Politics & Policy

Big, Bad Wolfe; Friedrich, Properly Understood


Every now and then a liberal academic bristles about the fact that conservatives admire him. Some decide to say what the hell, and join the team. Others freak out and bite their right hands. One suspects that is what happened with Alan Wolfe.

Alan Wolfe is one America’s best, most honest, and interesting academic sociologists. The reason you (probably) haven’t heard of him is that we are blessed to live in a country that does not care who its best sociologists are. In the current issue of The New Republic, Wolfe writes a blistering assault on 20th century conservatism called “The Revolution that Never Was.” In it he rails against the “impossibility of conservatism” (and says some very unfair things about Charles Murray and followers of Leo Strauss). He says that conservatives in this century have been unable to “come up with any sustained and significant ideas capable of giving substance to their complaints against the contemporary world. I say ideas, not slogans.”

Two failures mark conservatism’s inability to compete with liberalism according to Wolfe. First, he says, conservatives never came up with a great, original book the way John Rawls did for liberalism (again, thankfully, this is another academic who should be a total mystery to you if you’ve lived your life anywhere close to right. All you need to know is that, for Rawls, “equality” must be the first priority of the state/community over, say, “freedom” or “good coffee.” He’s hard to read, quite full of himself, and nothing too special in my book.). The other thing conservatives should have done, according to Wolfe, is come up with a bunch of government programs that could implement the ideas of the aforementioned book.

In his essay, Wolfe is at times nasty and overblown — surprising because he is normally neither. But if nastiness and overblownness automatically made one wrong, I would rarely be right. Wolfe’s essay is long and I recommend it to interested parties. But I write these column thingies betwixt and between the morning papers and the reruns of Beverly Hills 90210 on Fox, so I have neither the space nor the time to address all of it. But since Wolfe lays out his criteria from the beginning, let’s start there.

Wolfe says modern conservatism is a reaction to liberalism and he is largely correct. The question one needs to ask is, So what?

In public arguments, few can compete with conservatives in their ability to say, “that’s not a good idea.” This is because most ideas, like the work product of 999,999,999 typewriter monkeys, are very bad (this is why Oakeshott said a conservative should always “bet on the field”). The Left, like most college freshmen with too much time on their hands, is always better at coming up with “ideas.” Their record is far shoddier when it comes to coming up with good ones.

It’s a real bummer to be told that, sure, your idea sounds really good, but, it’s either impossible or stupid in reality. That’s why Emerson said “there is a certain meanness in the argument of conservatism, joined with a certain superiority in its fact.” That’s also why people like Hillary Clinton thought conservatives were “mean-spirited” for denouncing her health-care plan or why congressional Democrats think actual arguments against gun control are hard-hearted. Liberals believe we have to do something now! Whether it’s a good idea is at best secondary.

Until a few hundred years ago (and in certain instances through ‘til today), conservatism’s mastery of the big “No” was used for much badness. “Conservatives,” as it were, (reactionaries really), were responsible for putting the kibosh on a lot of good ideas like: sanitary food, democracy, the novel, romantic love, reading, etc. That’s why Lord Hugh Cecil once observed that “before the Reformation, it is impossible to distinguish conservatism in politics, not because there was none, but because there was nothing else.”

This is the problem with Wolfe’s judgment about how conservatives never came up with a definitive systemic book à la Rawls. (First, I’m not sure he’s right that Rawls is all that hot or that conservatives haven’t come up with something as good. Von Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom and Michael Novak’s The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism have been far more useful in fledgling Eastern European and Asian democracies than Rawls’s campus manifestos. [Hayekian zealots please see the note at the end of this column]. Conservatism doesn’t lend itself to a big-book-of-everything. To some conservatives, the Bible or the Talmud serves as a BBoE. But most conservatives believe a big book of everything is simply impossible. Conservatism is a defense of accumulated wisdom which takes many forms: the great books, our enduring democratic and religious institutions, and even simple rules of thumb like be nice to people or never run with scissors. If this makes us intellectual killjoys, so be it.

This knee-jerk defense of Western civilization began with the French Revolution and Edmund Burke’s horror at the idea that a society could be “designed.” The revolutionaries thought reason alone explained everything. They cleansed the society of competing institutions and ideas and murdered people who failed to fit their design (a lesson learned by other non-conservatives throughout the 20th century). Burke, on the other hand, argued that society needed to progress slowly, listening to the “wisdom of the ancients.” “The nature of man is intricate,” Burke argued in disgust at the revolutionaries, “the objects of society are of the greatest possible complexity; and therefore no simple disposition or direction of power can be suitable either to man’s nature or to the quality of his affairs.”

One could actually borrow from Wolfe and call this the impossibility of liberalism. The ranks of the Left are overflowing with people who believe in what they call “monocausal explanations.” Race, class, gender, whatever, are the lenses through which so many on the left see the whole history of humankind. Conservatives are very good at saying “that’s stupid.” There’s no contradiction or hypocrisy to be found in the fact that we can’t come up with our own versions of race, class, gender, etc. Anti-enlightenment conservatives believed in such bunk and we threw it overboard.

As for Wolfe’s assertion that conservatism is a failure because it didn’t come up with a bunch of right-wing government programs, there’s not much to say. It’s sort of like arguing that if football were really as good as baseball, quarterbacks would score a lot more home runs. Conservatism is not about coming up with new government programs, in the same way that it’s not about coming up with new grand explanations of the universe. Minting new programs is liberalism’s criteria for success, and they are welcome to it.

Conservatism measures success in its ability to persuade people that government shouldn’t come up with new programs. That is why The Weekly Standard ran “We Won!” on its cover when Bill Clinton declared, “the era of big government is over.” From Burke to Reagan, conservatives have consistently argued that the big answers to the important questions can be found first at home, second at church, third in your neighborhood, and somewhere around 317th in a federal bureaucracy. Wolfe says conservatism is the “Revolution that Never Was.” But if Americans learn that lesson then it will be the “Counter Revolution that Won.”


Up there I lumped von Hayek with the conservatives. This will undoubtedly cause riots at Star Trek conventions throughout the land; but I simply assert that Hayek was a conservative, broadly and properly understood. A certain breed of libertarian hates this. They cite Hayek’s essay, “Why I Am not a Conservative,” the way a few Christian anti-Semites pick a handful of New Testament quotes to go after the Jews. Context matters. Hayek was referring to a certain kind of conservative who he still admired (like Coleridge or de Maistre) and the apostle John was referring to a certain kind of Hebrew (i.e., the Pharisees).

Yes, Hayek never called himself a conservative. But he never called himself a libertarian either. When asked to define himself he said the best label he could come up with was “Old Whig.” This is precisely the label Hayek used for Burke and the one Burke used for himself. Hayek was a classical liberal with a strong devotion to and admiration of old institutions. To my knowledge, no major conservative has ever found Hayek’s writing themselves fundamentally inconsistent with conservatism. Hayekian man and Burkean man could easily go on a long road trip without ever coming to blows. Randian man wouldn’t even be allowed in the trunk.


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