A Conservatism Parasitic on the Liberal Tradition: Yoram Hazony's Conservatism: A Rediscovery

A Conservatism Parasitic on the Liberal Tradition: Yoram Hazony's Conservatism: A Rediscovery

Forged from below, conservatism has none of the calm or composure that attends an enduring inheritance of power…Even Maistre’s professions of divine providence cannot conceal or contain the turbulent democracy that generated them. Made and mobilized to counter the claims of emancipation, such a statement does not disclose a dense ecology of deference; they open out onto a rapidly thinning forest. 

Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind

Post-liberal or “national conservatism” has enjoyed a high profile in recent years, as the intellectual vanguard or cutting edge of the political right. Challenging established dogmas across the spectrum and positioning itself as a conservatism for the 21st century, it has also begun deepening traction with a broader public that is skeptical of libertarian pieties and wants to see stronger protections for national identities and socially conservative values. This is in spite of the fact that for the past few years post-liberals have been better at offering criticisms of liberalism than offering systematic alternatives much beyond pointing to unappealing quasi-authoritarian “illiberal” regimes like Hungary and Poland. That has begun to change as post-liberal national conservatism gains confidence, and early 2022 has seen the release of major works like Adrian Vermuele’s Common Good Constitutionalism and Sohrab Ahmari’s new magazine Compact  . 

Far and away the most systematic work in this vein is Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery. Clocking in at almost 500 pages it can only be compared to something like George Will’s similarly girthy The Conservative Sensibility, which was the literary equivalent of pouring 1000 tons of intellectual concrete into the widening cracks of right-wing American liberalism. Hazony will have none of that. He makes an unambiguous case for rejecting what he perceives to be an often “worthless” Enlightenment rationalism, contemporary liberal “decadence,” and the imperial violence of cosmopolitan universalism. 

I have actually spoken to Hazony, and in person he’s amiable, charitable, and dialogical towards his opponents. I like him personally and admire his religious dedication to Orthodox Judaism. There’s also no doubt about the depth of his convictions. The conclusion of Conservatism: A Rediscovery includes a lengthy final section on living a “conservative life” which includes the kind of intimately autobiographical ruminations one finds in Søren Kierkegaard or bell hooks. Much of this is genuinely moving and Hazony is to be commended for the bravery required to expose so much of himself to public scrutiny. 

But as both a critique of liberalism and a political philosophy I found Conservatism: A Rediscovery highly unconvincing. It doubles down on many of the frustrating habits that have marred Hazony’s work since he shot to prominence with 2018’s The Virtue of Nationalism. These have led even sympathetic critics to accuse him of “intellectual shuffleboard[ing]” and of selectively bifurcated readings of history. I would add to that a frustrating tendency to not engage seriously or carefully with the liberal and leftist views he dislikes, something I already pointed out in a lengthy critique of Hazony’s account of Marxism (reprinted in the present book). Hazony doubles down on these tendencies in Conservatism: A Rediscovery, which means despite its epic sweep and undoubted literary virtues it has many fatal flaws. 

The critique of enlightenment rationalism 

One of the more interesting contributions of Conservatism: A Rediscovery is Hazony’s argument that conservatism is predicated on a different epistemological outlook than liberalism. While liberals from Locke through Kant are committed to abstract Enlightenment rationalism, Hazony argues that conservatives derive their political convictions from “historical empiricism.” I will have a great deal to say about historical empiricism shortly. First, it is worth noting how dubious Hazony’s claims about liberal rationalism are. 

Hazony blames rationalism for bringing us into the “abyss” of our often “grotesque” modern world. Sometimes Hazony castigates it as a kind of neo-pagan polytheism which allows each individual to worship whichever idol he prefers, at other points it’s a godless and nihilistic materialism where the divine spark of reality has been withdrawn. Sometimes rationalism is dogmatically universalistic, at others dangerous, corrosive, and sophistical. Early in the book Hazony characterizes Descartes as the founder of modern rationalism, in the sense of arguing that the way to proceed to truth is through starting with unassailable premises and proceeding deductively to systematize an outlook from there. At other points he goes back further and diagnoses classical Stoicism as the real manure out of which liberalism coagulated. 

The problem of course is that many of the major early liberal and proto-liberal thinkers don’t fit the rationalistic mold into which Hazony tries to shove them. Hobbes was a materialist; Locke was an empiricist (a point Hazony acknowledges before shrugging it aside); Kant was not a rationalist but a transcendental idealist. J.S. Mill and Karl Popper were fallibilists, and as Hazony admits, F.A. Hayek endorsed a kind of historical empiricism very similar to his own. Despite Hazony’s claims none of the major liberal theorists ever argues that human reason was “infallible” and “available to all men” regardless of circumstance. 

If anything, a standard liberal claim since at least Kant is that our reasoning capacities are profoundly limited, which is one of the reasons we should foster a free exchange of ideas while challenging the imposition of heteronymous dogmas. Nor is it the case that liberals simply asserted as axiomatic truths principles like the moral equality of all human beings and insisted on their legitimacy without argument. The doctrine of moral equality has been defended with argument many times and in many different ways. Utilitarians have stressed how each individual’s equal capacity to experience pleasure or pain implies his or her preferences deserve as much moral weight as anyone else’s (some have even included animals). Various deontological arguments stress either the intrinsic or ascribed equal worth of all individuals on the basis of their shared autonomy, capacity to reason, rights, or membership within the community, and so on. 

Nor has any liberal, or even proto-liberal, ever endorsed the claim that human reason was all powerful. To give just one example, Hobbes’ Leviathan opens with an extended discussion of all the different ways even the reason of “prudent men” can be distorted. This was primarily through the use of words which refer to unempirical objects—including many of Hazony’s cherished transcendent categories like the “nation” or God—which, since they don’t correspond to sense experience, must be literally nonsensical and “absurdities.” Since we can have no sense of these objects, there is no possibility of settling disputes between them by reference to the real world; human beings can thus only fight over them. One reason Hobbes argues for a Leviathan is the need for a positive system of law to inhibit the violence that invariably comes from all too human arguments about such absurdities, which individuals are often incapable of settling on their own. In this respect Hobbes’ empiricism—not to mention his rather conservative statism—is far more consistent and demanding than Hazony’s, which carves out big exceptions for the unempirical and transcendent concepts he expects to further glue the nation together.    

The anxieties behind the critique

My suspicion is that Hazony’s shifting critiques of rationalism have less to do with a close reading of the liberal epistemology, and more to do with his underlying anxieties about the uncertainty and egalitarianism that results. He makes this quite clear later in the book:

Enlightenment rationalism supposes that individuals, if they reason freely about political and moral subjects without reference to tradition, will quickly discover the truth concerning these matters and move toward a consensus. But experience suggests just the opposite: When people reason freely about political and moral questions, they produce a profusion of varying and contradictory opinions, reaching no consensus at all. Indeed, the only thing that reasoning without reference to some traditional framework can do with great competence is identify an unlimited number of flaws and failings, both imagined and real, in whatever institutions and norms have been inherited from the past. Where individuals are encouraged to engage in this activity, the process of finding flaws in inherited institutions proceeds with ever greater speed and enthusiasm, until in the end whatever has been inherited becomes a thing of lightness and folly in their eyes. In this way, they come to reject all the old ideas and behaviors, uprooting and discarding everything that was once a matter of consensus. This means that Enlightenment rationalism, to the extent that its program is taken seriously, is an engine of perpetual revolution, which brings about the progressive destruction of every inherited institution, yet without ever being able to consolidate a stable consensus around any new ones. In reality, consensus does not arise from free debate without reference to any particular tradition of ideas. Instead, consensus is a characteristic of human hierarchies, and it is only within a given hierarchy that this characteristic appears.

This has long been a conservative talking point against Enlightenment reason; whether in its rationalistic, empiricist, or transcendental forms. As a philosophical argument against reason it has never been that convincing, in no small part because it is often compelled to draw upon rational premises to try and launch a sustainable critique of reason. For conservatives like Hazony, the fundamental problem isn’t epistemological, but political and cultural. Joseph de Maistre opined that to submit hierarchy and government to “the discussion of each individual” was to destroy it. Roger Scruton made the point even more explicitly in his The Meaning of Conservatism when he praised the “natural instinct in unthinking people—who, tolerant of the burdens that life lays on them, and unwilling to lodge blame where they seek no remedy, seek fulfillment in the world as it is—to accept and endorse through their actions the institutions and practices into which they are born.” Hazony’s belief in hierarchical political structures where those at the bottom largely accept what they are told and cease trying to find “unlimited flaws”—even if real!—in traditions he happens to venerate flows from the same impulse. 

This impulse works its way past the many contradictions and interpretive errors in the book, since at its core it is unappealing but consistent. Hazony wants a world where traditional hierarchies and beliefs are venerated and largely unquestioned, except along the narrow fronts necessary to repair and re-legitimate them over generations. To the extent the liberal conviction that everything should remain perennially open to philosophical and political questioning challenges this, it is to be rejected; though to what extent is a point on which Hazony is never entirely clear. As he acknowledges, for a long time conservatives in the American South propped up a slave hierarchy by arguing that racial inequality was an incontestable natural fact which liberalism wasn’t to question. We’re all better off that it did, and naturally Hazony is unwilling to go all the way with someone like Maistre in insisting everyone simply submit to established dogma or face the hangman. 

Another strange claim, echoing Patrick Deneen, is Hazony’s argument that liberal “rationalism” has failed or is in the process of failing. This is in part because Hazony believes no universalistic doctrine has ever managed to successfully detach individuals from  ties of family, tribe, and nation and the moral particularism and favoritism which flow from them. This sits with profound discomfort next to other parts of the book where the exact opposite argument is made. As when Hazony argues:

As the cultural revolution has progressed, everything that was once honored has become a matter of public indifference. And as this has happened, every traditional constraint has been lost. At first, it was thought that the result would be only license and abandon. And indeed, this is a fine description of what Enlightenment liberalism looked like one generation after its triumph. At that time, one could win praise and honor for daring acts of transgression—for evading military service, for sexual profligacy and adventurism, for drug use, for blasphemy and obscenity, for desecration of the sabbath, and so on. But by the second generation, this too has dissipated, and little is to be gained by violating the old norms with acts that are by now commonplace. No one is left who will be impressed by them. Now an entirely different kind of decay is ascendant: a growing lassitude and despair, a true decadence in which no praise is to be gained from moving in any direction. And so meaningful movement ceases, and all that is left is the monotonous parade of sensations induced by alcohol, drugs, and flickering screen

This doesn’t look like liberal rationalism failing. If anything this passage suggests it has been dramatically successful. Indeed Hazony often resents the “hegemony” liberalism has over more people and wider swathes of the globe than any other historical doctrine. At the conclusion of the book he even admits that it’s unlikely that his kind of conservatism will garner majoritarian support in staunchly liberal countries, in part because citizens remain enamored with liberalism. This would seem to imply that, even if its rationalistic claims were not true, from the pragmatic standpoint of historical empiricism it seems to be working. Too well for Hazony’s liking. How to square this Yazony doesn’t really say, exceptby  grumbling that it was upheld by the previous and more esteemed traditions still in place. Sometimes Hazony tries to evade this problem by defining Anglo-liberalism itself as a tradition. Though, as Jeremy Waldron points out, if it is a tradition that happens to be characterized by a universalistic outlook, one wonders how Hazony could criticize its universalism without presuming the very kind of external and rationalistic standpoint his analysis is intended to preclude. If universalism is so intrinsic to the liberal “tradition” no immanent criticism can touch it. 

This tendency reflects a deeper ideological propensity within the conservative tradition since at least Maistre waffled between presenting the French revolutionaries as an existential threat to the cosmos and insisting that providence had already ordained their downfall. The ideological tendency of conservatism is to shift fluidly between caricaturing liberal universalism as defunct, unrealistic, and uncompelling when criticizing it and describing it as omnipresent, dangerous, potentially hegemonic, and even a nihilistic force threatening to sweep over the entire world. This tendency is irritating, but one needs to recognize that both sides of this ideological maneuver are necessary. Liberal modernity must be too stupid for anyone to buy into it while still threatening enough to pose a real danger. Tilt too much towards the former and one cannot mobilize, tilt too much towards the latter and one risks presenting it as a doctrine of such extraordinary strength and appeal it cannot be defeated.  In the book’s better moments Hazony grudgingly admits that liberalism has proven attractive to many because some of its features may actually be appealing. 

The contradictions of historical empiricism 

To his credit, Hazony does present an alternative epistemology to Enlightenment rationalism to help answer these questions. That is historical empiricism, which Hazony defines as believing that 

the authority of government derives from constitutional traditions known, through the long historical experience of a given nation, to offer stability, well-being, and freedom. These traditions are refined through trial and error over centuries, with repairs and improvements being introduced where necessary, while seeking to maintain the integrity of the inherited national edifice as a whole. Such historical empiricism entails a degree of skepticism regarding the divine right of the rulers, the universal rights of man, and all other abstract, universal systems. Written documents express and consolidate the constitutional tradition of the nation, but they neither capture nor define this political tradition in its entirety.

Hazony goes on to describe historical empiricism as the philosophical underpinning of much of Anglo-American conservatism from John Selden through Madison and Burke. One could contest this, but even at face value, is historical empiricism an attractive philosophy on its own merits? Saying we should rely on historical experience alone to guide us to well-being means little because the argument is precisely over what constitutes well-being. For the millions of enslaved and colonized peoples of the British empire, there was little charm in maintaining institutions which had proved themselves valuable to men like Selden. So the question then becomes which position we should prioritize, and can only be answered by appealing to principles which go beyond experience and tradition itself. But these are precisely the kinds of abstract ideals which historical empiricism intends to preclude. And of course this is exactly what happens, since Hazony quickly argues that the traditions and institutions which have proven themselves are those predicated on Judeo-Christian mores ultimately backed up in the transcendent truths revealed by scripture. 

Indeed Hazony’s condemnation of liberal rationalism and universalism sometimes take on an overtly religious tone, as when he argues that liberals have 

confused [their] own local, limited perspective for that of God. He has forgotten that he approaches truth by means of a scheme of ideas that blinds him to whatever it was not framed to grasp, and that there are, inevitably, hidden factors that his principles are not taking into account. These hidden factors will eventually emerge and demand their due, often bringing on a calamity that a less arrogant theory of knowledge might have avoided. For this reason, a man who has confused his own local, limited perspective for that of God is potentially a very dangerous person indeed.

In hot blooded passages like this, one recalls Albert Hirschman’s famous argument about the conservative’s attraction to the “perversity thesis,” a kind of mythologized assertion that liberalism and progressivism will bring about their own destruction. Unfortunately such assertions are better remembered for their rhetorical glamor than their argumentative punch.  

One of the critical weaknesses of empiricism—historical or otherwise—is that it quickly turns into a kind of idealism. In Hazony’s case this takes the form of reifying sublime idealization like the “nation” or postulating the existence of abstract principles or transcendent entities like God to legitimate his outlook. Marx’s historical materialism is more analytically probing because it can account for how these reified idealizations emerge and gain support. The mechanism is often less impressive than Hazony would have it. 

Consider his cherished concepts of the “tribe” and the “nation.” For all his references to empiricism, it is very clear that these entities—from the standpoint of pure empirical realism—do not exist. There is no material object we can associate with any given nation in empirical reality. So Hazony’s argument is that in fact the nation is a kind of lived empirical reality, one that is created by human beings and invested with affective meaning and significance. As an anthropological point that may be true. But then it is a “real abstraction”—a social imaginary or “imagined community” existing first in the heads and then through the behaviors of empirically existent individuals at a given historical moment. To say something is not actually an empirical entity isn’t to devalue it; our relationships with other people are among the most important facets of our lives. But it is to say that their existence is not ontologically necessary; our relations are human creations that can transparently be—and indeed have been—changed, rejected, and abandoned if so desired. Hazony doesn’t want this and so we see the “nation” transformed into a kind of ideal.

The problems with nationalism 

Like many conservative theorists, Hazony is never able to wean himself entirely from the liberal tradition. This goes beyond just admitting that some of the concrete achievements of liberalism, like the civil rights movement, warrant commendation. There is a sense in which many of Hazony’s arguments affirm Edmund Neill’s apt observation in his recent Conservatism that the intellectual right often reacts to liberalism and leftism by developing “symbiotic opposites to progressive concepts in order to rebut them.” 

This is evident in Hazony’s arguments for nationalism. At one point he suggests the varieties of national governments should be “be regarded as so many experiments, which, by trial and error, permit mankind to discover the principles most conducive to strengthening the nation against its rivals and securing the welfare of its members.” This transparently echoes Mill’s famous argument about the value of individual experiments in living, through which humankind could discover the ideal forms of the good life while enabling each person to qualitatively develop their selfhood in line with their own “inner tendencies.” Except Hazony applies this idea to the national level, with more than a twinge of geopolitical social Darwinism thrown in for good measure. But if these experiments are good at the national level, why would they not be good for individuals and the communities they are a part of, especially since denying individuals the opportunity to engage in such experiments in living both violates their consent and compels them to live inauthentically. 

This also applies to Hazony’s religious views; nowhere does he answer Kierkegaard and Charles Taylor’s observation that national religions backed by state power undermine the capacity of their members to live genuinely religious lives. They contend the individual’s relationship to God—what is of highest existential concern—becomes subordinated to the merely ethical needs of man and the demands of totalizing political homogeneity. 

Hazony’s account of nationalism is highly loaded. He often contrasts the kind of imperialist inclinations of universalistic doctrines with the more modest regionalism of nationalism. For Hazony, nationalist oriented states are more pacific and refrain from the kind of grand expansionist projects that brought immeasurable suffering to the world through the mid 20th century.  Except, oddly for a historical empiricist, none of Hazony’s historical examples of nationalist states bear this out. Indeed all the examples of nation states he gives in both Conservatism: A Rediscovery and the earlier The Virtues of Nationalism—France, Britain, and the United States, just to name a few—have engaged in titanic imperialist ventures on a global scale, often justified by very ugly forms of nationalist chauvinism. Over the course of their expansionist projects millions have perished. Sometimes this chauvinistic imperialism blended with certain kinds of liberalism and capitalism, while in other contexts liberal nationalism could be an emancipatory force. Hazony might remember that, as Hobsbawm points out in his excellent The Age of Imperialism, the standard flags of the nationalist independence movements liberated Europe and Latin America took from conservative Ancien Régimes were not some variation on the Union Jack or the Fleur de Lis, but the revolutionary Tricolor. 

This isn’t the only context where Hazony engages in some politically correct reconfigurations of history. Many of these are quite transparent, and undermine the credibility of the larger story he is trying to tell. For instance Hazony argues that the “decision of the 2015 German government to admit a million immigrants from the Middle East was plainly a destructive measure.” This is part and parcel of his more general resistance to generous immigration policies. No mention is made of the fact that these “immigrants” were in fact Syrian refugees fleeing from one of the most deadly wars of the 21st century. Or that this same conflict was made bloodier by the kinds of tribalistic loyalties Hazony fetishizes, much as the refugee crisis was exacerbated by the refusal of illiberal democracies like Hungary and Poland to take in their share of refugees. 

Enlightenment liberalism has only begun

I don’t agree with much of Hazony’s new book. Far from regarding Enlightenment liberalism as having run its course, I think we have only just begun to create a genuinely fair and just world where moral equals learn from each other as we all try to live our best possible lives. In this pursuit, liberals should begrudge no one the right to live a deeply conservative life if that is what they find meaningful. But to the complaint that inhibiting conservatives from imposing their own conception of the good life on others limits their political freedom, we need only say “not nearly as much as you’d limit the fundamental liberties of others if you get your way.” To the extent we wish to extend traditions into the future this must be done on a voluntary basis, and where hierarchies of domination exercise power to dominate others they should be democratized. 

Nevertheless Conservatism: A Rediscovery is a magisterial book by an important conservative intellectual. To conceptualize and defend as sweeping a political philosophy as Hazony does is a real accomplishment, and his book will undoubtedly provoke a healthy debate about every part of Hazony’s argument. But I know which side of that debate I will be on. 

Featured Image is Counter-Revolutionary Allegory