The Corner

Re: The Conservative Big Three

I think Jonathan Adler gets it pretty much exactly right on the question of Berkowitz’s Big Three. I’ve gotten a lot of email about who should or shouldn’t be counted at the top. And, some readers may recall, I actually spent quite a bit of time thinking about this sort of thing. In the early 1990s, I had a contract to write a book on the 100 most Influential conservatives of all time (you may have seen other books in this series). Quite simply, I couldn’t get the book done and gave back the advance. The reasons for my failure were many. I was working far more than full time as a TV producer back then. I was disorganized. And, the project itself was deeply flawed insofar as the publisher wanted at least half of the people on the list to be living and it had to be a ranking. In other words, I had to be prepared to argue that, say, Norman Podhoretz was the 23rd most influential conservative in all of human history, and anyone who thought he should have been 24th or 22nd is a fool.

Anyway, I think much of the challenge regarding questions like this lies is teasing out the differences between influence, importance and originality. For example, one reader wanted to know why Strauss and not Eric Voegelin should be in the top three. One answer (and I have no doubt that partisans of various camps have other answers) is that Strauss openly cultivated a school, and his disciples went forth spreading the word. Voegelin, it’s my understanding, did not groom students the way Strauss did. I think reasonable people could argue that one or the other was the more original or important philosopher, but few would dispute that Strauss has had a far greater influence.

Originality is another key issue. I don’t want to venture too far afield, but think of the distinctions between Paul and Jesus. Jesus was the original, Paul the proselytizer. Paul without Jesus would be nothing. But Christianity without Paul would be something less than it is (or so many might argue). Paul’s influence in the world was enormous but Jesus’ influence (through a vision, as I understand it) on Paul was decisive. Leo Strauss had an enormous influence on a very small number of people. His Pauls (and theirs) had a much more concrete impact on society and conservatism.

When it comes to conservatism, originality is a tricky concept because a big chunk of conservatism is the argument that there’s nothing new under the sun. In essence, originality for us, is usually confined to creative new interpretations of, and arguments for, old insights.

The importance vs. influence question hinges on the differences between insight and impact. I don’t think Rush Limbaugh would dispute that in the history of conservatism he’s not a particularly important thinker. But he is a hugely important popularizer, promoter and explainer of conservative ideas. By any measure, Limbaugh is better known than any of Berkowitz’ big three.

The really impressive guys are the ones score high in all three categories, importance, influence and originality. Since we’re only talking about the 20th century we can leave Burke out. I think the top scorers of the last century were Milton Friedman and William F. Buckley. Others in the top 10 might be Henry Hazlitt. Frank Meyer and Irving Kristol. Though I am sure I am leaving out others in my Nyquil stupor.

Also, I think you could argue that Ayn Rand is off the charts in this regard. But she wasn’t exactly a conservative, now was she?