A Plea for Conservative Liberalism

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Asseverations of liberty are received as the ravings of ideologues – unscientific, unpragmatic, dangerous. What kind of liberalism is defensible today?

Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers, 2 vol.

by Hannes H. Gissurarson

New Direction, PDFs available online: Volume I (350 pp.), Volume II (534 pp.)

A polity drifts without principles. Freedom loses its lustre for those who have never had to fight for it. To inherit and pass down a fragile tradition intact demands greater discipline than planting the seeds of freedom in ready soil. The task is not novel, and therefore less glorious. And the people are weary. Asseverations of liberty are received as the ravings of ideologues – unscientific, unpragmatic, dangerous. What kind of liberalism is defensible today?

Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers by Hannes H. Gissurarson, professor of political science at the University of Iceland, is an attempt to answer this question. He adheres to conservative liberalism. Where another author may have elected to present a philosophical treatise in defence of conservative liberalism, Gissurarson instead paints twenty-four portraits of conservative liberals, their biographies, and their main ideas. In Volume I: Snorri Sturluson, St. Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, David Hume, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Anders Chydenius, Benjamin Constant, Frédéric Bastiat, Alexis de Tocqueville, Herbert Spencer, and Lord Acton. In Volume II: Carl Menger, William Graham Sumner, Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich von Hayek, Wilhelm Röpke, Michael Oakeshott, Sir Karl R. Popper, Bertrand de Jouvenel, Ayn Rand, Milton Friedman, James M. Buchanan, and Robert Nozick.

In such works, one can always quibble over the specific thinkers included – or omitted – but in Gissurarson’s case, his canon is solidly defended. His choice to accentuate these twenty-four individuals’ similarities over their differences gives the impression of a stable school of thought. Some may make for strange bedfellows – one thinks, for instance, of Rand’s disregard for Hayek. But at a time when conservative liberalism is under attack, the twenty-four might find more in common with each other than with those to their left and right.

So what do they share in common? Gissurarson explains at the end of his introduction:

Certainly [these twenty-four thinkers] all are in favour of the rule of law, separation of powers, a flourishing civil society alongside the state, competition in the marketplace, free trade, and private property. They all prefer evolution to revolution, except in dire circumstances, whereas they share a distrust of people in power, whether by inheritance, election, or usurpation. Again, they all resolutely reject ancient absolutism and modern totalitarianism. While they may present various kinds of arguments for their positions, from divine command, human reason, social utility, natural evolution, moral intuition, and common consent, these positions are all in the end based on a choice, which is a commitment to, indeed a celebration of, Judeo-Christian Western civilisation. Ultimately, their theories may be regarded as different, but not mutually exclusive, historical interpretations and philosophical articulations of this civilisation. Perhaps the best, albeit somewhat metaphysical, way of describing conservative liberalism is as the self-consciousness of Western civilisation.

A more encompassing concept, Gissurarson’s conservative liberalism is not reducible to free-market fundamentalism. (His inclusion of Robert Nozick over Murray Rothbard indicates that, in irreconcilable cases of conflict, he prefers liberty over property rights.) He accords to the market a privileged role, but he knows that we are more than just customers. Ringing throughout is Constant’s concern that “modern man, having delegated power to the authorities, would neglect politics. He might become absorbed in the enjoyment of his private independence, with the authorities only too anxious to encourage him to do so…‘Political liberty…enlarges their [the citizens’] spirit, ennobles their thoughts, and establishes among them a kind of intellectual equality which forms the glory and power of a people.’”

The sentiment is shared among many conservatives. Is Gissurarson simply a conservative with some liberal sentiments? Not quite. Conservative liberalism is not exactly the same as liberal conservatism. In a key passage in the chapter on Hayek, Gissurarson identifies Kenneth Minogue, John Gray, and Roger Scruton as examples of liberal conservatism. Two differences separate the camps: their views on progress and universalism. Conservatives do not believe in progress. Liberals, on the other hand, have seen progress in living standards, economic growth, food production, and the reduction of crime, child mortality, famines, plagues, and poverty. Our capacity to share knowledge has augmented. We drift closer to universalism, which Gissurarson distinguishes from liberal imperialism. It is possible to extend a liberal moral vision to encompass all of mankind without it needing to issue in a neoconservative foreign policy. All humans are capable of progress and respect for one another. In this way Gissurarson positions conservative liberalism between a conservatism focused solely on cultural particularity and a liberalism that would force mankind to be free.

Noteworthy is that since Gissurarson debated liberal conservatism and conservative liberalism with Minogue and Gray 35 years ago, the one area where he has somewhat changed his mind is that he now views nationalism with more sympathy. Nationalism is spontaneously developed. It arose in the wake of the French Revolution, against which so much of conservative liberalism evolved. Gissurarson’s sympathy toward nationalism is a welcome development amongst conservative liberals. For far too long the Western world has automatically associated nationalism with the horrors of Nazi Germany. An extreme liberalism argues that anything less than love extended equally to all of humanity is akin to unhealthy prejudice. The reader is treated to the occasional digression on Icelandic history and politics, of which he may have been deprived if Gissurarson subscribed to some milky internationalism. Most humans do not identify exclusively as customers of some global community, even if they partake of and contribute to a global economy. To assume that we can extend the affective ties of our familial and amical relations to the whole world is foolish. Nor should these affective ties be severed by exaggerated commitment to global society, whether the exaggeration be caused by market fundamentalism, the perfunctory passion for humanity, or the supercilious disregard for citizens’ national attachments. It is possible to respect the dignity of all humans and maintain the natural affection for one’s own. Given that matters of identity are so in vogue today, it is to be hoped that in future work Gissurarson will investigate more deeply the significance of national identity. Is there anything natural about the nation-state? Is there anything that makes it more (or less) compatible with liberal institutions and democracy?

In conservative liberalism “conservative” is the adjective and “liberalism” is the noun.[1] The adjective is an attitude embracing piecemeal reform and allergic to the temptation to remake human beings. The noun comports the separation between laws and morals. In Gissurarson’s pithy phrase: “Virtue cannot be legislated.” It also enjoins freedom, defined by Lord Acton as:

the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he believes his duty against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and opinion. The State is competent to assign duties and draw the line between good and evil only in its immediate sphere. Beyond the limits of things necessary for its well-being, it can only give indirect help to fight the battle of life by promoting the influences which prevail against temptation, – religion, education, and the distribution of wealth.

Conservative liberalism prefers the concrete over the abstract and utopian. As Jouvenel says, “there is a tyranny in the womb of every Utopia.” Conservative liberalism likes common sense and doing what works. But it is also principled, or at least it should be. If not, then it risks drifting – and often in the direction of interventionism. Why? Because “[w]e see the hardship of visible victims of circumstances, for example, but ignore the plight of unseen victims. Moreover, the beneficial effects of government intervention are direct, immediate and visible, whereas its evil effects are indirect and gradual and lie out of sight.”

Hayek’s contribution to providing a coherent and respectable framework for thinking about liberalism has been paramount. The Austrian economist knew that political effectiveness paradoxically required one not to enter politics. On Hayek’s advice, Antony Fisher established the Institute of Economic Affairs, without which, according to Milton Friedman, “I doubt very much whether there would have been a Thatcherite revolution.” Hayek knew the power of well-elaborated ideas. For this, and for the spread of free-market think tanks on his watch, he has been pilloried by the left, who view these think tanks as a malevolent force that must be unmasked. Gissurarson rejoins:

It is however noteworthy about these attempts at constructing a narrative about Hayek and the Mont Pelerin Society that its proponents think that the real task is mind control, to shape the public discourse. They are just complaining that in this Hayek and his followers outdid the Left. This is precisely how totalitarian planners think, both in fact and fiction: there is no truth, only intellectual hegemony. But even these unfair and occasionally vicious attacks on Hayek confirm my widely shared conclusion that he presented the most powerful and profound defence of the free society in the twentieth century.

A few words should be said about the general tone of the two volumes. Twenty-Four Conservative-Liberal Thinkers at times feels like it meanders from one thinker’s life story and ideas to another. More extensive expostulations of the historical context fortunately offset this tendency. Where concerns over property rights exercised many of the 18th century writers, the 19th century had to contend with the legacy of the French Revolution, discussed in the chapter on Burke. The limpid and sad prose of the aristocrat Tocqueville indicates that there is no going back to the ancien régime. One almost thinks of the converse of the Roman historian Tacitus, who was vexed by the problem of maintaining liberty with the republic transformed into the principate. For Tocqueville, one problem was how the democratic ethos would affect aristocratic virtues and especially the possibility of extraordinary individuals. Both he and Burke, with whom he shares so much in common, were not very hopeful. Bastiat’s optimism – and narrow though penetrating insight – would hardly have punctured their gloom.

A solution, to which Gissurarson also subscribes, is found surprisingly in the works of Ayn Rand. The Russian émigré’s defence of the free market had little to do with economics; rather, preserving heroism. The will to create, not profit, is her concern. Rand adapts Aristotle’s ethics to the liberal and capitalist 20th century. The good society enables human flourishing. Rand’s heroes are examples of Aristotelian magnanimity. Extraordinary individuals rise above their humble backgrounds to accomplish great things. Gissurarson gives the examples of Mises, Thatcher, Tiger Woods, Leibniz, Mozart, Edison, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Ford, the New York firefighters on 9/11, and everyday heroes such as devoted mothers. Rand’s inclusion, much like that of Snorri Sturluson and St. Thomas Aquinas, reminds us that feeding into conservative liberalism are currents of a pre-Enlightenment tradition stretching all the way back to antiquity. (One could have expected the inclusion of the Roman orator Cicero as a sort of conservative liberal, though Gissurarson appears to agree with Lord Acton’s assertion that the ancients lacked three liberal ideas: representative government, emancipation of slaves, and liberty of conscience.)

The second volume focuses on the 20th century. The chapter on Mises will disappoint those eager for an extensive discussion of praxeology, economics, and methodology. It serves a more critical function in the context of the book: reviewing Mises’ life and the terror of the Nazi and Soviet regimes, it both confirms Gissurarson’s earlier claim of Mises’ heroism and sets the stage for many of the thinkers who follow. In stark and warm contrast stands the chapter on Hayek, which, together with the Friedman chapter, takes up a full third of the second volume. Many of the anecdotes from Hayek’s life can be found in the semi-autobiography Hayek on Hayek, but they are complemented by Gissurarson’s personal recollections. It is one of the treats of the book that Gissurarson relates stories of his own encounters with Hayek, Popper, Friedman, Buchanan, and Nozick. As the legacy of the French Revolution dominated the 19th century, many of the thinkers of the 20th formulated their ideas against the backdrop of totalitarianism.

As the work inches closer to the 21st century the final portraits are American. The issues discussed, though no less important, seem further removed from the horrors of the Old World that periodically strengthen conservative liberalism. Gissurarson’s conservative liberalism has a distinctly European feel. It is refreshing and necessary. Liberals on the continent too often take their bearings from the ideals of the United States. Parochial in their universalism, some Americans are all too happy to uphold the notion that liberalism terminates in their society. But Europe has a distinguished history with its own canon of illustrious conservative liberals. It’s revealing that of Gissurarson’s twenty-four conservative liberal thinkers, not one of them is a US Founding Father. In his chapter on James Buchanan, Gissurarson follows Scruton and writes, “Buchanan and many other American economists do not display the same awareness as European conservative liberals of the various ties and attachments with which individuals are born.”

In a rousing conclusion to the second volume, Gissurarson writes that “we are not only customers of one another but also citizens, joined together in recognition and appreciation of our civilization, Western in origin, but of universal application.” This conclusion appears in the chapter on Robert Nozick, who rejected his earlier atomistic libertarianism in favor of seeing the individual within a historical community. The state can be both night watchman and custodian of our cultural heritage. Perhaps. But defining our cultural heritage has been one of the most contentious controversies for liberal countries. So the conservative liberal must have a sense of history. And he must persevere in an uncertain endeavor. It is required he do awake his hope.

But I, for my part, could not move past the conclusion to the first volume. The Polish philosopher Leszek Kołakowski said that our present troubles are not because the modern man thinks God is dead, but because he thinks the Devil is dead. Gissurarson then relates an Icelandic folktale about three demons sent by the Devil to corrupt mankind. After a year’s work, they report their progress to the Devil. “One said that he had taught mankind to lie. The Devil was pleased. The second said that he had taught mankind to steal. The Devil was mightily pleased. The third was the smallest and least respected demon. He said: ‘I have convinced mankind that you don’t exist.’ The Devil was happiest with this little demon and said that from now on he would be second in rank in Hell.”

There was a time when Europeans, exposed to the horrors of the 20th century, immigrated to the United States and were enthralled with the energy and naiveté of the New World. For years now, the bellicose Old World has been at peace – nestled in the secular Enlightenment, nourished by the liberal belief in progress, content to chant “never again”. But history declares that this is an aberration. If the conservative liberal must have a sense of history, it is because his hope must be moderated by a sense of tragedy, a sense of the fragility of freedom and prosperity. It may be one of the toughest feats for conservative liberals of the 21st century: to believe again in the Devil without the solace of God.

[1] I am reminded of Margaret Thatcher’s (incidentally, also the founder of the publisher New Direction in 2009) quip concerning then Canadian Progressive Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney: the Progressive Conservative misunderstood the name of his party, putting too much emphasis on the adjective and not enough on the noun.


  • Scott B. Nelson

    Scott B. Nelson is Research and Strategy Advisor at the Austrian Economics Center and Hayek Institut. He lectures on politics and philosophy and publishes books, scholarly articles, and commentary. His last book is Tragedy and History: The German Influence on Raymond Aron’s Political Thought. His next book is on Cicero and prudence in politics.

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The views expressed on austriancenter.com are not necessarily those of the Austrian Economics Center.

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