n September of 1976, we published a symposium seeking answers to the question: What is a Liberal—Who is a Conservative?

We printed answers from 64 intellectuals. Recognizing their relevancy today, we highlight answers from Robert L. Bartley, who was then the editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal,  William F. Buckley, Jr., who was then the editor of National Review, and Irving Kristol, who was then the co-editor of Public Interest and a member of the Wall Street Journal’s Board of Contributors.

Mirroring modern concerns, we wrote in 1976 that we were addressing this symposium “to a group of American intellectuals of varying political views,” partly in response to  “certain issues raised by the presidential elections.”

So: Who Is a Conservative?

Robert L. Bartley:


he language is full of words that are tricky to define in isolation but totally untroublesome in context. Are you satisfied with the way terms like bright and dull are used in contemporary discourse? The knife is bright; the knife is dull.

Despite the trickiness of defining a liberal or conservative position on this or that issue, I do not find the words troublesome in context. If in the context of contemporary discourse I am told that someone has become more liberal or more conservative, the statement seems to me to have a rough but reasonably reliable meaning. Certainly it does not leave me in the utter bafflement I feel when people continue to describe themselves as socialists even after sad experience has disabused them of belief in government ownership of the means of production.

It’s futile to try to fix a living language along any single axis, but for me at least the liberal-conservative distinction has a historical core that endures today. At the heart the issue is epistemological. Does one learn primarily from theory, or primarily from experience?

The liberal temperament has always been to seek some grand abstraction from which all else flows, with which all else can be ordered. To take the historical examples, Rousseau had his State of Nature and his General Will, Bentham had the Utility Principle and his “Felicific Calculus.”

For the contrasting conservative temperament, listen to Burke: “Nothing universal can be rationally affirmed on any moral or any political subject. Pure metaphysical abstraction does not belong to these matters. The lines of morality are not like the ideal lines of mathematics. They are broad and deep as well as long. They admit of exceptions; they demand modifications. These exceptions and modifications are not made by the process of logic, but by the rules of prudence.”

Thus, “Politics ought to be adjusted, not to human reasonings, but to human nature, of which reason is but a part, and by no means the greatest part.” The British Constitution was not “struck out at an heat by a set of presumptuous men,” but “is the result of the thoughts of many minds in many ages.” And, “The whole scheme of our mixed Constitution is to prevent any one of its principles from being carried as far as, taken by itself, and theoretically, it would go.”

Much becomes clear if you apply this historical distinction to contemporary liberalism and conservatism. That is, if you think of the distinction not in terms of social or political programs, but primarily in terms of a clash between two epistemological temperaments.

In particular, the fickleness of the liberals’ political program is best understood as the result of their search for the philosophers’ stone. One week the prescription is vinegar and molasses, but if constantly increasing doses of that fail to turn society and human nature into gold, the next week the prescription will be changed to sulphur and oil of vitriol. It is not the prescription that matters but the search.

Thus, if equality under the law does not solve all racial problems, the liberal feels compelled to press for something new, like quotas. If economic growth does not lead to the perfect society, the prescription becomes an end to growth. If centralization doesn’t work miracles, maybe decentralization will. If internationalism doesn’t bring peace to the world, isolationism must be the answer.

As one would expect from the underlying temperament, the conservative position is far less volatile. Conservatives who argued for less government yesterday do not argue for more government today. But their position does evolve, particularly in response to experience. Some of the liberals’ abstractions are indeed necessary in the trial and error through which progress is made. Now and again one of them will actually work out in experience, and accordingly will be absorbed into the conservative position.

The best historic example is found in the abstractions offered by Adam Smith. For nearly two centuries adherents to The Wealth of Nations were called liberals; in Continental Europe they still are today. But in contemporary U.S. discourse, Smith’s followers are called conservatives. They follow proven experience, while the liberals have marched off to a tune of a newer abstraction, the Keynesian multiplier. This elegant abstraction has the advantage of fitting nicely into computers, though it is having a bit of trouble explaining the simultaneous unemployment and inflation of the latest business cycle.

Finally, yes, it does matter how these terms are used today. Their usage causes great personal anguish to people who recognize that in recent years liberal abstractions have been pushed to silly extremes, who correctly see the conservative temperament as all the more needed in the hectic society we are increasingly becoming, but who learned at mother’s breast that liberals are the good guys.

Now, this was not a bad lesson to learn for someone growing up before 1954. Joe McCarthy was not a very attractive fellow, and he seemed to have all conservatives bullied (though he never would have existed if liberals had faced up to Alger Hiss’s guilt). Conservatives so often seemed to defend vested interests, seeking personal advancement. Most importantly, a great piece of national reform remained to be done, and conservatism had been appropriated as a cover for segregationism. Naturally, a man of sensibility and wit was attracted to the liberal side.

Much has changed since 1954. Great progress has been made on the racial issue, and I know of no conservative who would like to go backward. Indeed, with racial quotas liberals have once again pushed a single idea too far. Conservatives have done a far better job of containing their extremists than the liberals have in containing theirs. The liberals have developed an anti-establishment establishmentarianism that shows that no ideology has a monopoly on pettiness, small-mindedness, or intolerance. The self-seeking programs of the New Class show that liberals have their own vested interests.

It may be too much to contend that the same qualities of sensibility and wit that pushed in the liberal direction in 1954 push in the opposite one today. But someone whose political feelings were not fixed by that date will not find a strong association between ideology and such personal qualities as intelligence, moderation, and open-mindedness. If one has to be something today, the term conservative is nothing to fear.

William F. Buckley, Jr.


ne is never entirely satisfied, for reasons of vanity, with any label that presumes to describe one’s own political philosophy. Some-how, one’s own position, so delicately sculpted, so majestic in its implications, is . . . impoverished . . . by such labels as are appropriate to describe the positions of one’s cruder associates. Having said this, I am reminded of the legendary Mexican intellectual delivering the routine denunciation of the Spanish, who ruined the indigenous culture, who exploited Mexico’s wealth, savaged the population, contaminated Mexico with their superstitions, yoked the country to their policies. “Unhappily,” the Mexican concludes, “it happens that I am myself pure Spanish.” I am happy to call myself a conservative.

The term continues to have communicable meaning, notwithstanding the vagaries of political fashion. The extremes one can spot instantly. Thus the frequent references to “Kremlin conservatives,” i.e., those who would revert to Stalinism. I wish I had clipped the wonderful dispatch in the New York Times several years ago in which the gray lady fell right into an ambush of her own making with the report that “conservatives” in the Kremlin were cracking down on the importation of books from abroad. Included in the recent list of forbidden books was The Conscience of a Conservative by Barry Goldwater. Routinely, the foreign “conservative” is the figure who favors the status quo just a little bit ante. Back before Stalin was the czar, nostalgia for whom would make one a reactionary. The “liberal” in any narrative involving foreigners is the beneficiary of the two dominant concerns of regnant American ideology: democracy and redistribution. How would the editorial writer of the New York Times handle a revolution in Peru aimed simultaneously at (a) restoring political democracy, and (b) restoring private property? With difficulty. Madame Gandhi is in disfavor. One can only imagine with what hostility she would have been met if, simultaneously, she had repealed democracy and socialism.

Even so, as we all know, the meaning of the words is in flux. Woodrow Wilson could write (in Congressional Government) that the history of liberalism is the history of man’s efforts to restrain the growth of government. An incredibly short period later, surveying the tendency of the political thought of his colleagues, Santayana would say contemptuously that the only thing the modern liberal was concerned to liberate was man from his marriage contract. What one can see the traces of in recent years is, so to speak, a reactionary current in the use of both terms. If they do not remain dichotomous, their usefulness is over. For historical convenience, I date the counter-current’s beginning on the day when Daniel P. Moynihan, addressing the Americans for Democratic Action, said: Let’s face it, conservatives know congenitally what we liberals required years of experience and intellection to know, namely, that there are limits to the uses of state power.

The general skepticism that followed the age of Lyndon Johnson gave impetus to this weighty reconsideration. The pretensions of the Great Society, like the ideals of the Allies in World War I, “grew grander with every restatement of them.” Johnson was going to do something about the quality of our lives! Conservatives greeted that statement as rodomontade, pure and simple; liberals (one thinks of poor, disillusioned James Coleman) with childlike enthusiasm. What happened was such stuff as proscribed father-and-son dinners, inflation, chairpersons, busing, strikes by policemen, and the cosseting of mosquitoes. I like best Irving Kristol’s summary of the convolutions. We live in an age, he has observed, when a girl can perform sexual intercourse onstage unmolested, provided she is being paid the minimum wage.

Distrust of social schematism grows. It is broadly manifested by those polls that reveal the great distrust of the people in government, a phenomenon which, to the intense disappointment of so many, survives Watergate. Almost twice as many Americans denominate themselves as conservative rather than liberal (even as they tend to vote Democratic rather than Republican). This does not add up to a formal renunciation of liberal heresies for reasons which, paradoxically, are conservative in nature. Conservatives are resistant to change. The widely unacknowledged orthodoxy in America is the docile acceptance of the Supreme Court as the supreme moral authority, which is why a nation as nearly unanimous as nations ever get on the subject of favoring prayer at school, and opposed to busing, cannot, for conservative reasons, launch a constitutional amendment to effect conservative reforms. These complexities are coils wound ’round the terms conservative and liberal, but they are not mortal. The terms continue to have a meaning which one can usually descry. And, if the compass needle gets wobbly, you can always magnetize it by pointing to Joseph L. Rauh, Jr., and Russell Kirk, for guaranteed repolarization.

Irving Kristol


don’t know who first came up with the term neoconservative—probably a writer for Time or News-week—and I am certain it was not meant to be in any way flattering. Its main intent was surely to designate me and others as something less than liberal—i.e., something less than certifiably sound of heart and mind. Still, the more I think about the term, the more I like it.

What I like most about it is the echoes it evokes in my mind of neoorthodoxy in religion—that current of thought represented by Barth, Tillich, and Niebuhr in Protestantism, by Maritain and Gilson in Catholicism, by Rosenzweig and Buber in Judaism. These men are my favorite theologians of this century. I have read and reread them, have been profoundly affected by them, and have no doubt that my neoconservative political orientation indirectly owes much to them. And it pleases me to think that I may be up to something in political thought which bears a resemblance, no matter how faint, to their work in religious thought.

But I also believe we are talking about much more than a merely personal fancy. For there is unquestionably a connection between religious orthodoxy and political conservatism. Religion begins and ends in orthodoxy—the whole purpose of religion is to establish a viable and vital orthodoxy to whose values and rituals assent is freely given. Similarly, politics begins and ends in conservatism—the whole purpose of politics is to establish a viable and vital polity to whose values and mores assent is freely given. In both religious orthodoxy and political conservatism, the basic assumption is that human perfection (and human happiness) is most closely approximated when virtue is achieved through law-abidingness.

This assumption, of course, is more often than not at variance with reality. It is in the nature of things that what is born must decay. The institutions and values of orthodoxy-conservatism become routine, formalistic, petrified—in short, devoid of human meaning. Dissatisfaction, dissent, even heresy become rife. The search for a new orthodoxy begins—as does the effort to breathe new life into the old tradition. This latter effort gives rise to neoorthodoxy—or, in politics, to neo-conservatism.

But what is the political tradition—the orthodoxy—which neoconservatives wish to renew and revive? It is the political tradition associated with the birth of modern liberal society—a society distinguished from all others by representative government and a predominantly free-market economy. At this point, there is bound to erupt some silly liberal chatter about the “irony” and “paradox” of conservatives wishing to preserve liberal institutions and liberal values. There is nothing more paradoxical about this situation, however, than there is in Lutherans trying to preserve their “reformed” church. Institutions and values, whether it be in religion or politics, are never created by orthodoxy-conservatism. That’s not their job. Rather, their job is to adapt new institutions and values to the real world—to make them work by reconciling them with prevailing habits of mind and customary behavior. There can be no permanency of success to any such enterprise (just as, on the other hand, there can be no such thing as a permanent revolution). Sooner or later, dissatisfaction sets in, and then the choice is between “making all things new” and a neo-conservatism which tries to breathe new life into old forms.

Practically all those who are today called neoconservative were originally moved to “make all things new.” The collapse of 20th-century socialism as a viable political philosophy was the central ideological experience of their lives. And there was no—is no—liberal alternative, because 20th-century liberalism has, for all sorts of reasons, become a creed that can be fairly described as neosocialism; that is to say, it has become far more interested in equality than in liberty. (There are no liberal parties left in Western Europe, where the choice is between various kinds of socialism and various kinds of conservatism; and most American liberals, if they lived in Britain or Germany or Sweden, would certainly be voting for the social-democratic parties.) Out of this dearth of alternatives, American neoconservatism is born.

Neoconservatism believes that conservatism, as it has developed over the past 150 years, has lost its intellectual and spiritual vigor. It needs an infusion of new energies—hence, neoconservatism. And, like all such movements, it seeks these energies by a return to the sources. In a sense, the problem that neoconservatism faces is summed up in the fact that Edmund Burke, the founder of traditionalist conservatism, and Adam Smith, the founder of liberal capitalism, were good friends who admired each other’s writings. In the course of the 19th and 20th centuries, the original unity of thought which made this possible has become ever more incomprehensible. Conservatism today is fragmented, often self-contradictory, almost always disoriented. Neoconservatism—like neo-orthodoxy in religion—is an effort to rediscover the living trunk beneath all those brittle branches.

A Jewish word, if I may, by way of epilogue. Most American Jews think of themselves as liberals in the political realm. Yet when it comes to Judaism itself, they are practically all neoconservative, not wanting at all to reject or repudiate their religious traditions but rather to give new meaning to them. I do not see how this schizophrenia can last. One cannot indefinitely raise liberal children and expect them to remain members of a neoconservative religious community. What I am, with some presumption, suggesting is that those who care about Jewish survival will find, in the years ahead, that neoconservatism will make a lot more sense to them than the liberalism they now automatically subscribe to.

+ A A -
You may also like
Share via
Copy link