In his remarkable and excellent new book, “Conservatism: A Rediscovery,” Yoram Hazony makes a convincing case that Enlightenment rationalism is the god that failed and that the English-speaking world needs to return to what made it the most successful collection of nations in the world: a reliance on tradition, practicality, religion and experience, rather an obsession with some vague notion of universal reason.
Mr. Hazony takes the sharp edge of his sword to every aspect of the intellectual value chain of Enlightenment rationalism. He notes that it poorly explains the origins and purposes of government, that it enfeebles nations and peoples, that it is incapable of providing a meaningful defense of anything important to citizens, and that in our present crisis it is unable to even defend itself against the real progress being made by Marxism in formerly liberal institutions.
He writes: “A political regime founded on Enlightenment liberalism cannot sustain itself even for three generations. Enlightenment liberalism initiates a perpetual revolution that destroys its own foundations in the name of reason, opening the door to Marxism and fascism.”
The Enlightenment notion of reliance solely on some sort of universal reason — even assuming such a thing is possible — for ascertaining the true and good is defective and leads to the desiccated, destructive and barren societies we have created in the post-war era.
The author offers this: “Enlightenment rationalism supposes that individuals, if they reason freely about political and moral subjects without reference to tradition, will quickly discover the truth concerning these matters and move towards a consensus. But experience suggests just the opposite: when people reason freely about political and moral questions, they produce a profusion of varying and contradictory opinions, reaching no consensus at all. [It] … is an engine of perpetual revolution, which brings about the progressive destruction of every inherited institution, without ever being able to consolidate a stable consensus around any new ones.”
In comparison, he makes a convincing and straightforward case that tradition, experience, pragmatism, religion and humility are the legitimate and true wellsprings of wisdom, and that it is only through reference to such traditions and experience that government can achieve all of the objectives — safeguarding individual freedoms, preserving and perpetuating the nation, transmitting values, expanding the common good — which a healthy nation pursues and requires.
Nations are collections of groups, tribes, families, clans, etc., that have arisen from shared traditions and experiences and were formed to provide mutual protection and advancement. Consequently, those forms of government most likely to survive are based on practical and historical experiences that are unique to each nation. Governments are constantly balancing various requirements, including preservation of liberties, progress of the whole, maintenance of internal and external harmony and justice, as well as the needs of their constituent tribes.
Enlightenment hyper-rationality is of little use in these activities, and, in fact, actually leads people into dangerous and inaccurate beliefs about the world. Chief among those beliefs is the notion that we can export representative democracy to nations that may not want it or be able to institute it within the context and constraints of their history and tradition. This specific outcome of Enlightenment “rationality” has been particularly disastrous, deadly and pointless in the post-war era.
Mr. Hazony offers an intellectual basis and clear and compelling argument for a nationalism grounded in the common good, the transmission of experience, religious values and civic virtues, as well as the preservation and growth of the groups and tribes that make up a nation. His book, intentionally or not, provides the clear rationale and philosophical basis for secure borders, a strong defense, a rejection of foreign and domestic adventurism, an approach to trade that seeks to make the nation stronger, and public recognition of the importance of religion.
In his closing, the author also notes that reliance on thoughts and sentiments will be insufficient to save what remains of the American way of life. Deeds will be necessary. The remnant that remains will need to model the lives and attitudes they wish to see, not just encourage others to live and adhere to conservative ideals.
“Conservatism: A Rediscovery” is the sharpest intellectual razor taken to the Enlightenment and the most convincing and thorough evisceration and dismissal of Enlightenment political thought in the last 70 years — probably since “The Conservative Mind” by Russell Kirk.
All thinking people involved in governance and politics should read it at least once.
• Michael McKenna, a columnist for The Washington Times, is the president of MWR Strategies. He was most recently a deputy assistant to the president and deputy director of the Office of Legislative Affairs at the White House.