Robert Nisbet was certainly a conservative theorist of some prominence, as Mike Rappaport indicates. Mike was picking up on Steve Hayward’s post, which called to task today’s “quantum conservatism” for its uncertainty principle. For good reason, Mike holds Nisbet as an exemplar of the differences between conservatives and libertarians.
But like Tocqueville, whose insights his best work elaborated on, sociologist Nisbet overlooks the core of American politics, which is the Declaration of Independence. Unless conservatives are selective about what it is they are conserving, they are no better, theoretically, than the radicals they claim to be combating. And libertarians cannot claim to defend liberty unless they work out a theory of governing. Indeed, both libertarians and conservatives must be radical to grasp the truth and thus transcend the confines of partisanship. This all demands a return to the Declaration and its argument for an equality more fundamental than “legal equality” (or “equality of result”).
Thus, Nisbet’s leading conservative identifying characteristic—“Conservatives view the population as composed not of individuals but of natural groups such as the family, locality, church, region, social class”—conflates some conservative understandings of society with the foundation of American politics. It is hostile to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. As the scholars, both conservative and libertarian, agree in the indispensable volume Natural Rights Individualism and Progressivism, the Declaration focuses on individual rights, natural rights.
But natural rights needs to be translated into conventional rights; “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Natural law is violated by the stronger asserting their alleged natural rights to rule the weaker, which results in slavery. Hence natural law calls for equality, beginning with being neither a master nor a slave. Equality thus understood is the conservative principle. The 13th Amendment, limiting the private conduct of slavery, is an essential consequence of the Declaration. And Lincoln argued that the equality principle is at the heart of all morality as well as just governance.
Contrary to some traditionalist conservatives—Russell Kirk has been guilty of this, as even some of his most thoughtful advocates must allow—the Declaration is not an abstract document. Contrary to Woodrow Wilson, it is both philosophic and practical: The “long train of abuses and usurpations” describes with some specificity the traits of unjust and tyrannical governments, then and now—e.g., imposing a lawless immigration policy (“obstructing the Laws for Naturalization of Foreigners”); creating swarms of bureaucrats (“erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance”); abuse of power (“altering fundamentally the Forms of our Governments”), among others. The Declaration teaches both principle and prudence in the establishment of governments bringing about both “safety and happiness.” America’s founding document is both conservative and libertarian, showing how to govern and be governed justly for the sake of the purposes of human life and how to recognize tyranny and then proceed to replace it with a just and noble government. It also offers a prudent guide to both the aspirations and limitations of our foreign policy, as Harry Jaffa notes.
But is liberty enough? Some conservatives would prefer a particular religion as the human and political object; others notions of order; others virtue, moral, political, and intellectual. In fact, American politics has always combined liberty with these esteemed qualities, but for the sake of “safety and happiness.” Under modern conditions Aristotelian goals require Lockean means.
Given their respective limitations, conservatives and libertarians generally fail to appreciate the origins of America in war, together with the Civil War the most just wars ever fought. But constitutional government cannot survive based solely on Machiavellian force and fraud. But neither can our form of government and way of life survive without the wisdom of the serpent.
The moderation of a free and civilized human life requires the discipline of social institutions, the free market, and of religion, in addition to the rule of law or constitutionalism. That moderation no less requires the boldness of human liberty. The weaving together of moderation and boldness is the task of political philosophy.