In my previous post, I explained how I Yoram Hazony linked nationalism with conservatism in his new book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery. Today I’ll look at the premises for the conservative paradigm he offers. He is somewhat hesitant in doing so, because the lessons and experience of history on which conservatism rests are not things that easily reduce to simple premises for the sake of forming tidy syllogisms. However, he acknowledges that this gives liberalism an argumentative advantage, in that liberalism can easily be “reduced to a small number of clearly articulated premises, which are easy to summarize and teach, even to children.” Conservatives hesitate to summarize the conservative outlook in this way, because the “reduction of any worldview to a number of explicit premises invites rigidity and dogmatism, even as important matters go unmentioned.” 

Nonetheless, Hazony feels it a necessary task to attempt. He first gives the premises animating Enlightenment liberalism:

  1. All men are perfectly free and equal by nature.
  2. Political obligation arises from the consent of the free individual.
  3. Government exists due to the consent of a large number of individuals, and its only legitimate purpose is to enable these individuals to make use of the freedom that is theirs by nature.
  4. These premises are universally valid truths, which every individual can derive on his own, if he only chooses to do so, by reasoning about these matters.

A different paradigm is offered by Hazony’s summary of conservative premises:

  1. Men are born into families, tribes, and nations to which they are bound by ties of mutual loyalty.
  2. Individuals, families, tribes, and nations compete for honor, importance, and influence, until a threat or common endeavor recalls them to the mutual loyalties that bind them to one another.
  3. Families, tribes, and nations are hierarchically structured, their members having importance and influence to the degree they are honored within the hierarchy. 
  4. Language, religion, law, and the forms of government and economic activity are traditional institutions, develop by families, tribes, and nations as they seek to strengthen their material prosperity, internal integrity, and cultural inheritance to propagate themselves through future generations. 
  5. Political obligation is a consequence of membership in families, tribes, and nations. 
  6. These premises are derived from experience, and may be challenged and improved upon in light of experience. 

We can see major differences between these two worldviews. For example, while liberalism rejects the idea that we can have obligations to which we never voluntarily consented, conservatism teaches that “Political obligation, whether to one’s family, tribe, or nation, does not arise from consent but from the bonds of mutual loyalty and gratitude that bind us to the other members of such loyalty groups, including especially the past generations that built up what we have and was handed down to us…mutual loyalty – which is largely inherited, rather than chosen – is the primary force that establishes political order and holds its constituent parts in place.”

In keeping with conservative reasoning, Hazony argues the conservative premises are not abstract principles derived from reason. They are simply what the experience of history shows to be empirical facts about how human societies are formed and maintained. It is by losing this historical grounding that “rationalist political theory has failed”, because its “premises are constructed without reference to experience. For example, experience suggests that Men are born into families, tribes, and nations to which they are bound by ties of mutual loyalty. Wherever we look, throughout history and in every corner of the globe, we see that mutual loyalty or group identification is the strongest force operative in politics, pulling individuals tightly together, forming them into families, clans, tribes, and nations…It is the cause that establishes tribes and nations, states and empires, making them the stable and enduring entities that are the subjects of competent political philosophy.”

Hazony is unimpressed with the Enlightenment liberal premises, stating that “None of these premises is empirically true” and in fact they utterly fail to describe “empirical human nature in general. There is no historical context in which these premises can be said to have been true. Nowhere in history do we find conditions in which all human beings, or even most, are capable of attaining universal political insight by means of reason alone; are blessed with perfect freedom and equality; are without membership in, and obligation to, any political collectives except those they have consented to join; and live under a government whose sole purpose is to enable them to enjoy their freedom. And if these things are not empirically true in even a single case, they cannot serve as the foundations for a political theory whose purpose is to understand the political world.” If liberal premises are not derived from experience, on what basis to liberals suppose them to be true? To the rationalist liberal, the premises can be known through pure reason. To conservatives such as Hazony, this “pure reason” is little more than idle speculation at best.

Hazony gives no quarter to those who would claim the premises of Enlightenment liberalism are meant as normative principles to guide behavior rather than empirically validated descriptions of human experience, saying “an argument does not become a competent exercise in ‘normative political theory’ by detaching itself from everything we know about human nature and political order from experience” and that attempting to make this move is “just playing at make-believe.” An empirically derived fact of how human societies work, Hazony says, is that “it is the existence of a certain relation between the individual and the family or nation to which he belongs, and not anyone’s consent, that is the source of his obligations to his family or nation, as well as of the obligations of his family and nation toward him.”

Because the nation is a system of mutual loyalty and mutual obligation, rooted in shared history and experience, many programs supported by liberals serve to undermine the health of the nation by undermining these necessary bonds. An unyielding commitment to free trade, says Hazony, leads “workers to regard themselves as betrayed” by both business leaders and policymakers as they are left unshielded from the effects of foreign competition, which has the effect of “bursting the bonds of mutual loyalty that had made America a cohesive and internally powerful nation.” Even if free trade is ultimately good for academic measures of economic growth, it comes at the cost of undermining the social cohesion that represents the true health and strength of the nation. There are, Hazony says, “obligations that exist between individuals who have been business partners of long standing, or between an employer and an employee of long standing, and here, too, the obligations that derive from these relations of mutual loyalty” are not reducible to something so simple as “the terms of a written contract.” 

Liberals are also too sanguine about the effects immigration has on the social bonds nations need. While immigration can be beneficial to a nation if it’s maintained at a low enough level that immigrants are “willing to assimilate themselves into the language, laws, and traditions of their adopted nation”, when immigrants come too fast and in too large a group, they become “too large and internally cohesive” such that they “resist dissolution and begin to compete with the native population. This can result in open hatred, domestic tension, and violence.” But, says Hazony, Enlightenment liberal philosophy ignores these concerns. Because liberalism “does not recognize strong national and tribal loyalties as an important factor in political affairs”, liberal thinkers “cannot generate any real justification for maintaining what seems, from a liberal perspective, to be arbitrary curtailments of individual liberties” in the form of borders, leading liberals to a situation where “borders have come to be seen as though they have no purpose.” 

To the conservative understanding of human nature and the nature of nations, however, borders are far from mere arbitrary impositions. To the conservative, borders “are a spatial expression of the bonds of mutual loyalty that hold nations together. An internally cohesive nation will establish borders to protect its people, its assets, its laws, and its traditions from being exploited and weakened by outsiders who are not bound to it by ties of mutual loyalty.”

In the next post, I’ll describe how Hazony views individual liberty, and how this idea is treated differently in the liberal and conservative worldviews.