Conservatism as a political philosophy traces its roots to the late 18th century: its intellectual leaders were the Anglo-Irish Member of Parliament Edmund Burke and the Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith.
In his speeches and writings, Burke extolled tradition, the “natural law” and “natural rights”; he championed social hierarchy, an established church, gradual social change and free markets; he excoriated the French Revolution in his influential pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France, a defense of monarchy and the institutions that protect good social order.
Burke is also well known in the U.S. for his support for the colonists in the period before the American Revolution notably in his Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies (1775) where he alerts Parliament to the “fierce spirit of liberty” that characterizes Americans.
Adam Smith, a giant figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, was the first great intellectual champion of laissez-faire capitalism and author of the classic The Wealth of Nations (1776).
Burke and Smith formed a mutual admiration society. According to a biographer of Burke, Smith thought that “on subjects of political economy, [Burke] was the only man who, without communication, thought on these subjects exactly as he did”; Burke, for his part, called Smith’s opus “perhaps the most important book ever written.” Their view of things became the standard one for conservatives throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th.
However, there is an internal inconsistency in traditional conservatism. The problem is that, in the end, laissez-faire capitalism upends the very social structures that traditional conservatism seeks to maintain. The catch-phrase of the day among pundits has become “creative destruction”; this formula, coined by the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, captures the churning of capitalism which systematically creates new industries and new social institutions that replace the old – e.g. Sears by Amazon, an America of farmers by an America of city dwellers. Marx argued that capitalism’s failures would lead to its demise; Schumpeter argued that capitalism has more to fear from its triumphs: ineluctably the colossal success of capitalism hollows out the social institutions and mores which nurture capitalism such as church-going and the Protestant Ethic itself. Look at Western Europe today where capitalism is triumphant but where church attendance is reduced to three events: “hatch, match and dispatch,” to put it the playful way Anglicans do.
The Midas touch is still very much with us: U.S. capitalism tends to transform every activity it comes upon into a money-making version of itself. Thus something once innocent and playful like college athletics has been turned into a lucrative monopoly: the NCAA rules over a network of plantations staffed by indentured workers and signs billion dollar television contracts. Health care, too, has been transformed into a money-making machine with lamentable results: Americans pay twice as much for doctors’ care and prescription drugs as those in other advanced industrialized countries and the outcomes are grim in comparison: infant mortality and death in childbirth are off the charts in the U.S. and life expectancy is low compared to those other countries.
On the other hand, a modern capitalist economy can work well for its citizens. We have the examples of Scandanavia and of countries like Japan and Germany. Economists like Thomas Piketty write about the “thirty glorious” years after 1945 when post WWII capitalism built up a solid, prosperous middle class in Western Europe. Add to this what is known as the “French paradox” – the French drink more than Americans, smoke more, have sex more and still live some years longer. To make things worse, their cuisine is better, their work week is shorter and they take much longer vacations – one more example of how a nation can make capitalism work in the interest of its citizenry.
In American political life, in the 1930s, the label “conservative” was grabbed by forces opposed to FDR and the New Deal. Led by Senator Josiah W. Bailey of North Carolina, democrats with some Republican support published “The Conservative Manifesto,” a document which extolled the virtues of free enterprise, limited government and the balance of power among the branches of government.
In the post-war period the standard bearer of conservatism in the U.S. was Republican Senator Robert Taft of Ohio who was anti-New-Deal, anti-union, pro-business and who, as a “fiscal conservative,” stood for reduced government spending and low taxes; he also stood for a non-interventionist foreign policy. His conservatism harked back to Burke’s ideals of community: he supported Social Security, a minimum wage, public housing and federal aid to public education.
However, the philosophy of the current “conservative” political leadership in the U.S. supports all the destructive social Darwinism of laissez-faire capitalism, reflecting the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and his dystopian vision much more than either Burke or Smith. Contemporary “conservatism” in the U.S. is hardly traditional conservatism. What happened? Mystère.
A more formal manifesto of Burkean conservatism, The Conservative Mind, was published in 1953 by Russell Kirk, then a professor at Michigan State. But conservative thought was soon co-opted and transformed by a wealthy young Texan whose family money came from oil prospecting – in Mexico and Venezuela! William F. Buckley, like Kirk a Roman Catholic, was founder and long time editor-in-chief of the seminal conservative weekly The National Review. Buckley is credited with (or accused of) transforming traditional Burkean conservatism into what goes by the name of “conservatism” in the U.S. today; he replaced the traditional emphasis on community with his libertarian view point “individualism” and replaced Taft’s non-interventionism with an aggressive Cold War political philosophy – the struggle against godless communism became the great moral cause of the “conservative movement.”
To his credit, Buckley kept his distance from fringe groups such as the John Birch Society; Buckley also eschewed Ayn Rand and her hyper-individualistic, atheistic philosophy of Objectivism; a man of letters himself, Buckley was likely appalled by her wooden prose – admittedly Russian and not English was her first language, but still she was no Vladimir Nabokov.
Buckley as a cold war warrior was very different from libertarians Ron Paul and Rand Paul who both have an isolationist philosophy that opposes military intervention. On the other hand, all three have expressed similarly eccentric views on race presumably justified by their shared libertarian concept of the right of individuals to do whatever they choose to do even if it includes discrimination against others. For example, Rand Paul has stated that he would have voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed the Jim Crow Laws of the segregationist states “because of the property rights element … .”
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Buckley’s influence spread. The future president Ronald Reagan was weaned of New Deal Liberalism through reading The National Review; in turn Buckley became a supporter of Reagan and they appeared together on Buckley’s TV program The Firing Line.
To the Buckley conservatives today, destruction of social institutions, “creative” or otherwise, is somehow not a problem and militarism is somehow virtuous.
As for destruction, among the social structures that have fallen victim recently to creative destruction is the American middle class itself, as income inequality has grown apace. This process began at the tail end of the 1960s and has been accelerating since Ronald Reagan’s presidency as Keynesian economics has given way to “supply side” economics; moreover, the guardrails for capitalism imposed by the New Deal have come undone: the Glass-Steagall Act has been repealed, the labor movement has been marginalized, and high taxes on the wealthy have become a thing of the past – contrast this with the fact that Colonel Tom Parker, the manager of Elvis Presley, considered it his patriotic duty to keep The King in the 90% tax bracket back in the day.
As for militarism, despite VE Day and VJ Day, since the 1950s, the U.S. has been engaged in an endless sequence of wars – big (Korea) and small (Grenada), long (Vietnam) and short (the First Gulf War), visible (Afghanistan) and invisible (Niger), loud (Iraq) and quiet (Somalia), … . All of which has created a situation much like the permanent state of war of Orwell’s 1984.
Moreover, since Buckley’s time, the American “conservatives” have even moved further right: reading Ayn Rand (firmly atheist and pro-choice though she was) in high-school or college has become a rite of passage, e.g. ex-Speaker Paul Ryan. An interventionist, even war-mongering, wing of the “conservative movement” has emerged, the “neo-conservatives” or “neo-cons.” Led by Dick Cheney, they were the champions of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and they applaud all troop “surges” and new military interventions.
As David Brooks recently pointed out in his New York Times column (Nov. 16, 2018), the end of the Cold War deprived the “conservative movement” of its great moral cause, the struggle against godless communist collectivism. And what was a cause has morphed into expensive military adventurism. Indeed, the end of the Cold War failed to yield a “peace dividend” and the military budget today threatens the economic survival of the nation – the histories of France, Spain and many other countries bear witness to how this works itself out, alas! In days of yore, it would have been the fiscal restraint of people known as conservatives that kept government spending in check; today “conservative” members of Congress continue to sound like Robert Taft on the subject of government spending when attacking programs sponsored by their opponents, but they do not hesitate to drive the national debt higher by over-funding the military and pursuing tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. Supply-side economics cleaves an ever widening income gap, the least conservative social policy imaginable. Then too these champions of the free market and opponents of government intervention rushed to bail out the big banks (but not the citizens whose homes were foreclosed on) during the Great Recession of 2008. All this leads one to think that this class of politicians is serving its donor class and not the working class, the middle class, the upper middle class or even much of the upper class.
Perhaps semantic rock bottom is reached when “conservative” members of Congress vote vociferously against any measure for environmental conservation. But this is predictable given the lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry, a power so impressive that even the current head of the Environmental Protection Agency is a veteran lobbyist for Big Coal. Actually for these conservatives, climate change denial is consistent with their core beliefs: fighting the effects of global warming effectively will require large-scale government intervention, significantly increased regulation of industry and agriculture as well as binding international agreements – all of which are anathema to conservatives in the U.S. today.
Still there where the word “conservative” is most misapplied is in matters judicial. One speaks today of “conservative majorities” on the Supreme Court but these majorities have proved themselves all too ready to rewrite laws and overturn precedent in 5-4 decisions in an aggressive phase of judicial activism.
So for those who fear that corruption of its language is dangerous for the U.S. population, this is the worst of times: “liberal” which once designated a proponent of Gilded Age laissez-faire capitalism is now claimed by the heirs of the New Deal and the Great Society; “conservative” which once designated a traditionalist is now the label for radical activists both political and judicial. “Liberal” is yielding to “progressive” now. However, the word “conservative” has a certain gravitas to it and “conservatism” has taken on the trappings of a religious movement complete with patron saints like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; “conservative” is likely to endure, self-contradictory though it has become.