All Commentary
Friday, February 1, 1963

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1963/2

Not so many years ago Frank Chodorov took note of a poten­tially dangerous rift among the forces of the intellectual Right. The libertarians, fighting for the protection of the individual, con­tinued to direct their fire against the “liberal” apostles of the omni­competent state. But the so-called New Conservatives, though they deplored the wholly materialist conception of personality that is at the heart of modern “liberal” col­lectivism, talked as if “individual­ism” were a dirty word. The New Conservatives supported the su­perior claims of a nebulously de­fined “community” without bother­ing to distinguish in their dis­course between such categories as “society” and “government.” Meanwhile, as libertarians and “communitarians” bickered, the dominant forces of the collectivist Left went their merry power-gathering way.

Mr. Chodorov rightly deplored the battle on the Right over “in­dividualism” as a misguided thing. Nevertheless, the struggle has gone on—and while Russell Kirk, for example, attacks a number of peo­ple, from Ayn Rand to Ludwig Von Mises, for ignoring the idea of “community,” the American State continues to pass laws which are inimical to everything which Mr. Kirk loves. The Deweyites, speaking for the “community” of educators, debase the textbooks; the supporters of compulsory so­cial security, in charge of a “com­munity” approach to old-age “in­surance,” make a mockery of pri­vate saving and family prudence, and so forth and so on.

The deeply debilitating—and unnecessary—civil war on the in­tellectual Right is the subject of Frank S. Meyer’s brilliantly searching In Defense of Freedom: A Conservative Credo (Regnery, $3.95). Like Mr. Chodorov, Mr. Meyer wishes to see the New Con­servatives and the old-fashioned Liberals—or libertarians—forget their disputes over “individual­ism” at least until their common enemy has been routed.

Burke Had Much To Conserve

The New Conservatives, in their defense of the idea of “com­munity,” take off from Edmund Burke. Inasmuch as Burke’s thought had its submerged “na­tural rights” strain, Mr. Meyer is not disposed to think of Burke as a devil. But he questions the rele­vance of Burke to the problems of the present moment. In his ful­minations against the French Revolution, Burke spoke for the claims of continuity: every new­born English child, so Burke in­sisted, had a right to the tradi­tions and the freedoms stemming from a praiseworthy ancestral or­der. As Kipling was to phrase it at a later date: “All we have of freedom, all we use and know, this our fathers bought for us, long and long ago.” But 1963, says Mr. Meyer, is not 1793. The truth is that two generations of the “lib­eral” collectivist ascendancy have obliterated most of the philosophi­cal landmarks that Burke would have respected. In urging a de­fense of the traditional “com­munity,” the New Conservatives are simply arguing for a defense of something no longer there.

The New Conservatives love vir­tue. But virtue, as Mr. Meyer seesit, has oozed out of the modern “community.” And the govern­ment that poses as the political agent of that community, far from defending the individual in the rights that are covered by the nay-saying of the Ten Commandments (“Thou shalt not steal,” “Thou shalt not covet,” etc.), is itself busy stealing energies from the many to bestow largesse on fa­vored groups (“labor,” “the farmer,” “the impacted area,” and all the rest of the rigmarole).

To restore a community that might have the respect of both the libertarians and the New Con­servatives, Mr. Meyer argues that a distinction must be ma de be­tween the ends of politics and the ends of life. The New Conserva­tives, he admits, are quite correct when they speak of virtue as the supreme end of life. But the end of politics is the protection of the individual in his natural rights, which include the right to choose between good and evil courses, subject to penalties for invading the rights of others. The state has fulfilled its function when it jails one man for stealing from another or for assaulting another man’s person. When the state arrogates to itself the right to compel a man to behave virtuously (as it does when it tells a man how he should work or save, or what his tastes in liquor or architecture should be), it creates the conditions for tyranny. Men, being fallible, can­not be trusted with unlimited power over their fellow men; they must be held to a minimal concep­tion of political control. Otherwise they will, being human, try to coerce men to a General Will which is often a euphemism for the politician’s own personal power drive.

Relationships Have No Rights

Mr. Meyer is not always clear in his distinctions between “so­ciety” and “community,” or be­tween “community” and “the state.” But it is obvious that he does not regard the terms as in­terchangeable. The Greeks, he says, made a mistake when they identified the “polis” with the whole social area inhabited by civilized man. A “community” that is an overlapping collection of voluntary associations (the church, the lodge, the married couple, the university, the busi­ness corporation) is not co-exten­sive with the state save in periods of totalitarian corruption. As for “society,” it is an abstract of the sum of the relationships between individuals. To say that a “so­ciety” has rights is simply to say that “relationships” have rights—which is silly. It is the individuals who have the rights, including the right to enter into the relation­ships that create society. The in­dividual will, of course, incorpor­ate traditions in his person—and in respecting an individual’s rights other people will not do vio­lence to his ancestral pieties. Thus, there is room for Burke’s view of the claims of continuity in any rational discussion of the claims of “the person as the central and primary end of political society.”

If Mr. Meyer is not wholly satis­factory in differentiating between such concepts as “society,” “com­munity,” and “the state,” he is en­tirely sound in his rejection of the idea that the “polis” or the “community” can be likened to a physical organism. To say that “society” is “organic” is to say that human beings are nothing more than cells in a body. This is pushing an analogy to the point of fantasy. Can a cell have free will, or even a conditional area of freedom? Can an organism com­posed of cells give rise to quarrel­ing philosophies or to different political parties? To function as an organism, a society would have to imitate the life of an anthill or a beehive. But the genes of human beings, which combine in thou­sands of ways to produce an al­most infinite variation, are obvi­ously different from those of ants and bees. The organic conception of society, then, if pushed to logi­cal conclusions, results in social orders which end in either at­rophy or explosion.

Diversions from the Main Event

This being true, Mr. Meyer is quite right in urging the New Conservatives to make common cause with the libertarians in pre­senting a front against “contem­porary collectivist liberalism.” The collectivist intellectual arrogantly assumes that he is uniquely con­stituted to function as the direct­ing brain of the social “organ­ism”; the other elements of the population, not being part of the “elite” cells in the community, must take orders. The Edmund Burke who followed Adam Smith in his admiration for a subtle and constantly proliferating division of labor could never have pushed his theory of organic development to the point of thinking about so­ciety as a collection of cells co­ordinated by a few “planners.” Burke, after all, was an individ­ualist, too, as his famous speech on conciliating the Americans makes plain.

Mr. Meyer rests his case against the shortsightedness of the New Conservatives on his own rigor­ous and felicitously phrased logic. But he might also have appealed to the history of the nineteenth century. At the height of the Vic­torian era Carlyle and Ruskin, thinking to defend “community” by pressing the organic, or bio­logical, analogy, fell hard upon the “Benthamism” of the rising industrial order. They looked to the creation of a new “organic” feudalism. Ruskin even arrived at the point of advocating that no one be allowed to marry without state permission. The new feudal­ism sponsored by Carlyle and Ruskin turned out, in the next generation, to be Tory socialism. Well, is that what the New Con­servatives want? The last time I heard Russell Kirk on the subject of modern Britain, he was full of anger about council houses and other monstrosities of “planning.” But when individuals aren’t con­sulted about their own individual tastes, doesn’t a “community” in­evitably build council houses? This is a thought for the day.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.