Hazony’s scourge here is “Enlightenment liberalism,” which, he argues, falsely deduces a universal politics from nature: Man is free and equal by nature, political regimes are founded to protect property and liberty, man establishes these regimes by his consent. But this liberalism is unempirical and a projection of man’s reason to create a regime of maximum individual liberty.
The main culprits, among others, are Thomas Hobbes and John Locke. Hazony argues that they mistook certain aspects of the English constitutional tradition—for example, a reverence for individual liberty—for universal properties and the highest political goods and set out to define a regime according to this type. As Enlightenment liberals, or what is the same, rationalists, they then insisted that this was the regime that mankind should now construct.
Much of the postwar conservative movement in America has been similarly defined by this Enlightenment liberalism. This was nowhere truer than in Frank Meyer’s fusionism, which became the archetype of American conservatism. Hazony concludes that fusionism was really libertarian-liberalism.
Such fusionism gave pride of place to an abstract formulation of individual liberty in the public sphere, while depending on a privatized virtue to undergird the use of that freedom. The result over time was that conservatism, really a right-liberalism, could only contend for tax cuts, small government, and originalist federal judges. The public square on culture, family, religion, and the nation defaulted to a left-liberalism that trumpeted its conception of virtue in what was a naked square, never really contested by conservatives, who just wanted their version of liberal freedom, baby. Hazony does not consider that fusionism is not soft libertarianism but a response to the constitutional order’s design. Originally it was built on localities and states as self-governing entities with the capacity for more-conservative morals legislation, while the federal government largely focuses on defense and commerce. That order has been challenged by many developments, but it can also be recovered.
This explains, according to Hazony, how conservatives could win elections and hold the White House under Ronald Reagan or No. 10 with Margaret Thatcher and still lose many consequential fights over culture. And this unthinking, ideologically libertarian conservatism had manifestly lost the political thread of victory until the nationalist conservative intervention in 2016 in the form of Brexit and Donald Trump’s presidential victory. Here was outlined a new path for the right to follow if it wanted to govern.
On one level, I do not contest, nor really should any American conservative, that our effort to conserve the best of our constitutional tradition is an ongoing reflective and discussion-based process where principles, ideas, and policies are formulated and applied to questions that are up for debate. This tradition is surely not defined by an ideology or a catechism, and attempts to do that undermine conservatism. And for conservatives to defend, reform, and secure this republic, we are called to the virtues of prudence, wisdom, and courage.
Some conservative judgments have omitted one or more of those virtues. In one respect, Hazony is correct: Conservatives in America and the U.K. had deemphasized the nation as the crucial political framework, and, yes, Brexit and Trump corrected matters. But it is something of a tale to conclude that Frank Meyer’s fusionism left conservatives unable to defend culture and morality from the egalitarian-dipped arrows of the progressives. Hazony takes matters too far.
The author’s dichotomies aim to separate the children of light from the children of the confused within American conservatism. Readers of Hazony’s earlier book The Virtue of Nationalism remember its deployment of empires and nations as the exclusive measure for political forms, omitting regimes like republicanism and how this spirit crucially shapes politics. Hazony judges conservatism in America to be primarily a contest between a godlike reason that produces a deracinated individualism and a neglected traditionalism and its empirical defense that undergirds God, family, and country.
Hazony needs to remember that not all Enlightenment thinkers reasoned the same. Which Enlightenment we’re talking about matters a great deal. The Scottish Enlightenment had tremendous influence on many of the American Founders, but nowhere does it contain the abstractions and philosophic nominalism of Locke or Hobbes. Further, Hazony does not engage with the classical measure of reason and the practical goods it defends. The second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence reasons from universal goods to particular problems that the Continental Congress confronted. The Founders were caught having to articulate the good and the true and fasten it to discrete situations.