In defense of conservatism

I thought I would do a post defending conservatism. I’m not sure what got me thinking about this post. Perhaps it was an earlier discussion with TAS or maybe my meeting with Devin a while back.

I went through a phase in which I read the best books of conservatism and then I moved on to the Old Right. If you were taking a history class at a public school and the class actually taught anything about conservatism, it would tell you that the Old Right was organized around opposition to the New Deal, while modern conservatism was organized around opposition to the Soviet takeover of the US government. (Fine, they wouldn’t say "Soviet takeover of the US government" but that’s what happened).

These are the books that I found most interesting from modern conservative movement:

Witness by Whittaker Chambers – Truly a great book. It’s Chamber’s autobiography. Chambers was a Soviet spy who eventually switched sides.

Suicide of the West by James Burnham – In short, Burnham believes that liberalism is a religion designed to make Westerners feel less bad about the decline of the West. If nothing else, it’s a very solid analysis of what liberalism is (see the 19 points).

In Defense of Freedom by Frank Meyer – This is the classic text arguing that libertarians need conservatives and conservatives need libertarians.

The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk – Traces a particular strand of conservatism through time.

The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America by George Nash – Basically the bible of post-war conservatism.

I came to the conclusion that modern conservative movement was basically bankrupt. I had no problems with the movement but was continually struck by its inability to actually accomplish anything of meaning. Any victories that the movement might achieve would be temporally limited, at best. In the end, I concluded that the movement was destroyed by its turn away from the Old Right. In other words, conservatism failed because it compromised with the New Deal. It became an apologist for the welfare state.

These books will convince any honest reader that the movement comes from a more noble background, but went astray to maintain electoral relevance. The result is a movement that can have no non-contradictory goals and no chance of success. Conservatism with the New Deal is meaningless, so I turned to the Old Right.

When I choose to defend conservatism, it is the Old Right that I am defending. To me, "conservatism" means opposition to the FDR Revolution – and there is no pursuit that is more noble. Unfortunately, in this sense, there are about 12 actual conservatives in the US.

If you want to understand the Old Right, read John T. Flynn, Garet Garrett, Erik von Kuehneldt-Leddin, Albert Jay Nock, Isabel Paterson, and H. L. Mencken. You’ll thank me afterward.

Think you have interesting ideas about relationships between the sexes? Mencken beat you to it.

Think you have interesting ideas about the failings of the US educational system? Nock beat you to it.

I could continue this list all day. The point is: they all saw it coming. They were correct. They thought it first. No one remembers them for it.

14 Responses to In defense of conservatism

  1. ScottS says:

    I was introduced to the Old Right several years ago. Their astounding [i]rightness[/i] struck me almost instantly. Nock is my favorite author of all time. Reading him literally changed my life.

    Thanks for the other names. I have already decided that I’m getting this for Christmas:
    and after that I’ll be moving on to the others.

  2. aretae says:

    I’ve read Nock, I’ve read Patterson, and I’ve read Mencken. I’d call them all libertarians.

    Nock is stunningly good. I especially like “Our Enemy The State”, but then he’s an Anarchist like me, and even better, an Anarchist who appreciates good manners.

    Mencken might not quite be called a libertarian, but the amount he draws from the Anarchist Herbert Spencer is substantial. Then again, he might be called a libertarian.

    • Isegoria says:

      I’ve definitely seen Mencken and Nock presented as libertarian, too — but I suppose we’re splitting hairs if we’re drawing a distinction between libertarians with manners and paleocons.

    • Foseti says:

      I don’t view the Old Right as mutually exclusive from libertarianism. Modern libertarianism and modern conservatism both split off from the Old Right.

      For every libertarian quote from Mencken you find, I’d be able to find another that supports monarchy. I agree he’s libertarian, but he’s by no means an anarchist.

      Nock is possibly an anarchist (though difficult to pin down precisely).

      Both have a much more pessimistic view of humanity than any modern libertarians that I’m aware of – other than perhaps Hoppe.

      • ScottS says:

        Nock’s thought evolved though his life. He started as an anarchist libertarian and evolved into a paleocon. Contrast Our Enemy The State with Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, with his essays (in State of the Union for example) showing some of the transition.

        He’s hard to pin down, because his thought evolved over the span of his writings. In my opinion, he’s far more realistic and coherent at the end of his life. His anarchist period feels silly and naive to me.

      • Foseti says:


        That’s helpful. I enjoyed *Memoirs* much more than I enjoyed *Our Enemy the State*.

  3. I was just reading Carroll Quigley’s section on the old right yesterday. He had very little respect for Freda Utley and Flynn. Quigley thought that they unfairly blamed the progressive establishment for losing Eastern Europe and China to the communists. In reality, Quigly thought that the U.S. simply did not have the military power to fight and win against the soviets and China, and that a strategy of containment had the least possibility of catastrophe. Quigley was also upset that the right simultaneously wanted lower taxes but a military offensive policy against the communists.

    Moldbug is a big fan of both Quigley, Utley and Flynn, so I’d be interested in his take. I’ve found Quigley to be the fairest historian I’ve ever read. I’ve enjoy Flynn, but he is definitely more polemical.

    To me, “conservatism” means opposition to the FDR Revolution – and there is no pursuit that is more noble.

    The problem is that not all parts of the New Deal were all bad. Social Security for instance, is the last part of the government that I’d get rid of. At least all it does is shuffle checks from 25 year old me to 70 year old me. The conservative attempt to “privatize” it would have shuffled checks from 25 year old me to Wall St.

    The same goes for the FDIC. If we had an FDIC in 1929, there never would have been an FDR revolution. There may be ways of designing a decent banking system without an FDIC. But no one the right or left has any idea how to get there.

    • Foseti says:

      I really like John T. Flynn (see here, hereand here ).

      I’ll ready Quigley as soon as I can. I would guess that Utley’s account squares better with what we’ve learned since the fall of the Soviets, i.e. that there was a concerted efforts by some in the US government to “lose” China.

      The idea of Social Security is ok. The implementation is terrible. I think I’ll do a post on this today.

    • ScottS says:

      [i]The problem is that not all parts of the New Deal were all bad. Social Security for instance, is the last part of the government that I’d get rid of. At least all it does is shuffle checks from 25 year old me to 70 year old me. The conservative attempt to “privatize” it would have shuffled checks from 25 year old me to Wall St.[/quote]
      No, it doesn’t. It shuffles checks from 25 year old you to 70 year old someone else. And it shuffles checks from 25 year old someone else to 70 year old you.

      If it were operated like a real actuarially sound pension fund, there would be trillions of dollars invested somewhere that you’d draw from when you got old. In reality, it’s just wealth transfer from a relatively poor and uninfluential voting block (young working families) to a relatively rich powerful voting block (old farts/AARP).

  4. aretae says:

    Social Security is an atrocious mess…one of the worst boondoggles in the history of government. It’s an additional stealth income tax, hidden from most views by the tax-fiction of taking half from the employer, coupled with a promise of returns that are completely unsustainable. Furthermore it’s a tax that falls primarily on the poor, and mostly benefits the rich. And to top it all off, there’s the fiction that it’s a transfer from current me to future me, to make it seem palatable.

    Hideous, horrible, bad. NOTHING to redeem it.

    Wilkinson on SS, more clearly than me.

    FDIC…BIG Moral Hazard…and turns Banks into state-owned enterprises for transferring wealth upwards. Before FDIC, Bankers had to be careful. After FDIC, not so much…and so you get the current de-cession as a result of the inevitable control created by FDIC. As to 1929…you really should look at the responses to the 1920/21 recession, which was worse…except that no intervention resulted in a quick recovery.

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