American Conservatism, RIP
by Tibor R. Machan
Back when I became actively political, meaning I started to pay attention to elections, candidates and so forth in the wake of the Kennedy-Nixon TV debates, you would have considered me a conservative in the American sense of that term. As someone who was smuggled out by a professional from Hungary in 1953, I had very strong anti-communist sentiments. And as someone who was raised for a while by a virulent anti-Semitic father and was surrounded by quite a few anti-Semites in my family and their friends, I also felt repulsed by Nazism. Perhaps there was also that personal attitude I have harbored for as long as I can remember, namely, wanting to figure things out for myself and resenting any attempt to group me or any other human beings with others because of birth, location, color of skin, or any other trait I might accidentally share with other people.
American conservatives like William F. Buckley, Jr., and some of his own heroes like Frank S. Meyer and Frank Chodorov, made a great deal of hay with the ideas of the American founders. To my somewhat cursory observation, they favored individualism, civil and property rights—in short, the ideals sketched in the Declaration of Independence. They were committed, I thought, to preserving—conserving—those ideals as against all the collectivisms that Europe embraced, both Left and Right. I discovered Buckley while reading his article, "Why Don't We Complain?" in Esquire magazine, back in 1961 or so, and I felt I had a comrade in arms, even a leader, in him. I started to read National Review and felt quite comfortable with the spirit and letter of what it contained—up to a point.
The thing about American conservatism is that it is only so much American but also a bit too much conservative. The essence of conservatism is expressed poignantly by the 18th century leader of the movement, Edmund Burke. He made the observation that "... Men have no right to risk the very existence of their nation and their civilization upon experiments in morals and politics; for each man's private capital of intelligence is petty; it is only when a man draws upon the bank and capital of the ages, the wisdom of our ancestors, that he can act wisely."
Burke he also noted that "We are afraid to put men to live and trade each on his own private stock of reason, because we suspect that this stock in each man is small, and that the individuals would do better to avail themselves of the general bank of nations and of ages." The gist of this is that human individuals may not be entrusted with the wisdom and virtue to figure things out for themselves. The idea comes from the somewhat retrograde part of Christianity, contained in spades in Thomas a Kempis's disturbing book, Imitation of Christ. Kempis (1380-1471) taught that for a good Christian it was immoral to seek knowledge since doing so is an affront to God, the only one who can truly know. Of course, not all Christians believed or believe this but even today some Christian groups swear that Kempis's book is a wonderful piece of work, with the most valuable advice for human living.
The American element of the conservatism of this country eventually became overshadowed by the conservative element and in our time many conservatives are scornful of what the Founders believed, namely, that individuals have unalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They might not quarrel much with the right to life—although considering how some are now calling for the military draft, even that isn't universally true—but they do have serious problems with the rights to liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Conservative intellectuals like Russell Kirk were mercilessly harsh about these notions, believing, as show in Kirk's The Conservative Mind, that individual human beings are fundamentally corrupt or at least very, very easily corrupted, so for them happiness will mostly turn out to be short term pleasure and freedom nothing better than license.
Once the conservative began to overshadow the American for American conservatives, what they stood for became something dismal and pessimistic, namely, a kind of spiritual nanny state. Having no confidence in the fundamental innocence of human beings at birth, they focused on what we need so as to stop from descending into degradation, something we are all inclined to do.
In time I realized that the conservative mind was indeed an anti-American mind, in the last analysis, one the logic of which would return us to the European ideal of a strangling communitarianism, even tribalism. At this stage the conservative becomes indistinguishable, in his essence, from the Leftist collectivist—today mostly represented by communitarianism. Both detest individualism since it affirms the right—and implicitly the legitimacy—of everyone to govern his own life instead of entrusting this task to some elite or group.
American conservatism, in the main, isn't American anymore. Which is one reason libertarianism is needed to reinvigorate the American soul.