Conservatism: A Review
A liberal, atheist review of Conservatism: A Rediscovery by Yoram Hazony
Yoram Hazony’s new book, Conservatism, a Rediscovery*, is part rediscovery, part validation, and part failure to discover—for me at least. This book will be good and bad at different parts depending on the reader’s current beliefs and how strongly they’re held. Thus, a little of my background is in order.
I was educated in the American public school system and went to university online while serving on active duty in the United States Marine Corps. I identify strongly as neither conservative nor liberal, but I do hold Enlightenment liberal values as the greatest the world has ever produced. I think conservative values are crucial for preventing harm from policies that sound good but produce negative outcomes. I’ve voted exactly twice for president — once for a Republican and once for a Democrat. I took a road trip around the US last year, and the people I visited nearly always thought that I was on the opposite (but reasonable) side of the political spectrum than them. I intentionally surveyed them after I left due to curiosity about political polarization after 2020.
All this to say that there is something in Hazony’s book for everyone. At bare minimum for liberals, progressives and others who may think that conservatism is evil: know thy enemy. Hazony is the epitome of an ethical, reasoned conservative, a political ideology that is not going away. It would behoove everyone if conservatives adhered to the principles Hazony describes in his book, and better for those opposed to it to know what it is and how to negotiate with conservatives.
The first half of Hazony’s book is a very readable history of the Anglo-American conservative tradition starting with the English conservative tradition and moving through implementation of the American Constitution. This history is rich, and not well known to basically anyone (speaking as an American; maybe the UK system does a better job since it’s English history) except political science and certain history majors. What I found particularly interesting was the history that was omitted from the public education system I went through.
As an example, the Articles of Confederation was the first founding document of the United States. I recall its existence being mentioned in US History class in high school, but nothing about why a second constitution was needed. It never occurred to me why the US required a second constitution. What was wrong with the first? It’s not discussed. Hazony fills in the gaps. By his telling, the Articles of Confederation was based on French revolutionary thought but was completely ineffective at creating a functional government.
The Constitutional Convention of 1787 — an illegal act under the Articles of Confederation — drafted a much more conservative form of government, modeled on England’s “political and regal kingdom” with more liberal individual protections and limitations on government while allowing for a stronger — but divided — federalist system that still stands today as the world’s oldest democracy. The origins of Fortescue’s political and regal kingdom, it’s defense against absolutist Stuarts, and other conservative points of history are laid out well in Conservatism, a Rediscovery without being dull, as many histories tend to be, perhaps because of the feeling of actual discovery of things that should’ve been taught in high school.
Paradigms and Values
Hazony then breaks down liberal and conservative values. I detect some mild straw-manning here — or at least a lack of steel-manning — but he does articulate in a note that these are the original Enlightenment premises and that many “liberals inclined to a theoretical empiricism have sought to amend these premises,” such as John Stuart Mill, Isaiah Berlin, and Friedrich Hayek. Once again, some version of these liberal premises were taught to me as a child in school. The conservative ones were nowhere to be found.
What many liberals will find odd is that the conservative paradigm has more premises covering more phenomena. This is what Hazony means when he describes liberalism as having paradigm blindness; it does not speak on these other phenomena one way or the other. Liberals are left to figure these things out for themselves.
It’s useful for non-conservatives to understand that conservatives operate on more moral foundations than others do. Simply put, liberals prioritize care for others over all other values — followed by individual liberty and fairness — so they have trouble understanding conservatives that hold six different values as equally important and in competition with each other. See The Righteous Mind* by Jonathan Haidt (a liberal moral psychologist) for more on this.
As an example of Hazony’s journey through conservative values, here are his thoughts on obligation. He says the liberal paradigm:
was originally intended to establish a right of revolution, by which a people, not consenting to be ruled in the present manner, might depose their government; or a right of secession, whereby a colony, such as the British colonies in America, might withdraw from any obligation to the mother country. It also suggested that slaves who were unwilling to continue in their servitude were to be freed — perhaps the most beneficial consequence of the theory. Yet by this same argument, a husband who no longer consents to remain with his wife is thereby freed of the obligations of marriage; and a child, reaching the age of maturity, is likewise liberated from having any obligations to his parents; and a citizen, if he does not consent, is for this reason free of the obligation to render military service in wartime; and so on. In the hands of liberal political theory, all of these relationships and others, which were once considered to bear obligations, were transformed into things one might choose to do or not do with one’s freedom.
But liberals don’t behave as if there are no obligations. Families don’t function this way — though they do to perhaps a greater extent than they should. Likewise, ‘no obligation without consent’ fails miserably when looking at things like laws and taxes. Most people know many laws that are nonsense in certain contexts, and everyone hates taxes. People understand that they are for a greater good, and they understand that they cannot absolve themselves of these obligations by withdrawing consent.
We have laws requiring parents to uphold their obligations to their children, regardless of their consent. The ongoing obligation to a child does not allow for a parent to withdraw consent regardless of the practice in other contexts that consent can be withdrawn at any time. A trip through child support enforcement or a charge of child neglect will quickly disabuse anyone of this idea.
Liberals constantly say that billionaires owe more to the poor or to their country than they pay. This is an intuitive understanding of a bond of mutual loyalty that Hazony’s conservatism (not to be confused with libertarianism) addresses, but it goes against the liberal values of individual freedom and obligations only by consent. Liberalism simply has no solution to this problem.
Another conservative value Hazony describes is tradition. Pure reason doesn’t work. It would be great if everyone could produce things according to their ability and receive things according to their need. Whenever it has been tried on a large scale, tens of millions of deaths followed. Tradition provides protection against useful sounding but ill-fated grand plans while cementing past gains like freedoms and rights.
Conservatives are in the odd position of conserving the past gains of liberals.
While looking for liberal defenders of tradition, I looked through some of the most renowned liberal publications. Areo recently published a piece on free speech in which the author argues that “Legal protections help people resist censorship and authoritarianism, but only when they are rooted in a strong cultural tradition of free speech [emphasis added].” This is a conservative argument based on an inherited tradition.
Areo is walking a fine line conserving the liberal tradition. A search for the word tradition returns articles deriding illiberal traditions while upholding liberal traditions going back to Socrates, and even defending (while critiquing) “arguably the world’s most famous conservative thinker.”
In contrast, the same search through the back issues of The Atlantic shows only disdain for Western traditions, declaring American conservatism dead and the Judeo-Christian tradition problematic. Even the Anglo-American legal tradition — that tradition that created the most free societies in human history — is worthy of disdain in the pages of The Atlantic. No doubt there are problems and discussions to be had with all of these things, but The Atlantic doesn’t defend tradition anywhere, at least not in the first six pages of search results.
There is a very good argument to be made by liberals for conserving tradition, but Hazony believes that liberalism itself contains within it this key weakness of aversion to tradition due to Enlightenment liberalism’s basis in reason. The Righteous Mind popularized the theory that we act on feelings of what is true and right (moral intuitions) and use our reason to justify what we feel to be true and right. As opposed to reasoning our way to our moral conclusions, we reason backward from them. Everyone from Marxists to racial identitarians think their reasoning is superior, so reason alone is clearly insufficient to defend the gains of past liberalism. Respect for tradition is the answer to conserving liberalism that liberalism itself tends to eschew.
A last note on tradition: Hazony points out that conservatism is based on a people’s inherited tradition. This means that conservatism will be different in different places, as opposed to liberalism, which is considered to be universal. The recent inauspicious attempts to liberalize Iraq and Afghanistan provide strong, real-world support for this claim. It would seem that attempting to take a people’s inherited traditions and replace them with those of another is a costly and unsuccessful strategy. Even India — which had the English tradition forced on her in the 19th century to some great benefit of modern Indians — did not discard many of its old and quite illiberal traditions.
Hazony then turns his attention to current affairs. He asserts that after WWII a liberal hegemony — termed liberal democracy — reigned in the English-speaking world. He argues that conservatism during this time fused with liberalism to fight the common enemies of socialism at home and communism abroad. He describes a transition from a Christian democracy to a liberal democracy. His evidence is compelling and again indicates a revisionist or suppressed conservative history in the public sphere.
Hazony attributes the turn toward liberal democracy to the psychic wounds caused by Nazi racial and religious justifications for their atrocities. This understandably led the US Supreme Court and Congress to work to tear down every division in society that ran along racial, religious, or sexual lines. Some of this was good — such the elimination of segregation — but the removal of religion from every facet of the public sphere as well as the sexual revolution mostly likely had unintended consequences that we haven’t grappled with.
This was one of the more profound points Hazony makes in his book. As he says:
It is only in the geometrical abstractions of Enlightenment rationalist political theory that one can find a discussion of what human beings are, need, and deserve without any reference to their race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. No conservative political theory, from the Bible to Burke, had ever dared to reach political conclusions stripped clean of all these considerations.
In other words, the idea that all people are always and have always been the same in all ways is a bad one. It is one of the points the Critical Social Justice (CSJ) activists have correct. It is liberalism’s blindness to this that has allowed the CSJ movement to grow and corrupt so many people and institutions in the West.
Returning to history, It was undoubtedly good that this effort eradicated racial barriers — though many on the radical left seem to disagree and are now successfully reinstituting segregation in many places — but it is far more debatable that the relegation of religion to the private sphere was a good thing, and the eradication of sexual barriers has certainly been a mixed bag with unintended consequences ranging from a fatherlessness crisis to recent efforts to eliminate women as a protected category in all contexts.
Hazony makes a very compelling point that “discrimination based on X” is too abstract a way to deal with the needs of various groups given their unique histories and circumstances. It has always caused some amount of cognitive dissonance for me that “separate but equal” is bad when it comes to whites and blacks but required when it comes to men and women.
Hazony points to exactly this problem with “discrimination based on X” when he illustrates that separate athletic facilities and washrooms for blacks was discrimination, but NOT having separate athletic facilities and washrooms for women was discrimination. Another example is when Native Americans were prohibited from educating their children according to their traditions and were required to send them to white schools, while blacks had the opposite problem of being discriminated against by being barred from white schools.
The categories upon which one can be discriminated against now seem ever-expanding, increasingly disconnected from reality, and bound to come into conflict in ways that this principle seems hopeless to address. How would today’s discussion about women’s rights be different if the history of trans people was considered instead of merely “discrimination based on gender identity”?
While reading Hazony’s writing on Frederick Hayek, I found the closest thing to my own political philosophy. More importantly, I found a lot of overlap between liberals and conservatives that I think describe many more people in the UK and US than most realize. I mention this in hopes that others will see their own thoughts reflected in mine.
I believe that individual rights should be protected over nearly anything else as a core function of government. I recognize the value of the functions laid out in the Preamble, which are also necessary. The problem with subordinating individual liberty to these others is that we’ve seen too many examples of the atrocities that occur under such guises, from Hitler’s genocide to humans used as fuel for the fires of the Great Leap Forward, from the oppression of the Jim Crow South to the ascendant woke racism in schools, universities, Fortune 500 corporations, and government policies.
Hazony argues for empiricist approaches all through his book. I believe I have come to value individual liberty on this basis and not as a post hoc rationalization for what I was taught in school. I spent fifteen years in the United States Marine Corps. The suppression of the individual for the collective is stronger there than in any other government institution in the US. Marines (and all servicemembers) actually do not enjoy the protections of the Bill of Rights. We do not have freedom of speech, expression, or assembly; we do not have the right to trial by jury. I believe all of this to be good and proper. I can make the argument for subordination of individual liberty to the collective, and I do in the circumstances where I believe it best. But learning about the atrocities of the twentieth century was more than enough to bring me to the conclusion — empirically — that individual liberty must be held in the highest regard and only be infringed upon with great caution.
I don’t see this as an act of faith or a radical rationalist departure from conservative Anglo-American or English Common Law tradition. Maybe it was at some point, but now it’s an experiment that’s been run, that was run concurrently with other experiments in the 20th century, and this one provided for the best outcome. That’s about as empiricist as one can get.
I do believe unchecked individual liberty also has downsides that we are seeing today. I believe there is wisdom to be found in a more widespread understanding and reintegration into the public sphere of the conservatism Hazony describes.
Ultimately, Hazony argues for another Cold War-era alliance between liberals and conservatives as he arrives at the current state of affairs. He describes a new Marxism in the West. Hazony has published an early version of this section in Quillette, so I’ll just recommend anyone interested in that go there.
Hazony’s penultimate section is on describing a conservative democracy (as opposed to a liberal one), which he has previously published here. In it, Hazony does well in pointing out problems and illustrating how they arise from liberal rationalist political philosophy. He then jumps to religion as being the answer without providing anything close to good reasons for why, which I was hoping to encounter.
Some of Hazony’s proposed policies for a conservative democracy strike me as exactly correct. But the insistence on Christianity being (re-)established as the religion of the nation (with carve-outs for minority and dissident religious protections) rings hollow because he does not spend any time explaining why this would be beneficial beyond the idea that it is what was traditionally done. He certainly does not address any of the negatives that would come along with such a policy. If he had spent time illustrating how Christianity in public life would be helpful and how it could be limited from being abused, one of his main themes would be much stronger.
The chapter where Hazony discusses God, Scripture, family, and congregation I found to be almost completely useless. A longer argument for how the traditional family (as opposed to the nuclear family) can solve problems of individuals, families, and communities would’ve been great here. This was a lost opportunity to explain how traditional families are more resilient to things like recessions and pandemics, how they can help fix national problems like fatherlessness, addiction, suicide, birth rate and more. The section on community was also disappointingly short and failed to make any persuasive arguments for community (congregation) as a solution to many problems.
In his conclusion, Hazony does a fine job of framing the problem in which we find ourselves.
A distinctive hardship attends the lives of men and women who have grown up in liberal societies — whose traditions, whether Christian or Jewish, were overthrown a few generations earlier. Having been told all their lives that they are “free to choose” whatever course they please, they find it increasingly difficult to choose any course at all. They find it difficult to marry, and if they do marry, they find it difficult to stay married. They evade having children. They find that religion does not speak to them. They find that work is onerous and demeaning, so that if they are employed at all, they do many things, and none of them well.
The jump to the solution being taking up a religion and congregation and getting married and having children is a leap too far. The steps were not taken to show how these problems are solved by those solutions.
The problems Hazony just outlined certainly need solving, and that is where conservatives in politics can prove valuable. But politics requires persuasion, and the steps between identifying the problems and the solution of religion and family need to be argued much more thoroughly than are found in Conservatism, a Rediscovery, if those are indeed the best solutions. I remain unconvinced. It’s really quite jarring how well English Common Law, conservative American Constitution, and all the attendant thinkers are argued for in the first half of the book compared to how poorly religion is argued for later.
This begs the question, “who is this book written for?” When Hazony tells readers that they can’t really be conservatives in public unless they’re devout religious people in both public and private, who can that message reach but devout religious people? It actively discourages the reasonable atheists on the left, right or middle from seriously considering his form of conservatism.
I’ve witnessed many failures of the liberal ideology, so I’ve started to analyze principles and issues piecemeal, and I find myself moving in the conservative direction on some of them. If that’s not a viable way to increase conservatism, if the only option upon seeing the failures of liberal ideology is to adopt whole hog the conservative ideology — orthodox religion and all — then Hazony is just asking readers to trade one ideology for another and not allowing for middle ground, and he doesn’t seem particularly interested in convincing us that it would work. He just states it as true.
I’m very persuaded by empiricist arguments, but Hazony misses every opportunity to convince me that religion should be a basis of conservative politics. He relies on God and Scripture as true and correct and then makes arguments from there which cannot persuade anyone that doesn’t already believe that God and Scripture are true and correct. Even I can make empiricist arguments for religion providing a good basis for family and community life, but Hazony disappointingly doesn’t.
Liberals are more conservative than many of them like to think. At least, we use conservative values in places where liberal ideology is silent or blind, such as family and obligation. Conservatives, at least in the Anglo-American tradition, are more liberal than many of them would like to think because they are in the position of conserving what are liberal values. They were certainly liberal at the time they were articulated — the Enlightenment — and globally and historically they continue to be more liberal than the majority of nations.
I have only recently (to my shame) begun to read the works of Enlightenment thinkers. I started with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. I was expecting to find the ideological origin of America and to be better equipped to bring us back to those core liberal ideals that we’re straying from. I was shocked at how many awful ideas I found there (a similar experience to my first reading of Plato, last year) considering how often he is heralded.
This is why Hazony’s assertions that the origin story of America having been rewritten after WWII strikes me as at least partially true, even as I disagree with his ultimate point that America did not begin as a liberal nation. I took as true my public education that said those like Rousseau, Locke, and Hobbes were the thinkers that created America. But that’s only a half truth. Simply looking at the evidence makes this clear. The failed Articles of Confederation, the complete disconnect from reality and human psychology in The Social Contract, the existence of The Federalist Papers and the conservative thinking therein all make obvious that what was omitted from my public-school education was just as important as what was taught.
Paradoxically, this lack of education on conservatism has caused people who lean conservative to not be able to base their political choices on solid conservative ideals. Knowing about liberal ideals helps liberal voters hold their liberal politicians to those ideals. Not knowing about conservative ones prevents conservative voters from holding their conservative politicians to them. This has caused the very detachment of the Republican party from those old ideals that liberals accuse them of.
Philosophy is a process useful for discovering what ought to be, and — much like science — it relies on the ability to consider all views. Suppressing, failing to teach or consider, or demonizing one of the most mainstream philosophical views can only result in a less thorough exploration of what out to be. Because conservatism has been so poorly communicated (compared to liberalism) in the West for so many decades, we owe it to ourselves to at least understand it and examine it for its useful aspects. In this effort, Conservatism, a Rediscovery is a valuable component of a thorough exploration of philosophy.
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