A conservative answer to liberalism’s crisis

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.

Three recent books illustrate this debate, giving a glimpse of how conservative politics might address the challenges of today. University of Notre Dame philosopher Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed is a post-mortem for liberalism as a theory of society and politics. According to Deneen, liberalism has failed because its commitment to a misguided notion of liberty and false anthropology have undermined the culture from which it first emerged, and on which it depends. By contrast, in Suicide of the West: How the Rebirth of Tribalism, Populism, Nationalism, and Identity Politics is Destroying American Democracy, National Review columnist Jonah Goldberg argues liberalism is the heart of our modern civilisation. The West is killing itself by succumbing, on both left and right, to tempting but foolhardy dreams of a more communitarian polity. Finally, the latest book by conservative doyen Sir Roger Scruton, Conservatism: An Invitation to the Great Tradition, traces the development of conservative thought from Burke’s famous denunciation of the French Revolution to the adoption of Hayekian ideas in the fight against socialism. Scruton’s book reminds us that the question of what is the true agenda of conservatism is not a new one, and suggests a more fully ideological conservatism is now emerging.


In his book, Deneen takes aim at the liberal theory he believes animates modern society. When British philosopher and physician John Locke set aside empiricism, and argued from reason alone that a just society was one founded on the consent of autonomous individuals, he offered a prescription that the institutions of the west have been endeavouring to fill ever since.

For Deneen, this project is internally contradictory, as liberalism depends on resources it has no means of replenishing. Individual autonomy is made meaningful by our unchosen obligations to others, through our families and communities, yet liberalism seeks to dissolve these ties. Liberalism defines liberty as the escape from obligation, rather than in the ancient sense of mastery over one’s passions. Familial and communal obligation is an impediment to this escape, necessitating a state response. Despite its stated commitment to reducing government, liberalism in fact means that ‘individualism and statism advance together’. The state adopts the mission of creating the autonomous individuals posited by the theory, and in the effort, estranges everyone from their true capacity for autonomy. They are estranged from the natural communities from which first emerged the institutions liberalism claims to value, and which are the only settings in which such autonomy makes sense.

Deneen’s main point is therefore an empirical one: that the anthropology of liberalism is not just unconducive to the good life but altogether false. No social order so inconsistent with the natural order can endure and all ideology – liberal or otherwise – is bound to fail. It either ‘enforces conformity to a lie it struggles to defend, or it collapses when the gap between claim and reality finally results in wholesale loss of belief among the populace’. So we must avoid ideology, and embrace a renewed localism.

Working within the ‘liberal frame’, and recognising that modernity has not been all bad and is not entirely reversible; we need to reconstruct ‘intentional communities’. From these communities a new politics will grow organically. What we need, argues Deneen, is ‘Not a better theory, but better practices’. Deneen’s vision is heavily influenced by the 19th Century French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, whose Democracy in America described the United States’ unique culture of civic republicanism. Interestingly, this affinity for Tocqueville (a man claimed by conservatives and classical liberals alike) places Deneen within the broader tradition of empiricist, anti-rationalist politics with which Hayek identified. Like Hayek, Deneen rejects the conservative label. For Deneen, conservatism is simply a manifestation of liberal ideology, shaping society towards the same individualist ends.

But Deneen’s anti-rationalism is unconvincing. In reality, his idealisation of community and ancient liberty is itself a sketch of an ideology. If it truly is not possible for politics to be completely neutral on questions of the good, as liberalism purports to be, then Deneen’s own localism is similarly a substantive moral doctrine. Put another way, if the prevailing liberalism allows the creation of intentional communities, then it must not be having the “anti-cultural” effect Deneen claims; but if it does not, then we need an argument for why such communities should be allowed and an agenda for making them possible.

Deneen, then, also encounters Hayek’s challenge: though he implies many ends to which politics might be directed, he is ultimately coy about how society might be directed towards them, assuming that in the absence of ideology, organic community would result. Presumably, Deneen is not as ambivalent about what society should look like as his coyness implies. It is ironic that having condemned a social order based on consent, Deneen asks only that people choose a kind of nondenominational version of Rod Dreher’s Benedict Option (involving withdrawal from mainstream society into intentional communities).

Whereas for Deneen, liberalism is condemned by its unnaturalness, for Goldberg, the artificiality of liberalism is its greatest strength. Liberalism is the best possible system for taming the worst instincts of humans. Goldberg gives an unapologetic Whig history, a story of how human progress has culminated in liberal democracy. He begins by surveying a range of anthropological studies that show human nature to be fixed and universal, for good and ill. Reasoning from their own self-interest, humans together build institutions that secure goods and minimise harms. Over time, political institutions have been discovered that help to maintain order and allow individuals to flourish, a process of trial and error that led to the rule of law and constitutional monarchy in England. The Miracle, as Goldberg refers to it, occurred when this experience was generalised by the philosophers of the Enlightenment. They ‘wrote it down’, refining a universal formula, one which led to the American constitution.

What Deneen describes as alienation Goldberg describes as civilisation. Our institutions are unnatural, but this is a positive good, since our natures are inherently barbarous. It is because institutions such as private property or freedom of speech are unnatural that we are always tempted to defy them, and the dream of a social order predicated on unity and harmony with our natures is so persistent (an urge he calls romanticism). This is perhaps his most original thesis: that all illiberal political philosophy—nationalism, socialism, identitarianism, and so on—is motivated by the same primal forces that civilisation, properly understood, exists to repress. Human nature will always try to reassert itself. It can be resisted only by repeating to ourselves the liberal story, the story that reminds us we are better off when we compromise.


However, it is not clear that Goldberg is defending liberalism exactly. Rather, he makes a utilitarian case for the continued existence of certain institutions, the value of which is revealed by history. Valuing liberal institutions for the good they do is quite different from valuing them because they are instantiations of liberal theory. Goldberg’s story does not start with the cool reason of Locke, it starts with history and endorses Lockean liberalism only in so far as it has been a story that has kept alive valuable institutions. Liberalism itself, then, is an evolved institution. As a story, it has value only if it helps perpetuate valuable institutions. Goldberg is not a proper Hayekian. He wants society to stay modern, so the Miracle is a particular state of affairs, not a process. Goldberg needs therefore to separate existing institutions from liberal theory, defending the good they have done, and will continue to do so as long as we do not give into the temptation to change them. In short, like Deneen, Goldberg needs a conservative theory, not a liberal one.

Reasserting the distinction between ostensibly liberal institutions as evolved equilibria and liberalism as an abstract theory is one of the aims of Scruton’s new book, Conservatism. Like Goldberg, Scruton begins his story with a claim about human nature. Whereas liberalism starts with the individual, conservatism argues that individualism is itself a cultural artefact. It is our situation within a community with shared traditions that makes our individuality meaningful, and as such the principle aim of conservatism is the conservation of the communities within which individuals live their lives.

For Scruton, conservatism originated as a ‘hesitation’ within liberalism, but from the French Revolution onwards took on its own character and its own ends. The early modern conservatives provided a sceptical response to radical fervour, and a defence of the role of the given in human affairs. What gradually emerged from figures such as Smith and Burke was an argument for society as a form of intergenerational trust. Existing institutions contain valuable knowledge to be passed on, and conservatism became a defence of received wisdom and practical knowledge.

Over time, conservatism sought to express more positive commitments. Under the influence of German philosophical idealism, conservatives such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge and TS Eliot exalted culture and tradition as bringing individuality and society into harmony. The key figure in this was German philosopher Georg Hegel, who sought to make ‘the transition from liberal aspirations to conservative realities’. Individual freedom requires access to a social order balanced between authority and voluntary civil associations, with an associated acceptance of the limitations that our humanness places upon our freedom. What joins this conservative idealism to Smith and Burke (and Tocqueville too) is the recognition that the social order is founded upon the shared virtue of the people.

However, with the rise of the communist threat in the 20th century conservatism returned to a more sceptical emphasis and found in classical liberalism an ally against socialism’s grand abstract plans for society. Hayek’s explanation of how information is distributed in society greatly influenced conservatism, by vindicating, in economic terms, the earlier conservative insight that evolved institutions contain value that central planning cannot capture. This was also the period of fusionism, in which, under the guidance of National Review founder William F. Buckley among others, conservatism and libertarianism presented a united front.

For Scruton, though, conservatism is moving on from this kind of argumentation. The Western world now confronts two movements that brook no uncertainty, and so require a response that is more than merely sceptical. The first is the progressive movement, which, based on the liberal premises of liberty-as-escape and egalitarianism, derides our inherited institutions as recreating indefensible hierarchies, and seeks their destruction. The second form of fundamentalism that now confronts the West is Islamism (as opposed to Islam). Just as contact with liberalism and then socialism changed conservatism, Scruton argues it must now adapt to the threat today’s radicals pose to the inherited order. To do this, conservatism will have to rediscover ends of its own, and admit it is not agnostic about how society develops. We need ‘a systematic policy of cultural conservatism’ to articulate ‘what we are and what we stand for’. This system will recognise the inevitable situation of individualism within particular cultures, the growing concern (shared by Deneen) that liberal theory is inimical to community, and the reality that only the nation-state has ever produced and secured the institutions of liberal democracy. The job of conservatives is to save modern institutions from liberalism by returning them to their proper national-cultural context.

As in the 19th century, then, conservatism is considering whether it has its own ends to which society ought to be directed. These ends are more than just the defence of existing institutions. Instead, they are derived from an alternative anthropology that takes individualism as a cultural artefact, and individuals less as atoms and more as actors within a shared social context. Consider that all three books begin with a sketch of a natural order that is unchanging, and which emphasises, in the famous phrase of Aristotle, that ‘man is a social animal’. Though they disagree as to the extent that modern institutions are consistent with this anthropology, all three agree this is the proper question. That is, underlying our defence of whatever parts of modernity we accept or reject, there must be a value claim about what really is good for people, which all three locate in this anthropology. Conservatism then depends on an apprehension of the natural order as the basis of the social order.


Two observations about conservative ideology follow, which go some way to explaining what it means to take Hayek at his word. The first is that conservatism is not sceptical, but realist. Whereas for Hayek and the empiricists, the development of society cannot or should not be guided because of ineradicable uncertainty about the ends to which it might be guided and the means by which those ends might be attained, conservatism begins with a few bedrock claims about human nature and thus what is good for people. Secondly, conservative anti-rationalism, easily confused with Hayek’s, is not a denial that the good is real and knowable, but rather a rejection of utilitarian calculation. Hayek resolves the problem of calculation by relocating it to individuals: people are best placed to know their own interests, and so society should not interfere with their capacity for choice. Conservatism resolves the problem by denying that all value is fungible (can be substituted) and/ or maximisable: just because we recognise an institution or object as valuable, it does not follow that we can create more of that value or we can calculate how one might be traded off for another. Some values may even be incommensurable, at least from our limited human perspective. In more concrete terms, this means we may value, for example, popular sovereignty and freedom of speech without being committed to supporting other institutions, or innovations, that may similarly align with liberal theory.

The task for conservatism then is to take its own anthropological insights seriously, and draw from them a political program that can answer the challenge made by Hayek. In their own ways, Deneen, Goldberg, and Scruton each hint towards what conservative values really are: the preservation and transmission of information encoded in received institutions, the institutions of the social order sharing and reinforcing the beliefs and habits of individuals and families, and humility about the limits of human reason. This philosophical similarity is almost obscured by the real, and valid, disagreements about policy their books contain. In turn, this debate is also hampered by conservatism being, if not obscurantist as charged, then somewhat quietist, withdrawing from debate or presenting its arguments in the language of other ideologies. If the current populist wave is to give way to sustained conservative government, conservatism will need to be considerably less coy about which institutions of modernity cohere with its ends and why, and which proposed innovations should be avoided. The alternative is to simply live down to Hayek’s caricature.


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