Conservatism Misrepresented: Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery

Posted on Wednesday, September 28, 2022
by David Lewis Schaefer

AMAC Exclusive – By David Lewis Schaefer

While looking at polls and counting the days until the midterm elections are major concerns for most conservatives today, sometimes it’s helpful to continue another conservative tradition and pull back from the immediate political battles in order to see the larger contours of conservative thought. Since the beginning of the modern conservative movement in the U.S. in the 1950s with National Review and the emergence of Barry Goldwater and then Ronald Reagan, conservatives have followed this practice and made a point of engaging with each other on philosophical grounds. Sometimes these discussions became debates or even sectarian and tribal disputes about the “real” definition of conservatism.

The emergence of the Trump era has of course led to more such discussions. One major tension that has emerged within the American conservative movement in recent years is between traditional notions of conservatism – free enterprise, a strong national defense, an “originalist” understanding of the Constitution, fewer economic regulations, and the preservation of traditional religious practices and “family values” – and “common-good” or “national” conservatism.

In his newest book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, the prominent Israeli conservative thinker and biblical scholar Yoram Hazony faces this debate head-on, aiming to “rescue” American conservatism from what he regards as a misunderstanding of the principles of the American Founding as derived from the Lockean-liberal teaching of natural rights embodied in the Declaration of Independence. But in doing so, Hazony conflates original and “progressive” versions of liberalism, thus creating an exaggerated and misleading opposition between America’s philosophical foundations and present-day conservatism, properly understood.

Hazony is possibly the most influential thought leader of the “common good” conservative movement.  The American-born Hazony, who received his doctorate in political science at Rutgers, has shifted the chief focus of his writings in recent years from Biblical studies and Zionism to political theory, particularly as it applied to American politics.

As its title suggests, Hazony’s latest work is an effort to “rediscover” authentic conservatism by attributing its foundations to the English constitutional tradition, beginning with the great 15th-century jurist John Fortescue and continuing through such distinguished writers, jurists, and statesmen of the following three centuries as Richard Hooker, Edward Coke, William Blackstone, and Edmund Burke.

Hazony attempts to divide America’s founding generation into two camps – the “liberals,” exemplified by Thomas Jefferson, and the Federalists, or “national conservatives,” including such statesmen as Alexander Hamilton, John Adams, and John Jay, whom he associates with the English political tradition. In the process, Hazony follows such diverse political thinkers as Woodrow Wilson and Russell Kirk by disparaging the opening paragraph of the Declaration, with its references to natural human equality and the securing of people’s inalienable rights as the goal of government, in favor of the remainder of the document, which consists mostly of a listing of the colonists’ legal grievances against the British crown.

Hazony’s brief against the Lockean theoretical principles stated in the Declaration’s opening is that they amount to liberalism, a “dogmatic” form of political thinking that he believes is antithetical to conservatism in its proper sense, which is inherently empirical rather than dogmatic.

In Hazony’s telling, both John Locke and Jefferson (the chief author of the Declaration) err by grounding their doctrines in the abstract hypothesis, never to be seen in actual life, of a group of equal, isolated individuals who owe no obligation to anyone outside themselves except those to whose authority they have consented. In Locke’s case (I observe) this radical individualism goes so far as to deny that grown children owe their parents any more support or even respect than what they deem proportionate to the parents’ provision for them in their childhood.

By contrast, the conservative tradition, as exemplified by Edmund Burke, starts, Hazony observes, from the empirical fact that nobody is literally born free, since we all begin life as helpless infants, and all adults normally live in a society subject to an established government. While a Burkean conservative is surely not opposed to all change in an inherited political order (in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke acknowledges that the old regime was badly in need of improvement, but criticizes only the radical and ultimately terroristic means by which the revolutionaries went about it), he is also cautious about undertaking major political changes, being aware of the lessons of history and the need to maintain continuity with a country’s past in order not to undermine people’s respect for civic order.

In Hazony’s view, there is a direct line from the liberalism of Locke and Jefferson to the radical, “progressive” liberalism of today, which challenges the legitimacy of all hierarchical relations (parents to children, bosses to workers, inequalities in wealth and power among racial groups or between the sexes) and also takes the principle of individual liberty to an extreme, to the point of legitimizing widespread immorality (drugs, promiscuity, fatherless children, abortion, disrespectful students) such as is seen in the contemporary U.S. as well as the “liberal” nations of Western Europe. Particularly threatening to the preservation of a moral order on which political liberty (in the sense of self-government) depends, Hazony emphasizes, is the decline of religious belief in the Western world, promoted in this country by a series of Supreme Court decisions that prohibited governments from offering any sort of nondenominational support or encouragement to religion. If the government adopts an official position of pure neutrality between religion and irreligion, the attitude it encourages is that religion doesn’t matter, any more than one’s choice among the options on a Chinese menu. Why bother enduring the sacrifices and discipline that genuine religions require, instead of abandoning oneself to the limitless “pursuit of happiness”?

There is much to be said for Hazony’s lament at the consequences of liberalism in its original sense being radicalized into moral libertarianism. However, especially in the American context, his critique of liberalism in the form summarized at the outset of the Declaration, and his equation of original liberalism with today’s progressivism, leaves much to be desired, and actually threatens to undermine the cause of American conservatism, as best understood.

Let us recall that Abraham Lincoln, no moral libertarian himself, described the Declaration as the “apple of gold” around which the Constitution, designed to effectuate its principles, was simply the “frame of silver.” Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address identifies the bond that unites Americans, whether Mayflower descendants or recent immigrants, as their dedication to those principles. In that same tradition, Calvin Coolidge, one of our most distinguished conservative presidents, in his memorable address celebrating the Declaration’s sesquicentennial, emphasized that its principles contained the final truth concerning political legitimacy.

As for the Founders themselves, Hazony’s attempt to distinguish “liberal” from “conservative” ones – the former being dogmatists, the latter empiricists – is essentially arbitrary. It is true that Jefferson was radical in outlook, subsequently becoming (unwisely) an apologist for the Terror in France. But Adams was an equally fiery advocate of American independence, and a contributor (along with Franklin) to the final version of the Declaration. Jefferson’s protégé James Madison, in addition to being the chief architect of the original Constitution as well as the Bill of Rights, collaborated with Hamilton in authoring the Federalist Papers. While Hazony lambastes liberals as cosmopolitans who disparage national loyalties, it was Jefferson and Madison who subsequently led the U.S. in the War of 1812 in response to British violations of American sovereignty.

In sum, none of these statesmen and thinkers subscribed to the anachronistic distinction Hazony wishes to apply to them between liberals and conservatives. What could be more conservative than the intent stated in the Constitution’s Preamble to “establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, [and] provide for the common defense”? And what could be more liberal than the last stated purpose, to “secure the blessings of liberty”?

While it is true that the members of the Founding generation owed much to the tradition of English common law, Hazony underestimates the truly radical character of the principles to which they adhered in adopting both the Declaration and the Constitution. Recall, for example, that, prior to 1867, only a small fraction of Britain’s adult male citizens were entitled to vote – a fact alluded to by Jefferson in his 1775 Summary View of the Rights of North America. This contrasts sharply with the broader franchise existing in most of the American colonies even before 1776, followed by the elimination of all but minimal property qualifications for voting in the states by free adult males by the 1820s. Long before the Civil War, Jefferson saw to it that the Northwest Ordinance prohibited the extension of slavery, recognizing that that practice violated the Declaration’s principles.

Even more arbitrary is Hazony’s attempt to categorize some of the greatest modern political philosophers, such as Locke and Descartes, as “dogmatists” (architects of the “liberal Enlightenment”) as distinguished from “empiricists.” In his treatment of Locke, Hazony argues that the English thinker seems to ground his political philosophy in a mere assertion of people’s natural equality and freedom, rather than any sort of empirical demonstration of that claim. But Locke is clear that he is not describing an actual historical condition of equality. In his Second Treatise (sec. 54), he also denies maintaining the manifest untruth that human beings are literally naturally equal in all respects (intelligence, strength, beauty, etc.) just as the Declaration does not claim us to be naturally equal other than in our possession of certain inalienable rights. The point, for both Locke and the American Founders, is that no one is born with the right to rule others without their consent.

As Hazony acknowledges, in the Essay Concerning Human Understanding, published one year after his Two Treatises of Government, Locke expressly espouses an empiricist theory of knowledge, denying the presence in human beings of any “innate ideas,” including moral ones, such as his Treatises seem to presuppose. Hazony gives no evidence of having wrestled with the problem of reconciling the epistemology of the Essay with the grounding of the Second Treatise, as Locke scholars like Leo Strauss, Peter Myers, and Michael Zuckert have done, taking account of Locke’s mastery of esoteric rhetoric. (See Locke’s comparison of such writing to the practice of a “wary physician” in the First Treatise, sec. 7.) Instead of grappling with the issue, Hazony unwisely relies on Anthony Quinton’s explanation that by the time he got to Part IV of his Essay, Locke had “forgotten” his rejection of “innate practical principles” in Part I of the same work.

Similarly, in his treatment of Locke’s supposedly dogmatic contemporary in the field of natural science, René Descartes, who Hazony claims believed “that truth is discovered by proceeding from self-evident principles to unassailable conclusions by way of infallible deductions,” rather than empirically, Hazony seems unaware of the French philosopher’s call, in Part VI of his Discourse on Method, for some philanthropist to finance the army of researchers that would be required to assist in his Baconian project of making human beings “masters and possessors of nature” for the sake of relieving the miseries of our inborn condition. In reality, Descartes – who opens the Discourse with an expression of the most radical doubt of all received opinions – was no less a seeker of empirical knowledge than Locke or Bacon had been.

When it comes to more recent philosophical scholarship, Hazony is at his worst in his treatment of Strauss’s work. While Strauss is commonly (and wrongly) criticized by contemporary academics as a “conservative” defender of a supposed “natural law tradition,” Hazony, basing his interpretation solely on a few passages from Natural Right and History (the only book of Strauss’s that he gives evidence of having read), accuses him of the sin of liberalism. Entirely ignoring the distinctions Strauss draws in that work among the classical philosophers’ treatment of natural right, Thomas Aquinas’ doctrine of natural law, and Locke’s radical reinterpretation of both of those terms, Hazony claims that Strauss regarded them as comprising a single “eternal, universal, and necessary” doctrine, the abandonment of which in favor of German historicism “would subject us to the rule of ‘nihilism and Nazism.’” According to Hazony, in upholding the notion of natural right, Strauss thereby “denies the possibility of empiricist philosophy” as well as rejecting the “traditionalism” that for Hazony constitutes the core of conservative wisdom, as well as the only salvation for contemporary humanity.

Throughout his book, Hazony reveals himself to be a historicist who insists that “no human being ever attains a point of view that is ‘external’ to tradition.” He denies that this position is relativistic “because these traditions are themselves the only instrument by means of which human beings are able to approach the truth.” But if no philosophic inquiry can enable the most devoted seeker of knowledge to attain a trans-historical, trans-cultural understanding of truth, how can he even know that he is approaching it?

Strikingly, it turns out that Hazony’s preferred alternative to the supposed dogmatism of Enlightenment liberalism is an experimental approach to “politics and morals… which requires a course of trial and error over centuries” – precisely the sort of pragmatic approach espoused by the influential twentieth-century liberal pragmatist John Dewey (in contrast to Lincoln and Coolidge) which assumes that open-ended experimentation with various approaches to government and ethics will necessarily tend, over time, toward improvement rather than decay. (Dewey’s pragmatism was embodied in Franklin Roosevelt’s approach to politics, as can be seen in the rewriting of America’s political principles in Roosevelt’s 1932 Commonwealth Club Address. FDR’s election marked the public reinterpretation of American liberalism as progressivism.)

We Americans, like the Britons from whom our political and legal institutions are partly descended, have been the fortunate beneficiaries of a historical process that has (at least until recently) tended toward the good. Yoram Hazony is right to want to defend our inherited moral and religious traditions against attacks by militant secularists and anti-family hedonists, as well as Marxists. He is equally persuasive in defending the superiority of the independent nation-state (as he did at greater length in his previous book The Virtue of Nationalism) as a means of enabling human beings to live free and meaningful lives, against those who would subsume us under various forms of world government. His account, in Part IV of Conservatism: A Rediscovery, of the “conservative life” he has lived with his family would also constitute a worthy model for today’s often “alienated” youth to aspire to imitate.

But the real threat to such a way of life today comes not from liberalism in its proper sense – a doctrine favoring self-government and individual freedom, combined with moral restraint and moderate religious belief, such as Alexis de Tocqueville portrayed as existing in this country in 1830 in Democracy in America. Despite Americans’ debt to Locke for the principles underlying their political institutions, neither Tocqueville’s Americans nor those who preceded them or followed them until well into the twentieth century were guided by radical individualism when it came to family structure and sexual mores. Theirs was a moderate form of liberalism. (In fact, while Locke had denied to government the authority to inculcate religion and morality, in view of the abuses to which that authority had been put, in Some Thoughts Concerning Education he himself showed an intense concern with the role of parents in rearing their children to become responsible adults, possessed of such qualities as self-restraint, industry, compassion, and respect for the rights of others: see Nathan Tarcov’s 1984 study Locke’s Education for Liberty. And Tocqueville himself expresses appreciation for the freer, more natural, and egalitarian character of the American family, in contrast with the patriarchal family still dominant in aristocratic France and England – a transformation that Locke’s teaching did much to bring about.)

The evils that Hazony attributes to liberal rationalism are the consequence not of liberalism in its original sense but rather of a doctrine that usurped its title over the past century: progressivism. It is the progressives, not traditional liberals, who constantly seek to expand the control of the state over more and more aspects of human life in the name of a radical interpretation of “equality”; who disparage national sovereignty in favor of government by multinational agencies, just as they would substitute rule by unelected bureaucrats and activist judges for genuine representative government; and who display hostility, or outright contempt, for those who seek to live traditional, familial ways of life, buttressed by moderate religious belief. And it is they who increasingly seek to suppress the open pursuit of truth by reason through today’s “cancel culture.”

There is much to agree with in Hazony’s critique of the contemporary assault on America’s traditional, free institutions. But in disparaging the capacity of human reason to discover truth, creating a false opposition between liberalism and conservatism, properly understood, and allying himself with those who reject the principles of the Declaration of Independence, of Lincoln and Coolidge, and many other worthy liberal statesmen and political thinkers, Hazony has adopted a philosophic position that it is at odds with the very causes he wishes to uphold.

David Lewis Schaefer is a Professor of Political Science at College of the Holy Cross.