Conservatism: A Rediscovery (Yoram Hazony)

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RamistThomist

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Hazony, Yoram. Conservatism: A Rediscovery. Regnery Gateway, 2022.

Russell Kirk saved conservatism for our fathers and grandfathers. Yoram Hazony introduced it for us. While Kirk’s The Conservative Mind is probably the number one text for conservative studies still, Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery has surpassed it in every way. Whereas Kirk focused on recent figures, at least going back to the time of Burke, Hazony draws from even deeper wells. Conservatism, to speak anachronistically, does not begin with liberal ideas of universal reason and our “common humanity.” Those things might exist, but that is not how we experience reality. Rather, we know and reason within a tradition that has been passed down. This brings Hazony’s argument very close to historicism and relativism, though he is quick to assure us this is not the case. I will offer my own analysis of that claim at the end of the review.

Foundations

At one level the foundation of Anglo-American conservatism is the Old Testament, one must do more than simply announce one’s view as biblical and call it the conservative position. Fortunately, Hazony illustrates this claim from a number of English thinkers, beginning with Sir John Fortescue, whose laws put English legal reflection on a more systematic basis. He drew heavily from the Old Testament, yet knew that forcing the current English state into the parameters of Old Testament Israel was counter-productive.

The most important conservative thinker in early English history is quite obviously Richard Hooker. He provided a theoretical framework for the new English state. Hazony argues that for Hooker “almost any order is better than no order at all, and the burden of proof is on those who wish to abandon existing custom.” Indeed, “To endure a minor sore is better than to attempt a dangerous remedy.” To be sure, though, the English church was something of a daring attempt in comparison with medieval church.

Hooker’s conservatism is best illustrated in his Laws, seeing laws as instruments to rule by, and instruments must take account of general purpose and immediate context. A law may be permanent, but the means of applying it may change.

Hooker claimed we cannot always have absolute certainty in laws and customs. Each nation, then, is allowed to look to the past and to its own history and character. As a result, to force England to embrace the customs of Geneva is to commit to as rigid internationalism as that of the Catholics. In other words, “The laws and customs suitable to one nation might not be appropriate to another” (Hazony). A single international church, finding that one of the churches disagreed with its neighbors, must now be accused of disobeying God. It is that which Hooker rejected.

Challenges

From the 1600s onward, English conservatives had to respond to the triple threat of Absolutism, Radicalism, and Rationalism. Against the Stuart monarchs, they resisted the claim that the monarch’s word was law. Against the Puritan radicals, they allowed that different people could have different polities. Against the rationalists, they denied that we should begin with and be ruled by Abstract Reason.

We begin with John Locke. For all of Locke’s empiricism, his Second Treatise is a rationalist, even deductive document. He makes claims about the state of nature and “Reason” that he cannot prove and which are not open to empirical analysis. Locke, though, remained enough of a Christian to keep his philosophy from working too much mischief.

It is primarily against Locke, not Paine, that God raised up Edmund Burke. Burke’s argument against abstract principles: they have never been tested, so one can never know what to do or what to expect. As he states, “The principles that are adopted should never be too big for their object.” This cuts across “the Universal Rights of Man.”

While it is easy for conservatives to use Rousseau as their whipping boy, and that is something we should do, Burke was not primarily fighting Rousseau, but English liberals who followed Grotius and Locke. Contrary to universal rights of humanity, the true conservative will hold to the following:

Principles of Anglo-American Conservatism
  1. Historical Empiricism: constitutional traditions known from the long experience of a nation. This entails a degree of skepticism regarding divine right of ruler, universal reason of man, and abstract values.
  2. Nationalism: human beings form national collectives. The diversity of national experiences entails a diversity of constitutions. National history takes account of common law, religious practices, and cultural forms.
  3. Religion: God and the Bible have a primary place.
  4. Individual rights

The “American English”

Jefferson’s “republicanism” became imperialism when he wanted France to invade Britain. This seems hard to square with Jefferson’s views on the small government farmer. And perhaps Jefferson was simply inconsistent on this point. Concerning his view of man and the French Revolution, however, he was quite consistent. Against Jefferson, Hazony views Alexander Hamilton, a conservative nationalist, as the true American hero. I am not enough of a Hamiltonian scholar to know whether Hazony’s analysis is correct. We can all agree that Hamilton was a nationalist, but to say he was conservative might be stretching it.

Modern Conservatism

While we are grateful for the efforts of William F. Buckley to stay the tide of communism, and his “conservative fusionism,” for all of his faults, faults which probably destroyed that brand of conservatism in the end, was probably the only real intellectual alternative to the Soviet Union at the time. National Review repositioned conservatism on the intellectual stage as an option to both liberalism and Marxism. Those glory days are long passed. We can even pinpoint the moment they died: George W. Bush’s presidency. (Hazony does not make that claim).

Conclusion and Evaluation

I do have some criticisms. While I can appreciate Hazony’s reluctance to base political theories off of deductions from Universal Reason, I am not persuaded we need to adopt David Hume’s epistemology. Yes, Hume was a Tory and a conservative; for that we are grateful. But empiricism is too high a price to pay, nor is it really necessary. There are a number of alternatives, perhaps not sufficiently explored, that allow for political ideas that do not require a priori reasoning. I can think of two: phenomenology and something like Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmatism. Both approach the world as it is “given” in experience. Neither one requires anything like abstract reason. To be sure, I do not know what such a view will look like, nor have phenomenological approaches always been conservative in the past.

These criticisms aside, I highly recommend this book. It is the new gold standard in conservative studies, easily surpassing Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind.
 
I can think of two: phenomenology and something like Charles Sanders Peirce’s pragmatism.
Where can I read more on this?

How does Natural Law fit in this framework of conservatism? (I'm aware Hazony rejects it at the very beginning)
 
Where can I read more on this?
It's an open field. Alistair McGrath's scientific theology volumes might shed some light.
How does Natural Law fit in this framework of conservatism? (I'm aware Hazony rejects it at the very beginning)

Hazony seems to think of natural law in post-Grotian terms, which makes it subject to all of his criticisms. But that is not natural law as it has been understood. Ironically, the person to go to is one of Hazony's own conservative heroes: Richard Hooker.
 
I've been listening to the book.

It's really good. I think he sheds some important light on the nature of Federalism and how Jefferson would have plunged us in to the extremes of Enlightenment Rationalism (e.g. France).

There's a good sense in the Conservatism that he proposes that we're not God, and we have to deliberate in our government not on the idea that "we're God" and know what's best for everybody because it's self-evident.

I don't think I had ever quite put together Payne's rationalism and sort of the crazy things that follow in his footsteps with Liberalism as a project. Even though current political movements seem (and are) absolutely crazy, they are all proceeding on the idea that it is "self-evident" to reason that people are just LBGT+ and we need to provide for their personal liberty, even if that means tyranny toward those who don't get on board with "self-evident reason".

I also really appreciate how he deals with liberty, constraint, and responsibility. Young persons are always looking to tear down their elders these days, and you can see how the liberal notion of "self-evident reason" is infecting erstwhile conservative young persons as they trash the Evangelical Church within and seek to uproot tradition because it's patriarchal - abusing the Scriptures in the process to argue for it.

If you didn't know he was a Jew, there is a lot of overlap to how a Covenantal Christian would treat the formation of children and the importance of children and mediating institutions like the congregation are so central to formation.
 
I've been listening to the book.

It's really good. I think he sheds some important light on the nature of Federalism and how Jefferson would have plunged us in to the extremes of Enlightenment Rationalism (e.g. France).

There's a good sense in the Conservatism that he proposes that we're not God, and we have to deliberate in our government not on the idea that "we're God" and know what's best for everybody because it's self-evident.

I don't think I had ever quite put together Payne's rationalism and sort of the crazy things that follow in his footsteps with Liberalism as a project. Even though current political movements seem (and are) absolutely crazy, they are all proceeding on the idea that it is "self-evident" to reason that people are just LBGT+ and we need to provide for their personal liberty, even if that means tyranny toward those who don't get on board with "self-evident reason".

I also really appreciate how he deals with liberty, constraint, and responsibility. Young persons are always looking to tear down their elders these days, and you can see how the liberal notion of "self-evident reason" is infecting erstwhile conservative young persons as they trash the Evangelical Church within and seek to uproot tradition because it's patriarchal - abusing the Scriptures in the process to argue for it.

If you didn't know he was a Jew, there is a lot of overlap to how a Covenantal Christian would treat the formation of children and the importance of children and mediating institutions like the congregation are so central to formation.
Hazony did a good job with early British conservatism, especially with Selden and Fortescue.
 
Hazony did a good job with early British conservatism, especially with Selden and Fortescue.
I'm not really an authority on theories of government and their history and this book has proven to be a very good overarching way of how people conceive of government.

He's also helping me to think through the difference between the way a conservative culture adapts to new circumstances and one that has no respect for where it is and why it's where it is.

I was just listening to the typical episode on The Unbelievable Podcast where some millennial is talking about his deconstruction of the Christian faith. To me, it's a microcosm of the way in which a rationalist looks at his community.

The person in question came from the typical mega-Church scene. Instead of being in a conservative community that could reach back and reform and emphasize something in the past that has been lost, the modern Evangelical looks inward at a rational principle, reads the Scriptures for himself with no guide, and deconstructs the faith creating a Jesus that looks exactly like him.
 
I've been meaning to listen to the Audible version of this in the near future, so perusing Jacob's review is a nice preview for what I can expect.

On the topic of post-Enlightenment (i.e. post-Burkean) conservatism, I think that Thomas Sowell's book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles does a superb job at characterizing the basic differences among competing political perspectives from the French Revolution to our own day.
 
I've been meaning to listen to the Audible version of this in the near future, so perusing Jacob's review is a nice preview for what I can expect.

On the topic of post-Enlightenment (i.e. post-Burkean) conservatism, I think that Thomas Sowell's book A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggles does a superb job at characterizing the basic differences among competing political perspectives from the French Revolution to our own day.
I didn't think of Sowell, but he would say the same things. I don't think he fully lines up with Burke, but it's close enough.
 
I can't help but muse over some of the implications of these conversations.

There's an analogy in business discussions where people argue over strategy vs culture where many believe that the culture of the company ends up driving how it acts and performs. Many really focus on the idea that you need to get your culture set early and keep hiring to and enforcing that culture.

That leads me to the conclusion that it seems that if one accepts a sort of realistic, conservative view on government, the government will reflect the culture of its people. There's the famous Adams quote about how our system of government is only suited for a moral people. What this leads me to conclude is that the government that a people have ends up reflectiong whether the its citizens constrain themselves and form persons who look after one another.

Everyone learned that when we tried to introduce the idea of liberal democracy into the Middle East it failed and a classical conservative would understand why. The issue now, it seems, is that our own people are increasingly unsuited to our government as envisioned.
 
This, from the book, is gold:

The Attraction and Power of Marxism​

Although many liberals and conservatives say that Marxism is “nothing but a great lie,” this isn’t quite right. Liberal societies have repeatedly proved themselves vulnerable to Marxism. And now we have seen the greatest liberal institutions in the world handed over to Marxists and their allies. If Marxism is nothing but a great lie, why are liberal societies so vulnerable to it? We must understand the enduring attraction and strength of Marxism. And we will never understand it unless we recognize that Marxism captures certain aspects of the truth that are missing from Enlightenment liberalism.

Which aspects of the truth?

Marx’s principal insight is the recognition that the categories liberals use to construct their theory of political reality (liberty, equality, rights, and consent) are insufficient for understanding the political domain. They are insufficient because the liberal picture of the political world leaves out two phenomena that are, according to Marx, absolutely central to human political experience: the fact that people invariably form cohesive classes or groups, and the fact that these classes or groups invariably oppress or exploit one another, with the state itself functioning as an instrument of the oppressor class.

My liberal friends tend to believe that oppression and exploitation exist only in traditional or authoritarian societies, whereas liberal society is free (or almost free) from all that. But this isn’t true. Marx is right to see that every society consists of cohesive classes or groups, and that political life everywhere is primarily about the power relations among different groups. He is also right that at any given time, one group (or a coalition of groups) dominates the state, and that the laws and policies of the state tend to reflect the interests and ideals of this dominant group. Moreover, Marx is right when he says that the dominant group tends to see its own preferred laws and policies as reflecting “reason” or “nature,” and works to disseminate its way of looking at things throughout society, so that various kinds of injustice and oppression tend to be obscured from view.

For example, despite decades of experimentation with vouchers and charter schools, the dominant form of American liberalism remains strongly committed to the public school system. In most places, this is a monopolistic system that requires children of all backgrounds to receive an atheistic education stripped clean of references to God or the Bible. Although liberals sincerely believe that this policy is justified by the theory of “separation of church and state,” or by the argument that society needs schools that are “for everyone,” the fact is that these theories justify what really is a system aimed at inculcating their own Enlightenment liberalism. Seen from a conservative perspective, this amounts to a quiet persecution of religious families. Similarly, the p0rnography industry is nothing but a horrific instrument for exploiting poor women, although it is justified by liberal elites on grounds of “free speech” and other freedoms reserved to “consenting adults.” And in the same way, indiscriminate offshoring of manufacturing capacity is considered to be an expression of property rights by liberal elites, who benefit from cheap Chinese labor at the expense of their own working-class neighbors.

No, Marxist political theory is not simply a great lie. By analyzing society in terms of power relations among classes or groups, we can bring to light important political phenomena to which Enlightenment liberal theories—theories that tend to reduce politics to the individual and his or her private liberties—are systematically blind.

This is the principal reason that Marxist ideas are so attractive. In every society, there will always be plenty of people who have reason to feel they’ve been oppressed or exploited. Some of these claims will be worthy of remedy and some less so. But virtually all of them are susceptible to a Marxist interpretation, which shows how they result from systematic oppression by the dominant classes and justifies responding with outrage and violence. And those who are troubled by such apparent oppression will frequently find a home among the Marxists.

Of course, liberals have not remained unmoved in the face of criticism based on the reality of group power relations. Measures such as the U.S. Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly outlawed discriminatory practices against a variety of classes or groups, and subsequent “affirmative action” programs sought to strengthen underprivileged classes through quotas, hiring goals, and other methods. But these efforts have not come close to creating a society free from power relations among classes or groups. If anything, the sense that “the system is rigged” in favor of certain classes or groups at the expense of others has only grown more pronounced.

Despite having had more than 150 years to work on it, liberalism still hasn’t found a way to persuasively address the challenge posed by Marx’s thought.

4. The Flaws That Make Marxism Fatal​

We’ve looked at what Marxist political theory gets right and why it’s such a powerful doctrine. But there are also plenty of problems with the Marxist framework, a number of them fatal.

The first of these is that while Marxism proposes an empirical investigation of the power relations among classes or groups, it simply assumes that wherever one discovers a relationship between a more powerful group and a weaker one, that relation will be one of oppressor and oppressed. This makes it seem as if every hierarchical relationship is just another version of the horrific exploitation of black slaves by Virginia plantation owners before the American Civil War. But in most cases, hierarchical relationships are not enslavement. Thus, while it is true that kings have normally been more powerful than their subjects, employers more powerful than their employees, and parents more powerful than their children, these have not necessarily been straightforward relations of oppressor and oppressed. Much more common are mixed relationships, in which both the stronger and the weaker receive certain benefits, and in which both can also point to hardships that must be endured in order to maintain them.

The fact that the Marxist framework presupposes a relationship of oppressor and oppressed leads to the second great difficulty, which is the assumption that every society is so exploitative that it must be heading toward the overthrow of the dominant class or group. But if it is possible for weaker groups to benefit from their position, and not just to be oppressed by it, then we have arrived at the possibility of a conservative society. This is a society in which there is a dominant class or loyalty group (or coalition of groups) which seeks to balance the benefits and the burdens of the existing order so as to avoid oppression and repair it where it arises. In such a case, the overthrow and destruction of the dominant group may not be necessary. Indeed, when considering the likely consequences of a revolutionary reconstitution of society—often including not only civil war, but foreign invasion as the political order collapses—most groups in a conservative society may well prefer to preserve the existing order, or to largely preserve it, rather than to endure Marx’s alternative.

This brings us to the third failing of the Marxist framework. This is the notorious absence of a clear view as to what the underclass, having overthrown its oppressors and seized the state, is supposed to do with its newfound power. Marx is emphatic that once they have control of the state, the oppressed classes will be able to end oppression. But these claims appear to be unfounded. After all, we’ve said that the strength of the Marxist framework lies in its willingness to recognize that power relations exist among classes and groups in every society, and that these can be oppressive and exploitative in every society. And if this is an empirical fact—as indeed it seems to be—then how will the Marxists who have overthrown liberalism be able use the state to obtain the total abolition of class antagonisms? At this point, Marx’s empiricist posture evaporates, and his framework becomes completely utopian.

When liberals and conservatives talk about Marxism being “nothing but a big lie,” this is what they mean. The Marxist goal of seizing the state and using it to eliminate all oppression is an empty promise. Marx did not know how the state could actually bring this about, and neither have any of his followers. In fact, we now have many historical cases in which Marxists have seized the state: in Russia and Eastern Europe; China, North Korea, and Cambodia; Cuba and Venezuela. But nowhere has the Marxists’ attempt at a “revolutionary reconstitution of society” by the state been anything other than a parade of horrors. In every case, the Marxists themselves form a new class or group, using the power of the state to exploit and oppress other classes in the most extreme ways—up to and including repeated recourse to murdering millions of their own people. Yet for all this, utopia never comes, and oppression never ends.

Marxist society, like all other societies, consists of classes and groups arranged in a hierarchical order. But the aim of reconstituting society and the assertion that the state is responsible for achieving this feat make the Marxist state much more aggressive, and more willing to resort to coercion and bloodshed, than the liberal regime it seeks to replace.

5. The Dance of Liberalism and Marxism​

It is often said that liberalism and Marxism are “opposites,” with liberalism committed to freeing the individual from coercion by the state and Marxism endorsing unlimited coercion in pursuit of a reconstituted society. But what if it turned out that liberalism has a tendency to give way and transfer power to Marxists within a few decades? Far from being the opposite of Marxism, liberalism would merely be a gateway to Marxism.11

I’d like to propose a way of understanding the core relationship that binds liberalism and Marxism to each other and makes them something other than “opposites.”

Enlightenment liberalism is a rationalist system built on the premise that human beings are, by nature, free and equal. Moreover, this truth is said to be “self-evident,” meaning that all of us can recognize it through the exercise of reason alone, without reference to the particular national or religious traditions of our time and place.12

But there are difficulties with this system. One of these is that, as it turns out, highly abstract terms such as freedom, equality, and justice cannot be given stable content by means of reason alone. To see this, consider the following problems:

1. If all men are free and equal, how is it that not everyone who wishes to do so may enter the United States and take up residence there?

By reason alone, it can be argued that since all men are free and equal, they should be equally free to take up residence in the United States. This appears straightforward, and any argument to the contrary will have to depend on traditional concepts such as nation, state, territory, border, citizenship, and so on—none of which are self-evident or accessible to reason alone.

2. If all men are free and equal, how is it that not everyone who wants to may register for courses at Princeton University?

By reason alone, it can be argued that if all are free and equal, they should be equally free to register for courses at Princeton on a first-come-first-served basis. This, too, appears straightforward. Any argument to the contrary will have to depend on traditional concepts such as private property, corporation, freedom of association, education, course of study, merit, and so on. And, again, none of this is self-evident.

3. If all men are free and equal, how do we know whether a man who feels he is a woman should be able to compete in a women’s track and field competition in a public school?

By reason alone, it can be said that since all are free and equal, a man who feels he is a woman should be equally free to compete in a women’s track and field competition. Any argument to the contrary will have to depend on traditional concepts such as man, woman, women’s rights, athletic competition, competition class, fairness, and so on, none of which is accessible to reason alone.

Such examples can be multiplied without end. The truth is that reason alone gets us almost nowhere in settling arguments over what is meant by freedom and equality. So where does the meaning of these terms come from?

I’ve said that every society consists of classes or groups. These stand in various power relations to one another, which find expression in the political, legal, religious, and moral traditions that are handed down by the strongest classes or groups. It is only within the context of these traditions that we come to believe that words like freedom and equality mean one thing and not another, and to develop a “common sense” of how different interests and concerns are to be balanced against one another in actual cases.

But what happens if you dispense with those traditions? This, after all, is what Enlightenment liberalism seeks to do. Enlightenment liberals observe that inherited traditions are always flawed or unjust in certain ways, and for this reason they feel justified in setting inherited tradition aside and appealing directly to abstract principles of freedom and equality. The trouble is, there is no such thing as a society in which everyone is free and equal in all ways. Even in a liberal society, there will always be countless ways in which a given class or group may be unfree or unequal with respect to the others. And since this is so, Marxists will always be able to say that some or all of these instances of unfreedom and inequality are instances of oppression. Thus the endless dance of liberalism and Marxism, which goes like this:

1. Liberals declare that henceforth all will be free and equal, emphasizing that reason (not tradition) will determine the content of each individual’s rights.

2. Marxists, exercising reason, point to many genuine instances of unfreedom and inequality in society, decrying them as oppression and demanding new rights.

3. Liberals, embarrassed by the presence of unfreedom and inequality after having declared that all would be free and equal, adopt some of the Marxists’ demands for new rights.

4. Return to step 1 above and repeat.

Of course, not all liberals give in to the Marxists’ demands—and certainly not on every occasion. Nevertheless, the dance is real. As a generalized view of what happens over time, this picture is accurate, as we’ve seen throughout the democratic world over the last seventy years. Liberals progressively adopt the critical theories of the Marxists over time, whether the subject is God and religion, man and woman, honor and duty, family, nation, or anything else.
 
Is this the same Yoram Hazony who wrote a positive recommendation of The Case for Christian Nationalism, which was partially featured on the cover itself?
 
Is this the same Yoram Hazony who wrote a positive recommendation of The Case for Christian Nationalism, which was partially featured on the cover itself?

Yes, which was kind of odd. Wolfe begins his politics with speculation on an abstract man in an abstract state before the Fall. Hazony rightly rejects that, noting conservatives begin with the reality on the ground.
 
This did not come out as much in the review, but Hazony does a good job showing that older neocons like Irving Kristol weren't guilty of the same mistakes as the ones in the Bush presidency. Following Thucydides, the older neocons were more skeptical (if not always more innocent) about adventuring around the globe. On a similar note, if someone has audible or a good library app, Patrick Allitt's course on Conservatism is outstanding.
 
Another excellent analysis of the interplay between liberal democracy and communism is the work of Ryszard Legutko in his book Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies. He was recently interviewed by N.S. Lyons. The context is EU-centric/Poland but with application to our own political structures.
 
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