Front Page Titles (by Subject) JAMES M. O'CONNELL, The New Conservativism - New Individualist Review
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JAMES M. O’CONNELL, The New Conservativism - Ralph Raico, New Individualist Review 
New Individualist Review, editor-in-chief Ralph Raico, introduction by Milton Friedman (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981).
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The New Conservativism
AS SOME recent articles in the New Individualist Review and other magazines have indicated, the intellectual Right in the United States is divided into at least two large factions. Each of the factions has its own firmly-held ideology, its own history, its own roster of heroes and demons. And some members, at least, of each faction are not at all sure that large numbers of their fellow-Rightists are not more profoundly in error and more dangerous to the Republic than are even the infernal legions of the Left.
In the interests of harmony and good-fellowship, many conservatives have lately suggested that such discussions be played down and that the Right return to its principle business: exposing the foibles and inanities of the American Left. Were the differences minor ones, then the airing of them in public would do little or no good for the advancement of the principles held by those commonly referred to as “conservatives.” However, when such differences are radical, when the only area of agreement is anti-communism, then to call for harmony in the interest of a united “anti-communist” and “anti-socialist” front is as reprehensible now as the actions of those who called for a Popular Front in the closing years of the Thirties “to oppose Fascism.”
These articles, especially those by Mr. Hamowy and Mr. Facey in this magazine,1 indicate that the differences are radical, and that the older philosophies of libertarianism, laissez-faire economics, and constitutionalism have little in common with what has been called the “new conservatism.” It is the attempt of this article to point out these differences and to show why they are incompatible with the older philosophy, which might be called, as it had been before the name was pirated by the statists and interventionist of the Left, “liberalism.” The task is complicated, for, as Professor F. A. Hayek points out: “Since it [conservatism] distrusts both abstract theories and general principles, it neither understands those spontaneous forces on which a policy of freedom relies nor possesses a basis for formulating principles of policy.”2 An analysis of this new conservatism must begin, then, with an investigation of the ideas put forth by its proponents in their writings.
Those who read the works of the new conservatives are struck first of all by the contempt in which reason is held. Russell Kirk, so it seems, cannot write a book without sneering at “defecated rationality” or the “puny private stocks of reason” possessed by individuals. Mr. Kirk prefers to remain an “intellectual dwarf perched on the shoulders of a giant—Christian, Western tradition.” But the errors of reasoning made by those Professor Hayek calls the “rationalist liberals” in no way invalidate the tool used: reason. As a method for combatting the errors of the planners and interventionists, reason is far superior to appeals to tradition. Indeed, Professor Ludwig von Mises asks, in Human Action, if the traditional doctrines so constructed are in agreement with the actual beliefs held by the ancestors so venerated. Tradition and custom possess no validity per se; their rightness or wrongness depends solely on their agreement with those principles, discoverable by reason, which regulate human action.
To the new conservative, such ideas are “the murkiest Bentham.” These traditionalists make much of the fact that many libertarian authors use a utilitarian cause-and-effect approach in their writings on economics. Utilitarianism is “materialistic,” they claim, ignoring the fact that it studies, especially the modern agathistic utilitarianism, not only material pleasures, but all human desires, for one purpose: to discover the correct method of fulfilling such desires. Others would condemn it for ignoring the irrational, the unusual in life. Such a censure is foolish, for it ignores the fact that economics limits itself to the study of the analyzable; it does not attempt to comment on the goals and desires of an acting individual. As Prof. Mises puts it:
The teachings of economics and praxeology are valid for every human action without regard to its underlying motives, causes and goals. The ultimate judgments of value and the ultimate ends of human action are given (that is, undefined in the logical sense) for any kind of scientific inquiry; they are not open to any further analysis.3
More often than not, the new conservative will content himself with simply sneering at utilitarian ideas. They are “immoral,” they are “relativistic” or, to use a phrase common to conservative polemicists, “the ideas of Bentham, ‘the great subversive,’ find their reductio ad absurdum in Marxism.” Such criticism is meaningless, for modern utilitarianism is neutral with respect to final choices; charges of “immorality” or “relativism” when applied to it are absurd. As for its alleged connection with Marxism, one could, with more justice, establish an ideological relationship between conservatism and fascism. It is but a few steps from Burke’s veneration of the “oaks of the English aristocracy” to Maistre’s veneration of “throne and altar,” Metternich’s censorship, the racism of a Carlyle or a Gobineau, the nationalism of a Barres, until we reach our reductio—the fascism of a Maurras. Even those supposedly in the Burkean tradition were eager, at times, for a man on horseback—Irving Babbitt, founder of the New Humanism and intellectual mentor of new conservative Russell Kirk, declared, in his passion for order, that there would be a time when “we may esteem ourselves fortunate if we get the American equivalent of a Mussolini; he may be needed to save us from the equivalent of a Lenin.”4 That Millian socialism and its bastard brother Marxism are, in fact, perversions of Benthamite utilitarianism seems to escape the new conservatives; the fault lies not in utilitarianism itself, but in the minds of those misinterpreting it.
It is this rejection of reason for tradition and custom that has brought out what Mr. Hamowy called “the whips, thumbscrews and firing squads” in his article;5 it is obvious that, if the only defense of the new conservatism is tradition, then that tradition must be maintained, no matter what the cost to liberty. It is the love of custom that brings forth the shibboleths of the new conservatives commonly applied against libertarian-liberalism—the system considers men as an individual; it is “rational” and “atomistic.” To the new conservative, “community” is all. Indeed, Mr. Kirk makes merry over a group of people who wished to found a society of individualists; in considering their choice of intellectual mentors, he declares:
These same gentlemen (who profess to be individualists, but are really conservatives in their impulses) cried up a pantheon of philosophers after their taste: Lao-Tse, Zeno, Milton, Locke, Adam Smith, Tom Paine, Jefferson, Thoreau, John Stuart Mill, and Spencer. No thinking conservative would be much inclined to pull these chestnuts out of the fire for the sake of the commonwealth. I suggested that if they were to substitute Moses or St. Paul for Lao-Tse, Aristotle or Cicero for Zeno, Dante for Milton, Falkland for Locke, Samuel Johnson for Adam Smith [!], Burke for Paine, Orestes Brownson for Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hawthorne for Thoreau, Disraeli for Mill, and Ruskin [—yes, Ruskin!] or Newman for Spencer, then indeed they might make the dry bones speak, and kindle the imagination of the rising generation.6
This alone would be enough to validate the thesis of this article: new conservatism has nothing to do with the individualism of American libertarian-liberalism; the inclusion of a socialist and a few rabid monarchists in the renovated pantheon indicates that it is as hostile as it ever was to individualism. And why not? The individual, especially the innovator and the dissenter, is hostile to the ideas of “order” and “tradition”; he prefers to cut his own way. In so doing, he may increase the good of all, but this idea never occurs to our tradition-minded gentlemen.
NOR ARE conservatives content only to celebrate the existence of such anti-individualists; they are ready and willing to go to further impositions on individual liberty. Willmoore Kendall is unalterably opposed to the open society; Revilo Oliver sees in an established church—preferably high-church Episcopal or Roman Catholic—the salvation of America; all join in supporting the House Committee on Un-American Activities, despite its questionable status in a nation dedicated to a Rule of Law. Yet, such people assure us that they stand for “liberty” over equality. In contrast to these opinions, the ideas of H. L. Mencken, who was not only an anti-communist but an anti-democrat, bear repeating:
“I believe in only one thing and that thing is human liberty. If ever a man is to achieve anything like dignity, it can happen only if superior men are given absolute freedom to think what they want to think and say what they want to say. I am against any man and any organization which seeks to limit or deny that freedom.” Mr. Mencken was speaking to Hamilton Owens at the time, and when Owens asked if Mencken would limit freedom to superior men, Mencken replied that “the superior man can be sure of freedom only if it is given to all men.”7
Together with his strong dislike of individualism, the new conservative is contemptuous of the system it produced: the laissez-faire economy. Indeed, one can find almost any other kind of system outside of socialist collectivism praised in their writings—despite the fact that such systems are unworkable. Some, like Mr. Kirk, would restore “community” to economics. What is needed is a higher morality, a “humanity,” among businessmen and workers. The new system will not be socialism, for private property will be preserved, not interventionism, for there will be no need for government intervention in a “moral economy,” nor capitalism, for the profit motive will be supplanted by conscience. While such a system is, apparently, non-coercive, it makes an assumption which is almost as unjustifiable as that which suggests that all men can be made reasonable: that all men can be made moral. If it seeks to bring such a moral millenium about by force, it will fail. We need only consider Prohibition to understand the futility of attempts to enforce a morality above and beyond the normal laws needed for cooperation in society.
Plans to restore “community and morality” overlook one fact: such things can only come about, if they ever existed, spontaneously; they cannot be forced.
AN ECONOMIC system more pleasing to new conservatism is corporatism. Rejecting even the idea of a “moralized” capitalism, our new conservatives seek the solution of the “problem of community” in the guild system of the Middle Ages. Whether the system advocated is “guild socialism” or corporatism, the idea is easy enough to grasp. Each branch of business forms a monopoly which is fully autonomous; the only purpose of the state is to settle quarrels between different bodies. Unfortunately, such a system ignores the fact that the market cannot be divided in such a manner. It serves to protect inefficiency and prevent the diversion of capital to other sources where it would be more productive. Under such a system, the worker qua worker might enjoy a feeling of security and community; as a consumer, however, he would suffer.
In the times it has been tried, either it has failed miserably, as in the case of the American NRA experiment, or has resulted in continued bureaucratic control, as in the case of Italian Fascism. We are offered a new collectivism, a collectivism of the Right, to save us from both the “inhumanity” of capitalism, with its “rootless individualism,” and the collectivism of the Left. In offering this as a substitute for the market economy, the new conservatives, for all their wrath against rationalist planners, become planners themselves and triflers with individuals.
It will be objected that my notion of freedom is dangerous in that it ignores values. Such an objection indicates a basic misunderstanding of the concept of freedom. It does not posit the right of every man to act as he pleases; such is a definition of license rather than freedom. Freedom is the right of an individual to think and act as he pleases, so long as he bears full responsibility for his actions, and refrains from using coercive or aggressive force against the life, liberty or property of any other. Such a definition implies the recognition of a set of absolute values binding on all men which govern interpersonal relations; it implies the existence of personal values in each individual and it implies that these values serve as a standard of right and wrong, which serves to fix responsibility for actions. It is the new conservative who is more of a relativist, for he, in his search for order, would destroy such standards. Why else the desire for an “American Mussolini?” Why the hatred of capitalism and the support for socialistic measures which has, at times, marked conservatism. It is a desire for freedom for an elite, rather than a desire for freedom for the individual, that provides conservatism with a relativistic outlook.
This, then, is the new conservatism: a doctrine which is not only anti-rationalistic, in that it opposes the wild dreams of the planners, but anti-rational, in opposition to all reason; it holds to a creed of anti-individualism and anti-capitalism; in its search for “order,” it embraces a relativism of its own. It has its sources in neither the libertarianism of an Albert Jay Nock nor in the constitutionalism of a Liberty League; if we seek its sources, we find them in the ludicrous union of the New Humanists, Eliot, More and Babbitt, on the one hand, and southern agrarians, men such as Robert Penn Warren, on the other, well salted with mediaevalists, Distributists and followers of the socio-ethical theories of Carlyle and Ruskin. In its extremes, it either drifts over to a fascism or, in its attempts to reject capitalism, to a mild socialism. Indeed, so foreign are its principles to those of libertarianism that it can be hailed by the Left as a good. Mr. Kirk quotes, with some pride, the words of one interventionist on the new conservatism.
. . . Mr. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., writing in the quarterly journal Confluence, remarks that “the aim of the New Conservatives is to transform conservatism from a negative philosophy of niggling and self-seeking into an affirmative movement of healing and revival, based on a living sense of human relatedness and on a dedication to public as against class interests, all to be comprehended in a serious and permanent philosophy of social and national responsibility.8
In short, the new conservatism is not what most people would call “conservative” at all; it favors, not freedom, but an exchange of power, from the present bureaucrats to an “aristocratic elite.” In calling the attention of individualists to its beliefs and dogmas, I am not trying to attack the Right, or cause a “schism”; I am trying to point out that the doctrines of individualism are being misrepresented and that those who are misrepresenting these ideas are doing more harm than good, and should be repudiated.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP NIR . . .
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[* ] James M. O’Connell is a Ph. D. candidate in mathematics at the University of Wisconsin. He is a contributing editor of Insight and Outlook and writes a column for the University of Wisconsin Daily Cardinal.
[1 ] Ronald Hamowy, “National Review; Criticism and Reply,” in New Individualist Review, November, 1961, pp. 3-11; Edward C. Facey, “Conservatives or Individualists: Which Are We?,” New Individualist Review, Summer, 1961, pp. 24-26.
[2 ] F. A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1960), p. 401.
[3 ] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1949), p. 21.
[4 ] Irving Babbit, Democracy and Leadership, (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1924), p. 312.
[5 ] Hamowy, op. cit., p. 7.
[6 ] Russell Kirk, A Program for Conservatives, (Regnery, Chicago, 1955), p. 49.
[7 ] Quoted in the Freeman, March, 1962, p. 64.
[8 ] Kirk, op. cit., p. 35.