Best in what way? For what, and for whom?
If the question is, name the top five classic, canonical work of American Conservatism, my list would overlap with this list:
Frederick Hayek, The Road to Serfdom
Milton Friedman, Free to Choose
Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative
Whittaker Chambers, Witness
George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America
These are very mainstream picks. Four of the books are written for a popular audience, and Nash is the best historian of the movement, but he ends before Reagan. They are genuine classics that everyone should read. But they are all old, and don’t directly address the world of today.
The peak moment for American Conservatism was Reagan’s election in 1980.
My list, and the list at the link, inadvertently show that American Conservatism is currently under-theorized.
There have been lots of good books since Reagan. But a synthesizing and overarching book is needed. If it exists, I don’t know it. Do you?
What does it mean to be an American conservative? What are we conserving? Why are we conserving it?
17 thoughts on “Best Books on American Conservatism”
My current picks:
1. F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty
2. Leo Strauss, Natural Right and History
3. Gerhart Niemeyer, Between Nothingness and Paradise
4. David Stove, On Enlightenment
5. Christopher Lasch, The Culture of Narcissism
6. Eric Voegelin, Modernity Without Restraint
7. Philip Rieff, Triumph of the Therapeutic
8. Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism
9. Jacques Barzun, The House of the Intellect
10. Thomas Sowell, A Conflict of Visions
An American conservative generally believes in an extroverted outlook on foreign relations, the free movement of goods and services, and moral restraint.Thomas Sowell best theorized why these pillars of conservatism stand together, explaining them in terms of views about social causation. A conservative, believing in some sort of Original Sin or tragic nature, sees war, poverty, and crime as normal in history. It follows that peace, prosperity, and social harmony are in need of explanation. Since these are exceptional, we strive to conservative them. A progressive, on the other hand, believes man is born free, and hence devotes all of his time trying to remove the chains he sees everywhere.As far as what constitutes American conservatism, look not further than cowboy films. A protagonist, on the frontier, is without external authorities to come to his aid. His integrity and success in the face of moral confusion rests on adhering to principles. This is why George W. Bush was re-elected in America, much to the disdain of others around the globe who believe only the refined should lead. Aside from Tocqueville, Allan Bloom probably got closest to describing this ethos in The Closing of the American Mind. Americans, without any strong traditions, are instinctively Cartesians, looking at the world in foundationalist, universal terms.
I would rather see Hayek’s Fatal Conceit or The Constitution of Liberty rather than The Road to Serfdom on a short list. RTS is really more of a tract, and it’s not entirely accurate: by now, we can see that some societies merely become increasingly more stagnant social democracies without ever descending into totalitarianism. This wasn’t obvious in 1944, however. But the other two books both say important things that are still as true and relevant as ever.
The Conservative Mind by Russell Kirk
Mark Levin’s new little book, Liberty and Tyranny, is a good easy to read intro book to Conservatism for the uninitiated.
There should be a category for books other than Hayek.
The Road to Serfdom
The Constitution of Liberty
The Use of Knowledge in Society and Economics and Knowledge (essays but concentrated Hayek)
Law, Legislation, & Liberty, Vol 1
Other than Hayek:
Losing Ground, Murray
Real Education, Murray
Vision of the Anointed, Sowell
The Way the World Works, Wanniski
The Closing of the American Mind, Bloom—I had forgotten this great book, but than Bowden for the reminder.
Losing Ground is probably the most consequential (conservative book written by a professed libertarian) book from a policy perspective—Gingrich used this as his jumping-off point for welfare reform. I have a first edition that came in the mail from the old Conservative Book Club that used to advertise that they weren’t burdened with computers—Luddite tendencies in those days:))
I had forgotten The Great Melody–a wonderful book.
As for me, I prefer the classical liberal label to “conservative,” but one hardly ever hears that anymore.
“Conservative” is the word that has come to mean the political right in the USA, and it took on a particular cluster of general policy positions over time, especially leading up to the election of Ronald Reagan.
That is the history and there is not much utility in trying to change it.
Conservative in American parlance is clear enough to use and be understood.
“Never Enough” is more an indictment of the fallacies of the welfare state but it does have some pointed and explicit notions of what conservatism is about and what it must do.
For a novelization of some aspects of conservative thought, I would also recommend Robert Heinlein’s early science fiction books like “Starship Troopers” or “Farnham’s Freehold.”
I’ve given these to my grandson, who at 15, should be ready to receive them.
Starship Troopers was one of the most influential books on me. Top 5, easily.
1984 was probably the most important influence. I read it when I was 10 years old. Freedom is the highest value.
Mark Levin’s ‘Liberty and Tyranny’ should make the list. Not as foundational as Hayek or Batiste, not as easily insightful as Sowell. But covers a lot of ground in a short book, and does so with an easy to follow and grasp presentation.
One could (I do) critique Levin’s not mentining much less wrestling with the problem of trade offs involved in most (all?) decisions about government. He describes even tough choices (eg, those involving pollution) as *either* pro statist *or* pro liberty. This I think useful as generally correct and thus cutting thru a lot of rhetoric. But I think also a shortcoming in that nuances, tho taking more time to nail down details, would provide a more powerful conclusion. Notwithstanding that sort of caveat, I still recommend Levin.
I have Levin’s book. I keep reading books like Sir Francis Younghusband, Heart of a Continent (currently on p. 61) instead. I keep fleeing into the world of Edwardian and Victorian soldiers and explorers. I suppose that is wrong of me.
Levin’s book is good but falls apart at the end. Lex, you are doing the right thing. Levin is a good man, with good instincts, but he doesn’t go far enough in describing/prescribing the remedy for our woes. Levin does frame the argument to his credit, but our Constitution, as amended, could use improvement.
The writer of Ecclesiastes said man never changes—and history is a testament to the fact. The fact that man is unchanging is one of the brilliant aspects of our Constitution; the Founders anticipated mischief—and so did the anti-federalists.
Of accessible writing (meaning practical), Sowell is a living treasure—his Vision of the Anointed is out-of-the-park good. He has other good titles, too—Knowledge and Decision is a lesser know, but well-done title.
One last thing; Yuval Levin’s Tyranny of Reason might make on to a list in the coming years (it is dense, deep, but well-written), and for something lighter, Howard Bloom’s (hardly a conservative) The Genius of the Beast proves on multiple levels the superiority of our instinctual economic systems; namely, capitalism. I admire Bloom’s enthusiasm and his willingness to draw of unlikely sources to illustrate the common sense of market economy.
Knowledge and Decision is a masterpiece. Sowell wrote it before he became a pundit. It is one I want to read again.
+1 on Knowledge and Decisions.
What are we conserving? Why are we conserving it?
I’d say the U.S. Constitution as it was originally understood by the people who ratified it, and the founding principles it embodies. We want to conserve it because it is the greatest statement of freedom and independence in human history. Following its principles has made America the greatest country the world has ever known, with liberty and justice for all. We are (or were) a self-governing people, we do (did) not live under the yoke of king or a dictator. That’s worth conserving. I think these principles have been largely destroyed, so it isn’t really a matter of conserving anything anymore. The task is to get it back.
The Constitution, including the Civil War Amendments, is a big part of it.
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