This article first appeared in the October 2018 IPA Review. Slight revision by author, November 2018. It is a review of Patrick Deneen’s Why liberalism failed, Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the west, and Roger Scruton’s Conservatism: an invitation to the great tradition. Links included in the piece.
In a famous essay, the economist FA Hayek disassociated himself from conservatism. Despite admiring figures like Adam Smith and Edmund Burke, both frequently cited as conservatives, Hayek believed conservatism was simply an unprincipled opposition to change. Conservatism, he argued, accepts that political and social institutions emerge over time through trial and error, but then arbitrarily forecloses on this process. This lack of principle means conservatives cannot persuade anyone not already disposed to agree with them. Ultimately, conservatism is ‘obscurantist’, always falling back upon ‘a claim to superior wisdom, based on some self-arrogated superior quality’, and, contentless as it is, fated always to ‘be dragged along a path not of its own choosing’. Given Hayek’s profound influence on centre-right politics, the challenge for conservatives ever since has been to articulate a systematic explanation of which institutions are deserving of support or reform, and when change ought to be opposed altogether.
This challenge has renewed relevance with the rise of populist movements in the United States and the United Kingdom, and the illiberal direction taken by Poland and Hungary. On one reading, populism validates the political scientist Samuel Huntington’s view that conservatism is simply a perennial argument in favour of the status quo that emerges whenever a significant segment of a society begins to lose faith in its ruling ideology. Populists are reacting to rapid change brought about by globalisation, immigration, and technological innovation. But another way of viewing the current situation is that conservatism is coming back into its own as an ideology, shedding the liberal arguments that it adopted for the Cold War and presenting its own unique vision.