The National Conservatives, a debate [UPDATED]

In this post, I discussed “national conservatives” and their movement (if one can call it that), “common good conservatism.” The New Criterion devotes a large part of its current issue to a debate on the subject.

In this post, I will present two articles criticizing national conservatives and common good conservatism. I’ll present some entries from the other side of the debate in a follow-up post.

But first, here is the useful introduction by our friend Roger Kimball, the editor and publisher of the New Criterion. As he points out, the starting point in the New Criterion debate is an article by Kim Holmes called “The fallacies of the common good.” Holmes is the former Executive Vice President of The Heritage Foundation and former Assistant Secretary of State for International Organizations in the G. W. Bush Administration. His article is here.

Some national conservatives argue that their vision is embedded in the Constitution. They espouse what they call a “common good originalism,” arguing that the American founders were not really Lockean believers in intrinsic rights, but Burkeans who saw rights as instrumental — a means to an end.

Thus, the argument goes, conservatism “rightly understood” is “more open to wielding state power” and, when need be, is willing to “enforce our order” or even to “reward friends and punish enemies (within the confines of the rule of law).”

Whatever the merit of this enterprise, I think Holmes does a good job of arguing that it isn’t what the American founders had in mind. He writes:

Put simply, the founders were not Burkeans. Yes, they welcomed Burke’s support for the American Revolution from his British Whig perspective, but it was John Locke who moved them philosophically more than Edmund Burke.

Secondly, the founders shared Locke’s notion of natural rights being grounded in the universal claims of natural law. That is why Jefferson and the other founders believed rights were “unalienable.” That is why they were “equal.” Such rights were universal, and not particular to a certain people or custom—as they would have to be if they were Burkean or nationalistic. . . .

The founders did have a strong notion of the common good, but they did not seek to reify it in government or to enforce it top-down on the social order.

Holmes also takes on a different strand of common good conservatism, the view that rejects natural-rights philosophy as at odds with the tenets of natural law. Those of this persuasion look not to Burke, but to Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas.

Again, whatever the merit of this position as a philosophical matter, I think Holmes effectively shows that it has little to do with our Constitution.

As to the merits of common good conservatism, Holmes issues this warning:

[T]he more successful the current common-good movement is, the more it will erode one of the key pillars of American conservative thought: the idea of liberty. The biggest danger is not that America will evolve into national or imperial socialism, but that statist arguments from conservatives will end up reinforcing similar arguments made by progressives.

Politics would devolve into a bidding war on which side, the Right or the Left, can buy the most votes with government handouts, win the most battles in the courts over defending “their” version of free speech, control the courts and administrative elites, or get to define what industrial and administrative policies mean. In that battle, I would put my money on the political masters of collectivism, the progressives, because that is their raison d’être.

(Emphasis added)

Charles Kesler contributes to the New Criterion’s debate with this piece. Kesler finds fault with some of Holmes’ points, but rejects the arguments of the two strands of common good conservatism Holmes attacks.

He concludes:

Holmes’s essay performs an important service by emphasizing and clarifying the degree to which these two emerging schools of the new conservatism are out to “undermine and ultimately overturn traditional American conservatism.” Though not every adherent has that in mind, most of them do, I think. And they enjoy patting themselves on the back for it. They underestimate, in my opinion, the extent to which Buckley and Reagan’s conservative movement was itself a counterrevolution against the liberal revolutions that had swept over America in the preceding decades. . . .

The Buckley and Reagan of, say, 1965 would. . . probably feel the need to freshen and reformulate the conservative cause to meet our changed political circumstances. . . .

I have no objection to today’s new conservatives seeking to divide today’s conservative movement—so long as they remember the point is ultimately to reunite and enlarge it along stronger and wiser lines. To do that, however, they will need better arguments.

NOTE: The original version of this post stated that not all of the articles on the national conservatives are accessible at the New Criterion’s home page. However, Roger Kimball informs me that they are now and will be for the next couple of weeks.

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