precisely it was and where it should go. Despite their differences, Kirk wrote a column for nearly every issue of National Review from its inception and for almost 30 years.

The early 1950s were watershed years, to be sure, because as soon as a new conservative front was established, the fortress was besieged from within and without. The 1964 Barry Goldwater campaign against Democrat incumbent President Lyndon Johnson notwithstanding, the high water mark of conservatism in the lifetime of most readers would more than likely be defined as the victory of Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter in the 1980 election. Reagan, a former Hollywood actor, supporter of Goldwater in the 1964 election, and former California governor, became an icon for all that modern conservatism came to represent: low taxes, personal responsibility and small government.

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Saturday February 27 was the second anniversary of the death of the conservative giant William F. Buckley, Jr. I first saw Buckley in person when Ole Miss hosted Firing Line in 1997. I read National Review in High School even though I admit I did not always understand some of his words at that age. It was a wonderful reminder of the importance of  intellectualism and conservatism, and that I still had a lot to learn. The political left too had to respect Buckley’s brand of conservatism because of the seriousness of those ideas. It didn’t hurt that he was charming, gracious, and extremely generous.

After his death, Buckley was publicly honored with the Faith & Freedom Award by the Acton Institute at its annual dinner. He had long been a friend of Acton and Rev. Robert Sirico. Kate O’Beirne accepted the award on his behalf. It was a very touching evening and one we still remember well. The media department, with most of the leg work coming from Tabitha Blanski, produced this tribute video in honor of Buckley. It premiered at the 2008 Acton Annual Dinner. It is available publicly and on the Powerblog for the first time. The tribute is well worth the view.

Arnold Kling continued last week’s conversation about the relationship between conservatism and libertarianism over at EconLog.

Kling’s analysis is worth reading, and he concludes that the divide between conservatives and libertarians has to do with respect (or lack thereof) for hierarchical authority. Kling does allow for the possibility of a “secular conservative…someone who respects the learning embodied in traditional values and beliefs, without assigning them a divine origin.”

I’m certainly inclined to agree, and I think there are plenty of historical cases of such a “secular” conservatism. The question at issue really is, though, whether there is room for a “religious libertarian.” Kling distinguishes between progressives, libertarians, and conservatives on the basis of their answer to the question of what fuels social progress: movements and leaders, liberty and markets, or religion, respectively.

But it’s not clear to me that any of these options are exclusive. Indeed, one could quite coherently argue that proximate causes of social progress are primarily liberty and markets and that these are means of a common or general sort of divine grace.

The question, then, comes down to whether you think religion and liberty are ultimately and fundamentally opposed. Many secular libertarians suppose that they are. This is a flawed and ultimately untenable position, a development of a particularly closed off and secularized form of Enlightenment rationalism and anthropological arrogance (of course I say this as a Christian believer and as a theologian).

As with so many things, it comes down to a question of first principles. If libertarianism means that any and every human commitment must be subsumed to liberty as an end in itself, then any (other) meaningful religious commitment is excluded.

On the question of respect for authority, we should not be so quick to simply lump all religious adherents, or Christians in particular, into a category that views the state as such as divine. This is a very complicated historiographical and theological question, but the Christian tradition’s ambivalence toward the state is clear. The institution of civil government is most certainly a divine ordinance. This does not amount to a gross or crass blessing of a “divine right of kings” that allows for unlimited or unrestrained use of coercive force in the pursuit of any arbitrary agenda.

Kling’s claim that “the state historically derives from gangs of thugs demanding protection money from settled farmers and herders,” even if taken as true, does not rule out a divine origin. We are talking about two completely different levels of causality, in a way analogous to my previously noted relation of divine grace to liberty and markets. One need not rule out the other. God works through means.

And as I’ve noted previously, we have to take into account a standard of justice or equity, which whether communicated through the natural law or the Ten Commandments restricts legitimate civil authority (see the claim regarding OT Israel as a constitutional monarchy).

Augustine himself writes,

Justice being taken away, then, what are kingdoms but great robberies? For what are robberies themselves, but little kingdoms? The band itself is made up of men; it is ruled by the authority of a prince, it is knit together by the pact of the confederacy; the booty is divided by the law agreed on. If, by the admittance of abandoned men, this evil increases to such a degree that it holds places, fixes abodes, takes possession of cities, and subdues peoples, it assumes the more plainly the name of a kingdom, because the reality is now manifestly conferred on it, not by the removal of covetousness, but by the addition of impunity. Indeed, that was an apt and true reply which was given to Alexander the Great by a pirate who had been seized. For when that king had asked the man what he meant by keeping hostile possession of the sea, he answered with bold pride, “What thou meanest by seizing the whole earth; but because I do it with a petty ship, I am called a robber, whilst thou who dost it with a great fleet art styled emperor.” (City of God, Book IV, Chapter 4, “How Like Kingdoms Without Justice are to Robberies.”)

Kling’s claim regarding the historical origin of governments and Augustine’s description don’t seem that far off from each other. At least in Augustine’s case, he certainly didn’t think that such an account was any evidence against the existence of God or the legitimacy of just civil government.

Working as we do here at the intersection between economics and theology, the relationship between various kinds of classically liberal, libertarian, Austrian, and other economic modifiers and religion in general and Christianity in particular is in constant view. Sometimes the conversation is friendly, sometimes not so much. Sometimes the differences are less apparent, sometimes more.

Once in awhile a piece will appear on the Acton site or from an Acton writer that brings this discussion to the fore. Last week’s commentary by Anthony Bradley is a great example. Responses to his piece varied, but on a number of fronts his juxtaposition of the external coercive regulation of government and the internal moral guidance of religious faith was attacked.

Some equated religion with government, with the former being “merely unelected.” Others resorted to long critiques of the idea that religion and libertarianism have anything in common, engaging not only the substance of the issues but also delving into rhetorically questionable sidetracks, although some charitably noted, “At no point did Bradley seem to advocate the use of state force to promote Christianity.”

A few recent exchanges over at the First Thoughts blog contribute directly and helpfully to this conversation. Hunter Baker, an adjunct scholar with the Acton Institute and a contributor here at the PowerBlog, posted an excerpt from “a plenary panel session on the question of whether libertarians and social conservatives can get along.” Baker calls the two groups “co-belligerents in the cause of liberty.” Baker’s comments were inspired in part by an earlier piece appearing in Religion & Liberty, “Can Libertarians and Social Conservatives find Common Ground?”

Joe Carter responded by highlighting a piece by Russell Kirk, “Libertarians: the Chirping Sectaries,” (PDF) which Carter calls “the greatest political essay on conservatism and libertarianism of the last thirty years—if not of the twentieth century.” In this acerbic and far-ranging essay, Kirk calls libertarians “the little sour remnant” and contends that beyond a shared opposition to collectivism, conservatives and libertarians have nothing in common.

There is no doubt some truth both to Baker’s and to Kirk’s claims. The question has in part to do with a definition of terms and the corresponding identification of those to whom “conservative” and “libertarian” refer. We must of course recognize that those who self-identify as libertarian or classical liberals are not a uniform party, and the same is true for religious or “social” conservatives. There are at least a half dozen or so schools or varieties of libertarianism, and there is diffusion and disagreement on any number of principles and concrete issues.

Arnold Kling makes a helpful distinction between “civil societarians” and other “strands” of libertarianism. My own way of parsing the terms is to distinguish broadly between libertarianism as a political philosophy and libertarianism as a world-and-life view (Weltanschauung). The former is much more limited in scope than the latter.

For the former, liberty is man’s highest political end. But it is not man’s highest end. Politics and its ends are means towards other, more diverse social and more important theological ends.

For those whose libertarianism is an all-encompassing ideology, as Kirk says, for whom there is a “fanatic attachment to a simple solitary principle–that is, to the notion of personal freedom as the whole end of civil social order, and indeed of human existence,” there can be little if any room for a competing and alternative system of faith and life, e.g. Christianity.

As Lord Acton said,

Now liberty and good government do not exclude each other; and there are excellent reasons why they should go together. Liberty is not a means to a higher political end. It is itself the highest political end. It is not for the sake of a good public administration that it is required, but for security in the pursuit of the highest objects of civil society, and of private life.

That little modifier “political” makes all the difference. Lord Acton limits liberty as the “highest political end,” but immediately proceeds to relate and subsume politics to other spheres of life.

Kirk proceeds to point out some of the specific differences between the two worldviews, including the attitudes toward the existence of the State as well as moral duties and positive rights.

It is only in this latter sense of libertarianism as a worldview, as a competitor with and alternative to other worldviews (including Marxism and Christianity), that Kirk’s conclusion can be judged entirely accurate: “When heaven and earth have passed away, perhaps the conservative mind and the libertarian mind may be joined in synthesis—but not until then.”

Father John Zuhlsdorf, who runs the popular Catholic blog “What Does the Prayer Really Say?” has opened a new discussion thread on the work of the Acton Institute. He explains:

In light of what is going on in the world’s economies, and in light of what will be increasing tension between secular governments and the Church, which has her body of teaching on social issues, it is a good idea to have a strong discussion about Acton and the Church’s social teachings.

Fr. Z, who joined us at Acton University as a blogger last year, started the Acton discussion to address comments that were being raised on another entry regarding Fr. Robert Sirico’s letter to Notre Dame President Rev. John Jenkins. Here’s Fr. Z’s summary:

Under that other entry, commenter Sarsfield opines:

Sirico is a dissenter from the social magisterium of the Church in favor of the decidedly un-Catholic philosophy of economic liberalism. The very purpose of his organization is to “correct” the “mistakes” of all the Popes who have spoken on the social question since Leo XIII. His choice of the organization’s name is telling if anyone bothers to read a little history. It was Acton, after all, who not only opposed Vatican I’s proposed definition of papal infallibility but tried to use his considerable influence with the British government to induce the anti-Catholic European powers to intervene militarily to prevent the Council from meeting.

Some responses were given to this:

* You may or may not agree with Fr. Sirico’s affinity for economic liberalism, but it is a gross overstatement to accuse him of dissenting from the Magisterium of the Church.
* You are incorrect to categorize Fr. Sirico as a dissenter from the Magisterium for his economics. Though, without more information, I’m not sure if it’s because you are wrong about the Acton Institute, or if it’s because you misunderstand Leo XIII.
* I think a better description of Fr. Sirico’s politics/economic theories rather than “economic liberalism,’ which is the term you use, would be “economic libertarianism.” Or “free market capitalism.” Excuse me for coining the first phrase, but certainly, as I read through the Acton maxim’s on their web site, they have much more to do philosophically with the right wing, or modern conservativism’s “less is more” view of the government’s involvement with all things that affect capitalistic economies. So it just as well could read, “economic conservatism,” for those listening with ears primed with the current left vs. right paradigm labeling conventions. So, while you may mean to convey exactly the same idea, the labeling must certainly give the opposite appearance to eyes and ears more conventionally tuned.

Join the discussion on WDTPRS. Come back here to link your remarks.

This year’s national meeting of the Philadelphia Society was my first. William Campbell of LSU invited me (a young-ish faculty member of Houston Baptist University) after reading a piece I wrote on libertarians and conservatives for the Acton Institute. I am very thankful for the opportunity and enjoyed the event very much. The list of attendees was really quite impressive and people were generally interested in and open to others.

At each meal I sat with a different group of people and found the conversation rewarding. There was a strong sense of fellowship and collegiality. I felt that individuals who offered divergences of opinion were treated respectfully and well. It was, in the best sense of the word, scholarly.

However, I write to offer a suggestion. To me, the panels shaded too much to the hall of famer/veteran side and not enough (or even at all) to rising, young talent needing an opportunity to demonstrate what they can do or what new things they have to say. A meeting of this kind would represent a great way for the distinguished members to identify talent and then to figure out how to promote the careers of young people who can seek to build on the previous generation’s successes.

For every paper delivered by a long-standing member who is confident in what he has said and is ready to say it again, there are young people who will work their brains out for a chance to present something impressive to people they respect. The leadership needs to figure out how to move national meetings in that direction to a greater degree.