To Move Forward, We Must Turn Back
Most people today, when they hear the word “politics,” think simply of the sordid world of backroom congressional dealings and the confrontational political theater we encounter incessantly on social media and in the daily news cycle.
There was a time, however, when politics was understood not simply as the maneuverings of special interest groups seeking power, but as a way of talking about the best ways for human beings to live together in the world. Yoram Hazony’s new book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, is firmly situated in this older understanding of politics. It is also a brilliant, moving, and compelling account of what it means to be a conservative in today’s world.1
The book is divided into four parts: history, philosophy, current affairs, and personal reflections. Part I (history) traces the tradition of conservative political philosophy that Hazony advocates from its roots in medieval and Reformation-era English law and politics (chapter 1), through this tradition’s continuation in the late 18th century American Federalist party—and thus the U.S. Constitution—up to the present day (chapter 2). In short, the political ideology of America’s Constitution is shown in detail to be a product of a long tradition of English conservative thought, rather than a wholly new creation formed solely (or even primarily) out of the political thought of the Enlightenment.
Part II (philosophy) is the core of the book, wherein over three chapters Hazony lays out the details of his political thought, setting it in contrast to the core principles of classical liberalism (individualism, government by consent of the people, social contract theory, etc.). Hazony insists that principles and policies alone will never be sufficient to undergird a good and stable political system. Certain moral realities must underlie the principles and policies for which Hazony contends: personal moral transformation (chapter 3), and an acknowledgement of God and scripture (chapter 4), come before his discussion of what government should do (chapter 5). Contrary to Ronald Reagan’s famous dictum about the nine most terrifying words in the English language,2 one of Hazony’s central contentions is that government is not our problem. Rather, bad government is. Government is inherent to humans living together, so we must do everything we can to ensure we have a healthy, stable, and prosperous one.
In Part III Hazony brings his philosophy into conversation with contemporary American political thought and events, focusing on the triumph of liberal thought in the latter half of the twentieth century and the “fusionist” alternative of libertarians, social conservatives, and anti-communist liberals spearheaded by the likes of William Buckley (chapter 6), although Hazony sees much in common between the fusionists and liberals. A truly conservative alternative hardly entered the mainstream during this time. Hazony then devotes a chapter to the rise of Cultural Marxism, which he sees as an existential threat, not just to conservatism, but to the very heart of the American constitutional order (chapter 7). Chapter 8 consists of a brief condensation of Hazony’s entire political philosophy as it bears on contemporary alternatives.
Part IV is a single chapter and conclusion, which recounts Hazony’s own journey into conservative political philosophy, along with reflections on how it is necessary for one to live conservatively if one ever hopes to be part of a flourishing of conservatism in society at large.
Hazony’s book is not merely a treatise on political theory or policy prescriptions. It is, rather, a bold proposal for a return to a nearly vanished way of living in the world, a way of living that, if adhered to faithfully, would transform nearly every facet of our national existence.
A Conservative Life
The word conservative is increasingly unpopular today; understandably so on the left, but perhaps surprisingly, on the right as well. Not much of value appears to have been conserved in America over the last half-century or so, not the family, not civil order, not basic sexual norms, not much at all. It is claimed by a growing number on the right that conservatism is simply a slowing of the pace of the leftist transformation of American society. Hazony sympathizes with this way of thinking: “in our day conservatives have largely become bystanders, gaping in astonishment as the consuming fire of cultural revolution destroys everything in its path.”3
However, he does not feel compelled to abandon the label conservative. Abusus non tollit usum. This is because being a conservative, for Hazony, is not primarily about the pace of change. Nor is it primarily about setting forth a set program of governmental policy prescriptions. Conservatism, rather, is a way of life. It is a basic way of living in the world as an individual, but even more importantly of living in families, religious congregations, communities, nations, and the world.
If we adopt an older understanding of politics (Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, the Reformers, etc.) then that means that all of these realms are inherently political because each contributes fundamentally to the order and well-being of the polis, the basic building block of any nation. We are, as Aristotle wrote, political animals by nature. Thus, if one is to live well in the world one must attend to politics. This is one of the most important aspects of Hazony’s book. He starts at the bottom (the individual) and works his way to the top (the world), showing how we must attend to healthy institutions all the way up (family, congregation, nation, etc.).
And what is most necessary for a healthy politics, understood in this comprehensive sense? Most books on political theory are focused on the best form of government, or necessary policy prescriptions, or the like. Hazony begins with repentance:
It is possible for individuals to discover that they have been on the wrong course, repent, and set out on a new and better course. And this is possible, too, for families and congregations, tribes, and nations.4
Conservatism is not chiefly an idea, or set of ideas; it is a way of living in the world. As Hazony puts it in the conclusion to his book:
Conservatism isn’t something you can find in a book or in whole library of books, whether old or new. The transmission of ideas, behaviors, and institutions from one generation to the next is a skill, and like all skills, it can only be learned by practice. The life of conservation and transmission is one that flourishes when people actually live it, and it dies when they do not.5
What, then, constitutes this way of life? For Hazony it is a set of virtues, the most central of which are “loyalty, hierarchy, honor, cohesion, and constraint.”6 For a conservative, the nation is not merely an arbitrary geographical boundary, nor is it coterminous with the governmental apparatus of the state. Instead, a nation is a distinct people with obligations of loyalty and service to one another. Hazony does not define the nation in racial or ethnic terms, but instead argues that it is defined precisely by the unchosen obligations that tie its members together. Bonds of mutual loyalty are what give a nation strength and cohesion, not abstract philosophies. These bonds begin in the family and extend all the way up to the nation as a whole.
Conservativism is also centered on relations of honor and hierarchy, which explains a lot about why it is so unpopular in the modern world. Children owe honor and obedience to parents. Parents expend themselves to love, shelter, and provide for their children, and in turn rightly expect their children to look after their wellbeing at the end of their lives. This is in contrast to the modern, liberal idea that the state is founded on individual consent, the purported basis for democratic forms of government. There can be no stable families, and thus no stable societies, on the basis of such self-centered individualism. A commitment to honoring unchosen (yet binding) obligations, rather than personal consent, must be what ties the people of a nation together.
The only way of life that will lead to true national and individual flourishing is a life of personal constraint, an attempt to honor one’s obligations and to discipline oneself to live within healthy parameters. As Hazony puts it:
A competent political theory is concerned not only with freedom, but also with its opposite, which is constraint. . . . Constraint is, in fact, the key to everything productive or good that can be accomplished in life. . . . what we call freedoms or rights always turn out, on inspection, to be forms of disciplined constraint to which others conform so that I can possess a certain measure of freedom.7
That is to say: no one can have actual personal freedom in a world where all seek only their own welfare and pleasure. In the absence of a culture of self-constraint there will be only disorder and disaster. In such a world no one is free; none can escape the societal devastation wrought by the unconstrained lives of others.
Ironically, as Hazony notes, it is when there is a breakdown in the hierarchical relations and obligations between family members, or between members of a political community, that chaos ensues. Such a situation ends with an even greater loss of freedom, this time from the strong hand of the state, which steps in to restore order. A nation is most free when its people are the most self-controlled, because they interact peaceably with one another by choice, rather than grudgingly through coercion. In other words, a conservative world is possible when the people of a nation seek to live conservative lives defined by loyalty, hierarchy, honor, cohesion, and constraint.
Getting the principles right is vital, but how does one go about determining the best way to rule? To answer this question Hazony argues for a position he calls historical empiricism. Historical empiricism is a system for determining the best course of political arrangements and actions, at least at a foundational level. In Hazony’s system, laws and governmental policies should defer to the “accumulated experience of the past” rather than to universal, rational (and supposedly self-evident) truths. This would include divine right theories of kingship as well as universal theories of individual rights. In essence, this way of determining the best course of political action is based on the simple idea that nations should adhere as a basic matter of principle to what has made for a healthy society in the past. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. This doesn’t mean change is never possible or desirable, but even when change is necessary, it must be done cautiously and with a willingness to abandon such changes should they prove harmful.
This is in contrast with the classically liberal paradigm, grounded as it is in the supposedly universal and self-evident truths of reason, as well as the contemporary progressive mindset, which substitutes universal truths of social justice for classical liberalism’s universal reason. Both systems believe that an application of their universal principles to all areas of life will lead to a fundamental transformation of society so as to make it just.8
Hazony is no relativist. But he is suspicious of the way that thinkers historically have given sacrosanct status to their far-from-self-evident opinions by labeling them “universal truths of reason.” He is also suspicious of the ways in which a liberal political-ideological grid blinds its proponents to vital truths about the world, a theme to which we now turn.
Liberal Paradigm Blindness
Conservatism sets forth a fresh and compelling vision for a conservative approach to government situated within an argument for a conservative way of life in general. As a part of that vision Hazony also critiques the tradition of classical liberal political philosophy stemming from the European Enlightenment, based as it is on a constellation of ideas such as social contract theory, claims about state of nature, consent as the moral foundation for legitimate government, and the like. This is an important facet of Hazony’s book, but I would like to focus on only one specific aspect of his critique, what he calls “liberal paradigm blindness.”9
Liberal paradigm blindness is an inability to see the world as it really is, stemming from viewing every facet of life through the lens of the philosophy of classical liberalism. For example, liberal paradigm blindness prevents modern people from even understanding the concept of “national” or “common” good. Classical liberalism insists that the purpose of government is to protect individual freedom.10 By definition, therefore, the idea of the government operating for the common good of society is excluded. This, however, would not at all be in line with the tradition of English conservatism reflected in the U.S. Constitution’s preamble when it indicates that a chief purpose of the state is to “promote the general Welfare.”
Another example can be seen in the way liberalism obscures the real power dynamics in a society, insisting that only the state in an authoritarian regime can be oppressive, thus hiding the many ways in which non-state actors (businesses, media outfits, etc.) can gain power and harm others. Liberalism simply does not have the conceptual categories for such things. Because liberalism misdiagnoses problems in a given state, it will inevitably misdiagnose the necessary solutions, often with catastrophic results.
Hazony provides numerous examples of liberal paradigm blindness throughout his book: some additional ones include the idea that public school teaching is neutral, that pornography is a victimless instance of free speech, that offshoring a nation’s jobs is morally positive because it is in line with the free market, that free international trade is an inherent good because it is free (only profit matters), no matter the devastation to national industry and workers, and so on. The fact of the matter is that public schools cannot avoid inculcating a moral system, pornography harmfully degrades producers, performers, and users, and offshoring jobs devastates entire communities, leading to drug addiction, poverty, crime, and many other evils. Monopolistic social media platforms can silence conservative speech all while claiming to be simply following the free market. In the realm of foreign policy, nations entirely unsuited to (because entirely undesirous of) democratic governance can be plunged into chaos by the attempt of Western nations to impose it on them anyway. In medicine, progressive individualism has led to the point where minors’ bodies are being irreparably mutilated in service of a transgender ideology that insists that what one feels determines what one is.
In short liberal paradigm blindness stems from an ideology that tells lies about how the world really works; it obscures reality and thereby leads to foolish, and often disastrous, decision-making by leaders.
Competing Narratives of American History
Hazony’s book is not just about political life today. It also contains looks backward to see where we’ve come from. And looking back we see, to put it mildly, that America’s past is contested. Whether it be the 1619 Project attempting to portray American history as nothing more than an unbroken thread of racist domination of “others” by white supremacists, or the 1776 Commission’s rejoinder, virtually nothing in our history can be taken for granted anymore. Hazony focuses on two false narratives of America’s founding and subsequent history.
The first argues that America’s founding is defined by the abstract individualism of Enlightenment rationalism, exemplified in the famous words of the Declaration of Independence about self-evident truths, human equality, consent of the governed, and so on. Hazony argues that if this is how we see things, we’ve got it all wrong. This is the case despite the wording of the Declaration of Independence, the writing of which, through historical happenstance, was assigned to Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson, the most committed rationalist among the founders was far from representing the mainstream of their thought on broader issues of governance. The American founding was, as Hazony meticulously documents, a thoroughly English and conservative affair. It was, despite the rupture of the Revolution, an obvious continuation of a centuries-long tradition of English law and political thought.11
While it is certainly true that the Founders eclectically adapted themes from a variety of contemporary political sources, the bedrock of their thought, as it would eventually be codified in the 1787 Constitution, is an undeniable continuation of the English conservative thought stretching back at least to the Magna Carta (1215). As one illustration of this fact, Hazony points to a 1628 act of the English Parliament entitled the “Petition of Right,” which was largely crafted by the English jurist John Selden (1584-1654), in which we
find the famous principle of ‘no taxation without representation,’ as well as versions of the rights that would eventually be enumerated in the Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Amendments of the American Bill of Rights—all declared to be ancient constitutional English freedoms and unanimously approved by Parliament. Although not mentioned in the Petition explicitly, freedom of speech had likewise been reaffirmed by [another famous English conservative jurist Edward] Coke as ‘an ancient custom of Parliament’ in the 1590s and was subject of the so-called Protestation of 1621 that landed Coke, then seventy years old, in the Tower of London for nine months.12
To show just how thoroughly English and conservative the American Constitution is, Hazony compares the seven clauses in the Constitution’s preamble13 to the classical conservative political works and laws of England, noting that in both we find the central purposes of government to be the promotion and preservation of national unity, enforcement of justice, protection of domestic peace, defence against foreign enemies, provision for the general welfare of the people, safeguarding of individual liberty (not individualistic license),14 and maintenance of stability over time. Additionally he brings in a central point of the English statesman and political writer Edmund Burke, a point that is also central to the drafters of the U.S. Constitution, namely, that the nation must do what is necessary to maintain its own independence and territorial integrity (i.e., a virtuous nationalism).15
The second false narrative Hazony takes on is the idea that America was founded as a radically secular nation. This narrative, which is a self-evident truth to many today, has no grounding in the facts of America’s founding (or subsequent history until very recently). This is the narrative that has taken the desire Thomas Jefferson expressed in his famous 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in which he interpreted the First Amendment’s prohibition of the Federal government from making any laws “respecting an establishment of religion” to mean that there was an absolute “wall of separation between Church & State” in every conceivable sense. The First Amendment, of course, does not even address whether individual states may establish churches (most of which has established churches at the time of the Constitution’s ratification), and Jefferson sought to ban far more than that anyway. He firmly believed that the State was forbidden from ever urging any support for a religious group in any way, ending (for example) the practice of his Presidential predecessors in issuing national days of fasting and thanksgiving. Today, many Americans do not even realize that the words “separation of church and state” were merely Jefferson’s unrepresentative opinion. Many even believe these words to be in the Constitution itself.16
The radically secularist narrative of America’s past wrecks itself on the shoals of abundant evidence.17 Among other things, Hazony points out the fact that the radically secular vision for American government that Jefferson desired did not in fact begin to be reflected in American law until the Supreme Court case Everson v. Board of Education in 1947, which banned public school busses from shuttling children to religious schools. The effect of this ruling was to apply the First Amendment to the law of every American state (contrary to the actual wording of the amendment itself). Even so, it was not until the 1960s that similar laws began to proliferate more widely.
Supreme Court Chief (although associate justice at the time) Justice William Rehnquist’s dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree (1985) well captures the falsity of the radically secular narrative of American history:
It is impossible to build sound constitutional doctrine upon a mistaken understanding of constitutional history, but unfortunately the Establishment Clause has been expressly freighted with Jefferson’s misleading metaphor for nearly 40 years.
As Hazony explains:
What follows [in Rehnquist’s dissent] is the classic legal argument for rejecting both the postwar constitutional theory of a separation of church and state applying to the states, and the entire line of decisions based on this doctrine going back to the 1940s.18
None of this is to suggest that America has ever attempted to impose strict religious uniformity on its populace. This isn’t the case. However, the secularist narrative has made it difficult in the present to even so much as argue, as did John Adams in 1798, that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Such a sentiment would have been uncontroversial for most of America’s history.
Christians today may believe it pointless to attempt to turn back the clock on secularist America. Whatever the best course of action is in our day, Hazony makes it clear that it wouldn’t actually be turning the clock back very far. Arguing for a Christian influence in our laws and society would not mean returning to Plymouth Plantation in 1620. It would simply be a return to the basic stance exemplified in America’s past prior to the last 60-70 years. Maybe it isn’t possible, but it is hard to argue that the experiment in radical moral anarchy we are currently undertaking is better. At the very least, our contemporary genealogy of liberal and radically secular democracy, tracing a continuous line back from the Enlightenment to modern American government should be rejected. We must begin retelling the truth, laying out the real genealogy of the American Constitutional order.
Hazony is Jewish and I am a Protestant Christian. Thus, there will inevitably be some differences in our approach to life in the world. That said, I find Hazony’s proposal for a conservative life to be very compelling. Given the influence of the moral vision of the Old Testament/Tanakh in Hazony’s thought this is perhaps not surprising. After all, there is nothing—morally speaking—in the New Testament that is not also present in the Old. It is also the case that what most distinguishes Christianity from Judaism is not political anyway. The gospel of Jesus Christ, who gave himself on the cross for the forgiveness of sins, is a matter for the church’s preaching and discipleship. Life with others in this world is the subject of politics, and on this point Protestants have long found much to learn from non-Protestants.19
When it comes to learning how to live a life of self-control, honor, loyalty, faithfulness, and goodness, as an individual, as a son or daughter, husband or wife, father or mother, and finally as a political community, Conservatism: A Rediscovery is a profound and rich source for continuing reflection. I hope it finds a wide readership, and more importantly, wide acceptance. Our national life would be much healthier if it did, and perhaps the time is right for many, burned out on the moral anarchy of our day, to take the first repentant steps in that direction.
*Image Credit: Pexels
- Hazony’s book is full of deep insights into human nature and political life, but a review trying to do justice to them all could easily become unmanageably long. Instead of attempting such a feat, after a brief survey of the book’s contents I will focus on three themes that I think are particularly important. ↩
- “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xhYJS80MgYA) ↩
- Hazony, p. xviii. ↩
- Hazony, p. xix. ↩
- Hazony, pp. 384. ↩
- Hazony, xxv. ↩
- Hazony, pp. 162-3. ↩
- Hazony also argues against natural law as the basis for sound governance, although I don’t think Hazony is as far from the classical tradition of natural law as some of his wording might suggest. He is clear that there must be a transcendent standard of justice, which he sees exemplified in the 10 commandments. He also emphasizes throughout his book that a nation cannot prosper unless it publicly honors God and places Scripture in a prime position of public importance. One of the heroes of the English conservative tradition that Hazony builds upon is John Selden, who firmly insisted that our assessment of traditional laws is necessarily shaped by the Talmud with its enumeration of the “seven laws of the children of Noah prohibiting murder, theft, sexual perversity, cruelty to beasts, idolatry, and defaming God, and requiring courts of law to enforce justice” (Hazony, pp. 17). In fact, the very work of Selden’s that Hazony cites is entitled Natural and National Law. In this work Selden, quoting the church father Tertullian, critiques the “philosophy of the Gentiles” (Plato, Aristotle, etc.) because it “reserves nothing for divine authority; it makes its own opinions into laws of nature” (emphasis original; Hazony, p. 171). The natural law exemplified in this Noahic code is very similar to various Jewish and Christian articulations of the basic content of the natural law. ↩
- A more wide-ranging discussion of Hazony’s (and others’) critique of classical liberalism can be found in the numerous thematic essays in the January 2022 edition of The New Criterion. ↩
- Hazony, pp. 223-24. ↩
- To fully grasp the ideological underpinnings of the American founding it is necessary to come to terms with the triumph of the conservative vision of the Federalists, which reached its climax with the ratification of the Constitution. This history, as Hazony notes, has been ably documented by Russell Kirk and David Lefer, among others. ↩
- Hazony, p. 14. ↩
- “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” ↩
- Hazony, p. 247: “Which freedoms should be defended by the government cannot be determined without taking into account considerations of justice and peace, the general welfare and the cohesiveness of society, and the ability of the nation to mount a common defense.” In other words, personal freedom is not ultimate. It must not be allowed to trump the central purposes of government such as justice and national defense. ↩
- Although the debate over Edmund Burke’s influence on the American founding will not be of interest to everyone, it is worth noting that Burke’s ideas were well known and influential among the Federalists leading up to Constitutional Convention. Even if this were not the case, Burke’s ideas were part of a long traditional of English conservative thought, one that influenced the writers of the Constitution to a significant degree. On this see e.g., Hazony, pp. 49-52. ↩
- As Mark David Hall has shown, Jefferson’s own skeptical views about supernatural religion were so out of the mainstream in his day that he felt the need to hide them from public view throughout his life. ↩
- Timon Cline’s articles at American Reformer are an excellent introduction to this facet of America’s political, legal, and cultural past. ↩
- Hazony, p. 435, n. 40. ↩
- E.g., the representative approach of the Lutheran theologian Niels Hemmingsen in 1562: “Many—both poets (such as Pythagoras, Theognis, Phocylides, Cato, and several others) and philosophers (such as Plato, Aristotle, Plutarch, and Cicero)—have handed down the commandments of morals . . . .” (see Niels Hemmingsen, On the Law of Nature: A Demonstrative Method, pp. 12-13; translated by E.J. Hutchinson; CLP Academic Press). ↩