When Conservatives Read Conservatives

3 Jul

Andrew SullivanA few weeks ago Andrew Sullivan complained—and not for the first time—that contemporary conservatism has grown too ideological and fundamentalist, abandoning the tradition of Burke and Hayek. You know, the tradition of prudence and restraint that abjures fanaticism and counsels moderation, that eschews the grand designs of the left in favor of the evolutionary, piecemeal reforms of the right.

Friedrich HayekYou know, that tradition that says this:

“A successful defence of freedom must therefore be dogmatic and make no concessions to expediency.” (Hayek, Law, Legislation, Liberty, Vol. 1, p. 61)

And this:

“Utopia, like ideology, is a bad word today…But an ideal picture of a society which may not be wholly achievable, or a guiding conception of the overall order to be aimed at, is nevertheless not only the indispensable precondition of any rational policy, but also the chief contribution that science can make to the solution of the problems of practical policy.” (Hayek, Law, Legislation, Liberty, Vol. 1, p. 65)

Edmund BurkeAnd this:

“Acquiescence will not do.  There must be zeal.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace, 104)

And this:

“Distemper is still the madness of the wise, which is better than the sobriety of fools.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace, 142)

And this:

“Louis the XVIth. was a diligent reader of history. But the very lamp of prudence blinded him.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace, 185)

And this:

“Every little measure is a great errour.” (Burke, Letters on a Regicide Peace, 216)

Cherry-picking, you’ll say. Perhaps, but from where I sit, there’s an entire orchard waiting to be harvested.

Conservatives like Sullivan—and a great many other writers, on the right and the left—like to invoke the great and the good of the conservative past against the yahoos and yobs of the conservative present. But if you actually read the canon, you’ll see that the distance between the grand old texts and the Grand Old Party ain’t so, um, grand.

So here’s an idea for Sullivan and anyone else who likes to invoke Burke or Hayek or [fill in the blank] against today’s GOP: Read ‘em.

One Response to “When Conservatives Read Conservatives”


  1. Edmund Burke on the Free Market | Corey Robin - March 20, 2013

    […] addressed this argument many times, including in a book now out in paperback that’s selling for $16, so […]

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