Which 20th century classic of American conservative political thought has held up best?

by on February 28, 2008 at 7:42 am in Political Science | Permalink

We discussed this question over a group dinner Tuesday night.  I opined that none have held up particularly well, mostly because they underestimated the robustness of the modern world and regarded depravity as more of a problem than it has turned out to be.

By stipulation, this universe of books does not include Milton Friedman or pure economics.  It does include Russell Kirk, John Flynn, Richard Weaver, Robert Nisbet, and William F. Buckley, among many others.  You can nominate grumpy Brits and Europeans who settled in the United States, so yes Road to Serfdom is a contender, even though its main empirical point (socialism leads to loss of political freedom) would seem to be refuted.  You can try Albert Jay Nock or Eric Voegelin but Rothbard and Rand do not count as conservatives.  Your answer cannot come before the 20th century, so no Federalist Papers and no Tocqueville.

Leave your answer in the comments and also say why.  At some point I’ll offer up my pick as well.

1 thehova February 28, 2008 at 7:49 am

Michael Oakeshott seems to be gaining popularity lately. But he doesn’t have a blockbuster work. Regardless, I nominate “Rationalism in Politics”.

2 Daniel Klein February 28, 2008 at 7:56 am

Great question, but it is wrong to include Hayek or Nock. Neither was very religious or concerned over whose penis was going where.

3 John Goes February 28, 2008 at 8:20 am

Rationalism in Politics.

4 Travis Walker February 28, 2008 at 8:47 am

The most relevent conservative writer today is: George Will.

5 michael vassar February 28, 2008 at 9:01 am

Anything by Murray perhaps?

Thomas Sowell’s “Cultures and Conquests” is like “Guns Germs and Steel” with MUCH better analysis and written earlier, but not really conservative.

6 Kevin Nowell February 28, 2008 at 9:22 am

I don’t think the main point of the Road to Serfdom is that socialism leads to loss of political liberty nor that that point has been empirically refuted. I think the main point of the Road to Serfdom is that socialism leads to loss of civil liberty first and, ultimately, political liberty.

From what evidence do you conclude that socialism DOES NOT lead to loss of political liberty?

7 Nathan Benefield February 28, 2008 at 9:42 am

Road to Serfdom’s “main empirical point (socialism leads to loss of political freedom) would seem to be refuted”.

Refuted by whom? Castro, Stalin, Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Hugo Chavez? Or by the US and Western Europe growing government control over the economy, but apparently not creating government agencies to regulate the media, regulate free speech and campaign finance, centralizing control over education and curriculum, removing religion from the public sphere, and creating taxpayer-funded marketing/media/propoganda.

As for my pick, Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative is still very relevant (though if I had liberty to make my own stipulation, I would choose Capitalism and Freedom).

8 Stuart Buck February 28, 2008 at 10:04 am

How about George Will’s Statecraft as Soulcraft? I recall liking it, although that was as a young teenager some 20 years ago.

9 John B. Chilton February 28, 2008 at 10:14 am

If it counts as conservative and classic I nominate Virginia Postrel’s “The Future and its Enemies”.

10 Colin February 28, 2008 at 10:18 am

The examples you are looking for I am sure were meant to be non-fiction tracts. However, may I suggest two (related) fiction novels that at least have elements of Conservatism in them; “1984” and “Brave New World”. While neither is of course a conservative polemic, both share a concern that underly a basic tenent of conservatism; the corrosive power of state control.

If nothing else, both books have become a party of our own culture in ways that exceed almost any Conservative book I can think of. Who today does not know what someone is refering to when the term “Big Brother” is used?

While “1984” has become the more famous novel, I would argue “Brave New World” is more relevant. The receding threat of Communism diminishes the explicit threat of political control put forth in “1984”. The threat posed by “Brave New World” however seems even more pervasive then in 1930’s. The corrosive power of consumerism on culture and values is something written about almost everyday in newspapers and books. I understand that today, conservatives are the defenders of the free market that allows such consumerism to thrive. Nonetheless, it is often conservatives who argue today’s culture is corrupting our mores and destroying our traditional values (an argument more in line with Buckley perhaps). Just a little curveball to the discussion I guess.

Oh, and has far as influence, name a conservative book more read in high schools across the country more read then either of these two novels.

11 Anonymous February 28, 2008 at 10:49 am

Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit is both better and more “conservative” than The Road to Serfdom. The Fatal Conceit does a better job of explaining why free markets are generally superior to centralized planning. In addition, Hayek’s treatment of evolutionary psychology has held up well, and I think his appendix on religion shows that Hayek had developed a more “conservative” temperament after the publications of The Constitution of Liberty and The Road to Serfdom.

If our definition of “conservative” is broad enough to include libertarians, then I would say Nozick’s Anarchy, State, and Utopia has held up better than even the best of Friedman’s non-economic work and Hayek’s more libertarian writings.

12 Sunset Shazz February 28, 2008 at 11:01 am

The Fatal Conceit is even more impressive today now given the latest evidence from cognitive psychology, neuroeconomics and evolutionary biology. A masterful work .

13 Mark February 28, 2008 at 11:14 am

Okay, Hayek fan-boys, please explain in what way Sweden *doesn’t* refute Hayek’s thesis.

14 Tyler Cowen February 28, 2008 at 11:25 am

I’ll pick Edward Banfield, *The Moral Basis of a Backward Society* as my choice.

15 dave smith February 28, 2008 at 11:42 am

For the religious leaning conservatives, Mere Christianity by CS Lewis would probabally be on top of many lists.

But a sleeper pick (mainly becuase it is so recent) is Robert Bork’s “Tempting of America.”

Conservatives come in many stripes, but the ONE thing that unifies them all is summarized by Robert Bork’s view of the role of the Supreme Court.

16 Matt S. February 28, 2008 at 11:53 am

Well, if I have to pick (aside from Oakeshott), I think I’ve learned a great deal about American Politics from Willmoore Kendall’s Contra Mundum. His essay, “The Two Majorities in American Politics” is quite prescient, as is his broader analysis of the relationship between Congress and the Presidency. The collection I mention, Contra Mundum, contains a number of essays that are gems. He’s the conservative “founder” (i.e. taught Buckley at Yale, was a senior editor at NR) that everyone has forgotten, but also the one who actually still has the most to teach us.

17 BGC February 28, 2008 at 11:57 am

Mencius Moldbug, without a doubt


Although I am forced to admit his classic status is known only to a select few, as-yet.

18 greatzamfir February 28, 2008 at 12:09 pm

Mqarbowski, your point is probably important, but you can’t ignore that the ‘doomy’ side of conservatism also thought that moral weakening would lead to a more general, structural weakening of society. Views on marriage are a clear example: people who critize unmarried parents or gay marriage mention intrinsic moral reasons, but often they also claim that a weakening of the institute of marriage will harm society in the long run.

19 Ned February 28, 2008 at 12:31 pm

If Nock is in play, is Mencken a possibility as well?

I suspect that Posner has staying power, and that he’ll increasingly have a cult following among non-lawyers in the way writers such as Hayek and Rothbard have developed a following among non-economists.

20 david February 28, 2008 at 12:39 pm

“Okay, Hayek fan-boys, please explain in what way Sweden *doesn’t* refute Hayek’s thesis. ”

Hayek’s point was that if the government controlled the country’s resources, then they effectively had control over the population. His point was that you cannot have political freedom without economic freedom.

Sweden is not a centrally planned economy. The have a robust private sector (think Ikea, Volvo, Ericsson, Electrolux, Saab), with high taxes and lots of social safety nets.

21 Stephen Bainbridge February 28, 2008 at 1:15 pm

This is an easy one. Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind. Why? Because it’s timeless. Unlike most of the other plausible candidates, it was not bound to the controversies of a particular day. Instead, it went back to first principles to provide a comprehensive overview of conservative thought and, in so doing, laid the intellectual foundation for the modern conservative movement. More at my blog.

22 karl February 28, 2008 at 1:26 pm

Brave New World and 1984 are based on ” We” by Zemiakin a russian disident.
A New Visit to Brave New World is a liberal work thah is ENVIROMENTALISM , demographig explosion, nuclear warfare and the like.
What abot Mises, a classic liberal , so a conservative according to the anglosaxon definition( Spencer).He called Hayek, Friedmann ,Stigler and Knight, socialists.
Or Buchannan?
Or Julien Simon?
Raoul Berger is worldwide known and quoted by people who never read him

23 bjk February 28, 2008 at 1:38 pm

It’s interesting that TC’s pick, Moral Basis of a Backward Society, was published in 1958, and another Strauss associate, Harry Jaffa, published Crisis of the House Divided in 1959. Unfortunately, conservatism went more in the direction of Jaffa (absolutism of principles of Declaration of Independence) and moved further away from the empirical moralism of Banfield, Wilson, et al.

24 Justin February 28, 2008 at 1:43 pm

I think Tyler is a little unfair. Intellectuals, left and right, tend to be overly pessimistic. But the fact is that marriage is unequally distributed in society, so there is a married middle class and an unmarried underclass. This may not lead to the general breakdown of society the way conservatives may have predicted, but it is a tremendous social problem with real social costs.

I disagree with the commenter who held up C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity as an example of a religious conservative book that has held up. I would instead offer more serious philosophy. Just about everything by Alvin Plantinga has held up: reformed epistemology, the free will defense against the logical problem of evil, criticisms of classical foundationalism, and comparing arguments for the existence of God to other basically unsolvable philosophical issues such as proving that other conscious minds exist. His attacks on naturalism have been less successful.

Perhaps the real credit goes to William James, his 1956 “The Will to Believe” laid some of the early groundwork in challening logical positivism and other atheistic theories of knowledge, and it has held up quite well. The gist of James’ point being that atheistic theories of knowledge are based on the a priori (and hence unproven) belief that false beliefs are so bad that they are worse risking the loss of true knowledge.

25 Brian February 28, 2008 at 2:04 pm

Tyler dismisses Buckley too quickly also, which is surprising given his comments about Buckley in a recent post. Like Tyler, I never became a “Buckleyite” but was influenced early on by Firing Line. It would be hard to characterize WFB’s work as tending toward despair. It also had a lasting impact. John Fund in today’s WSJ Political Diary offers this observation:

“In an interview with Buckley in 2005, conservative columnist George Will told him: “Without Bill Buckley, no National Review. Without National Review, no Goldwater nomination. Without the Goldwater nomination, no conservative takeover of the Republican Party. Without that, no Reagan. Without Reagan, no victory in the Cold War. Therefore, Bill Buckley won the Cold War.”

Maybe the Cold War victory is overstated, but the rests seems on the mark. Fund adds that he is part of a 3rd generation influenced and inspired by WFB, not only because of his writing but because of his “unfailingly polite and helpful” disposition.

26 Dan G February 28, 2008 at 2:09 pm

Sowell’s A CONFLICT OF VISIONS. Not a classic yet, but a classic-to-be!

27 x February 28, 2008 at 2:32 pm

The Decline of the West?

28 rj February 28, 2008 at 2:47 pm

I agree with the Nozick nomination: Anarchy, State and Utopia.

29 Joe S. February 28, 2008 at 3:02 pm

A conservative work? By somebody arguably American? That has held up well? This is going to be difficult.

The Russell Kirk brigades lose, because modern conservatism is so corporate. If libertarians are conservative, the Russell Kirk brigades are not. Buckley? An astonishingly good writer, but not (IMO) much of a thinker. The Straussians? Maybe. But they’re kind of hermetic, and thus unlikely to be intellectually all that influential.

Uh. What about Garry Wills’ “Confessions of a Conservative”?

30 Jeet Heer February 28, 2008 at 3:25 pm

I think conservatives are generally stronger as cultural critics than policy analysts, so my pick would be Hugh Kenner’s The Pound Era, a great book of literary criticism. And really anything Kenner wrote is worth reading.

Most conservative writing, aside from Kenner, doesn’t stand up as scholarship. Generally, these are people who are worth reading because they articulate a point of view that has had an impact, but the ideas by themselves don’t have much value, I think. Having said that, here are some runner ups:

Leo Strauss’s Liberalism Ancient and Modern.
Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided (perhaps the only work by a Straussian that has value in and of itself, not just because it’s part of a larger school).
James Burnham’s The Machiavellians and Congress and the American Tradition.
Willmoore Kendall’s The Conservative Affirmation and Willmoore Kendall Contra Mundum.
Guy Davenport’s The Geography of the Imagination.

31 Josh R. February 28, 2008 at 3:35 pm

Brave New World, however, does count in terms of its sexual and drug morality. As well as its focus on government intervention making the population artificially stupid. So put that as #1, just because every high schooler reads it.

I’m not so sure about this. For one thing, the sexual and drug morality in Brave New World is ultimately cast in a different light by Huxley’s later works, culminating in his death-bed written “utopia’ Island where drug use is in fact prevalent and where open relationships are also part and parcel of the social landscape. What has changed is their purpose or their impetus. For instance, the drug use in Brave New World is something done to escape the world, it is something frivolous and ultimately meaningless; it does not bring anybody closer to anybody or anybody closer to truth concerning the world. The drug use of Island clearly reflects Huxley’s own experimentation. Drug use for mental exploration is seen as a good thing. This is hardly a conservative viewpoint (at least as Conservativism is understood in America).

The same is true with sexual morality between the two. The narrator encounters a couple who are currently monogamous; however, one is going to Europe to study and it is understood that he will have other partners, while remaining engaged to the woman he has left behind. Similarly, adolescents are trained in the sexual arts by older women so that they care about and know how to please their partners. Once more, the contrast is clear and depends upon the usages of sexuality.

In both cases, however, the “good” uses of sexuality and drug use are hardly conservative. Or, at the very least, one would hardly find them championed by what we think of as conservative writers.

As for the government making people artificially stupid–this elides the central insight of Huxley’s book: that the new totalitarianisms will be chosen by their slaves. Indeed, at the end of the book the World Commander (I believe that was his title) recounts how the current world was formulated. The people chose security over liberty–it was not enforced. This is the marked difference between Orwell and Huxley–in the former the cage is forced around you while you squirm, whereas in the latter you either choose it or don’t even see it coming because you’re so busy popping soma. It is difficult then to envision that as a screed against government intervention, rather than a crucial insight about individual human preferences (security, pleasure, amusement) in the modern world.

32 liberty February 28, 2008 at 4:17 pm

Wow. Road to Serfdom was refuted? Count me among those unaware.

To me it is pretty obvious that is has been proven again and again and again. Note the strong correlation between economic and political freedom.

One major prediction was the during crisis and wartime, a government will try to restrict major economic freedoms first and then keep them around and restrict political ones too- that if not stopped it will keep going until it is socialism and is totalitarian. This happened during the Depression and WWII. It was, thank goodness, stopped – in no small part because of people like Hayek. In countries where this power grab hasn’t been curtailed you see exactly what Hayek predicted.

The central thesis of Road to Serfdom is as important and empirically supported today as the day it was written.

33 John Goes February 28, 2008 at 5:35 pm

American schmamerican.

34 Fred Thompson February 28, 2008 at 7:23 pm

As long as it is understood that conservative books are not necessarily written by conservatives: John Dewey (1916) Democracy and Education; †¨Walter Lippman (1938) The Good Society; Robert K. Merton (1949) Social Theory and Social Structure; Aaron B. Wildavsky (1966) The Politics of the Budgetary Process; Charles E. Lindblom (1968) The Policy-making Process; and Robert A. Nisbet (1969) The Quest for Community

35 Steve Sailer February 28, 2008 at 9:16 pm

Tyler asserts that conservatives:

“regarded depravity as more of a problem than it has turned out to be.”

Yes, now, in the wake of the Sixties, we only have to keep 2 million men in prison all the time to avoid having massive problems with depravity.

So, no problem!

36 Hovie February 28, 2008 at 9:50 pm

Sweden is less a socialist country than an ethnic enclave.

37 Kurt Schuler February 28, 2008 at 11:54 pm

In addition to James Burnham’s Suicide of the West, his book The Machiavellians: Defenders of Freedom remains worth reading. Although people have mentioned Charles Murray, nobody has specifically mentioned his book Losing Ground. And what about Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn? An honorary American conservative, at least; don’t forget he lived in the United States for 20 years.

38 Patrick Molloy February 29, 2008 at 12:36 am

James Q. Wilson, The Moral Sense

Glazer & Moynihan, Beyond the Melting Pot

Edward Shils, Center and Periphery

39 TGGP February 29, 2008 at 12:54 am

I haven’t read it, but I was under the impression that in “The Road to Serfdom” Hayek endorsed the welfare state. What he was worried about was central planning leading to totalitarianism, as in interwar Europe.

Charles Murray wrote a book called “What it Means to be a Libertarian”, because he considers himself one. He does lean toward a 70’s style domestic neo-conservatism with much more communitarian tendencies than most libertarians. Edward O. Wilson is a standard academic liberal.

Mencius Moldbug lists here the books that might comprise a “reactionary theory of modern history”:
* Edmund Burke – Reflections on the Revolution in France.
* Henry Maine – Popular Government.
* W.E.H. Lecky – Democracy and Liberty.
* Walter Lippmann – Public Opinion.
* Edgar Lee Masters – Lincoln the Man.
* Albert Jay Nock – Memoirs of a Superfluous Man.
* John T. Flynn – As We Go Marching.
* Bertrand de Jouvenel – On Power.
* Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn – Liberty or Equality.
* James Burnham – Suicide of the West.
Also namechecked is James Stephen’s Liberty, Equality, Fraternity

40 Valuethinker February 29, 2008 at 7:49 am

Mark, Sweden only appears free. The only reason they have no border guards with machine guns pointing inwards is that it is completely surrounded by other communist countries, so there is nowhere to run. Basically the same reason Belarus didn’t have a Berlin wall.

Posted by: greatzamfir at Feb 28, 2008 11:36:05 AM

No really. I burst out laughing. This is satire, right?

A consultation of maps finds that Sweden’s neighbours are:

– Norway – a plural democracy
– Denmark – via the Malmo Bridge – another plural democracy (with a right wing government, these days)
– Finland – another plural democracy
– across the Baltic (if you must) – Germany (democracy), Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia (tick)

Sweden doesn’t share a border with any of the world’s remaining ‘Communist’ countries (Cuba, North Korea?) or even the very socialist ones (Algeria, Libya, Syria). Nor even the former communist countries like the USSR.

Are maps so hard to find in America?

41 Alex J. February 29, 2008 at 9:44 am

Witness – Whittaker Chambers.

42 Justin February 29, 2008 at 10:31 am

I left out the most important: Max Weber’s the Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.

The book has had its critics. Capitalism is probably not simply the result of the anti-consumption elect having nothing to do with their surpluss money but to invest it. But that misses the deeper points that Weber developed, such as the role of religion in breaking the narrow bonds of family and creating a larger moral community. This theme has been developed by Banfield, Harrison, Fukuyama and many others.

43 Giacomo February 29, 2008 at 1:07 pm

Although it not by any stretch of the imagination a “classic of American conservative political thought”, a 20th-century conservative work by an American-born author that may deserve mention is T.S. Eliot’s Notes towards the Definition of Culture (of which Google offers a generous preview).
Needless to say, it is well-written and acutely intelligent. Much can be found to disagree with, but if my highly imperfect recollection is any guide, it is not particularly dated after sixty years.

44 jorod February 29, 2008 at 4:33 pm

If you have Lippman, you should have V O Key “Public Opinion.

45 don February 29, 2008 at 7:36 pm

The Trouble With Nowadays by Cleveland Amory.

46 Lance Cahill March 2, 2008 at 11:16 am

I know I’m late to the conversation, but I’m really suprised by the lack, nay, absence of works by Clinton Rossiter.

Rossiter’s “Conservatism in America” is a great work, it’s somewhat similar in nature to Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind”. Nevertheless, if you’re looking for a more conservative-tract, as opposed to a history of conservatism, look to Rossiter’s “Marxism: A Viewpoint from America”.

I’m not sure if you’d classify Charles Murray (“In Pursuit of Happiness and Good Government”) as a libertarian, but his works have stood up fairly well. As well, work by the philosopher Robert P. George lends support to many of the foundations of social conservatism.

47 Nathan P Origer March 3, 2008 at 2:16 pm

Stealing from Matthew on Ross Douthat’s post on this matter:
Schumacher, Small is Beautiful; Belloc, The Servile State; anything by Wendell Berry.

My own left-field thoughts: Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, which found its way on to ISI’s Fifty Best Works of the Twentieth Century. Not work of political conservatism, it never the less espouses a clear Burkean attitude toward change in the city, and projects incredible skepticism toward the urban planning field (which I, for some strange reason, in no little part thanks to Mrs Jacobs, intend to enter) and government intervention. And she was just so damn right

Butterfield’s The Whig Interpretation of History?

48 Fred Thompson March 3, 2008 at 6:20 pm

I think, perhaps, the logic of my suggestions wasn’t entirely clear. I was looking for influential books that are in the spirit of Burke – respectful of tradition, conscious of the limits of human reason, concerned with unintended consequences, skeptical of hasty action, respectful of legal rights, obligations, and processes, conservationist, pragmatic, and keen on debate, dialogue, and compromise — that continue to be widely read and cited by intelligent readers. Hence: John Dewey (1916) Democracy and Education; †¨Walter Lippman (1938) The Good Society; Robert K. Merton (1949) Social Theory and Social Structure; Aaron B. Wildavsky (1966) The Politics of the Budgetary Process; Charles E. Lindblom (1968) The Policy-making Process; and Robert A. Nisbet (1969) The Quest for Community — American Tory classics, if you will.

At the same time I wanted to conform to Tyler’s rules: Americans, no libertarians, etc. and to avoid nostalgics, racists, and strict preservationists. If it weren’t for his carping, crankiness, I might have included Joseph Wood Krutch’s Human Nature and the Human Condition, for example. Krutch’s anti-technology, anti-consumption message still plays well, as does his offhanded secularism, but not generally with folks who now call themselves conservatives. His influence, such as it is, is probably greatest with environmentalists and preservationists, who, like most of the rest of us, are now put off by Aldo Leopold’s and Madison Grant’s anti-semitism and enthusiastic endorsement of eugenics.

49 Fred Thompson March 4, 2008 at 12:48 pm

Thanks for the correction. I wonder why so many more readers of this blog have commented on conservative classics than on liberal classics? Just timing or something else?

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