The meaning of American conservatism is up for grabs.
For some decades now, the American Right has been focused on decentralizing political power. Reacting to the massive expansion of federal authority in the New Deal and Great Society, conservatives made “small government” a rallying cry. Joining with libertarians and other critics of the State, conservatives embraced free market economics championed by thinkers such as F. A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and above all Milton Friedman.
Of late, however, some on the Right have come to question this commitment to smaller government. They view it as inimical to the common good. In the Senate, populists such as J. D. Vance and Josh Hawley are therefore advancing interventionist economic legislation earlier conservatives surely would have castigated as “big government.” New think tanks such as American Compass and journals such as American Affairs have emerged to provide this “big government conservatism” greater intellectual heft, and old-guard institutions such as the Heritage Foundation are hopping on the bandwagon by relabeling themselves as part of this “New Right.” Broadly speaking, these groups support a federal government that is more active in the economy, and seek to put the welfare state to conservative ends rather than upend it entirely.
Although there is some diversity of thought on the “big government Right,” it seems that they all agree that libertarians have had too much influence in conservative politics. Thinkers such as Patrick Deneen and Michael Lind insist that social liberalism and economic liberalism go hand in hand. In their view, economic deregulation under Reagan morphed into a broader neoliberalism under Clinton, the Bushes, and Obama, which brought about a painful moral deregulation.
From a social conservative’s perspective, this narrative seems indisputably true. With the possible exceptions of abortion and religious liberty, it is difficult to identify many victories for social conservatives since the 1980s. At the same time, though, libertarians would rightly object to this narrative and point out that the state has not shrunk but grown since the days of Reagan—so we never really had the unfettered economic system that supposedly unleashed the moral tumult we see today.
Both sides make valid points, and both miss out on important cultural and political trends. What is needed is an intellectual position that integrates the perspectives of both liberals and postliberals. The founders of what we might call “movement conservatism” offer just such a perspective—and in the midst of rancorous debates on the Right, we would do well to look to their wisdom.
Statism and Individualism
1953 was a signal year for movement conservatism. Leo Strauss published his attempt to revive classical political rationalism, Natural Right and History. Russell Kirk published a book that defined the early stages of the movement, The Conservative Mind. And a University of California, Berkeley sociologist named Robert Nisbet published a provocative book titled The Quest for Community. All three have important insights for conservatives today, but Nisbet and The Quest for Community are perhaps most relevant to the question of libertarianism’s place in the conservative movement.
Nisbet’s unique thesis is that statism and individualism go hand in hand. With great thinkers such as Aristotle and Alexis de Tocqueville, Nisbet believed that human beings are innately social creatures, and possess a drive to live in community with one another. Liberal modernity, though, rejects the idea that man finds his meaning in community, and reduces society to a mere aggregation of individuals.
Indeed, Nisbet argues that nineteenth-century liberalism sought “man’s release from custom, tradition, and from local groups of every kind. Freedom was held to lie in emancipation from association, not within association.” These liberals did not seek to roll back the powers of the state to allow longstanding communities to flourish, but rather to ensure men could escape such communities and define the meaning of life for themselves.
As such, liberalism was a handmaiden to the rise of the administrative state. “The conception of society as an aggregate of morally autonomous, psychologically free, individuals, rather than as a collection of groups is,” he writes, “closely related to a conception of society in which all legitimate authority has been abstracted from the primary communities and vested in the single sphere of the state.” Liberal economic and political reforms aimed at ensuring society would consist only of sovereign individuals and what Nisbet called an “omnicompetent State.” The constituent parts of society—churches, schools, families, and other associations—receded from their traditional roles as these reforms became institutionalized.
For this reason, Nisbet was a great critic of both the collectivism of progressives and the individualism of libertarians. In an essay titled “Conservatives and Libertarians: Uneasy Cousins,” written several years after The Quest for Community, Nisbet locates the roots of classical liberalism and libertarianism in Enlightenment thought. The rationalism of John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau led them to embrace social contract theories and a corresponding anthropology utterly at odds with the traditional Western conception of politics.
Nisbet says the most sophisticated expression of these ideals can be found in the writings of John Stuart Mill. Mill’s famous “one simple principle”—the notion that self-protection is the only legitimate reason to curb liberty—is an ideological razor blade that cuts through reality.
For Mill, the state is a monopoly on coercive power. Because tyranny is so dangerous, it is best that as few people as possible hold power. All power must be concentrated in a single center, so that it can be carefully watched and minimally deployed. Any independent locus of authority was a threat to liberty, a potential hive of tyranny, and therefore needed to be subsumed in the Omnicompetent State’s monopoly of power.
Like the nineteenth-century liberals he critiques, Nisbet argues that libertarians “appear to see social and moral authority and despotic political power as elements of a single spectrum, as an unbroken continuity.” Although libertarians may claim to oppose economic centralization, their ideological commitment to this deracinating liberty manifests itself as an intense social centralization.
Conservatism According to Nisbet
Nisbet’s conservatism rejected these liberal political concepts. He advocated an older, more deeply American vision of ordered liberty than either side of the Right’s contemporary divide offers. Conservatism, Nisbet argues, sees liberty and decentralized authority as innately linked. “The existence of authority in the social order staves off encroachments of power from the political sphere,” Nisbet said. Society ought to be conceived of “as a plurality of authorities.” Parents hold authority over their children; churches over their members; business owners over their employees. The intricate web of these authorities provides a prescriptive set of checks and balances to prevent abuse of both the authority of groups and the liberty of individuals.
To be clear, though some of the groups Nisbet is describing are voluntary in nature, others very much are not. No person freely chooses his or her own family; our parents are our parents whether we like them or not, and we will always owe them certain duties. As such, Nisbet is not even advocating a voluntaristic libertarianism—he is reasserting the significance of tradition.
Seen in this light, the web of authority has another important purpose: to educate people on how to act virtuously. Man has a duty to obey legitimate authority, and for the conservative this kind of just obedience is perfect freedom. As Nisbet writes:
For the conservative, individual freedom lies in the interstices of social and moral authority. Only because of the restraining and guiding effects of such authority does it become possible for human beings to sustain so liberal a political government as that which the Founding Fathers designed in this country and which flourished in England from the late seventeenth century on. Remove the social bonds, as the more zealous and uncompromising of the libertarian individualists have proposed, . . . and you emerge with, not a free but a chaotic people, not creative but impotent individuals.
It is this vision of the republic—one that relies on the Founders’ wisdom in distributing powers—that we have lost, and that conservatives must recover. Nisbet is right: as the power of the central government has grown and the claims of the individual against society have become stronger, we have abandoned the checks and balances that make ordered liberty possible. To reinvigorate the republic, conservatives must simultaneously pursue policies to weaken or deconstruct the administrative state and to promote virtue and the common good in the face of individualism.
None of this is to say, however, that libertarians and conservatives cannot cooperate in certain matters. We must not forget that conservatives and libertarians alike favor economic freedom. While libertarians may be more dogmatic about tearing down barriers to exchange and conservatives more willing to use the state to achieve certain social ends, both groups on the Right tend to accept the efficacy and importance of the free market. Even the National Conservative Statement of Principles affirmed that “an economy based on private property and free enterprise is best suited to promoting the prosperity of the nation and accords with traditions of individual liberty that are central to the Anglo-American political tradition.”
While we work with libertarians to combat the forces of left-liberalism, though, conservatives must remember that our opposition to the “omnicompetent state” rests on grounds besides John Stuart Mill’s “one simple principle.” We are defenders of traditional communities, not atomized individuals fending for themselves. We do not oppose the growth of the federal government merely because it is dangerous to individual liberty, but because the bureaucratization of American society violates our conception of the human good.
The answer to our social woes is not a new New Deal, as so many of the “big government conservatives” seem to advocate. Nor is it a radical libertarianism, which can be just as destructive of society. In their final forms, these ideologies are simply different rhetorical spins on the ruling liberalism. True conservatives should offer an alternative more rooted in the fundamentally social role of man.
Contrary to the integralists, conservatives do not need to seize the “monopoly of power” and use it to achieve our social goals. Likewise, libertarian ideas about a “night watchman state” cannot protect the interests and virtues of our communities. Nationalism and liberalism cannot revive dying local associations.
Nisbet’s solution—radically different from the positions of so many on the Right today—is what he calls the “laissez faire of groups.” It is a non-libertarian case for decentralization. At the conclusion of The Quest for Community, Nisbet sketches a vision for:
a State that knows that the political absorption of the institutional functions of an association, be it family, local community, or trade union, must soon be followed by the loss or weakening of psychological devotions to that association. It is a State that seeks to diversify and decentralize its own administrative operations and to relate these as closely as possible to the forms of spontaneous association which are the outgrowth of human needs and desires. . . . It will not spurn the demands of human security but it will seek means by which such demands can be met through spontaneous association and creation rather than through bureaucratic rigidities of formal law and administration.
The conservative task, as Nisbet outlined in The Quest for Community and his other scholarship, is one of restoration. Conservatives should seek out policies to deconstruct the progressive administrative state, and restore the authorities it seized to the rightful parts of society to which they belong. Another social program or set of regulations from federal bureaucrats will not bring back the common good. But ignoring the social nature of human life, as too many libertarians do, cannot protect the freedom we hold dear.
As a matter of public policy, we must remember that the local group, not the individual or the nation, is the basic building block of society. Conservatives should join with libertarians in advocating the repeal of harmful administrative policies that sap away the authority of churches, schools, and families. We should promote a healthy localism, respectful of individual rights but willing to stand firm to protect the particular rights of place. At the same time, though, conservatives should join with postliberals in advocating policies that will reinvigorate public virtue and our shared sense of a common good. Conservatives can and should support deregulatory economic policies while simultaneously supporting the restoration of traditional society through school prayer and similar social conservative priorities.
America’s communities are facing immense pressure from an overbearing central bureaucracy on the one hand and overzealous individualism on the other. Liberalism is rotting away the foundations of American society. What is needed above all is a conservatism that can balance the competing claims of the group and the individual, order, and liberty—a conservatism like Nisbet’s.
This essay was originally presented at the annual meeting of the Academy of Philosophy and Letters