A Conservative Primer

Peter Berkowitz, a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, offers a primer on American conservatism. The intro:

The left prides itself on, and frequently boasts of, its superior appreciation of the complexity and depth of moral and political life. But political debate in America today tells a different story.
On a variety of issues that currently divide the nation, those to the left of center seem to be converging, their ranks increasingly untroubled by debate or dissent, except on daily tactics and long-term strategy. Meanwhile, those to the right of center are engaged in an intense intra-party struggle to balance competing principles and goods.
One source of the divisions evident today is the tension in modern conservatism between its commitment to individual liberty, and its lively appreciation of the need to preserve the beliefs, practices, associations and institutions that form citizens capable of preserving liberty. The conservative reflex to resist change must often be overcome, because prudent change is necessary to defend liberty. Yet the tension within often compels conservatives to wrestle with the consequences of change more fully than progressives–for whom change itself is often seen as good, and change that contributes to the equalization of social conditions as a very important good.

Berkowitz mentions Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Strauss’s Natural Right and History. Anyone looking to understand the foundation upon which the modern conservative movement is built should start there. According to Berkowitz, that includes a few college professors:

The varieties of conservatism are poorly understood today not only because of the bitterness of current political battles but also because the books that have played a key role in forming the several schools go largely untaught at our universities and largely unread by our professors. Indeed, perhaps one cause of the polarization that afflicts our political and intellectual class is the failure of our universities to teach, and in many cases to note the existence of, the conservative dimensions of American political thought.

UPDATE: In the comments, Andrew asked when, exactly, did Strauss enter the picture….I tried to answer, but Jonah Goldberg does better:

Peter Lawler asks whether it’s really true that Kirk, Strauss and Hayek constitute conservatism’s Big Three. That’s a toughie and I think the folks with the most interesting answer to that question would be Hayek, Strauss and Kirk themselves. Isn’t influence a more diffuse phenomenon? Lots more folks were probably directly influenced by, say, Tom Sowell, George Will and William F. Buckley than those Big Three, but Sowell, Will & Buckley were in turn deeply affected by them. Maybe the best way to think of Berkowitz’s Big Three best represent three major themes in modern conservatism: Order (Kirk), Rights (Strauss) and Liberty (Hayek). Another interesting question might be: is that it? Or should Berkowitz have offered a Big Four or Five?

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Tom W
Tom W
16 years ago

>>the failure of our universities to teach, and in many cases to note the existence of, the conservative dimensions of American political thought.
That was my experience at BU back in the 1970’s – as a “Political Science” major no less!
All I was exposed to was Howard Zinn and Murray Levin not even teaching so much as proselytizing communism. That would have been OK had there been balance, but there was none – thus I feel cheated regarding my undergraduate education.
Fortunately, in my case they had the opposite of intended effect (probably aided by my “Navy brat” background): what they were spouting didn’t match the world I saw around me.
Reading Gulag Archipelago (of my own initiative) one summer during college, along with some other readings regarding the post-1917 “workers paradise” in the Soviet Union enlightened me as to the “superiority” of collectivism.
As an alumnus, I DO NOT donate to BU!

16 years ago

Is Strauss’ book a relatively recent addition to the canon? I’ve always heard Kirk and Hayek mentioned as essential to understadning modern conservatism, but had never heard Leo Strauss mentioned as a direct philosophical influence until 2 or 3 years ago.

Marc Comtois
16 years ago

Andrew, There have been many many articles, reviews, op-eds written on Strauss and neo-Strauss thought over the last few years, so I think Strauss has certainly “come on” in recent years. With Kirk as the “traditional conservative” and Hayek as the “libertarian conservative,” Strauss fills the niche as the “neo” conservative, I guess. Not that I’m any barometer, but I’ve read Kirk and Hayek, but not Strauss. At first I thought I was just deficient. Maybe it’s just because the sands shifted?

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