Editors’ note: the below is a response to “The fallacies of the common good” by Kim R. Holmes, the lead essay in “Common-good conservatism: a debate.” Holmes’s reply can be found here.

For good reasons, Kim R. Holmes takes on the national conservatism and the Catholic integralism that are evident in parts of the American conservative movement, the former far more than the latter, which is why I will primarily focus on it. The primary force behind national conservatism as it exists on our shores seems to be Yoram Hazony and the Edmund Burke Foundation. It recently sponsored a three-day meeting in Florida with a large array of speakers, including integralists. It appeared to be a big tent–type gathering, brought together by a great shared revulsion at the various progressivist outrages visited upon our society.

I have listened to a lecture or two by Hazony and can understand his appeal in terms of the common sense he brings to many contemporary issues. I wish he had called his movement common-sense conservatism. It is basically common sense, for instance, that won Glenn Youngkin the governorship of Virginia in November. Hazony’s emphasis on nationhood is also welcome. The dissolution of our southern borders and the general loss of the distinction between citizen and noncitizen greatly threaten the American nation. One must keep in mind that it is only within a nation that human rights can be observed, exercised, and protected. In reaction to the prospect of a universal state (the ultimate outcome of cosmopolitanism), it is a good and healthy thing to revive patriotism and to honor custom and tradition.

One naturally loves one’s own, but is one’s own always deserving of love?

When one looks at what underlies Hazony’s point of view and its specifically national aspect, however, problems arise, including but not limited to those detected by Holmes. 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. In short, national conservatism hasn’t established a proper foundation for what it is trying to do.

The thought of Edmund Burke, on which Hazony and others in this movement rely, cannot compensate for this lack. Harvey Mansfield states that Burke regarded the British “constitution as an inheritance, which means . . . not inherited from founders but as if it has come to us from no beginning.” Burke appreciated the American founding insofar as it was an imitation of the British constitution, modified by local experience and circumstances. He did not acknowledge a “founding” or believe foundings were possible. This may be why the foremost sponsor of national conservatism here in the United States, the Edmund Burke Foundation, turns to him in order to understand America, rather than to the American founders. Burke’s purported distaste for the Preamble in the Declaration of Independence can easily be understood by his denigration of “abstract rights” and “immutable principles,” of which he says, “in proportion as they are metaphysically true, they are morally and politically false.” So, he concluded, “Nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on a moral or political subject.” He once remarked, speaking of the British people above all, that men cherish their prejudices and, “to take more shame to ourselves, we cherish them because they are prejudices.”

A few citations will illustrate how Burke’s thought has been adapted to an American context. The Burke scholar Bruce P. Frohnen of the Catholic University of America writes:

The real rights of man, as Burke eloquently argued in his writings on America, are rooted in history and tradition. Anyone who would talk a people out of their inherited rights in the name of some abstract notion—be it Parliamentary sovereignty, liberty, or equality—is an enemy to that life of ordered liberty and felicity to which Burke dedicated his life and career.

Ofir Haivry, a distinguished senior fellow at the Edmund Burke Foundation, spells out the contradiction:

Burke’s understanding [of good governance] is absolutely opposed to the now fashionable claims that the U.S. Constitution is based on abstract Lockean principles, epitomized by the Declaration of Independence. Burke never explicitly referred to the Declaration when discussing American constitutional ideas (if anything, in a speech from 1791 he seems to strongly censure its language).

That speech was Burke’s résumé of the push for parliamentary representation in Canada, 1791, which Haivry quotes and explains:

“A body of rights, commonly called the rights of man, imported from a neighboring country, had been lately set up by some persons in this, as paramount to all other rights. A principal article in this new code was ‘That all men are by nature free, are equal in respect of rights, and continue so in society.’ ” It is not superfluous to note the similarity of Burke’s formulation of these dangerous principles that he rejected, not only to the recent language of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, but also to the American Declaration of Independence.

What appears to be missing here is any recognition that the “principal article” to which Burke objected considerably antedates the Enlightenment. It was an Italian Jesuit in the late sixteenth century, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, who said “all men are born naturally free and equal.” He was hardly alone in this view. His contemporary the Spanish Jesuit Francisco Suárez wrote that “in the nature of things all men are born free.” Nor was this a sectarian view. In his Discourses Concerning Government, the Anglican Algernon Sidney exclaimed that “the school men could not lay more approved foundations than that man is naturally free.”

In The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony states:

By a nation, I mean a number of tribes with a shared heritage, usually including a common language or religious traditions, and a past history of joining together against common enemies—characteristics that permit tribes so united to understand themselves as a community distinct from other such communities that are their neighbors. By a national state, I mean a nation whose disparate tribes have come together under a single standing government, independent of all other governments.

Note that he says that “tribes united in this way continue to exist after national independence.” Membership is permanent. (It is exactly the revival of tribalism in the form of identity politics that is tearing America apart today and undermining equality before the law.) Try to understand the American founding in respect to what Hazony has said. You cannot, because its principles are anti-tribal precisely insofar as they are universal.

Wherever and so long as the tribal mentality prevails, constitutional order is difficult, maybe even impossible, to develop.

A tribe is a group of people related by blood who worship the same gods and whose ways are determined by the ways of their fathers. In the pre-philosophical world, the inability to distinguish the nature of things from man-made convention was at the basis of the tribal mentality. People deemed one another’s actions to be right or proper to the extent that they conformed to the customary way things had been done before, and wrong to the extent that they differed. There was no standard other than “the ways of our fathers.” One was only a tribal member, with duties to one’s tribal gods and ancestors and nothing beyond. Consequently, nothing could be right or wrong in and of itself. People who worshiped other gods and lived by different standards—members of other tribes or subjects of other empires—were simply of a different species, as it were. They had different “fathers” and different “ways.” These differences were often not amenable to compromise, which is why war and enslavement were regular features of tribal life. We might call tribal adherents pre-Burke Burkeans. An appeal to “humanity” would not have been intelligible to them.

Wherever and so long as the tribal mentality prevails, constitutional order is difficult, maybe even impossible, to develop. In Saudi Arabia, King Salman explained why his country cannot consider democracy: “If Saudi Arabia adopts democracy, every tribe would be a party,” and the country would be impossible to govern. The tribal mentality is obviously inimical to the principle of equality, which is at the foundation of constitutional rule. One cannot say that “all men are created equal” until one knows what man is, which requires, as well, knowledge of the differences between nature and convention, the human and the subhuman, and the human and the divine. These differentiations are essential to defining what is human.

As the historian Christopher Dawson pointed out, “The political rights of democracy presuppose the moral rights of humanity.”

In a lengthy article titled “What Is Conservatism?” Hazony and Haivry take exception with the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence and imply that it has some dangerous similarities to the French Revolution’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen—an odd insinuation, as it is the Preamble that is most at odds with the French Declaration. They prefer what they call “historical empiricism,” which “entails a skeptical standpoint with regard to the divine right of the rulers, the universal rights of man, or any other abstract, universal systems.” Yet, as the historian Christopher Dawson pointed out, “The political rights of democracy presuppose the moral rights of humanity.” In other words, there are no “rights of man” unless they are universal. This is why Lincoln referred to the Declaration of Independence’s proposition that “all men are created equal” as “an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” But Haivry and Hazony, like Burke, have a gripe against universals—which ultimately means against natural law. Natural law, as so eloquently articulated in the Preamble of the Declaration, is the most powerful argument against “the divine right of rulers,” not historical empiricism. The latter seems to mean custom and, in this case, specifically British custom. But who is to say which customs are good and which are bad? Hazony and Haivry can say that they prefer British constitutionalism or that it is in accord with Mosaic Law. But they can’t really say much more unless they admit a stronger case for natural law than their hero John Selden did, who shrank natural law to the confines of the Noahide Laws, the seven commandments given to mankind before Moses. Instead of calling for prudence in the application of universal truths, national conservatives promote a pragmatism that undermines such truths. But this raises the problem that, unless the grounds on which they prefer certain customs to others have some relation to natural law and can be made intelligible to all peoples, then their preference is simply one among many. As the Christian jurist Gratian wrote in 1140, “The natural law prevails over custom and legislation in dignity. Anything that is accepted by custom or included in legislation which is against natural law is to be considered null and void.” The strength of the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence goes back to this principle.

The unique thing about America is that it was based on universal principles.

It is self-defeating for a national-conservative movement to go outside the nation to understand the nation. It only makes sense if there is an “abstract truth” applicable to all men and all times—the very thing it shies away from. There is no doubt that British customs and the long experience of self-rule practiced in the American colonies were indispensable in making the American Republic possible. The general theory of national conservatism, however, seems to be that it is history and custom that rule absolutely. The problem is that history is the product of local accident and force. Its varying influence on the shape and character of any political order is precisely the problem that the American founding set out to address. As Alexander Hamilton famously said in Federalist 1: “It seems to have been reserved for the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question whether societies of man are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force.” In the American founding, “reflection and choice” have so far prevailed. It was a victory for the primacy of reason over the primacy of force and accident.

National conservatism claims that each nation is historically distinct. The unique thing about America is that it was based on universal principles. As Harry V. Jaffa pointed out, this is the source of American exceptionalism. Why does national conservatism miss, if not outright deny, what is most distinctive about the United States? By failing to appreciate the universal core of the American founding, national conservatism ends up repudiating America—because of its conception of “history” as a substitute universal truth for natural law. Abhorring abstractions, it has nonetheless turned tradition into an absolute.

As for the other school Holmes addresses, the Catholic integralists, one problem is their complete lack of political realism. They seem to have been captured in amber and to have suddenly awakened to a bugle call. They wish to find themselves in a pre-Reformation Christendom. The scholar Michael Hanby, not himself integralist, provides this perceptive insight about what is best in them:

Political power can be limited only by an authority higher than politics, and this limitation can become real only if it takes a living, public, and institutional form. This is the essential political insight of integralism. Only a society that acknowledges the authority of the Catholic Church, the custodian of divine truth, can avoid the endemic absolutism of the modern political project.

This helps explain the yearning for a lost Christendom. But as Hanby notes, the integralist project is politically impractical, and one ought to live by its insights only in the way Socrates inhabited his “city in speech.”

Aristotle was clear that politics is not the highest thing because man is not the highest thing.

Alas, most European Catholic countries are even more immersed in the modern political project than is the United States. The problem lies with the historical marriage of throne and altar. It so identified the Church with the state that those seeking political change were alienated from Catholicism. The more fundamental problem with the integralist approach is that it requires a Catholic populace. But what if there isn’t one? The American founding relied on the disestablishment of theological differences so that, as a 1786 Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom put it, “our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions.” As far as I know, the integralists have not adequately reckoned with the grave consequences of a reestablishment. They need to address the theological-political problem of how to live in comity in a religiously pluralistic society. Exchanging one absolutism for another will not do this.

Outside of the Catholic Church, are there no other means through which to recognize an authority higher than politics? Of course there are. Aristotle was clear that politics is not the highest thing because man is not the highest thing. Plato dramatically demonstrated the limits of the political by having Socrates show what an unlimited politics looks like in the philosophers’ utopia of The Republic. And then there is the Declaration of Independence, which makes clear that the intrinsic, God-given natural rights of man may not be violated by the state, which is created to protect those rights.

The problem that both national conservatism and integralism try to address is the fragmentation of the common good. The scholar Christopher Wolfe accurately portrays our current predicament: “When it comes to a view of human nature and a view of the common good, there is no agreement in American public opinion due to the fragmented moral relativism of our culture.” We have abandoned the natural law that has been the “one deeper idea that kept us together.” His somber prediction is that “the various factions of America must agree about the general goals of public policy rooted in a common conception of morality, or we will have no union.” Anyone wondering what is really tearing this country apart needs to read, and then reread, this sentence. What is required is neither national conservatism nor integralism, but a resuscitation of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.”

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 5, on page 37
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