I recently had a conversation about how both American and British conservatives have gotten mixed up too much with the idea of “tradition”, and have tried to “conserve” the wrong things. It makes a certain amount of sense that this error occurs in England, where there really are castles and grand houses and people called Lord This or Sir That. But it is odd that this stuff got going in the USA.
The American Right tried, after World War II, to come up with an Oakeshottian traditionalist basis for itself. This effort was manifested in the writings of people like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver. Kirk in particular devoted his life to this project. It failed. It failed because they were trying to find something that looked on the surface like a continuous traditionalist way of life. Kirk’s The Conservative Mind ended up with Santayana, a Spanish pessimist and T.S. Eliot, an idiosyncratic expat. Weaver and his successors like Wendell Berry have tried to look to the South as a source of a traditional way of life, etc, but are forced to deal with slavery and the fact that the agrarian South is a waning part of American life. Conservatism was left as a ragbag with its smartest participants being 19th Century liberals reborn. The problem with them is they speak in the generalities derived from their economics background, hence no rootedness or traditionalism works for them — Reading someone like Douglass North who tries to make simple facts about culture fit an “econ” model shows the futility of building further from this side. The other smart guys were Cold War realists (and often ex-communists) like James Burnham, who represented an atheoretical pragmatism and a rough-and-ready moral stance that was sufficient for waging the Cold War. Burnham sensed the existence of an Anglosphere but did not articulate its roots or meaning. The foot-soldiers of the Conservative coalition were church-goers who bought into various often simplistic narratives of rugged individualism, Catholic Cold Warriors, and the suburbanites whom Walter Russell Mead calls crabgrass Jacksonians. The impresario of all this was William F. Buckley, who managed to purge the lunatics and find common ground in anti-communism, free enterprise and some general notion of traditional American values. Buckley was acutely aware that the movement lacked total coherence, but pressed on anyway, with remarkable political success.
Those conservatives who are seeking a “tradition” have therefore been orphans, since the problem was initially approached the wrong way. Such people can now find a living tradition via Alan MacFarlane and David Hackett Fischer, but especially MacFarlane, who takes the story back many centuries before the American founding. They can see themselves as part of a centuries-long continuity which goes back to the middle ages, and which came over here in various regional forms. This answers a need from that wing. It also shows that the Econ-side was missing a big part of the puzzle. The economic model only works if the cultural, legal and political institutions are in place. So, they need to understand those, both here and abroad, to find out what works. The libertarians need to bite the bullet and find out what, historically, has made people, regions, eras, countries or civilizations more “dynamist” than others. The answer will not please some of them — Classical civilization, Christianity, Germanic tribal practices, English practices and English insularity and English legal peculiarities, leading to an exceptional type of civic and political order (nothing remotely like statelessness) which in turn allowed economic growth and the “Exit”. Those on the “Hayekian” pole of libertarianism will be better able to grasp all this, since Hayek himself said that capitalism draws from sources it did not create and cannot replace.
So, the Conservatives get a tradition, which they have always wanted. Those who come from the “econ” side get a new research project, to understand differing performance in light of historically developed institutions. The libertarians have to choke down that freedom does not equal merely getting rid of the state, but cultivating civil society, something they ought to be good at since so many of them are techies and that is what the new technology should be about.
The critical contribution that Jim Bennett is making is providing a unifying framework to do re-found both conservatism and libertarianism. He is taking Macfarlane’s insights and a bunch of other stuff, identifying a genuine tradition which really is ancient, common to us all, at the core of what makes us what we are, that has caused the freedom and prosperity we value. These ideas are not really new, but they needed to be repackaged and re-presented. This means that the question of “what do conservatives want to conserve” can be coherently answered, finally. The question “what liberties do libertarians value” can be answered better, by showing where the liberties they value came from, and how they they got here.
The Anglosphere idea, with its historical narrative, provides a unifying intellectual framework for many seemingly disparate elements on the political right.
Cross-posted on Albion’s Seedling.
If you have not read Jim Bennett’s Anglosphere Primer, I strongly suggest you do so.