In Yoram Hazony’s new book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery (Regnery Gateway), he calls for renegotiating the relationship between the core ideas of the conservative tradition and the libertarian elements that it has been in partnership with, by returning the former to a pre-eminent position.

Yoram Hazony has written yet another foundational text of highly readable and relevant political thought. Following up on his last two bestsellers, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (Cambridge University Press, 2012) and The Virtue of Nationalism (Basic Books, 2018), Hazony’s main goal in Conservatism: A Rediscovery is to clearly distinguish between liberalism in all its forms on the one hand, and the authentic Anglo-American conservative tradition, on the other. In doing so, he attempts to rediscover the principles that, he argues, must be embraced in order to face the dire ideological challenge posed by the current version of Marxism, which today masquerades as “progressivism,” “anti-racism,” or “woke.” 

Hazony’s contention is that when the conservative movement bases itself primarily on liberal principles of individual rights and free markets, while relegating ideas of tradition, family, honor, and God to the sidelines (when these elements are regarded as optional), it proves ultimately incapable of standing up to the encroachments and societal destruction brought on by Marxist ideas. Indeed, in some ways, contemporary progressivism is itself an outgrowth of liberalism’s emphasis on decontextualized individual rights taken to its logical extreme. America’s only hope, he argues, is for conservatives to re-arrange the relationship between the core ideas of the conservative tradition and the libertarian elements that it has been in partnership with, by returning the former to a pre-eminent position. 

To lay this out, Hazony first takes us back to the origins of the Anglo-American conservative tradition, tying them to English-speaking religious thinkers including John Fortescue, Richard Hooker, and John Selden, whom he identifies as the forgers of the tradition that Edmund Burke later sought to conserve. Looking across the Atlantic, he asserts that it is this same tradition upon which the American Constitution was founded, which was then crystallized by the National Conservatives of the early decades after independence, such as Washington, Adams, and Hamilton, and Chief Justices such as John Marshall—as opposed to Locke, Paine, and Jefferson, who are identified as belonging to the liberal and rationalist stream. Hazony follows up this historical survey with an original restatement of what he sees as the core principles of a conservative theory of politics built on loyalty, obligation, honor, community and nation, God and scripture; and he discusses what kind of government arises from such a foundation. In the third, and perhaps most important section, he addresses the major liberal and conservative thinkers of the past century and delineates what he believes they are missing and how they differ from the brand of conservatism that he is proposing, referencing liberals Friedrich Hayek and Leo Strauss as well as Russell Kirk, William Buckley, and Frank Meyer. Hazony then presents the current Marxist threat and demonstrates how his proposal of “Conservative Democracy” can meet it in a way that the idea of “Liberal Democracy” cannot. Finally, in an intimately personal and courageous fashion, Hazony reflects on how he came to embrace and understand conservatism in his own life.

What Hazony primarily is doing is not arguing against the importance of liberty, but rather attempting to shift the bedrock upon which our support for liberty is based.

While Hazony is convincing in his main premise that core conservative principles must be recognized as having primary status, this reviewer (and I presume other conservative readers who hold a healthy concern over granting too many powers to any kind of government) came away wondering where exactly Hazony proposes to draw the limits to government involvement in society. He proposes a greater role for government in relation to religion, intervening in international trade, and more. While much depends on the specifics, and some role may be justified, one may wonder: what is the limiting principle? How are we to ensure that the “carve outs” for Jews and secular liberals within the publicly Christian society are respected? If government intervention is allowed in the name of protecting American businesses from foreign competitors, what principle is to prevent it from taking other steps to “strengthen” the private sector or from coercing medical interventions on individuals, all “for the good of the nation”? To be sure, Hazony addresses some of these concerns in Chapter 8 in which he outlines Conservative Democracy, and the idea of limited government certainly appears among the core principles on the list. However, the precise limits in the proposed new arrangement may need further fleshing out in order to bring conservatives who also see value in libertarian principles fully on board.

A potentially fruitful avenue to begin fleshing this out can be found within the pages of the very first chapter. Most striking is Hazony’s presentation of Sir John Fortescue, who argues in his In Praise of the Laws of England that what is deserving of praise is precisely that the “English had succeeded in creating a form of government more conducive to human freedom and flourishing than any other known to man.” This early source makes clear that this tradition, including Hazony’s call for obligation toward community and nation, is indeed connected at its umbilical cord to the value of human freedom. Reading his presentation of John Selden, it becomes clearer that what Hazony primarily is doing is not arguing against the importance of liberty, but rather attempting to shift the bedrock upon which our support for liberty is based; taking it off of a bedrock of enlightenment rationalism based on axiomatic declarations of rights and instead placing it on an English and Biblical bedrock of support for God-given rights against government, granted by the only source which can truly stand above the Leviathan of the modern state. I believe that Conservatism: A Rediscovery will be recognized as a new milestone in conservative thought, alongside works such as Russel Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, and Roger Scruton’s The Meaning of Conservatism. However, to Kirk Hazony adds an unambiguous rejection of the political thinkers whose conservative leanings led them to justify chattel slavery in the 19th century American South. And whereas the late great Roger Scruton related to God and religion as something that was nice-to-have, Hazony emphasizes the Biblical origins of Anglo-American conservatism and the necessity of a widespread belief in the God of the Bible for its perpetuation. Hazony has reached back to the roots of this political tradition, and shown why they are truly worthy of praise, how they have evolved to animate generations of the strongest and most moral societies of the centuries since, and how they can continue to provide a path forward, if we can decide to not only applaud conservative ideas but to rise to the challenge of living a conservative life.