Conservative Nationalist or Fusionist Manqué?

Editor’s Note: This is part of a Law & Liberty symposium on Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery.

Yoram Hazony’s 2018 book The Virtue of Nationalism—followed by a glitzy conference inspired by it—basically initiated “national conservativism” as a serious enterprise. Being a William F. Buckley Jr.-type “fusionist,” my book review at the time found it fascinating in its challenge and material but contested its major thesis that modern states were either empires or centralized nation-states, rejecting federalism as a valid type.

The Fund for American Studies invited Hazony to a discussion of his book and I was flabbergasted that he conceded many points raised against his thesis. He even frankly explained at the end that his editor had discouraged him from raising many of the matters he intended to cover in the book, pressing him to follow a different emphasis.

His new book Conservatism: A Rediscovery finds Hazony now unleashed from constraining editors. It is a tour de force, a must-read for any serious person concerned about where the country is heading. It describes what is necessary not just for America to recover but to survive at all with any of its historic truths intact. But it is also a book with historical and epistemological difficulties that raise consequent economic and moral challenges that deserve serious debate.

The promotion for the book targets conservative fusionism as one of the three modern errors on the Right leading America astray today (together with Leo Strauss’ neoconservatism and F.A. Hayek’s supposed libertarianism). This review will focus on the alleged Hayekian and fusionist errors. My book The Enduring Tension was a response to this sort of argument, but not the direct one necessary today. Hazony introduces new material that makes a response easier since he now ends closer to both Hayek and fusionism than he would admit—although he provides the evidence himself.

Hazony labels his methodology Historical Empiricism but this includes recommendations such as a moral Sabbath over frolicking at the beach that many might not find especially verifiable. Likewise, his rediscovered conservatism proposes restrictions on trade and markets, centralized executive power akin to kingship, nationalism based on tribal-like loyalty, and “established” religion. But he also significantly modifies all of these, dare we say “fusing” them with strong property rights, balancing the center with legislatures and strong regional states, respect for the “tribes” below the nation, and toleration and decentralization of moral differences.

Anglo America?

All of these principles are said to be derived from what Hazony calls the Anglo tradition, based upon his earlier article with Ofir Haivry. While their argument remains pretty much intact and subject to the same objections, there are new elaborations that require further comment. A fundamental historical problem remains: Hazony starts with English statesman John Fortescue (1394-1479) to create a post-Reformation Anglo tradition, when Fortescue actually was a Catholic who looked back to the legal principles of the pre-Reformation Medieval period.

Fortescue was on the losing side in the Wars of the Roses that instituted centralized divine right kingship against Magna Carta diversity, and it took a century and a half to return somewhat to the legal regime Fortescue and Hazony desired. John Selden, who re-published Fortescue a century later, is identified as the Englishman who began rebuilding the law following the English Civil Wars. But it took another century to get to Edmund Burke, who supposedly built upon the same Anglo beliefs against John Locke’s revolutionary radicalism. Across the ocean, the Declaration of Independence followed Locke, but Anglo nationalism allegedly came to the rescue by reversing the excesses of America’s revolution at its Constitutional Convention.

It was the Convention Federalists who gave strong powers to its new President “roughly like a king,” who “united” the states under a powerful center, who abolished the slave trade, and who maintained the established churches in the majority of states. This Anglo-Americanism produced five principles: an historical empiricism skeptical of abstract rights; a nationalism based on mutual loyalty “anchored in “language, law, and religion;” a religion based on the Hebrew Bible and tolerance; a “strong unitary chief executive” balanced by other powers; and individual freedoms guaranteed by a nation-state limited by due process of law.

Alexander Hamilton’s Anglo Federalists supposedly prevailed over Thomas Jefferson’s revolutionaries at the Constitutional Convention; but Hazony concedes that Federalist control weakened early, even forcing the Anglos to remove the word “national” from the draft as unpopular. He tries to prove his Federalist control theory by unconvincingly arguing that, at the Convention, James Madison deserted the ideals of his ally Jefferson (who did not attend). Indeed, Hazony undermines his own theory by later showing the Constitution was successful because it compromised between the factions, not because Federalists produced an Anglo document.

Modern American National Conservatism

Hazony’s revived nationalist conservative “paradigm” today begins with the assumption that “individuals are born into families, tribes and nations to which they are bound by mutual loyalty.” He contrasts that with today’s “rationalist liberal” conservatives who start with the individual. National conservatism is characterized as empirical and based on actual human nature, while conservative rationalism is supposedly an abstractly derived system. His nationalism’s mutual loyalty is “largely inherited” and all social obligation is a consequence of this reality. While Hazony’s nationalism relies on the individual “for possible renewal,” families, tribes, and nations are primary, relying on mutual loyalty and honor through a hierarchy reaching up to and sustaining viable nation-states.

Hazony’s nations rise from subsidiary institutions and do not need to be coterminous with states, as the ancient Greek nation existed in several states. But all early nations had multiple gods until the Jewish people discovered a single God proclaiming Ten Principles for all peoples. These precepts were difficult to follow, though, with even Moses finding man evil from youth, requiring a fear of disobeying God, with no such fear possible under atheism or polytheism. Even Israel was not to impose that truth upon the others but was simply to be an example as a “light to the nations.”

Hebrew scripture itself predicted that other nations would follow Israel, and Hazony finds that modern Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant nations have been drawn to that truth through the “Hebrew Bible.” Until World War II, its beliefs remained vital in those nations, with England even maintaining its established national church. Today, Hazony contends, there remain only three mutually incompatible paradigms for the West—the Biblical, the “best known” example being Anglo-American conservatism; the Rationalist Liberal Enlightenment one, the most pervasive in the West; and Nietzsche’s combination of romanticism and neo-liberal” paganism.

Both Jews and Christians are urged to return to their older beliefs to survive failing liberalism and irrational paganism. At the personal level, the Biblical model promotes a lifelong male and female relationship with children; simple business enterprises; multiple generations in contact as parts of congregations, clans, and tribes; and the nation as a cooperative alliance of tribes and factions. But he concludes, most moderns do not live like this, with the result being widespread national social disorder. The natural response is to look to the government to come to the rescue. But most moderns see the nation as simply a liberal “arbitrary collection of individuals.”

Hazony’s major point is that effective statehood requires seeing the nation as a real social entity. The family is easily understood as a real collective since the number of individuals is small. Whether a nation-state was a permanent alliance of tribes, or an imperial state based merely on force, large numbers and expanded territory required the king or president to think of groups, institutions, laws, and bureaucracies rather than individuals. Group leaders become “individuals” to a chief executive, balancing interests and a mutual exchange of honors, with armies, bureaucracies, and laws keeping the peace.

From this, Hazony deduces eight purposes for the U.S. national government based upon the Constitution’s Preamble. But it is not clear how these are uniquely Anglo. Here he concedes this “perfect union” was possible because each side “honored” the others with major compromises. His concerns that freedom often promotes excesses are moderated here by making freedom one of these purposes, balanced with duties and obligations to the whole. He supports a broad “general welfare” interpretation but also says the “belief that the economic activities of an entire nation can be planned in advance is a sickness of government.”  When it comes to specific policy views, Hazony is far less nuanced, but most of his purposes are broad enough to be accepted even by most modern Jeffersonians.

The Faux Conservatives

Hazony’s book promotion promises the rejection of the old “liberalism” of Hayekian-Buckley-Meyer-Reagan “fusionist conservativism,” with a definitive “Anglo-American national conservativism” to replace it. But one comes away with the impression that this might be better described as a modification rather than a fundamental rejection. The main target is supposed to be fusionism’s adherence to a rationalist conservatism from Locke to radical Founders like Jefferson, up to moderns like Hayek and his supposedly liberal followers hiding under a fusionist banner. But this characterization just does not work.

Hazony’s “Rationalistic Liberals” include Hobbes, Rousseau, Kant, and more modern Leftists, but also Locke, Jefferson, Madison, Hayek, and today’s modern fusionists since these all supposedly believe in the sufficiency of reason, in fully free and equal individuals, and in moral obligations as merely personal choices rather than as morally binding. Hazony does concede that some “liberals” believe in God but that none can derive their beliefs from God. He concedes the Bible does say the individual is created morally equal in the image of God but, he says, it does not say he is free and “perfectly equal.” But who is now demanding rationalistic perfection?

If there is one central theme in Hazony’s book, it is opposition to Cartesian rationalism and its dismissal of tradition, especially of God and religion. Hazony insists on the need to substitute for it an empirical epistemology open to all phenomena. Hazony merely separates Hayek and the fusionists from the Left for their opposition to national and soviet socialism but as still supporting rationalism and secular freedom as their “supreme” principle. Yet, unlike in his previous work (perhaps influenced by earlier critiques), out of the blue he introduces Hayek’s empiricism (which is also opposed to Descartes) and concludes that “Hayek’s was the most sophisticated defense of inherited tradition to appear during the twentieth century”!

Hazony, however, offsets that high praise by noting that Hayek did not call himself a conservative (not noting that Hayek was in that piece actually rejecting Tory conservatism). He complains that Hayek still supported the first rationalist principle that individual liberty was the “highest political end” and “the supreme principle,” and only granted a “narrow” social role for the state, as did fusionists generally. To Hazony, it is either empiricism or rationalism, period; a rather strange claim from one proposing his empiricism as a broader epistemological approach than rationalist thinking.

Hayek’s own solution insisted there are two types of rationalism, a purely “constructivist” and a broader “critical” rationalism that is open to both rational and empirical phenomena, upon which distinction the whole second part of my own book is based. As far as viewing individual freedom as the supreme principle, Mr. Fusionism Frank Meyer explained in his “Western Civilization,” that freedom did rank first politically, as what he called the “criterion principle, the guide.” But “the application of principle to circumstances demands a prudential art” derived from “the intricate fibers of tradition and civilization, carried in the minds of men from generation to generation.” “The compelling, if secondary, claims of other principles, though not decisive to judgment in the political sphere in the way that freedom is, do nevertheless bear upon every concrete political problem.” So, practical action requires balancing freedom and beliefs.

Hazony’s argument here that man is not free by nature avoids his own reliance on the Biblical authority that this God created man with the first freedom even to disobey Him. Both Locke and Jefferson explicitly relied upon a Creator in their Declaration and Second Treatise to justify freedom. In his The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke even emphasized that the ancient philosophers attempted to rationalize their ideals on speculations alone and therefore their teachings of virtue had no bite. “The philosophers showed the beauty of virtue” but they “left her unendowed,” so that “few were willing to espouse her” until an empirical “immortal weight of glory” that was the Incarnation changed it all.

Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit found simple rationalistic utilitarianism “insuf­ficient.” Even if Western society’s beliefs are only symbolically true, he argued, those like himself who were

not prepared to accept the anthropomorphic conception of a personal divinity ought to admit that the premature loss of what we regard as nonfactual beliefs would have deprived mankind of a powerful support in the long development of the extended order we now enjoy, and that even now loss of these beliefs, whether true or false, creates great difficulties.

A New Fusion?

Popularizer Buckley and politician Reagan took the productive tension between freedom and heritage and translated it into political action under the term “fusionism.”  The term itself concerned its authors as easily misunderstood as some type of final resolution (as with Hegel) rather than each element remaining in, may we say, an Enduring Tension. But “fusionism” stuck and became the formulation under which a right-of-center conservative coalition came to political power under the self-described fusionist leader Reagan. By the 21st century, that partnership had been attenuated, as Buckley himself acknowledged, with its fusionist intellectual and political core sorely needing revival.

If Hazony’s choice of a replacement has a real limit, it is the expectation that mutual loyalty and social obligation are somewhat natural and can be oriented to the public good with the proper leadership and believing peoples, with higher levels honoring the values of those below them. But the problem Hayek raised at the beginning was that “the worst go to the top” of the necessary bureaucracies, especially in very large nations. Since the late 19th century, the progressive movement led by Woodrow Wilson found the Constitution’s power division its “fatal flaw” and convinced the nation to be ruled by centralized bureaucratic experts, who dominate public policy and law to this very day, frustrating both freedom and tradition.

Fusionism evolved to meet this challenge by arguing that governmental centralization is modernity’s major threat to social order. It sought to renewal by substantially reducing bureaucratic control and liberating markets and localities under a broad political freedom and decentralized moral order perhaps not too far from what Hazony seems to envision.

Hazony tells us that Ronald Reagan was instrumental to his college-age commitment to become a moral person who promoted reform. He conceded Reagan was successful and “believed deeply in individual liberty and the freedom of the market. But he was not a dogmatic libertarian.” In fact, Hazony qualifies his opposition to all of the fusionists throughout the book. This consistent nod to complexity suggests it is time to ask whether Hazony really is a dogmatic nationalist?

In concluding that conservativism “will always be internally diverse,” Hazony should come face-to-face with the fact that he may be a kind of philosophical fusionist manqué himself.