Book Review: What Is Conservatism?

What Is Conservatism?, edited by Frank S. Meyer

This book asks a great and obvious question, and the answer is, unsurprisingly, not very obvious. What is conservatism indeed? On what does it depend? The various essays in this book, which are written by an illustrious group of thinkers, some of whom are definitely not conservative themselves (Garry Wills) and some of whom did not consider themselves to be conservatives even if they would be in the American sense (F.A. Hayek). It is rather unsurprising, though, that where there is at least some degree of cachet in being seen to be on the side of those seeking to preserve liberty and freedom and culture from the barbarian hordes in and around us, there are going to be people who consider themselves to be friends and allies of a noble and glorious tradition who may not strictly deserve or belong to be a part of that. And it is likely going to be unsurprising that this book is full of essays and reflections that speak to the narrow personal experiences and particular worldviews of the author and that illustrate by their diversity the lack of systematic approach in what is considered to be a conservative in the first place, which is both a great weakness and a great strength depending on the circumstances.

This book is a bit more than 250 pages long and it is divided into twelve essays as well as a bit of other material as well. The book begins with a foreword and introduction that discuss the importance and significance of the book. After that comes a discussion of the common elements of conservatism as they relate to freedom and tradition by Frank Meyer (I, 1). This is followed by two essays that discuss the emphasis on tradition and authority (II), including one on ordered freedom by Russell Kirk (2), and one on the Bill of Rights by Willmoore Kendall (3). After that comes three essays with an emphasis on freedom (III), including the conservative case for freedom by M. Stanton Evans (4), one on education in economic liberty by Wilhelm Ropke (5), and one on why F.A. Hayek did not consider himself a conservative (6). After that there is a prophetic view of conservatism (IV) by Stanley Parry (7) as well as a couple of less conservative essays that urge accommodation (V) by Stephen Tonsor (8) and Garry Willis (9). Then the book turns to some empirical observations (VI) by John Chamberlain (10), and William F. Buckley (11), after which there is a summing up (VII, 12) by the editor, an appendix about the dogma of our times by Frank Chodorov, acknowledgements, notes, contributors’ info, and an index.

In reading this book, it is likely that the reader will not be all that much better informed afterwards than before as to what is conservatism. And that is not a bad thing, because the lack of a doctrinaire approach to conservatism means that it will be protean and highly flexible in terms of what is included or not depending on definitions as well as the behavior of particular people involved. But the reader should be better informed about what sort of strain of conservatism most appeals to them or that one would be included into. This includes, it should be remembered, those who would consider themselves to be classical 18th or 19th century European liberals, as Hayek does, or those who would consider themselves to be reactionary conservatives. This complexity makes it clear why some people would tend to be fierce about the boundary conditions, especially when it is not always clear what it is that someone is really interested in conserving beyond their own power or influence or wealth. And as this is not always easy to know, it is worth to figure out exactly why someone else considers oneself to be a conservative and why one would think the same of oneself.

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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