Since January I’ve been periodically heading to the Fund for American Studies near Dupont Circle as a part of the National Review Institute’s Washington Regional Fellowship:
National Review Institute (NRI) was founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1991, 36 years after he founded National Review magazine. The Institute is a non-profit, 501(c)(3), journalistic think-tank, established to advance the principles Buckley promoted throughout his life, complement the mission of the magazine, and support NR’s best talent. Each year, NRI selects impressive mid-career professionals in key metropolitan areas—including Washington, D.C., Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, San Francisco, and Dallas—to participate in its Regional Fellowship Programs. In each city, 20 to 25 Fellows attend eight dinner seminars on the foundations of conservative thought. Fellows complete 25- to 30-page reading assignments from foundational texts—from Burke to Buckley—and then discuss the reading with one of the conservative movement’s leading thinkers.
Tonight, we had the last of our eight sessions. Professor Daniel J. Mahoney, whom I last saw interview Ignat Solzhenitsyn at Notre Dame in October, put together the syllabus that guided our sessions:
I. William F. Buckley, Jr. and American Conservatism (Dr. Lee Edwards) For sixty years, William F. Buckley Jr. was the voice of a conservatism that managed to be both sober and combative, committed to permanent verities, and dismissive of a corrupt liberal orthodoxy. He brought style and intellectual penetration to conservatism as it emerged as a coherent movement after World War II. National Review, founded by Buckley and a cohort of friends in 1955, was—and remains—the flagship journal of a thoughtful American conservatism. This first session is dedicated to the thought and journalism of WFB and his role in shaping modern American conservatism.
II. Burke, Prudence, and the Spirit of Conservatism (Dr. Yuval Levin) The great eighteenth-century Anglo-Irish statesman and political philosopher Edmund Burke was in important respects the father of modern conservatism. A champion of the American cause and a panegyrist to English liberty, he saw the great evils at work in the French Revolution and in modern ideology, more generally. An evocative writer and rhetorician, he defended reform, not revolution, and what can be called a “politics of prudence.” He was the enemy par excellence of abstraction in politics, of an appeal to abstract ideas that ignores circumstances, the wisdom of the ages, and settled tradition.
III. The Founders’ Constitution (Dr. Matt Spalding) The United States is that rare country whose nationhood is coextensive with her constitutional arrangements. The “philosophy” of the American Constitution is laid out with remarkable learning, penetration, and insight in the Federalist papers (1787–1788) written by Madison, Hamilton, and Jay. Any thoughtful American conservatism will aim to “conserve” the constitutional heritage bequeathed by our constitutional Founders.
IV. Economic Freedom and Political Freedom (Dr. Roberta Herzberg) The rule of law is the foundation, the pediment, of a free society. This section will explore Friedrich Hayek’s vision of a “constitution of liberty” centered on the rule of law. The threats to the rule of law from the administrative state will also be highlighted.
V. Conservatism, Libertarianism, and Fusionism (Mr. Eugene B. Meyer) Contemporary conservatism has been marked by an enduring tension between a “conservative” defense of tradition and moral virtue (and of legitimate government authority) and a “libertarian” emphasis on the dangers of statism and the need for an expansive realm of personal freedom. Where some see an enhancement of human freedom, others see the erosion of the crucial moral and cultural prerequisites of a free society. These readings will also explore efforts to “fuse” traditionalism and libertarianism that were near and dear to National Review over the years. One reading deals with the decidedly “unconservative” thinking of Ayn Rand whose thought remains influential in some libertarian circles.
VI. Mediating Structures Between the State and the Individual (Mr. William A. Schambra) The best conservative thought opposes radical individualism (which erodes the “mediating structures” between the state and the individual) in the name of those associations and groupings that give shape and form to human liberty. Alexis de Tocqueville famously praised Americans for their prodigious “art of association,” their remarkable capacity to form voluntary associations between the state and the individual. Contemporary conservative thinkers such as Robert Nisbet, Richard John Neuhaus, and Peter Berger have drawn on Tocqueville’s wisdom to show how “mediating structures” can renew community and “empower people,” and in the process act as a check on state power.
VII. Conservatism, Democracy, and Foreign Policy (Dr. John Hillen) Americans have grown war-weary and tired of military engagements abroad. Yet America has vital interests and an abiding commitment to the survival of western civilization. The readings in this session explore the necessity of American foreign policy to combine spiritedness and moderation and to avoid the twin pitfalls of democratic crusadism and escape from our responsibilities in the world.
VIII. The Conservative Spirit and Civic Gratitude (Ms. Kathryn Jean Lopez) The American Dream is imperiled today by social breakdown and economic stagnation. The first reading for this session emphasizes fidelity to “ancient moorings” and resistance to encroaching statism, the second reminds us of our debts to the past and the need to cultivate a spirit of gratitude and civic obligation. Together, they capture the spirit of conservatism as William F. Buckley Jr. understood it.