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What All Conservatives Can Agree On
In this essay adapted from What Is Conservatism?, Meyer reminds us how much common ground libertarians and traditionalist occupy.
That there is a contemporary American conservative movement, which looms larger and larger on the political scene, no one will deny. Nor is it difficult to designate the general political principles by which this movement is delimited, in contrast to the prevailing national tendency which we call “liberalism.” American conservatives are united in opposition to the growth of government power—of what is known as the welfare state—and to the centralization of that power in the federal executive; they are opposed to the characteristic leveling egalitarianism of the time, an egalitarianism they see expressed on every level—political, social, economic, intellectual—of our national life.
This consensus on the practical political level rests upon a general consensus (at least so far as it is contrasted with the “liberal” outlook) on the nature of men and their relations to government and society. By and large, it is parallel in modern circumstances to the consensus of the men who founded the Republic and conceived the Constitution.
Within this consensus, however (as within the consensus of the Founders of the Republic), distinct differences of emphasis exist. Specifically, the deepest element of divergence arises from the opposed emphases of those conservatives who stress the concepts of tradition and authority and those who stress the concept of freedom.
But the consensus is a great deal more fundamental than the divergence; as against the prevalent Liberalism, contemporary American conservative thought shares a common set of values; and these values are derived in their essentials from the values held in common by the Founding Fathers.
That consensus can perhaps best be summarized by contrasting its basic assumptions with the basic assumptions of Liberalism:
However varied their religious commitments, the contributors to What Is Conservatism? all accept, implicitly or explicitly, the existence of an objective moral order based on what Eric Voegelin has called “the constitution of being”—that is, the existence of immutable standards by which human conduct should be judged.
This conservative acceptance of hard truths imbedded in reality clashes directly with the Liberal dependence upon the instrumental as the foundation and justification of political theory and practice. The Liberal’s faith is in “democracy” (the rightness of whatever is desired by 50 percent of the population plus one), or in “progress” (the rightness of the direction in which events have been and are moving and, therefore, the rightness of whoever has the power to move them), or in “enlightened up-to-date experts” (the rightness of the intellectual fashions of the age) . . . or in a combination of all three.
For all of the contributors, the human person is the necessary center of political and social thought. Whether their stress is upon his freedom and his rights or upon his responsibilities and his duties, it is in terms of the individual person that they think and write. They affirm the primacy of the person in contradistinction to contemporary Liberalism, which is essentially concerned with collectivities (“the people,” “minorities,” “new nations”), instrumentalities for the submergence and manipulation of the persons who make them up. Whether conservatives conceive the fulfillment of the person primarily in terms of individual autonomy or in terms of community, they reject the ideological concept of collective entities.
This is seen most clearly in the contrast between the conservative and the Liberal attitudes towards the state. While there is great divergence among conservatives as to the degree to which the state must be limited, they all share, in contrast to contemporary Liberals, a distaste for the use of the power of the state to enforce ideological patterns upon human beings. However much they may differ on the modes by which, and the extent to which, the power of the state should be limited, they are in full agreement that it is but one institution among many and that when its role is aggrandized it becomes dangerous beyond measure.
The “planning” of human life, so characteristic of the Liberal ethos, is anathema to every one of the contributors. That instrumental outlook in which human beings are conceived as faceless units to be organized and directed in accordance with the blueprints of the social engineer can be held only when men ignore the separate integrity of each human person as a focus of value and the existence of immutable moral laws not susceptible to ideological reconstruction. The libertarian and the traditionalist emphases within conservatism alike reject the centralized power and direction necessary to the “planning” of society.
The spirit of the Constitution of the United States as originally conceived pervades conservative thought: the limitation of government to its proper functions; within government, tension and balance between local and central power; within the federal government, tension and balance between the coordinate branches. As opposed to the Liberal disdain for the rights of the states before the federal government, and the Liberal apotheosis of the executive within the federal government, conservatives, irrespective of whether their emphasis is upon tradition and order or upon liberty, unite in their veneration of the ordered liberty conceived and executed by the Framers of the Constitution.
Throughout What Is Conservatism?, sometimes explicit, sometimes implicit, runs a devotion to Western civilization and an awareness of the necessity of defending it.
This, then, I see as the consensus. The divergences can be simply summarized as the degree of emphasis placed upon the relative importance for the good society of moral tradition and freedom; upon the extent to which, on the one hand, the sanctions of state and community or, on the other hand, the persuasion of moral and intellectual authority functioning through free individual persons should be emphasized. The most libertarian agree upon the necessity of the maintenance of a high moral tone in society; those most concerned with order and tradition respect the moral liberty of the individual person and reject the centralizing state and egalitarian reduction of the person to a statistic in social planning—the deep-etched stigmata of contemporary Liberalism.
Frank Meyer (1909-1972) was a longtime editor at National Review and the author of In Defense of Freedom, among other books. He was the leading proponent of “fusionism,” which emphasized the link between the principles of freedom and moral order.
In 1964 the great conservative thinker Frank S. Meyer brought together twelve leading conservatives to create a book that Jonah Goldberg calls “The Federalist Papers of American conservatism.” What Is Conservatism? features essays by such giants as William F. Buckley Jr., F. A. Hayek, and Russell Kirk. The book is available in a new edition published by ISI.
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