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Tradition as a Way of Life: Yoram Hazony’s Winsome Defense

August 22nd, 2022 | 11 min read

By David Koyzis

Professed conservatives have long been at a disadvantage relative to their liberal and social democratic opponents and seem continually to lose ground to these ideologies claiming the progressive label. This is because the principles of liberalism and socialism are straightforward and generally revolve around a single factor to which other elements are subordinated. For the liberal, freedom of the individual must take precedence over other considerations in the ongoing political conversation and in setting public policy. For the socialist, economic equality comes first, and everything else must be made to follow. By contrast, conservatives are hard-pressed to come up with readily communicable firm principles transcending their particular social and cultural contexts. Even conservatives in a single country quarrel over what represents “true conservatism” and what constitutes false labeling. Yet that has never kept them from trying to fill in what perpetually threatens to become an empty category.

Into this ongoing debate American-Israeli political philosopher Yoram Hazony has contributed a substantial and winsome defence of Anglo-American conservatism in his new book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery (Washington, DC: Regnery Gateway, 2022). For the author, conservatism is not just a political stance but a way of life which he associates with a particular “national” tradition rooted in British and American experience and which he has attempted to live out with his family and congregation, albeit in a different country. That he ends the book with this line is significant: “Conservatism begins at home.”

I personally found the book a delightful read. Few nonfiction books are likely to be page turners, but this one is. Despite its nearly 400 pages, Conservatism is difficult to put down once you’ve begun, so it’s best to set aside some time to do it justice. Indeed, virtually every page is brimming with wisdom rooted in the biblical tradition with which the author, an observant Jew, is familiar. He shows considerable insight into human relationships and the qualities needed to maintain them over the long term. In fleshing out his conservative vision, Hazony succeeds in making the rival liberal and Marxist worldviews look thin and remote from lived reality. Nevertheless, despite the book’s considerable strengths, I was not persuaded by his overall argument for two reasons that I will explain below.

Because conservatives are particularists opposed to the vaunted universalisms of liberalism, Hazony defends one brand of conservatism, namely, the Anglo-American tradition, as mediated by, among others, Sir John Fortescue, Richard Hooker, Sir Edward Coke, John Selden, Sir William Blackstone, and Edmund Burke, and, on this side of the pond, George Washington, John Jay, John Adams, and Alexander Hamilton. These figures are important to Hazony, because they represent a tradition of constitutionalism supportive of the unique and distinctive national identities of Great Britain and America. Up until the French Revolution this tradition did not bear the conservative label, acquiring it only after losing ground to liberalism and, eventually, Marxism. Hazony treats the history of this tradition in his first chapter, seeing it based on five principles: historical empiricism, nationalism, religion, limited executive power, and individual freedom.

Due to post-Second World War efforts to bring together libertarians and Burkean conservatives in a single “fusionist” anti-communist coalition, there is a persistent tendency to conflate conservatism per se with classical liberalism, with its exaggerated focus on individual freedom. Hazony argues against this confusion, instead identifying conservatism with that championed by the early American Federalists, such as Adams, Washington, and Hamilton. In my own analysis of conservatism in Political Visions and Illusions (2019), I note that it is difficult to find within it an obvious redemptive narrative similar to those animating liberalism, nationalism, democratism, and socialism. But in this second chapter, Hazony definitely tells a story—one that boasts its own heroes and villains and has, at least for a time, a happy ending. If the Federalists are the heroes, the Jeffersonian Republicans are the villains, defending the parochial localisms of the several states against a proper—I’m tempted to say righteous—effort to forge a unified nation on principles of the ancient British constitution and the English common law. Here, as in his earlier book, The Virtue of Nationalism, Hazony makes an Aristotelian, but scarcely incontestable, judgement concerning the optimal size of a political community, the nation being the virtuous mean between the vicious extremes of narrow local loyalties and excessively broad imperial rule which extinguishes freedom.

In the third chapter, Hazony sets forth the peculiar features of the conservative paradigm, observing that it revolves around such elements as empiricism, mutual loyalty, honour, and hierarchy, as embodied in such traditional institutions as “[l]anguage, religion, law, and . . . forms of government and economic activity” (142) passed down through generations by a triad of communities which he describes as families, tribes, and nations.

The focus on empiricism is significant because it marks the principal epistemological difference between conservatism and its ideological rivals, especially liberalism. While the latter deduces such abstract principles as the freedom and equality of all persons from a supposedly universal reason, conservatives draw on the experience of their own communities, deriving their governing principles inductively from their lived realities. Indeed, Hazony denies that reason speaks with a single voice such that those exercising it will necessarily come to the same conclusions. “When people reason freely about political and moral questions, they produce a profusion of varying and contradictory opinions, reaching no consensus at all” (146). Enlightenment liberals mistake their favored principles, which they neglect to notice have come to them as a heritage from their forebears, for the universal wisdom of mankind.

Hazony devotes chapter 4 to the place of religion, which liberalism relegates to the realm of private choice. Arguing that “[p]ublic religion has been a central pillar of Anglo-American conservatism through its entire history” (190), he believes that “what is not honored in public also tends not to be honored in private” (190). The public affirmation of God is needed to consolidate reverence for a single normative order by which we can distinguish right from wrong. An atheist is compelled by his (lack of) belief to establish “a local standard of what is true and right . . . and this standard coexists with countless other local standards of what is true and right” (194). Whereas Enlightenment rationalism attempts to construct and maintain a political order in which belief in God is unnecessary, the conservative recognizes that a robust monotheism is needed to underpin a single moral and legal order binding on everyone. In effect, there is little difference between the polytheist and the atheist: each individual in effect becomes “one god among many others” (194), elevating his own local standards of right and wrong to a position of supremacy, ready to impose them on others. Thus both atheism and polytheism tend historically towards imperial rule—something that contradicts Hazony’s vaunted nationalism. However, a belief in one God who upholds a single standard of morality for all people is uniquely supportive of his triad of family, tribe (or congregation, as he calls it here), and nation.

On this basis Hazony proceeds in chapter 5 to discuss the purposes of government, “as these are understood in the Anglo-American conservative tradition” (224). Consistent with his empiricism, Hazony deliberately avoids deducing norms for government transcending the experience of particular nations. Indeed, government’s “purposes must vary from one nation to the next, as nations strive to discover the principles most conducive to strengthening themselves against their rivals and securing the welfare of their members” (233). Accordingly, he cites the purposes of government as found in the preamble to the United States Constitution and in Burke’s account of the English constitution, expanding on these in the remainder of the chapter. Nevertheless, he manages to fasten onto several items, such as justice, that are likely to appear to many of us to be more general norms. Is it possible to speak of government in the absence of justice? Augustine was doubtful. But whereas “not all governments are concerned with these aims [viz., establishing justice and promoting the general welfare], they are found wherever a nation is blessed with rulers who are righteous and wise” (246). This sentence is revealing in that Hazony here seems implicitly to recognize norms valid beyond the anglosphere.

In chapter 6 Hazony recounts the transition in the United States from Christian democracy to liberal democracy, the latter term coming into favour by the end of the 20th century. Prior to the Second World War, Americans saw themselves living in a “God-fearing democracy” (264), but the post-war fusion of traditional conservatism and classical liberalism into a broad anti-communist coalition ended with the eclipse of the traditional religious component and the triumph of the freely choosing self.

The Supreme Court’s ruling in Everson v Board of Education (1947) was the first sign that its jurisprudence would move to suppress the public manifestation of religion. A series of subsequent rulings, such as Engel v Vitale (1962) and Abington School District v Schempp (1963) prohibiting official prayers in public schools, furthered this trend, based on the conviction that one could be privately Christian and publicly liberal (308). Here Hazony surveys the thinking of several figures in the post-war “fusionist” movement, who, while united in their adherence to the American cause in the Cold War, ran the gamut from traditionalist Russell Kirk to liberal rationalist Frank Meyer. Because these figures submerged their differences so as to form a united front against communism, traditional conservatives arguably lost their ability to combat a powerful ideological vision based on a much less constrained form of liberalism.

Yet liberalism’s victory, which seemed complete by the 1960s and 70s, proved to be a temporary one. Despite the failure of one brand of Marxism at the turn of the final decade of the 20th century, three decades later it had returned in several new guises, gaining control of the media, higher education, corporations, private foundations, government bureaucracy, the military, and even the churches. This is the story Hazony tells in chapter 7. Cloaking itself in the language of “’the Left,’ ‘Progressivism,’ ‘Social Justice,’ ‘Anti-Racism,’ ‘Anti-Fascism,’ ‘Black Lives Matter,’ ‘Critical Race Theory,’ ‘Identity Politics,’ ‘Political Correctness,’ ‘Wokeness,’ and more,” this “updated version of Marxism” (313) uses the abstract ideals of liberalism against liberalism itself. Because liberalism subjects all traditions to its principles of liberty and equality, and because no society ever achieves these principles perfectly, the Marxist waits in the wings ready to subject even liberalism to the withering critique of its own critical method (320-325). Thus the historic trend is for liberalism continually to yield ground to Marxism, even if the latter does not openly claim the Marxist label.

Curiously, chapter 8, in which Hazony sets forth the contours of his own conservative democracy, is the shortest in the book, at not quite sixteen pages. Yet his discussion thus far has been clear enough to indicate what he favors as an alternative to liberalism and Marxism. Hazony’s conservative democracy revolves around a distinctive national identity, an affirmation of biblical religion, the common law tradition, the importance of family and congregation, parental responsibility for education, a cautious affirmation of the market, limited immigration, a foreign policy conducive to maintaining national independence, and a refusal to yield this independence to international bodies.

As someone who enjoys getting to know new people, I was particularly enamored of the final part of the book, consisting of chapter 9 and a conclusion, in which Hazony takes an autobiographical turn, telling of his courtship of the woman who would become his wife, the founding of the alternative student periodical, The Princeton Tory, during his undergraduate studies, and the conservative renaissance at Princeton University during the 1980s. He makes a strong case for integrating one’s social and political convictions with one’s personal life, deliberately maintaining the generational bonds that hold families and congregations together.

Where Hazony is strongest is in his appreciation for the role of tradition in our lives and communities. Even if we attempt to distance ourselves from our parents, we are more like them than we are different. If we think we are offering the world something new and innovative, on further reflection we come to recognize the debt we owe our predecessors who provided us with the means for so doing. At their best, conservatives carry within themselves a pronounced gratitude for what is—something that the ostensibly more progressive ideologies, with their posture of perpetual critique, seem incapable of doing. The conservative emphasis on empiricism is less likely than a deductive rationalism to upend people’s lives and livelihoods for the sake of an overriding but untried cause.

A thorough reading of the book will provide us with nuggets of wisdom easily applicable to everyday life. I especially appreciated his treatment of loyalty and honor as binding elements in marriage and family. Hazony treats the fifth commandment of the Decalogue, to honor one’s parents, as foundational for a conservative society. Unlike the liberal worldview, which reduces obligation to individual consent, the command to honor father and mother recognizes that we have obligations based simply on our membership in and loyalty to a given community. Our birth to our parents means that, even as we grow to maturity and are no longer subject to their authority in an immediate way, we nevertheless owe them honour because of who they are relative to us.

As a retired university instructor, I was deeply moved by this insight: “there is an obligation to honor one’s mentor or teacher, which cannot be discharged simply by paying the teacher the wages that are owed to him according to his contract” (160). We undoubtedly recognize this at an intuitive level, but an ideology attempting to reduce all human relationships to mere contracts amongst individuals will try to suppress it—if carried through consistently, that is.

For all its strengths, however, I believe that Hazony’s argument falls short for two basic reasons.

First, there is a tension between his defense of conservatism against the charge that it “must be relativist and nihilist, leaving no room for truth in politics and morals” (172) and his focus on the distinctive features of Anglo-American conservatism. He believes that empiricism constitutes a third alternative to the false dichotomy of rationalism and relativism (174).

But might it be possible to use his vaunted empirical method to come to conclusions of a more general nature—something he is mostly reluctant to do? Hazony notes that, in the Anglo-American tradition, among the purposes of government are to “establish justice,” “insure domestic tranquility,” “provide for the common defense,” and “promote the general welfare.” Nevertheless, it is not clear that these tasks are peculiar to only one tradition. Do not all governments pursue these tasks in some measure? Are not all governments characterized by an ongoing effort to balance the legitimate interests within their jurisdictions and to defend against external predators? Even where a country, such as China, gets the balance egregiously wrong, as seen in Beijing’s treatment of Hong Kong and the Uyghurs, are we not justified in concluding that its government has violated, not just abstract human rights, but the fundamental principles of justice that hold for everyone? Hazony is hesitant to go this far, perhaps because such conclusions have often led to foreign interventions across the borders of sovereign nation states. Yet if a country outside the anglosphere is routinely persecuting its own people, Hazony’s method appears unable to provide us with criteria for judging that things are amiss.

Second, while the best social theories account for the genuine pluriformity of society, namely, that society is composed of a variety of social formations each having its own unique structure and task, Hazony’s understanding does not improve on the reductionism of liberalism. If anything can be said to define liberalism, it is its followers’ quest to reduce all communities to mere voluntary associations. If the state is the product of a voluntary contract amongst component individuals, and if marriage, family, and church can also be defined as such, then there is nothing unique to any of these. All are aggregations of individuals coming together for their own subjective purposes. A major reason why there is such confusion over the meaning of marriage today is that, within the predominant liberal paradigm, all social formations are products of contract, and anyone arguing for a “thicker” account, in which marriage possesses intrinsic qualities irreducible to individual wills, is likely to be treated with suspicion or worse.

True, Hazony does pay lip service to societal pluriformity, recognizing that human beings organize themselves into families, tribes, and nations. He recognizes the value of people maintaining the more proximate loyalties associated with the smaller social formations, such as “[l]ocal political chapters, churches and synagogues, schools and other community organizations” (115). Yet his understanding of the nature of such communities is remarkably undifferentiated. For Hazony, all communities are characterized by “ties of mutual loyalty,” are structured hierarchically, see competition for positions of honour within and without, and are dependent on traditional institutions for their continued existence over generations (100-101).

Yet to observe that people organize themselves into families, tribes, and nations is insufficiently empirical, glosses over centuries of historical development, and cannot do justice to the real world of life in community. In fact, of course, 21st-century people organize themselves, not into tribes, but into a variety of differentiated communities such as business enterprises, labour unions, universities, amateur and professional football clubs, mutual aid societies, artists co-operatives, charitable foundations, and so forth, in addition to those four basic institutions of marriage, family, state, and church. To observe that all of these are characterized by hierarchy, loyalty, and competition for honour is not a significant improvement over the liberal account and amounts at best to a weak defence of pluriformity. This is where Hazony’s professed conservatism, even taking into account its considerable wisdom, shows its limitations at a basic level.

Despite these flaws, I still loved the book and strongly recommend it to readers dissatisfied with the distortions of liberalism and Marxism and the ease with which the larger society has succumbed to their empty promises. If Hazony’s method is insufficiently empirical, the influence of a biblical worldview on his thinking is nevertheless unmistakable, and he therefore has much to offer the discerning reader. This is what makes the book worth reading, and we do well to reflect on its implications for our lives and for our communities.