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What Is Principled Conservatism?

In the future, to adapt a well-worn line, everyone will call himself a conservative for at least fifteen minutes. George W. Bush called himself a conservative, but so, for a time, did Barack Obama. Donald Trump has claimed to be conservative, as, perhaps more fervently, have his Republican foes. The conservative movement describes itself as conservative, while its critics protest that it is anything but.

“Conservative” being a contested term, it commonly comes paired with a modifier. Thus Bush embraced “compassionate conservatism,” while Michael Gerson, his speechwriter, favored “heroic conservatism.” Barack Obama was lauded as a “Burkean” conservative. Similar pairings—movement conservatism, neoconservatism, reform conservatism, national greatness conservatism—have long proliferated. The modifier in each case identifies a distinct cluster of ideas and tendencies in a way that “conservative,” for better or worse, cannot.

Not surprisingly, the political rifts of recent years have added to the lexicon of epithets. “Trumpist” and “never-Trumpist” define attitudes towards the 2016 Republican nominee and now forty-fifth president. “Populist” or “nationalist” signals skepticism of immigration, trade, and war. That same skepticism is decried, in vituperative turn, as “nativist” or “ethno-nationalist.”

Less notoriously, if no less significantly, the term “principled conservatism” has gained currency to denote conservatism as it was understood prior to its alleged corruption. Unlike other modifiers, “principled” does not purport to single out a doctrine differing from conservatism simpliciter. Rather, it draws an invidious moral distinction between the behavior of “principled” conservatives, who claim to have upheld their beliefs even at the cost of votes, donors, money, or popularity, and their sometime colleagues, who have betrayed those same beliefs for a handful of silver.

Despite its polemical origins, “principled conservatism” turns out to be an unintentionally apt label for the positions espoused by those praised as principled conservatives. It refers, in other words, not only to their moral righteousness but to their political philosophy, wherein principles enjoy a certain preeminence. For reasons that will become clear, a more neutral term for that philosophy, which I will later use interchangeably with “principled conservatism,” would be “axiomatic conservatism.” (One follower even calls it “ideological conservatism.”) As with any school of thought, principled or axiomatic conservatism has strengths and weaknesses. Nevertheless, it deserves to be taken seriously, if for no other reason than that it remains, despite the beleaguered mood of its adherents, the default ideology of the American intellectual Right.

Principled Conservatives: A Club Directory

Principled conservatism boasts a distinguished membership, even as many modestly decline to say whether they themselves belong. New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, for example, identifies with “thoughtful and principled conservatives,” whose ranks, he fears, are dwindling. Similarly, George Will—celebrated for decades as a paragon of thinking conservatives—distances himself from those “who call themselves conservative” but have no regard “for conservative principles.” Michael Gerson, Will’s fellow columnist at the Washington Post, confirms that Will, like Gerson himself, is a “principled conservative.”

Some of America’s most admired politicians are also principled conservatives. Writing in Slate, Will Saletan commends the previous three Republican nominees for president—George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney—for denouncing Trump and what he represents. These figures, Saletan says, “point toward an alternative vision of conservatism,” which he identifies as “principled conservatism.” Senator Jeff Flake, announcing that he will not seek reelection to the Senate, laments the demise of “principled, constitutional conservatives” and warns that conservatives’ erstwhile principles have become “so malleable as to no longer be principles.”

Principled conservatism has rising stars as well as elder statesmen. Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, for example, urged Republicans in 2016 to run a “principles campaign” and added that he would support a nominee for president who upheld “conservative principles.” Later that year, principled conservatives fielded their own presidential candidate, Evan McMullin, whom National Review hailed as “committed to principled conservatism.” The leading face of principled conservatism today is perhaps Senator Ben Sasse, who describes himself as a “principled, committed conservative.” Sasse’s allegiance to principled conservatism transcends Republican Party loyalty. “Conservatism is a set of policy principles,” he explains, while “Republicanism is about an organization.”

Institutions, too, affiliate with principled conservatism. National Review correspondent Kevin D. Williamson excoriates “unprincipled, unthinking, and unserious voices” on the right and declares National Review “the voice of principled, thinking conservatism.” Other journalists, unaffiliated with the conservative movement, echo that judgment. In the Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf calls the editors and writers at National Review and the Weekly Standard “principled conservative journalists” who wish to “honor conservative principles.” Friedersdorf still regrets these magazines’ sometimes vacillating editorial stances, which he blames on the demise of journalistic integrity. “The challenges confronting principled conservative journalism are many,” he notes ruefully.

Even principled conservatives’ enemies do not begrudge them the “principled” badge. Pugnacious Townhall columnist Kurt Schlichter, for example, belittles conservatives who invoke “conservative principles.” According to Schlichter, those “principles” mask a craven refusal to fight the Left and a willingness to lose elections, policy fights, and the culture wars. He calls principled conservatives “principled punching bags.” Although Schlichter clearly sees “principles” as a comforting delusion, he still grants principled conservatives the appellation “principled,” if only as a term of abuse.

The Three-Legged Stool of Principled Conservatism

The term “principled” is loaded, even sanctimonious. It implies that principled conservatives have been weighed in the moral balance and found worthy indeed. Nevertheless, “principled” refers not only to the ostensible integrity of individual conservatives but also to the content of their political views. Considered as a political philosophy, principled (or “axiomatic”) conservatism is “principled” in at least three distinct senses: first, it promotes a fixed and well-defined set of policy goals; second, it assumes that those goals are advanced through the spread of ideas or systems of belief; third, it rejects pragmatic adjustment to changing circumstances.

To elaborate, beginning with the first sense, principled conservatives pursue a predetermined list of policy priorities. The House Republicans’ 2016 policy blueprint, for example, invokes “our timeless principles—liberty, free enterprise, [and] consent of the governed.” In a Republican primary debate in 2016, Senator Marco Rubio claimed that “conservatism is about three things,” which he defined as “limited government,” “free enterprise,” and “strong national defense.” (Donald Trump, meanwhile, defined “conservative” as “derivative of the word ‘conserve,’” so that a “conservative” is one who wants, among other things, to “conserve our country.”) George Will explains that “bedrock conservative principles” oppose “government planning” and “enormous executive discretion.” Michael Gerson identifies conservatism with “respect for free markets and civil society.”

Principled conservatives swiftly condemn deviations from the goals of individual liberty, limited government, and free enterprise. Tariffs, they argue, violate free trade; infrastructure spending enlarges government; progressive tax rates stifle work and investment; entitlements substitute state paternalism for individual choice; energy in the executive disrupts the steady administration of law. The policy goals of principled conservatism are, in fact, so easy to recite that its critics have dismissed it as “checklist” conservatism.

Yet the second sense in which principled conservatism is “principled” shows that it is more than just a checklist. Principled conservatives have not only a set of preferred policies but also a standard model of how those policies can be advanced. The model stresses the role of beliefs, ideals, and ideology. That is, principled conservatives hold that that the success or failure of individual liberty, limited government, and free enterprise depends on the promotion of certain ideas.

Senator Sasse ably expresses the theory. Employing the jargon of analytic philosophers, he declares that “America is at her heart a big, bold truth claim.” That truth claim, he says, is that we have rights and dignity that derive from God rather than government. Sasse warns that this truth claim is not as widely accepted today as it once was. To cure our “cultural amnesia,” voters must demand politicians who “understand the American idea.” In short, America can thrive, according to Sasse, so long as Americans believe in their God-given individual rights and liberty.

Sasse is not alone. President George W. Bush asserts that “being an American involves the embrace of high ideals,” such as human dignity and the values of the U.S. Constitution. Like Sasse, Bush holds that the “very identity of our nation depends on the passing of civic ideals to the next generation.” Bush’s former speechwriter and fellow principled conservative, Peter Wehner, claims that Bush has offered a “philosophical alternative” that conservatives should embrace. Michael Gerson admits that his position amounts to “ideological conservatism.” Principled conservatives, he says, do not appeal to prejudices or identity but make “ideological arguments” based on “abstract ideals.”

An obvious objection to the reliance on abstract ideals is that they do not necessarily compel assent to principled conservatives’ policy goals. At least some government, principled conservatives concede, is needed to protect individual rights, but exactly how much government is needed remains open to dispute. Franklin D. Roosevelt, for example, no less than principled conservatives today, championed “the rights and the dignity of all of our fellow men,” as he put it in his Four Freedoms address. Yet Roosevelt concluded that these very rights require a collective guarantee not only of peace and safety but also of jobs, income, and medical care. Philosophers in the liberal tradition have debated endlessly what goods government must provide to safeguard individual rights. Those on the left wing of that tradition would argue that principled conservatives arbitrarily leave many individual rights unsecured.

But the intellectual coherence of principled conservatism is beside the point. According to Sasse and his allies, individual liberty and free enterprise can survive only so long as belief in individual rights wins converts. (Indeed, as we shall see, principled conservatives often liken their ideology to a proselytizing religion.) Sophisticated arguments may persuade a philosopher but are a poor vehicle for evangelism. All Americans, as Sasse says, must understand the American idea.

The final sense in which principled conservatism is “principled”—that it resists the temptations of expediency—follows naturally from the others. In 1960, when Barry Goldwater wrote The Conscience of a Conservative, the Soviet Empire dominated half the globe, and the top marginal income tax rate exceeded 90 percent. At the same time, church attendance had peaked, crime had bottomed, and only a small fraction of births were out of wedlock. Affirmative action and multiculturalism were unknown, while the black middle class was rapidly growing. Labor advocate and activist Cesar Chavez fought low-wage immigrant labor, and the national-origins quota system of the Immigration Act of 1924 remained in force. Western nations suffered no acts of Islamist terrorism.

None of the foregoing remains true today. Nevertheless, principled conservatives not only do not revise their menu of preferred policies but claim a divine warrant for their tenacity. Senator Sasse asserts that, prior to any dispute over policy, one must first understand America’s “shared constitutional creed.” Alluding to the second sentence of the Declaration of Independence, he goes on to explain that “God gives us rights by nature,” and that government exists to secure those rights. So understood, principled conservatism cannot change, as its commitments derive ultimately from God. Here the principled conservative stands; like Martin Luther, he can do no other.

Principled conservatism even takes on at times a reactionary quality. More than seventy-five years after Social Security began paying benefits, principled conservatives continue to question the merit of entitlement programs and dream of transforming them into systems of individual savings accounts. President Richard Nixon—inspired, according to legend, by a biography of Benjamin Disraeli—once governed as a reforming, even a progressive, conservative. Principled conservatives are not at all tempted to do the same, and remain wedded to a limited-government ideal.

Axiomatic versus Classical Conservatism

The acrimony of the dispute between principled conservatives and their critics obscures its underlying causes. Once the elements of principled conservatism are distinguished, it becomes clear that the differences between its partisans and opponents are more intellectual than personal. Principled or, as I shall hereafter call it, axiomatic conservatism combines a commitment to liberty with a devotion to limited-government ideology and an unwillingness to compromise on policy. It is possible, however, to remain committed to liberty yet reject one or both of the other elements of axiomatic conservatism.

Indeed, many of the intellectual heroes of axiomatic conservatives shared their goals but not their intransigence. The anti-communist Whittaker Chambers, for example—mentor to William F. Buckley Jr.—argued that conservatives should reconcile themselves to the New Deal, whose programs Chambers deemed inevitable in a liberal democracy. Anticipating Richard Nixon’s admiration for Benjamin Disraeli, who late in life was created Earl of Beaconsfield, Chambers called his stance the “Beaconsfield position.”

Similarly, Friedrich Hayek, a lion of free-market economics, admitted without reservation that the case for a “comprehensive system of social insurance,” provided through coercive government taxation, was very strong. In a wealthy nation, he wrote in The Road to Serfdom, a “minimum of food, shelter, and clothing, sufficient to preserve health and the capacity to work, can be assured to everybody.” Later, in The Constitution of Liberty—arguably his magnum opus—Hayek not only reiterated his support for government-coerced insurance but argued that it is compatible with liberty. Axiomatic conservatives remember Hayek’s critique of government planning but often overlook his call for government to furnish a greater share of the goods of a free society.

Perhaps more importantly, one may share axiomatic conservatives’ commitment to liberty yet reject their embrace of ideology. The eighteenth-century Whig politician Edmund Burke, for example, was an early and trenchant apologist for the movement towards American independence. Yet Burke denied that Americans were driven exclusively by libertarian ideals. “Abstract liberty,” he observed in his Speech on Conciliation with America, “like other mere abstractions, is not to be found” in America. Burke instead found Americans’ “fierce spirit of liberty” in their “temper and character.” That spirit of liberty, he claimed, was “stronger in the English colonies probably than in any other people of the earth.”

Americans’ liberal spirit did not, for Burke, descend on them in a miraculous Pentecost. Rather, it was a peculiar historical inheritance. Burke identified six causes of Americans’ unique character. First, Americans’ ancestors were not only Englishmen but Englishmen who emigrated when the English bias for freedom “was most predominant.” Second, American colonies were governed by popular (as opposed to proprietary) legislative assemblies. Third, their religion was not only Protestant but (except in the Southern colonies) dissenting Protestant, “which is the most adverse to all implicit submission of mind and opinion.”

Fourth, the Southern colonists’ practice of slavery taught them the “haughtiness of domination,” which rendered the spirit of liberty “invincible.” (To be clear, Burke made no apology for slavery. “I do not mean,” he wrote, “to commend the superior morality of [the Southern colonists’] sentiment, which has at least as much pride as virtue in it; but I cannot alter the nature of man.”) Fifth, Americans had a passion for the study of law, which made them ever resourceful in challenging the depredations of their rulers. Finally, Americans’ sheer remoteness from the seat of empire accustomed them to self-rule.

Burke’s view that liberty in America arose not from ideology or “abstract liberty” but from a fortuitous set of ethnic, religious, governmental, economic, educational, and geographical circumstances implied, negatively, that American liberty could not easily be replicated elsewhere. A quarter century after the Speech on Conciliation, Burke made that implication explicit in his most famous work. (Burke’s foes in the ensuing debate—the axiomatic Whigs of his day—accused him of jettisoning his principles, yet the consistency of the themes running through Burke’s work is unmistakable.) In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke affirmed his love for “a manly, moral, regulated liberty.” Yet Burke denied that he must praise liberty “as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction.” Liberty, he argued, must coexist with government, public enforcement, military command, taxation, morality, religion, property, order, and manners. Without these, Burke wrote, liberty is not a benefit but merely permits individuals to “do as they please.” The “manly, moral, regulated liberty” that Burke prized, and throughout his career defended, in short, has multiple, intersecting preconditions.

Axiomatic conservatives, by contrast, believe that liberty derives from ideology or systems of belief, which are easy to identify and easy to transmit. They assume away the context that, Burke thought, makes liberty possible in the first place. Burke, and his disciples up to the present day, hold that liberty is embedded within a particular institutional and sociological background. Just how fortuitous and singular one regards the Anglo-American and Western traditions of liberty will almost entirely determine whether one is an axiomatic, ideological conservative or instead a Burkean, classical conservative.

The Forgotten Conservative: William Graham Sumner

To illustrate further the differences between axiomatic conservatism and Burkean or classical conservatism, consider the case of William Graham Sumner. A nineteenth-century Yale professor of sociology, Sumner is best remembered today, if at all, for having coined the phrase “the forgotten man.” In his day, he was known as a stalwart, even fanatical defender of laissez-faire capitalism. Sumner inveighed against protectionism, imperialism, income taxation, socialism, and regulation of industry. In later generations, particularly after Richard Hofstadter smeared him as an apostle of social Darwinism, Sumner became a villain in the annals of robber-baron capitalism.

Sumner’s extremism in defense of liberty, in short, would make even an axiomatic conservative blush. Yet Sumner reviled ideological theories of liberty. The doctrine of natural rights he dismissed as a “complete and ruinous absurdity.” Abstract individual rights, he predicted, would be invoked not to defend liberty but to rationalize its downfall. If one man has a right to something, after all, then others have a duty to provide it; when government secures a right, it necessarily restricts the liberty of others. With this argument, Sumner presciently foresaw liberalism’s twentieth-century leftward turn.

But the deeper reason that Sumner opposed the doctrine of individual rights was not so much theoretical as empirical. According to Sumner, liberty arose not from laws, much less from propositions, but from the mores and habits of a particular people. “Rights originate in the mores,” he wrote, “and may remain there long before they can be formulated in philosophical propositions or in laws.” The liberal American society that Sumner prized was not formed by ideology but by centuries of organic development. “Rights are not antecedent to civilization,” for Sumner, but “are a product of civilization” and “to be real, they must be recognized in laws and provided for by institutions.”

Analyzed properly, in other words, a “right” is not simply a demand that the government and its legal system treat an individual in a certain way, such as by protecting his property or the practice of his religion. A “right” also represents a demand to belong to the very civilization whose mores make that legal system possible in the first place. Rights are not natural but are socially embedded, just as Burke, to whom Sumner owed a large intellectual debt, had argued. (Lockean social contract theorists, by contrast, implausibly and myopically assume that men in the so-called state of nature possess sophisticated notions of contract found in some civilizations but not in others.) To defend liberty, one must defend the community that practices it.

The Declaration of Independence: Is It Merely Ideological?

Axiomatic conservatives, like all Americans, rightly celebrate the Declaration of Independence. For axiomatic conservatives, however, it is not just a founding document but a proof text. Senator Ben Sasse, to cite but one example, states:

The Declaration of Independence is . . . clear about this, that we think government is just our shared tool to secure those rights that we have by nature, and so we need to affirm those rights. We need to do that civic and catechetical stuff to teach the next generation what America is about.

In other words, the Declaration of Independence not only distills Sasse’s own ideology of liberty but inspires him to evangelize on its behalf. Peter Wehner and Thomas Melia, in a paper written under the auspices of the George W. Bush Presidential Center, share his enthusiasm. Americans, they write, must “remind ourselves of the ideals of our republic,” which they equate with the Declaration’s “self-evident truth that human beings are created equal.”

Moreover, for axiomatic conservatives, the Declaration condemns as apostates all those who fail to uphold its ideals. Michael Gerson, unabashedly characterizing America as a religious enterprise, calls for “faith in the Declaration” against what he calls “the agenda of division.” The Declaration embodies a “moral ideal,” according to Gerson, which in turn means that America is not a “normal country.” Rather, America’s greatness is “spiritual greatness,” and its failures are “spiritual failures” that are “blasphemy against our country’s creed.” Similarly, George Will rebukes “people who explicitly repudiate America’s premises” and advance doctrines “incompatible with an open society that takes its bearings from the Declaration of Independence’s doctrine of natural rights.” In short, for Will, Gerson, and their fellow axiomatic conservatives, America is founded on a doctrine or ideology. Those who fail to advance that ideology profane the Declaration of Independence.

As with any scripture, the brandishing of the Declaration as a sectarian weapon reveals more about the brandisher than the text. Axiomatic conservatives claim support for their views in the Declaration’s famous second sentence, beginning “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Yet the rest of the document supports Burke’s and Sumner’s view that the American experience of liberty is unique. The “declaration” that gives the Declaration its name, after all, is that Americans, as foreshadowed in the first sentence, are “one people,” free and independent. Prior to advancing any doctrine or argument, the Declaration takes for granted that Americans are a distinct people with a distinct identity.

The Declaration goes on to announce that Americans are claiming their independence in order to protect their institutions from infringement. The English king, the Declaration recites, had dissolved their legislatures, subjected them to a jurisdiction “foreign to our constitution,” abolished the “free system of English laws in a neighboring province [i.e., Quebec],” taken away their charters, abolished their valuable laws, altered their forms of government, and suspended their legislatures. Meanwhile, the king had “refused to assent to laws,” “forbidden his governors to pass laws,” refused to cause legislatures to be elected, and refused to establish judicial powers. In short, the abuses precipitating the Declaration consisted, on the one hand, of interference with the Americans’ customary methods of self-government and, on the other, of failure to permit Americans to extend those methods. (The Declaration also claims that American liberty on the frontier was threatened by “merciless Indian Savages whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions.” An overtly racist comment by today’s standards, it demonstrates that the authors of the Declaration rejected the view that American liberty would be universally extended.) The English king threatened the laws, forms of government, and even the very “constitution” that secured American freedom.

The Declaration, in short, ratifies the Burkean understanding of American liberty. “Circumstances (which for some men count for nothing),” wrote Burke, “are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.” Axiomatic conservatives, on the strength of the Declaration, count Americans’ unique circumstances for nothing, and instead assume that American liberty is founded on a set of ideas. Yet the actual groundwork of American liberty, as spelled out and defended in that very document, turns out to be unique and particular.

Michael Gerson, to his credit, plays down the importance of national independence. The Declaration’s second sentence, he argues, means that America “stands for more than getting and keeping.” Americans, that is, must not simply preserve and protect their own liberty, as the Founders had done, but must positively advance their “founding ideals.” Axiomatic conservatism severs the political achievement of the Declaration—securing Americans’ freedom and independence as a people—from the ideology set forth in the second sentence.

Burkean or classical conservatives, by contrast, see no contradiction between equal liberty and nationhood. As Abraham Lincoln argued, the Declaration’s second sentence “set up a standard maxim of free society.” A classical conservative accepts that all men have equal rights; Burke himself noted that “All men have equal rights; but not to equal things.” Burke’s devotion to the rights of others inspired him to battle injustice and oppression—of Irish Catholics, of Americans, of Indians, and, lastly, of the French Revolution’s victims—throughout his political career. As Lincoln correctly acknowledged, however, enforcement of rights only follows “as circumstances permit.” Classical conservatives are simply more impressed than axiomatic conservatives by how contingent and precarious are the circumstances that make enforcement of equal rights possible.

Axiomatic Conservatism and Policy

The core disagreement between axiomatic and classical conservatives—namely, the extent to which liberty is contingent and socially embedded—explains their differences on particular issues. In foreign policy, for example, axiomatic conservatives believe that liberty, like the ideology on which they believe it is founded, is relatively easy to transmit. Consequently, they urge confrontation with undemocratic governments, up to and including waging war against them. George W. Bush thus asserts that advancing ideals “is the mission that created our Nation,” while John McCain claims that “we have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause” of championing our ideals abroad.

Classical conservatives, by contrast, doubt that American liberty can be exported by military force. “There is not a civilized nation that does not talk about its civilizing mission just as grandly as we do,” Sumner acerbically noted, a century before Bush and McCain. “We assume that what we like and practice, and what we think better, must come as a welcome blessing” to those whom we conquer, “but this is grossly and obviously untrue.” Classical conservatives today may not go so far as Sumner, who went on to declare that those to whom we attempt to bring liberty in fact “hate our ways [and] are hostile to our ideas.” Nevertheless, they share his judgment that Americans should not appear among other peoples as rulers.

In fiscal policy, axiomatic conservatives keep alive the dream of reducing the size and scope of government. They hope, in particular, to transform government social insurance into systems of quasi-private ownership. Thus, instead of Medicare, Americans will have tax-free health savings accounts; instead of Social Security, they will have mandatory individual retirement accounts; instead of government-run public schools, they will have education vouchers. Axiomatic conservatives were shocked to find in recent years that their classical conservative friends, not to mention the average Republican voter, failed to grasp the centrality of such quasi-libertarian policy reforms to the principled conservative agenda.

Classical conservatives simply feel less bound by policy dogma. As Hayek acknowledged, the economic case for government-provided insurance, like the case for government-provided protection from violence, has always been compelling. Social insurance systems, meanwhile, have been established in all industrialized societies, including those (such as Switzerland) with the strongest liberal traditions. They will not soon be dismantled or transferred into private vouchers or accounts with no element of risk spreading.

Perhaps most importantly, the challenges facing the United States have evolved. Multiple trends—partisanship, inequality, terrorism, wage stagnation, substance abuse, civic disengagement, and even diminished life expectancy—indicate that America is enduring an era of conflict and disintegration. Nationwide social insurance programs, supported by wages of all workers, promote national solidarity, as Irving Kristol observed, and should be distinguished from public assistance programs. The time may come when Americans can be coaxed into relinquishing their insurance against the hazards of age and disability. For classical conservatives, that time is probably not now.

Finally, axiomatic conservatives tend to oppose restrictions on immigration into the United States. Liberty, in their view, is founded on an ideology to which people of any background may (and are equally likely to) subscribe. Indeed, axiomatic conservatives go so far as to conclude that restrictions on immigration violate the ideals on which America is founded. Bret Stephens asserts that the United States “belongs first to its newcomers,” as they “do the most to remake it so that our ideas, and our appeal, may stay fresh.” Immigrants, in other words, have an even greater claim than the native-born to the benefits of American government and society, precisely because they did not become Americans by the accident of birth.

Classical conservatives, by contrast, believe that American liberty is not universal but rooted in the character and history of the people. Skeptical that it can survive rapid demographic change unimpaired, classical conservatives favor an immigration policy that encourages and facilitates assimilation into a core American culture. That culture has proved flexible, if not durable, including through past immigration surges, but classical conservatives doubt that it is adamantine.

Finally, classical conservatives reject Stephens’s view that a nation belongs to those who assent to its ideals. Social ties and ligaments, Burke wrote, exist “independently of our will.” A nation in particular demands our loyalty because, similar to our own families, it is the “ancient order into which we are born.” Stephens does not see America as an inheritance but as the property of all. If America is the property of all, however, then it no longer belongs to a sovereign people. For classical conservatives, Stephens’s view is tantamount to calling for the very rescission of the Declaration of Independence.

Prospects for Axiomatic Conservatism

“Principled” or axiomatic conservatives despair that they have lost control of the Republican Party and the conservative movement. Yet their philosophy has powerful advantages and is unlikely to fade. For one thing, it is easy to articulate. Conservative policy principles, and their connection to the ideal of equal liberty for all, can be learned by rote. For axiomatic conservatives, America is not a deeply rooted order but, as Senator Sasse says, little more than a truth claim.

Classical conservatives, by contrast, doubt that the sources of American liberty can even be fully comprehended. To be sure, some can be identified. Burke, as we have seen, noted six; Sumner, in his work as a sociologist, held that liberty required nuclear family structures; Hayek admired the spontaneous evolution of rules and norms. Still, there may be preconditions to liberty that are as yet only poorly understood. Like Burke, classical conservatives argue that customs and institutions, winnowed by trial and error, embody wisdom beyond the reach of propositional reasoning. “The individual is foolish; the multitude, for the moment, is foolish,” Burke famously wrote, “but the species is wise, and, when time is given to it, as a species it always acts right.” The classical conservative respect for society as given does not lend itself to slogans.

Second, axiomatic conservatism is opportunistically dignified by the Left as the legitimate opposition. Progressives, such as Will Saletan and Ezra Klein, candidly express their preference for axiomatic conservatism over its rivals. (Possibly, they recognize in axiomatic conservatives their ideological blood relations.) Similarly, the premier newspapers strive to feature conservative columnists, yet have almost uniformly selected principled conservatives, such as Gerson, Will, and Stephens to play that role. The only leading columnist who is arguably a classical conservative today, Ross Douthat, proves the rule, as Douthat has mastered the necessary intellectual feints by which it becomes possible for him, on occasion, to introduce classical conservative themes.

Finally, axiomatic conservatism can thrive as a species of imperial ideology that justifies the rule of multiple peoples under a single government. As axiomatic conservatives boast, their ideology is open to all—and it can be imposed upon all. An international system in which state sovereignty has no basis in the mores of a particular people is positively welcomed and seen as proof that American ideals have universal appeal. A “multicultural society” in which one government rules over multiple, disunited peoples likewise proves the universal appeal of American ideals.

To be sure, classical conservatism, too, has advantages. The natural affection for what one has actually known and enjoyed furnishes conservatism a powerful motivating force. That very affection, however, yields inevitably to grief. However manfully classical conservatives may face the ancient cycle of germ and death, they cannot transcend it. As a child loves the thought of his mother but still craves her actual presence, classical conservatives love their country’s ideals but still yearn to preserve its people, manners, and ways. When the latter are lost, classical conservatives have little but sorrow to offer.

Principled conservatives, by contrast, love America only as an idea. They see nothing of tragedy in our politics and, through every setback, present always a cheerful face. Axiomatic conservatism yearns to outlast the very nation that made it possible.

Yet for all those advantages, principled conservatism may never fully displace the classical conservatism of Burke and Sumner. Like characters in a gothic horror, principled conservatives are drawn more to the necrotic form of the country than to its living flesh. Their countrymen, by contrast, no matter how often exhorted to a mere noetic assent to propositions, may yet retain at least some affection for the country they have actually known and enjoyed. In the end, it seems doubtful that they will surrender the nation as blithely as principled conservatives demand.

This article originally appeared in American Affairs Volume II, Number 1 (Spring 2018): 142–57.

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