"When was the Golden Age of conservative intellectualism?"

Tyler Cowen asks:
Paul Krugman says a mix of “never” and “certainly not now” (my paraphrases, not actual quotations from him). Here is one bit:

On environment, a similar turn took place a bit later. The use of markets and price incentives to fight pollution was, initially, a conservative idea condemned by some on the left. But liberals eventually took it on board — while cap-and-trade became a dirty word on the right. Crude slogans — government bad! — plus subservience to corporate interests trump analysis.
I believe this is pretty far from the reality, here are a few points:
Tyler proceeds to mount a vigorous defense of conservative thinking on the environment but he needn't have bothered. Environmental stewardship is already reviled as a racist, i.e., conservative, i.e., old-white-guy cause.

Anyway, it's a worthwhile question but not one that I think can be answered at this point because the consensus on what constitutes conservatism has broken down. Who are conservatives--Hillaire Belloc and G.K. Chesterton or Bill Kristol and David Frum? The former would probably be denounced as, what else, fascists by the latter. Not True Conservatives.

“Conservatives” are irrevocably split between the Clash-Of-Civilizations camp and the End-Of-History camp. The former argues for conserving a civilization and the latter argues for conserving universalist ideals. My previous entry sets out the two worldviews. I regard the End-Of-History camp as naive and impotent, operationally resulting in conservatives forever apologizing Left and punching Right, thereby consolidating progressivist gains. Whig “conservatism” which conserves nothing. So that’s my Not True Conservative two cents.

I’d say the Golden Age of conservative intellectuals would be the late Victorian period of Belloc and Chesterton, and the astounding Rudyard Kipling. C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Enoch Powell were the last heirs to that intellectual tradition. I’m biased toward England (which is where Belloc ended up), so there are doubtless some Continental thinkers I’m overlooking.

I agree with Krugman: conservatism in its ideological, universalist iteration has never had an intellectual Golden Age.


Hubbard said…
But the problem here is that Chesterton and Belloc didn't think of themselves as conservatives. In Orthodoxy, (emphasis added below) Chesterton summarized his problems with conservatism thus:

The corruption in things is not only the best argument for being progressive; it is also the only argument against being conservative. The conservative theory would really be quite sweeping and unanswerable if it were not for this one fact. But all conservatism is based upon the idea that if you leave things alone you leave them as they are. But you do not. If you leave a thing alone you leave it to a torrent of change. If you leave a white post alone it will soon be a black post. If you particularly want it to be white you must be always painting it again; that is, you must be always having a revolution. Briefly, if you want the old white post you must have a new white post. But this which is true even of inanimate things is in a quite special and terrible sense true of all human things. An almost unnatural vigilance is really required of the citizen because of the horrible rapidity with which human institutions grow old.

It's also noteworthy that Chesterton had little use for Edmund Burke's prudence and moderation. Chesterton--like Belloc, Tolkien, and Lewis--was at heart a Christian revolutionary, which has some parallels with contemporary conservatism, but most definitely isn't conservative.
james wilson said…
Someone who I had great respect for--it may have been Hayek--wrote that the last conservative intellectual was T E Lawrence. But a second age may be creeping up on us without proper notice.
Thanks for the trenchant comments. There's a good Chesterton quote: "He is a very shallow critic who cannot see an eternal rebel in the heart of a conservative.”
Mark Moncrieff said…

Nearly every American I read cannot distinguish between a Liberal and a Conservative. If someone calls themselves a conservative or someone else calls them a Conservative then they must be. But nearly everyone who calls themselves a Conservative is actually a Liberal. Why? Because Liberals always foul their own nest and then go looking for another name to deflect criticism with.

So how can you tell the difference between a conservative and a Liberal?

A Liberal believes in the Autonomous Individual, they talk about freedom, the rights of the individual and other things that at heart deny group identity.

A Conservative believes in Tradition, Order and Family, not in freedom, the rights of the individual or any other such notion.

Mark Moncrieff
Upon Hope Blog - A traditional Conservative Future
Jeffrey S. said…
First of all, you have one of the best blogs on the internet. Every time you post (too infrequently!) you manage to tackle great, big picture ideas in thoughtful ways. And I say this as someone who probably disagrees with you 50% of the time :-)

Anyway, while I lean toward the "Clash-of-Civilizations" camp these days I think that I would disagree with Krugman (and I guess with you) that American conservatism has never had a "Golden Age." Indeed, I think that people like Kirk and Buckley and the early National Review crowd and then later thinkers like the Straussians Jaffa and Berns, and constitutional giants like Bork and Scalia -- basically the folks associated with the Philadelphia Society would all be part of an American conservative tradition of thought that took our Founding ideas (and the Founders themselves) seriously as well as our Constitutional principles and said to a modern world that they were relevant and that the 20th Century Progressives had corrupted what the American republic should be.

Of course, whether such ideas can survive an America full of foreigners from Asia and Latin America is the problem we must confront today (i.e. the link between ideas and the people/culture that nourish those ideas.)

Keep up the good work!
Thanks for reading and commenting. Yes, my last sentence is probably uncharitable.

Conservatism in America traces its roots to the country's founding as a constitutional republic, while conservatism in Europe traces its roots to the ancien regime. Big difference.
Jeffrey S. said…
"Conservatism in America traces its roots to the country's founding as a constitutional republic, while conservatism in Europe traces its roots to the ancien regime. Big difference."

Well said.

Incidentally, I think that there are times when American conservatives ("so-called"?) get crazy about issues related to European conservatism including royalty, nobility, class, and state religion. I still cherish a very funny call I made to a local conservative morning radio show (here in Chicago) where I stood up for the idea of monarchy -- the host berated me and I simply made the arguments that for some people, in some places a king (and a royal family) might make sense! You would think I was calling for the end of the American republic!

It reminds me of this kerfuffle:


Sure I'm a republican, through and through, but I think that a just, lawful right authority is going to be different in different places and times!
A Syrian immigrant and Muslim told me candidly his country is not ready for democracy.