What is political conservatism?

Murray Rothbard, 1926-1995

‘Political’ is the operative word, for other types, or shall we say facets, of conservatism, such as cultural and social, are more or less self-explanatory.

It’s indeed political conservatism that has suffered the greatest attrition in modernity’s concerted effort to replace the real meanings of words with whatever modern barbarians wish to read into them.

The other day I came across a 1992 article A Strategy for the Right by Murray Rothbard, the guiding light of American libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism. The article is a curate’s egg, good in parts.

The good part is Rothbard’s economics, based as it is on the ideas of the Austrian School, mainly Ludwig von Mises. These feature a nostril-pinching disgust for big government, with its tyrannical tendency to play an active role in the production and distribution of wealth.

The Austrians and Rothbard would happily sign their names to Burke’s maxim: “The moment that government appears at market, all the principles of market will be subverted.” So they will be, and empirical proof is all around us.

Mises and Rothbard were also contemptuous of ‘scientific economists’, with their models, graphs and econometrics. To Mises, economics isn’t an experimental science like physics, but rather an a priori system of thought based on understanding human nature and how it manifests itself in economic behaviour.

Those parts of the Austrians are close to my heart; some others aren’t. Such as their giving the economy a starring role in the drama of life; indeed effectively turning the drama into a one-actor play. Take care of free markets and everything else will take care of itself is an anti-socialist notion I find almost as destructive as socialism.

Anti-socialism is largely socialism with the minus sign. Though reaching different conclusions, they both proceed from the primacy of economics. Hence, starting from different ends, they both arrive at soulless, materialist utilitarianism.

Mises’s deductive method is sound, while Marx’s pseudo-induction is lame, especially since it proceeds from widely falsified facts. Yet I’d describe them both as totalitarian economists – economics is the hub around which their view of life revolves.

This is where both Mises and Rothbard diverge from conservatives, with whom they converge on the refutation of the big state. Conservatives happily accept the primacy of free markets in the economy – but they reject the primacy of the economy in society.

Economic freedom isn’t really freedom but liberty, a lexical distinction that doesn’t exist in most other languages. For liberty to play its proper role in life it has to derive from the ultimate freedom, the free will given man in the Garden of Eden.

Libertarian economics, like any other system of thought, must proceed from the philosophical foundations on which our civilisation was built. If it doesn’t, it’ll fail even on its own terms, and its failure could be indistinguishable from the ‘success’ of its socialist antipode.

Using economics as the starting point, it’s impossible to arrive at conservatism. However, a proper understanding of our religious and philosophical roots easily leads even to economic and political rectitude.

For example, devolving power to the lowest sensible level, and therefore rejecting the omnipotent central state, naturally flows from the church idea of subsidiarity – while the notion of preserving some safety nets is rooted in the church notion of solidarity.

Rothbard doesn’t really understand conservatism. If he did, he wouldn’t have written that the word “connotes conserving the status quo”.

Looking at his contemporaneous America (the article doesn’t contain any references to other countries, which is typical of many American thinkers), he’s justifiably dissatisfied with the status quo. Hence he calls for destroying it, and there he won’t find dissent in these quarters.

The trouble is that the status quo he’s talking about is certainly not one that conservatives wish to conserve. A Western conservative strives to conserve not the outer trappings of life but the religious, philosophical, moral, cultural and political essence of Western civilisation.

The aspiration to preserve our civilisation not only doesn’t preclude but positively demands making adjustments, sometimes radical ones, along the way. A conservative will exercise prudence in advocating change, but he won’t forswear it. For tactical flexibility is essential to executing a sound strategy.

To quote Burke again, “A state without the means of some change, is without the means of its own conservation.” Replace ‘a state’ with ‘Western civilisation’, and that aphorism debunks Rothbard’s facile remark.

One can sympathise with him, for, when it comes to understanding political conservatism, Rothbard suffers from the handicap of being a patriot of a state constituted on Enlightenment, and therefore anti-conservative, principles.

If the classic triad of God, king and country adequately defines British conservatism, it’s hard for an American to pass the litmus test of political conservatism encapsulated in the question “So what is it about our political system that we wish to conserve?”.

The French have the same problem and for the same reason: both countries, America more or less from birth and France in its present form, came to life as revolutionary republics denying the very essence of conservatism. Hence both are at odds with the real desideratum of conservative politics: preserving the traditional order of Christendom, as applied to our time.

An American thinker would probably answer the lapidary question above by the shibboleth ‘the Constitution of the United States’. But, commendable though that document is in many respects, conservative it isn’t – even though of necessity the Constitution has had to act as the tight boot into which conservatively inclined Americans have had to shoehorn their political instincts.

That’s why, as Rothbard correctly remarks, the word ‘conservatism’ only became common currency in America after the 1953 publication of the book The Conservative Mind by the eminent Burkean Russell Kirk. That excellent book was a noble attempt to find a conservative Anglo-American form to accommodate the amorphous American Right.

But the attempt failed, as it was bound to: the term ‘Anglo-American conservatism’ is an oxymoron, for reasons I’ve outlined. Before long, the Right disintegrated into all sorts of splinters, including libertarianism, anarcho-capitalism, Randian objectivism, fascisoid extremism – and neoconservatism, which relates to conservatism the way Neolithic relates to lithium.

Characteristically, Rothbard was a great admirer of Ayn Rand and her awful book Atlas Shrugged, which he regarded as the greatest book of all time. Rand was the archangel of crude materialism, a nexus at which all strands of modernity, including libertarianism, converged.

Rothbard wasn’t repelled by Rand’s strident tone or the way in which she fused the values of cutthroat capitalism with fascistic aesthetics. At the centre of her musings stood the economically virile superman, towering over a godless world made in his image.

This was couched in the literary equivalent of Nazi and Soviet art depicting, respectively, a muscle-bound chap raising high the swastika or a muscle-bound chap raising high the hammer and sickle. Replace those attributes with a wrench and a balance sheet, keeping every other detail intact, and Rand’s clumsily painted picture will be complete.

It’s fashionable these days, among for example Trump’s admirers, to ignore the significance of tone, style and aesthetics. Yet these are essential to understanding conservatism.

Though conservatism may be a philosophy, it’s not an ideology. The difference is critical: philosophy seeks truth, and therefore good; an ideology ignores truth if it gets in the way of vindicating evil.

But how does one become a conservative? One certainly doesn’t don a ready-to-wear philosophical garment, the first one off the rack.

People are drawn to political philosophies that suit their personality, temperament and general outlook on life. If the style was the man to Buffon, the style is also the conservative man.

Thus a conservative may or may not wear three-piece pinstripes, but he certainly won’t wear camouflage trousers. He may or may not patronise classical recitals and picture galleries, but he certainly won’t patronise pop concerts and tattoo parlours. He may or may not have a well-defined philosophy, but if he does, he won’t express it in a shrill and strident tone.

That’s why, though I detest socialism, I’d prefer the company of a civilised socialist to that of a chap who wants to have all socialists hanged. This is an aesthetic consideration, but not only that. I simply fear that, having hanged all socialists, the same chap may then hang me.

That’s why I don’t share the view of pas d’ennemis à droite, echoing the French revolutionary slogan of pas d’ennemis à gauche. But Rothbard clearly sees nothing wrong with extremist American groups like the John Birch Society, provided they aren’t anti-Semitic.

A British conservative, on the other hand, will find groups like Britain First aesthetically, and therefore philosophically, incompatible with his view of life – even though he may agree with some of their desiderata.

If true political conservatism is difficult, not to say impossible, in the US, British conservatism does exist. It may be moribund, but at least British conservatives can draw interest on the sound political capital built in the past.

Conservatism is the only political force that can stop or, more realistically, slow down the juggernaut of modernity – it’s the only force that can oppose modern perversions from the base of sound philosophy. All other movements of the Right have too much in common with modernity to confront it effectively.

That’s why a brilliant man like Rothbard is as confused as a silly brute like Paul Golding of Britain First. Both cast the political Right adrift by cutting the ropes tying it to the philosophical and therefore political tradition of Christendom.

With that ship consequently lost at sea, no individual brilliance, much less stridency, can navigate a route to a safe haven.

7 thoughts on “What is political conservatism?”

  1. The Minerva Reef project from back when now was an attempt to see if Libertarian ideals could function in an entire nation. Create your own nation by running a cruise ship aground in international waters and function as an independent country. The whole “project” lasted for three days before the ship boarded by the military of a nearby Pacific island country and everyone told go go home.

  2. “Conservatives happily accept the primacy of free markets in the economy – but they reject the primacy of the economy in society.”


    1. Legalising drugs is an article of faith with libertarians. They see liberty as freedom from all restrictions, reasonable or unreasonable. I once spoke to a group of libertarian students (the video is on my blog), and during the Q&A one of them suggested that even education is by its nature oppressive: children are indoctrinated by their parents and teachers. I’m Libertarians they wouldn’t like to live in some of the worst estates, where children don’t suffer such indignity. Libertarians differ from their supposed antipodes, socialists, in that the latter are destructive wittingly.

  3. A really good article. Thank you, Mr Boot.

    It is quite right to draw attention to the economic foundations of ‘anti socialism’ and socialism. The materialist similarities between the two are startling. It wasn’t much of a journey when followers of Trotsky went over to neo-conservativism.

    Also correct is the pinpointing of Christianity as the foundation of the philosophical and so the political tradition of the political right in the West.

    Solzhenitsyn declared that the root of Marxism, as with the other tyrannies , is atheism.

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