[Because if we're going to dismiss conservatives, first we should know what they actually believe and why they believe it...shouldn't we?]
After Frank Meyer and Russell Kirk had gotten WHAT IS CONSERVATISM? off to a promising start, Willmoore Kendall, M. Stanton Evans, and Wilhelm Ropke brought it screeching to halt in their less than stellar essays.
Kendall’s (“The Bill of Rights and American Freedom”) is the most curious and the most disappointing, in part because Professor Kendall was nothing if not a controversialist, in public as well as in his private life. But this particular essay fails to light any sparks. It’s either a slightly revisionist reading of how the Bill of Rights came to be; or it’s an attempt to claim that the Bill of Rights is, as the Federalists at the time predicted, no more than an ineffective “parchment barrier” to the federal government’s intrusion on our rights; or it’s a rebuttal to legendary Supreme Court Justice, and fierce libertarian, Hugo Black who insisted (wrote Kendall) “that the Founders of the American Republic intended the First Amendment freedoms to be ‘absolute’; that is, intended that they should not be set aside in any circumstances whatsoever…”
Whether Black held such an absolutist position, I can’t say; most of us understand that no freedom can be “absolute” (“fire in a crowded theater” and all that). Nor can I say whether Kendall was correct in asserting, against Black’s position, that “To this day, the Supreme Court has never declared an enactment of the Congress of the United States unconstitutional on the grounds of the First Amendment.” Even if that were the case in 1964, it’s not the case now: see Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, if you will.1
Regardless, Kendall concluded by reminding us that our liberties ultimately won’t be protected by the Bill of Rights or any other words on paper, but that We the People have it within our power to undo them or to secure them. I won’t say he was wrong in that conclusion; I’ll just say it doesn’t strike me as all that interesting an insight.
In 1964, M. Stanton Evans was editor of The Indianapolis News and a contributor (as were pretty much all of the authors in this anthology) to National Review. He went on to be associated with Human Events, a periodical whose main claim to fame is having rejected (but with an encouraging note!) an essay I sent it when I was seventeen. His “A Conservative Case for Freedom” does little more than restate Frank Meyers’ concerns with the conservative split—libertarians here, traditionalists (Evans calls them “authoritarians”) there. The solution, of course, is to remember that freedom and order are not contradictory, but two sides of the conservative coin, and that true freedom is freedom to live according to traditional values, not to flout them in a spasm of anarchy, etc.
But Evans, in addition to all that boilerplate, also provided this boilerplate:
“If there is one point upon which contemporary philosophers seem to be agreed, it is that American society has somehow lost its bearings. Critics of all persuasions relentlessly inform us that our nation has strayed from the values which once made it strong and informed it with purpose.”
Feel free to borrow that passage. It can be, and has been, used at any time in this nation’s history, past, present, or future: it’s an all-purpose boilerplate for all seasons.2
This troika of the unremarkable concludes with Wilhelm Ropke’s “Education in Economic Liberty,” in which Mr. Ropke argues that free markets are good because, er, they’re free. He takes time to bemoan the surprising economic illiteracy of both Benedetto Croce and Hannah Arendt, and he says this:
“We should avoid luring men into acceptance of economic liberty by holding out to them the candy of material abundance; our educational efforts should instead be made on the high level of social philosophy and should appeal to the last and supreme values.”
That seems fair.
Ropke’s many references in this essay to “collective” and “collectivist” and “collectivism” remind me that, once upon a time, collectivist economies were not entirely a straw man—such economies did in fact exist, though not in Western nations. Conservatives today continue to use that trope even though the only truly collectivist economy left on the planet is North Korea, a model that absolutely no one anywhere finds attractive. As far as America goes, we’re no more a collectivist economy now than we were under Dwight Eisenhower; for better or for worse, Americans just don’t do collectivism. Someone ought to tell conservatives that if they’re going to quote Ropke and F.A. Hayek (about whom more anon), they should remove the outdated “collectivism” references.
Don’t take my word for that, by the way; even Mr. Ropke understood the difference between Soviet-style collectivism and European welfare-state social democracy (and we haven't even reached that level of economic unfreedom):
“Notwithstanding all interventions, state-owned companies, and welfare-state activities, in West Germany we have a genuine market economy which is based on economic freedom; in Soviet Germany we have a centrally directed collectivist economy, operating under command and denying everey economic liberty.”
So economic freedom can co-exist with government intervention (regulation), with welfare-state programs, and even with state-owned companies! Roll over, Milton Friedman, and tell Paul Ryan the news.
Fortunately, these three essays did not constitute the heart or the soul of WHAT IS CONSERVATISM? Let's move on (next time) to something weightier--F.A. Hayek's intriguing "Why I Am Not a Conservative".
1Technically, Burwell v. Hobby Lobby did not in fact overturn an act of Congress; it overturned a mandate from the Department of Health and Human Services which became part of Obamacare. As regards Kendall's argument, I think it's a distinction without a difference.
2 I believe I even used it, or some variation of it, on a New York State Regents exam in 1965. I did well on the exam--but then, I always did; it was life that I had trouble with, not standardized tests. Why can't life be more like a standardized test, anyway?