Thanks so much to Carl for his able account—complete with astutely copious quoting—of Yuval Levin’s essay in Modern Age.* Modern Age, of course, was founded by Russell Kirk and has remained infused with “traditionalist” conservatism, which is often contrasted (as it is by our James Ceaser) with libertarianism and “natural rights” conservatism. Yuval ably displays his continuity with the tradition of traditionalism with his clear-sighted choice of Burke over Paine.
That doesn’t mean that conservatism is the opposite of the 18th-century liberalism of our Founders. Quite the contrary: Burke was mostly such a liberal, or all for free markets and modern representative political institutions. He was, as were most of our Founders, for a limited kind of liberalism, one that didn’t mean to uproot or radically transform relational institutions such as the church, family, and local community. One way our Founders limited liberalism was through their choice of federalism, which allows the states to decide for themselves how to achieve the liberal/relational balance in perpetuating our indispensable institutions, in sustaining what we now often call the “mediating structures” that exist between the unrealistically abstract individual and the coldly impersonal state. The space between what we can call the free (and juridical) individual and the juridical state is the realm of the relational person. It has to be, for example, a safe space for the free exercise of religion, and religion has to be understood as more than a sincere conscience, as an organized and authoritative body of thought and action.
It is possible to say that Burke (and certainly Kirk) was more of a liberal conservative and that many of our Founders and John Locke were more conservative liberals. For the liberal conservative, our free political institutions and our free market exist for what makes personal lives worth living as friends, neighbors, parents, children, citizens, thinkers joyfully seeking and sharing the truth, and creatures. For the conservative liberal, our various forms of social traditionalism—such as religious faith—are to be understood to exist to sustain individual liberty. The conservative liberal agrees with Tocqueville when he talks up the political utility of religion, but he loses the liberal conservatives when he says that religion tells the truth as to who we are as more than merely free individuals.
So a favorite slogan of mine is: Libertarian means for non-libertarian ends. A favorite slogan of some of my Hayekian friends is: Conservative sociology for political (and economic) liberty. Hayek refused to call himself a conservative, but he really was, practically speaking, much more conservative than most of the libertarians around these days.
It seems to me that Yuval is more of a liberal conservative than a conservative liberal. And for that reason among many, he gives much-needed guidance to us postmodern conservatives in our quest to find a “brand” between Wendell Berry (or Alasdair MacIntyre) and Peter Thiel.
Yuval is often called a reform conservative. So let me conclude by using G.K. Chesterton (in his Orthodoxy) to explain why all conservatism is properly reform conservatism:
We need not debate about the mere words evolution or progress: personally I prefer to call it reform. For reform implies form. It implies that we are trying to shape the world in a particular image; to make it something that we see already in our minds. Evolution is a metaphor from mere automatic unrolling. Progress is a metaphor from merely walking along a road–very likely the wrong road. But reform is a metaphor for reasonable and determined men: it means that we see a certain thing out of shape and we mean to put it into shape. And we know what shape.
*See the essay here.