Varieties of Conservatisms

The history and movements parsed by Peter Berkowitz (of the Hoover Institute) in an op-ed for WSJ. Read here. (Hat tip: Powerline).

It’s a good piece, but unfortunately wastes too much space at the front-end arguing that the battle of ideas rages on the right conservative side of the spectrum but not on the left. That the left is now monolithic in thinking. I think this is a garbage view, but anyway it’s incidental to the main thrust of the place (hence I think it was unnecessary but so be it).


One source of the divisions evident today is the tension in modern conservatism between its commitment to individual liberty, and its lively appreciation of the need to preserve the beliefs, practices, associations and institutions that form citizens capable of preserving liberty. The conservative reflex to resist change must often be overcome, because prudent change is necessary to defend liberty. Yet the tension within often compels conservatives to wrestle with the consequences of change more fully than progressives–for whom change itself is often seen as good, and change that contributes to the equalization of social conditions as a very important good.

The individual liberty/preservation of beliefs is I think an uniquely American brand of conservatism. [The Conservative Party in Britain, the Thachterites being a possible variation]. The European brand of conservatism stressed the need to preserve the institutions of that day–monarchy, church. The US conservatism never had this attachment to the Ancien Regime.

Again Berkowitz:

In contrast to much European conservatism, which harks back to premodern times and the political preeminence of religion and royalty, in America–which lacked a feudal past to preserve or recover–conservatism has always revolved around the preservation of individual liberty. Of course modern conservatism generally admires virtues embodied in religious faith and the aristocratic devotion to excellence. It also tends to emphasize the weaknesses of human nature, the ironies and tragedies of history, and the limitations of reason and politics. At the same time, it wishes to put these virtues and this knowledge in liberty’s service.

And then Berkowitz offers this helpful way of assessing the main variants of contemporary American conservatism:

The divisions within contemporary American conservatism–social conservatives, libertarians, and neoconservatives–arise from differences over which goods most urgently need to be preserved, to what extent, and with what role for government.

As emblematic of these three schools of American conservatism Berkowtiz offers three great names/figures in the movement.

Russell Kirk (social conservatism): emphasis on traditions, esp. religious
Frederick Hayek (libertarianism): limited government, extension of liberty-individual choice
Leo Strauss (neoconservatism): natural right, democracy around globe

So for Strauss the big government aspect if you like is (at least in his descendants) is the military Leviathan to enable attacks around the world.

For the social cons, the “big” government element is moral guardian watchdog of the society.

And Hayek government should be small, small as possible.

There are points of agreement though as Berkowitz points out. For example:
–The neocons were all former New Dealers, more properly anti-Stalinist socialists who turned against welfare.
–Hayek was anti-welfare of course.
–And the Social cons while they want federal amendments banning gay marriage and such, they tend to be anti-welfare state as well.

Berkowitz ends by suggesting in light of the implosion of Bush Republicanism and as conservatives and Republicans shine the light on themselves and think about where they should go and are going in the future (e.g. Sam’s Clubs Republicans) they should return to these three key figures. Good idea I think.

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Published in: on May 31, 2007 at 2:27 pm  Leave a Comment  

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