Review: Conservatism: A Rediscovery by Yoram Hazony

There was a time when liberalism ruled the West. Throughout the second half of the twentieth century, the divide between conservatives and progressives mostly amounted to a contest between competing versions of liberalism. However, in recent years, liberalism’s grip has begun to weaken. In its place, we have witnessed the rise of an updated Marxism on the Left and a white identitarianism on the Right—though institutional power is at present slanted heavily in favor of the former and against the latter. These ideologies have proven to be sources of social instability, eroding families and communities, inflaming resentments between citizens, and leaving us vulnerable to foreign threats.

While some have argued that the solution is a renewed commitment to the liberalism of our relatively recent past, Yoram Hazony argues that there is a promising but overlooked alternative—one that stands in continuity with the centuries-old Anglo-American tradition. He elaborates on this conservative alternative in his new book Conservatism: A Rediscovery (Regnery, 2022).

Much of the focus of this book is on distinguishing true conservatism from the Enlightenment-era classical liberalism with which it is often confused. According to Hazony, whereas liberalism puts a reductive focus on a small set of abstract values like reason, individualism, liberty, and equality, conservatism situates such values in a matrix of other, more concrete goods, such as loyalty, honor, hierarchy, cohesion, and constraint. Further, while liberalism acknowledges only those obligations to which the rational individual freely consents, conservatism recognizes that people are born into a network of unchosen obligations, and the health of a society depends on its citizens fulfilling those obligations. To understand the import of the difference between these two visions, just consider what truly instills within a soldier the willingness to lay his life down on the battlefield: is it a commitment to abstract notions of liberty, or is it an affection for his own particular kinsmen, heritage, and homeland?

Hazony outlines several ways in which a conservative social order would contrast with a liberal one (see especially pp. 340-344): it would be rooted in a nation’s own particular identity and history, rather than in supposedly universal principles of reason; it would retain a robust place for public expressions of religion, favoring the majority faith while tolerating minority dissent; it would reinforce the traditional institutions of the family and the congregation; it would acknowledge the prerogative of parents to choose the best form of education for their children; it would restrict immigration to those who demonstrate an ability and willingness to assimilate to the national identity and culture; it would balance an interest in free markets with the need for national cohesion and public morals; it would limit foreign involvement to safeguarding its own national interests and stopping only the most egregious human rights abuses abroad; and it would resist moves to surrender national sovereignty to international governing bodies.

More fundamentally, Hazony argues that the differences between conservatives and liberals are rooted in different epistemologies. Liberals, according to Hazony, are committed to a rationalistic system of universal, self-evident, a priori principles upon which they seek to build society, whereas conservatives are committed to what Hazony calls historical empiricism. According to historical empiricism, each nation should determine its own course based on its own unique history, values, and customs, discovering through trial-and-error which path best secures its own stability and flourishing. As Matthew McManus has noted in his review in Liberal Currents, Hazony’s presentation of these rival epistemologies is a bit simplistic. The difference between conservatives and (especially classical) liberals here is perhaps better understood as a continuum rather than a sharp dichotomy. Still, it cannot be doubted Hazony has put his finger on real epistemological differences between today’s liberals and conservatives, and thus his presentation can at least be taken as a useful heuristic.

At the same time, Hazony risks alienating some conservative readers who, while otherwise supportive of his arguments, may find him to be too critical of the natural law tradition. In particular, he calls natural law theory “a form of philosophical rationalism” (xxviii), he finds it insufficient to ground political order (18), and he finds human reason to be too weak and fallible to know and apply it properly (197). Now I think Hazony’s critique is valid if limited to one version of natural law—namely, the liberal, secular version as espoused by early modern thinkers like Hugo Grotius and John Locke.

On the other hand, if Hazony intends to critique the natural law tradition as a whole, then I think he has both misrepresented the tradition and cut himself off from a necessary resource to defend his own position. There have been plenty of defenders of natural law throughout history—including the very conservative thinkers whom Hazony commends, such as John Selden and Matthew Hale (see my summary of Hale here)—who have acknowledged both the necessity and the limitations of natural law. Stephen Wolfe has recently pointed out that the Reformed orthodox tradition has affirmed a distinction between the principles/conclusions of natural law on the one hand (which are universally binding), and its determinations/applications on the other hand (which vary according to factors like time, place, customs, etc.). This distinction is necessary for Hazony’s thesis to work, because without the universally binding principles/conclusions of natural law, Hazony would have no way of arguing that the stability and flourishing toward which nations strive are objective goods toward which they ought to strive.

With this qualification in mind, I think conservatives can and should accept Hazony’s historical empiricism. American conservatives in particular need to consider the possibility that many of our cherished political values may be more culturally variable (within limits) than often assumed. And Hazony is not alone in making this point; he has a number of leading contemporary conservative scholars on his side. Consider, for example, Catholic legal philosopher Robert P. George’s comments on freedom of speech:

As in all choices between or among morally acceptable options, the persons responsible for making the choice, having fairly taken into account the interests of all concerned, must engage in an act of discernment. What they must discern, however, is not merely a matter of reasons, for reasons in these cases provide inconclusive guides to action (i.e. there are undefeated reasons for either or all the options); it is rather a matter of feelings. With respect to feelings, which are subjective matters, different persons, and different societies, may reasonably differ. Just as different persons may reasonably make different choices and commitments, in light of the incommensurability of diverse basic goods and evils, different societies may make different choices and commitments which result, within broad limits, in different measures of legal freedom and constraint.

Because freedom of speech is not an absolute, these differences can extend to freedom of speech. Equally just societies can sacrifice some freedom of speech for the sake of other goods, or some other goods for the sake of freedom of speech (and, ultimately, the goods freedom of speech makes possible).

—Robert P. George, Making Men Moral, p. 199-200 (see my review here)

Or consider the principle of disestablishment. Classical liberals generally take it as an absolute principle of justice that civil governments should never favor one religion or church over another. However, Hazony reminds us that such a strict separation of church and state is nowhere found in the U.S. Constitution; the First Amendment prevents Congress from establishing religion, but it says nothing about what individual states may or may not do. In fact, several New England states had established churches well into the nineteenth century (75). It was not until the Supreme Court’s Everson v. Board of Education ruling in 1947 that America adopted strict secularism (264). This is not to say that disestablishment is mistaken per se—a government can still favor Judeo-Christian values even without an established church—only that disestablishment might not be the best political system for every society. Hazony finds support for such a claim in conservative Anglican author Os Guinness:

Each country has the right to its own heritage. In the light of its own unique history and its own cultural values, it has to work out its own solution and build its own settlement. In England, for example, the Church of England is so intertwined with English customs, traditions and institutions that any hasty disestablishment would be an act of culpable folly. But at the same time, different countries must each work out in their own different and unique settlement a deliberate and steady expansion of the spheres in which the three core human rights are advanced and protected. Within their own settlement, which may certainly be different from their neighbors and from the rest of the world, they must each work out the fundamental first principles that are the rights for all citizens and universal for all the countries of the world—freedom of thought and conscience, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly.

—Os Guinness, The Global Public Square, pp. 95-96

Much more could be said about Hazony’s book—indeed, I expect it to be the definitive text on conservatism for our generation—but I will limit myself to one more observation that has relevance to our contemporary American evangelical context. In recent months, I have heard a number of criticisms of so-called “elite evangelicals” (see here and here, for example). However, given Hazony’s insights about the basic goodness of social hierarchies (125-133), we should realize that the existence of “elites” will be both inevitable and beneficial in any properly functioning society. The problem is not with elites per se, but rather when elite institutions become corrupted by individuals or ideologies that undermine their own stability and well-being. This is the problem facing America’s institutions today, and I believe that Hazony offers us many of the prescriptions needed for restoring those institutions. For this reason, I highly recommend this book.

About Kyle Dillon

A teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), assistant pastor of theological instruction at Riveroaks Reformed Presbyterian Church, and theology/languages teacher at Westminster Academy in Memphis, Tennessee.

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