Features January 2022
The original strategy
On the flawed arguments in emerging conservative movements.
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.
In his thoughtful essay, Kim R. Holmes comes to the defense of two causes dear to his heart: the American founding and the American conservative movement. He argues, rightly I think, that the two are somehow linked, and that, after decades of sustained criticism from the Left, both are now under sustained criticism for the first time from the Right, albeit a different Right from what he calls the “traditional” one descended from Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan.
This new Right consists of two schools of thought, each organized, Holmes contends, around a philosophical mistake or fallacy. The national conservatives are guilty of the “Burkean fallacy.” The second group, led by the Catholic integralists, are “philosophers of natural law,” who take a dim view of natural rights American-style and so are guilty of the “Aristotelian fallacy.” As opposed to these twin “fallacies of the common good,” Holmes offers John Locke’s account of “intrinsic” or individual natural rights, shared widely if not deeply (he hesitates on that) by the founders and traditional American conservatives.
The essay doesn’t purport to be a philosophical defense of Locke, and the author is not an academic, perhaps fortunately for his readers. Nonetheless, he allows himself to be drawn into the roiling waters of controversy surrounding Locke’s writings, and to pronounce that these new natural-law critics of America are wrong to believe Locke was a Hobbesian, an atheist, a hedonist, and (perhaps worst of all) a proto-libertarian. “Such interpretations of Locke have been repeatedly debunked by scholars” and are quite simply “historically incorrect” if not “willful distortions” of his thought, declares Holmes. These assurances would carry more weight if he had named the scholars he was invoking. For decades Leo Strauss and his followers maintained (with increasing variations) that Locke was a clandestine Hobbesian; the Cambridge (England) school of interpretation just as vigorously denied and ridiculed the possibility. It’s probably the latter group (e.g., Peter Laslett) whom Holmes relies on as his “scholars.”
To read Locke out of the founding, as some of the national conservatives have attempted, is unwise and self-defeating.
He seems unaware of the latest twist, the discovery (see The Journal of Modern History, June 2021) by Felix Waldmann, a scholar at the University of Cambridge, of a previously unnoticed memoir in which a friend of Locke’s from his schooldays at Oxford is said to have reported that Locke “almost always had the Leviathan by Hobbes on his table, and he recommended the reading of it to his friends.” When a member of the Cambridge school admits new evidence that “Locke was a reader—an obsessive reader—of Hobbes’s Leviathan,” then Holmes may want to reconsider his choice of scholarly debunkers. At any rate, he may want to take a second look at the Straussians.
Whatever the significance of Locke’s natural philosophy and epistemology, his political philosophy was admitted to be influential by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and many others of the founding generation. To read Locke out of the founding, as some of the national conservatives have attempted, is therefore unwise and self-defeating. Holmes is quite correct about that. There is, however, another way to consider Locke’s influence, suggested by the founders’ propensity to link him with Algernon Sidney (a famous British martyr to anti-Stuart republicanism) and with republican thinkers like Cicero and Milton. That is, the founders may have read Locke’s writings, as practical statesmen will, with a primary view to their own people’s safety and happiness, linked in this case with the republican cause, and with a certain appreciation, mixed with suspicion, of Locke’s theoretical foibles. This was Harry V. Jaffa’s suggestion, another scholar missing from Holmes’s field of reference.
Yoram Hazony, the leader and convenor of the national conservatives in the United States, goes further by suggesting that not merely is Locke or “Enlightenment rationalism” to blame for America and American conservatism’s problems, but also that “conservative rationalism has failed,” too, by undermining American traditions in the name of Catholic natural law and Straussian philosophizing. Any “universals” are or can be damaging to a healthy nation, which is always a particular nation. Hazony, in his books and articles and now in the name of his foundation, brings in Edmund Burke as his spokesman for this argument, hence for nationalism.
Holmes calls him on this: “the American founders were not Burkeans.” This is a simple truth, but it takes courage to say it. Even Burke was not a Burkean in 1776. What Hazony, and most American conservatives, laud Burke for and regard as his characteristic doctrines didn’t emerge clearly until the French Revolution began in 1789 and his Reflections on it appeared in 1790. The national conservatives want to defend the American nation and hence its founders, but on imaginary or anachronistic grounds. They want to have their founding and eat it, too.
And there are deeper problems. The national-conservative movement’s defense of particulars seems to fit uneasily with its being a general movement in favor of conservative nationalism. Is every nation with its customs worth conserving? A fortiori, equally worth conserving? If not, then there must be some standards above any particular nation and its customs by which to judge it. Where would these general or universal standards come from? To his credit, Hazony acknowledges the problem, and in his book The Virtue of Nationalism he points to the Ten Commandments as “the moral minimum” that has to be mixed with any nation’s law and customs if its nationalism is to be respectable. But presumably he doesn’t mean that every nation must abstain from graven images or respect the Sabbath the same way. His “moral minimum” is contained in the second table of the Decalogue, e.g., the prohibitions against murder, theft, and adultery—which Aquinas identified as belonging also to the natural law, knowable by unassisted human reason.
National conservatives can’t escape the need for moral universals, for natural law.
So the national conservatives can’t escape the need for moral universals, for natural law. Not every sort of nationalism is created equal. Indeed, the same nation—as the late Angelo M. Codevilla reminded us in his wonderful book The Character of Nations (1997)—can express itself in many different political forms. From the German nation came Wilhelmine Germany, the Weimar Republic, Nazi Germany, and the stolid post-war Federal Republic: four wildly different regimes, with statesmen as varied as Otto von Bismarck, Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolf Hitler, and Konrad Adenauer, yet from the same nation, the same Volk, with the same underlying customs or culture. Codevilla was making Aristotle’s point: it’s the regime—the constitution, in the sense of “who rules and for what ends”—that mainly or decisively determines the character of nations. That’s why nationalism is never a sufficient principle unto itself.
And it’s why, incidentally, Holmes is basically right that Burke was not really a spokesman for nationalism. In the Reflections his great theme is rather the British constitution, based on a social contract between “the living, the dead, and the yet unborn.” This constitution contains a “principle of growth” that enables it to pursue the “greatest variety of ends,” but without endangering the constitution’s “Establishments”—the church, the monarchy, the military, inherited property, and the monied interests. Burke favors the “real rights of man,” modified and civilized by “prescription,” the principle of inheritance, slow growth, and adaptation, which he called “this great fundamental part of natural law.” Like the American founders, though in different ways, Burke is larger and better than mere nationalism. Perhaps the national conservatives will be, too.
The other group of new conservatives that Kim Holmes criticizes is the integralist-led supporters of Aristotle and of old-fashioned natural law. He is on to something important here, but the indictment is fuzzily drawn. His targets—Pierre Manent, Ryan T. Anderson, O. Carter Snead, Patrick J. Deneen, and Adrian Vermeule—are a gallimaufry. For example, neither Manent nor Anderson is as critical of Locke and the American founding as Holmes suggests, and only Vermeule ever defends Catholic integralism. He is also, so far as I know, the only one to defend the administrative state. (The two causes are connected in his mind, as Holmes observes.)
Holmes’s real target seems to be Patrick J. Deneen, whose book Why Liberalism Failed is sharply critical of the American founders, Locke, and Enlightenment rationalism, but not of classical rationalism or reason per se. (For a rousing, book-length critique of it, see Robert R. Reilly’s America on Trial, from 2020.) It is Deneen who applies Aristotle (not really Aquinas) to the criticism of Enlightenment liberalism of both the capitalist and lifestyle varieties, who traces contemporary nihilism to the hollowing out of “nature” behind modern science and politics both. Holmes realizes that Deneen is following a well-trod path, but maybe without realizing just how trodden it is: the essay mentions Alasdair MacIntyre but not Strauss, the “Eastern” Straussians, Orestes Brownson, Henry Adams, or Alexis de Tocqueville, the latter a particularly large and fertile source for Deneen’s objections to modern democracy.
In any case, there are two issues here that Holmes reduces to one. He accuses these thinkers of advocating, deliberately or not, a kind of tyranny of the common good, very much at the expense of individual liberty. He admits, as he has to, that the founders had an ethic of the common good, too, but one that was compatible, he holds, with individual rights and the Golden Rule, which he implies the natural-law view of the common good isn’t. But then he notes that the Golden Rule is “one of the most generally accepted offshoots of natural law,” meaning old-fashioned and Christian natural-law doctrine. So how do his opponents and the founders differ exactly? He leaves it at insulting his opponents’ notion as “a predetermined common-good or religious doctrine as decided by an elite of the polis.”
Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, and the founders differ in their views of how easily justice and the common good fit together, but none can ignore the common good.
That won’t do. A common good is, by definition, shared by all or most members of the political community and can range from national defense to a common education. From one point of view, justice is a part or implication of the common good; from another, justice and the common good may come into conflict, as when it is necessary to lie, or to harm innocents, or to suspend civil liberties in wartime. Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, and the founders differ in their views of how easily justice and the common good fit together, but none can ignore the common good.
Holmes’s issue here, therefore, is not so much with his opponents’ take on the common good as with their insistence that laws aim at the highest good, the summum bonum, which all agree is happiness. There is a lively philosophical debate, ancient and modern, about the content of happiness, whether it is pleasure or virtue, and whether it is virtue alone or virtue plus external and bodily goods. Some of these contemporary natural-law thinkers, the integralists certainly, confuse the theological or revealed account of happiness as knowledge of and communion with the living God, with the philosophical accounts of it; or perhaps they simply subordinate the latter to the former. Then they demand that the common good bend its knee to the highest good. (At their best, the Christian and Catholic traditions have always resisted both of those steps.) It’s from this doctrinaire perch, which ignores the many lower goods that go into the common good, that the integralists and others view conservatism today as one big sell-out to libertarianism.
Holmes’s essay performs an important service by emphasizing and clarifying the degree to which these two emerging schools of the new conservatism are out to “undermine and ultimately overturn traditional American conservatism.” Though not every adherent has that in mind, most of them do, I think. And they enjoy patting themselves on the back for it. They underestimate, in my opinion, the extent to which Buckley and Reagan’s conservative movement was itself a counterrevolution against the liberal revolutions that had swept over America in the preceding decades. Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, and others spoke openly of the “Revolution of 1932,” for instance. Being closer to those upheavals, the leaders of what was called back then—you guessed it—“the new conservatism” realized how deeply liberalism had already changed America, and how difficult it would be to change it back (practically impossible) or to change it to something at least better than the status quo.
The Buckley and Reagan of, say, 1965 would have been astonished to learn that the Soviet Union and its Evil Empire would collapse without war. And they likely would share many of the frustrations of today’s national conservatives and natural-law traditionalists at liberalism’s seemingly unstoppable victories in the cultural wars. If they were here today, Buckley and Reagan would probably feel the need to freshen and reformulate the conservative cause to meet our changed political circumstances.
The original new-conservative strategy didn’t hesitate to force divisions in both the liberal Democratic and mainstream Republican establishments of the day, so as to forge a new, stronger, and wiser conservative opposition to liberalism. They succeeded imperfectly, but America would be worse off if they hadn’t tried. I have no objection to today’s new conservatives seeking to divide today’s conservative movement—so long as they remember the point is ultimately to reunite and enlarge it along stronger and wiser lines. To do that, however, they will need better arguments.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 40 Number 5, on page 41
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