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Wednesday, January 1, 1992

A Reviewers Notebook: The Case for Conservatism

In his introduction to Francis Graham Wilson’s little book on The Case for Conservatism (Transaction Publishers, 78 pages, $21.95 cloth) Russell Kirk notes that Lionel Trilling could write in 1949 that “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” But no sooner had Trilling made his remark than “the literary and philosophical adversaries of liberal dogmata rose up in numbers.”

Francis Wilson, described by Kirk as “an austere-looking, dryly humorous gentleman and scholar” who had retired from the University of Illinois to live at the Cosmos Club in Washington, was more than happy to be among those who proved Trilling’s lack of prescience. But Wilson does not pretend to be a perfectionist. He is quite aware that the major political parties often echo each other, and that elections are won by narrow margins that shift from time to time with pressure group changes. He thinks that conservatism is a philosophy of social evolution “in which certain lasting values are defended within the framework of the tension of political conflict.” When given values are at stake, a conservative may even become a revolutionary—though not as a Marxian, with the theory of class struggle, might assert. Wilson thinks class war ideas are abominable.

We have to live, says Wilson, with the results of past revolutions. Conservatism “is a spirit of politics rather than a fixed program . . . . Intellectual conservatism has at its command the whole range of philosophy and science that the centuries of Western civilization have provided.”

This identification of conservatism with Western Civilization itself may be regarded by today’s liberals as thievery. But between what is known as “old-fashioned liberalism” and Wilson’s conservatism there is little difference.

What are Wilson’s own descriptions of the common characteristics of the conservative mind in the West? He lists five that seem to him of special importance. First, he says, “conservative thought has attempted to find a pattern in history that may give some clues as to the possible and impossible in politics. Second, conservatives have generally been somewhat distrustful of human nature, viewing it as a mixture of the rational and irrational. Third, the conservative has in general believed there is a moral order in the universe in which man participates and from which he can derive canons or principles of political judgment. Fourth, conservative thought has accepted as sound politics the idea that government should be limited in its power and that such limitations should run on behalf of individuals and groups. And fifth, the conservative mind has defended the institution of property, I think, long before the rise of modern capitalism. . . . Certainly the defense of property is a more steady principle than the defense of particular arrangements by which goods are manufactured and distributed.”

The moral order, says Wilson, “is one of the oldest products of Western society, for it begins in the Greek distinction between nature and convention; it flowers in the concept of natural law in Roman civil law and in Christian philosophy . . . . any democracy that has long survived has believed that government is responsible to the community, but that responsibility must be exercised with restraint and moderation, under the rule of law.”

The preconditions of majority rule have been stated in the Bill of Rights, primarily the rights to life, liberty, and property. That, after all, is the case for conservatism.

  • 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.