Ben Lewis

February 18, 2020

Why I Am a Conservative

In the fall of 1957, at a meeting of the Mont Pelerin Society, F. A. Hayek delivered an address titled, "Why I Am Not a Conservative." Russell Kirk, who was in the audience, summarized Hayek's complaints, writing "conservatives, he declared, are timid, authoritarian, paternalistic, anti-democratic, anti-intellectual, illogical, mystical, and many other distressing things." Kirk, apparently, rose and addressed Hayek's claims extemporaneously, but to my knowledge the text of this response has not survived (though his remarks on the disagreement from a few months later can be found here).

Hayek's broadside against conservatism has helped build a general sentiment against conservatism among libertarians. I don't mean to say that libertarian opposition to conservatism has its genesis in Hayek, but his remarks are occasionally dragged out to explain why the two are incompatible and why libertarianism in inherently superior, and at any rate the title of his speech has become a useful slogan, repeated again and again, publicly and privately, by libertarians keen to disavow conservatism.

Admittedly, the state of conservatism has contributed to this mentality, but it is obvious that there is a deep-seated distaste within libertarianism for conservatism, a reality that I have been reminded of as I have discussed with my libertarian friends the reasons why I have re-adopted the conservative label to describe my political and social views. For many (though far from all) libertarians, confusion over what conservatism means fuels their opposition to it. Among such people, conservatism is alternately either whatever the Republican Party happens to be currently advocating, or is a blanket endorsement of the status quo, definitions that make it considerably easier for them to shrug it off as an incoherent, immoral, reactionary philosophy. That conservatism means something more is not denied so much as it is ignored.

But in truth, the essence of conservatism in its original sense is reflection - on the origin, nature, and proper ends of man; on the inherent limitations on him and society; on the influences and structures that help him reach his ends, realize his potential, and control his appetites. And the conservative is willing to assess man's situation as it really is, not as he wishes it were. Therefore, the conservative is not an optimist about the potentialities of human nature (Richard Weaver wrote that "hysterical optimism is a crime against knowledge"), nor is he entirely pessimistic. Rather, he recognizes that human achievement is hard won and easily lost ("good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created," as Roger Scruton put it).

The conservative, then, looks at the current predicament of the West and recognizes that there are problems that are not likely to be fixed by the standard libertarian appeals to limit or abolish the state. They are symptoms of diseases that threaten an entire civilization, in all its cultural manifestations.

Kirk, at the close of his Prospects for Conservatives, expressed the problem, and the conservative response to it, this way:

The grand question before us is really this: Is life worth living? Are men and women to live as human persons, formed in God's image, with the minds and hearts and individuality of spiritual beings, or are they to become creatures less than human, herded by the masters of the total state, debauched by the indulgence of every appetite, deprived of the consolations of religion and tradition and learning and the sense of continuity, drenched in propaganda, aimless amusements, and the flood of sensual triviality which is supplanting the private reason? Are they to be themselves, endowed with personality and variety and hope, or are they to be the vague faces in the Lonely Crowd, devoid of all the traditional motives to integrity? The radical and the liberal, I think, have failed dismally to show us any road to the redemption of mankind from modern boredom and modern decadence. The conservative is become our guide, whether he likes it or not, and regardless of the will of the crowd. He may not succeed in covering the dry bones of this program with flesh and blood. If he is unequal to the task, the clock will strike, and Faustus will be damned.
Great civilizations do not fall at a single blow. Our civilization has sustained several terrible assaults already, and still it lives; but that does not mean that it can live forever, or even endure through another generation. Like a neglected old house, a society whose members have forgot the ends of society's being and of their own lives sinks by degrees almost imperceptible toward its ruin. The rain comes in at the broken pane; the dry-rot spreads like the corpse of a tree within the wall; the plaster drops upon the sodden floor; the joists groan with every wind; and the rat, creeping down the stair at midnight, gnaws his dirty way from the desolate kitchen to the mildewed satins of the parlor. We...have this house only, and no other; the storm outside, in the winter of our discontent, will allow of no idle building of dream-castles; the summer indolence of the age of optimism is long gone by. The conservative, if he knows his own tradition, understands that his appointed part, in the present forlorn state of society, is to save man from fading into a ghost condemned to linger hopeless in a rotten tenement.

A dark vision, to be sure. Then again, when Kirk first penned these words, in the early 1950s, the evidence of many social pathologies were considerably less obvious than they are today. Some libertarians would have us believe that none of this matters, that if our civilization falls down another, perhaps more glorious one will automatically rise in its place. Others, unaware that they are validating Kirk's harshest criticisms of libertarianism, say that what happens to civilization or society doesn't matter, regardless the fate of all the institutions and traditions that not only give meaning to life, but form the basis of their own opinions on liberty. All that matters, supposedly, is the individual and his freedom. As long as his social environment is entirely voluntary, who cares what it looks like?

The conservative, that's who. Of course, I am painting libertarians with much too broad a brush - there obviously are those that care about society. But to care about society, and the people who make it up, enough to prioritize remedying its ailments above implementing some abstract scheme of liberty is the mark of a conservative, and those libertarians who do care about more than liberty will ultimately be faced with the task of prioritization - and they will realize that the act of prioritizing the fate of the full human being, rather than the atomized individual, is essentially the act of converting from libertarianism to conservatism.

And that is why I am a conservative.

About the author

Ben is a contributing editor for Bastion Magazine. In addition to Bastion, his articles have appeared at a variety of online outlets, including the Tenth Amendment Center and The Patriot Post. He and his family live in the last refuge for traditional manners, the American Midwest.

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