Monday, October 2, 2017

Ten books every conservative should read


Gene Wisdom
by Gene Wisdom - As a conservative reader and student of this outlook called conservatism I have developed a passion for helping others to “turn that light on”, to make that discovery of a set of ideas that would bring them perfect understanding, intellectual nirvana, of our political world.  No, no, not a grasp of political strategy and the correct stance between RINO’s and Tea Partiers, and how insiders operate.  Not even a policy guide presenting a checklist of the issues important for conservative voters. 

No, I’ve long believed that as conservatives we need, we require, a better understanding of the grounds beneath our positions.  Because I believe that conservatives are rooted both in the truth and in the knowledge that there is truth, we should hunger for it to feed our minds, to secure us to the ground and thereby protect ourselves from liberal flights of fancy.

So my friend Rod Williams tasked me to do what I’ve been tumbling around in my head for several years: present a list of the top ten books for conservatives.  I’ve got to admit, I had to kind of round out the group as the first three or so were automatic, works that I have been repeatedly sharing on Facebook and with friends, urging “Conservatives, you must read this!” 

Number one, then, is the one I have probably most worn a groove in my Facebook timeline with, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, by George H. Nash.  It is no exaggeration to declare that it is the place to start for anyone who wants to understand conservatism and who seeks to grasp the roots and foundations of modern conservative thought.  Nash explores the three-legged stool of conservatism: libertarianism, traditionalism, and anti-Communism.  And no, these legs aren’t simply marijuana legalization, the Christian right, and kill-a-commie-for-mommy.  He examines the postwar thinkers behind each of those elements and those, like William F. Buckley, who sought to bring their often disparate ideas together into a movement. 

Another standout is the second one on my list, James Burnham’s Suicide of the West: An Essay on the Meaning and Destiny of Liberalism.  While I believe that conservatives must be grounded in conservatism as a set of ideas and must understand their philosophical history and roots, I am convinced that we should no less seek to understand our opponent in the realm of ideas, modern liberalism.  Burnham investigates key areas such as the liberal’s view of human nature, the liberal order of values, their attachment to universalism and internationalism, their devotion to equality, and their sense of guilt.  If we do not understand the bases of their beliefs we WILL NOT understand where they seek to go.  To take us. 

A particular longstanding favorite is Men and Marriage, by George Gilder, described back in the day as Ronald Reagan’s “intellectual guru” for his landmark book, Wealth and Poverty.  For me, a key insight is Gilder’s exploration of the fact that marriage civilizes men.  He argues that single men are the bane of civilization for the destructive—and self-destructive—influences and impulses they wield in society. 

A companion that must be mentioned with Gilder’s work is Charles Murray’s blockbuster Losing Ground: American Social Policy 1950-1980.  This book is often credited as being the inspiration behind the “Clinton welfare reform” (actually the Republican welfare reform that Clinton vetoed several times before finally signing it) and its premise is that welfare policy has been a miserable failure, that the War on Poverty became instead a war on families.  He builds on Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s insight from two decades earlier, that the War on Poverty contributed to the dissolution of black families in the United States and was beginning to have the same impact on white families while expanding its destruction to blacks.  By the way, Murray carries forward and expands his contributions in his recent Coming Apart: The State of White America 1960-2010. 

Because it embodies so many of the truths of conservatism our American Constitution is rightfully honored by people of various stripes on the Right and it embodies both the love of liberty and the rich history and tradition of our British forbears.  In order to understand its principles and protections we properly look to the period of its writing to understand the Framers.  In my opinion, one of the best sources on the struggle to ratify the Constitution, a controversy which should shape how we view its provisions, is Library of America’s two-volume, The Debate on the Constitution, a collection of both Federalist and anti-Federalist arguments, for and against the Constitution, including several of Publius’s writings in The Federalist Papers.  Here I’ll throw in what I believe is another indispensable read and a reference.  In my opinion, many conservatives and liberals err in understanding what our Founders were seeking to hammer out, misunderstanding that could be allayed by simply reading James Madison’s Notes on the Convention.  James Madison was present every day of the Federal Convention and took copious notes of the proposals, debates, and votes.  A reference that belongs on the shelves of every student of the Constitution is Liberty Fund’s The Founders Constitution, a 5-volume oversize collection of writings that both informed the Founders and contemporary understandings, and does so, clause by clause for the Constitution and the first twelve amendments. 

Rounding out the gotta have’s is a primer, and so a placeholder for an explication of its principles, Economics in One Lesson, by Henry Hazlitt, that timeless work on free-market economics.  We all laugh about how little liberals understand about the basics of economics.  But how much do we know?  One of the three legs of the conservative stool, as Nash detailed, is libertarianism.  And there is nothing in libertarianism that is built on so rigorous and studied a system as the principles of the Austrian school economics, developed by Carl Menger, Eugen Bohm-Bawerk, Ludwig von Mises, and Friedrich Hayek.  Modern libertarianism has degenerated, due to some unfortunate influences from the 60’s, into a hippie “if it feels good, do it and keep the government’s hands off me” and has largely left behind these pillars.  I doubt if more than a handful of my libertarian friends has read one of those classics, even Hazlitt’s introduction. 

And, speaking of Hayek and being forgotten by modern libertarians.  Another work that merits top-shelf consideration for any conservative is Hayek’s The Mirage of Social Justice, which is the second volume of his 3-volume Law, Legislation, and Liberty.  The centrality of that concept in the lexicon of modern liberalism (and thereby into modern political policy discussions) merits the place of this work for modern conservatives.  Hayek lays bare the utter meaninglessness of the concept and crumbles one of modern liberalism’s fundamentals.  Not a small contribution from someone who in another essay explained “Why I Am Not a Conservative” and contributed so many other major works to our understanding, including The Road to Serfdom, The Constitution of Liberty, and The Counter-Revolution of Science. 

The attack of the cultural Left on morality and Western civilization has required the shoring up of our philosophical foundations.  This became clear to me as I began to explore natural law (Thomas Jefferson’s “laws of nature and of nature’s God”) as the underpinning, the philosophical roots, of conservatism, of society.  For myself, that study began with the reading of Heinrich Rommen’s The Natural Law, which provided a basic understanding of both the concept and its philosophical history.  This opened the door to such modern natural law scholars as Robert George (whom the New York Times called America’s “most influential conservative Christian thinker”), J. Budziszewski, and Hadley Arkes.  Start with Rommen, though. 

The next book is really more of a genre than a single work.  And I almost left it out of this listing.  One of the three legs of the conservative stool identified by George Nash is anti-Communism.  As an element of the movement it was the unifier that often bridged the warring divide between libertarians and traditionalists.  There is a long list of go-to books for understanding the subversive influence of Communism in America.  The first two I would suggest are legendary FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s Masters of Deceit and You Can Trust the Communists (to be Communists) by the Founder of the Christian Anti-Communist Crusade, Frederick Schwarz.  One corrective to the historical smears that make up liberal revisionism is Perjury: The Hiss-Chambers Case by Allen Weinstein.  In this blockbuster, Weinstein set out to prove Alger Hiss was not a Soviet spy and wound up making the definitive case for Hiss’s guilt. Another is Blacklisted by History: The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight Against America’s Enemies, by M. Stanton Evans, an icon of the conservative movement.  There are easily a dozen other books that recommend themselves in this area. 

The reason I almost left these in history’s dustbin is that modern conservatives have seemingly forgotten that there is true evil in the modern world.  The evil of Communism is one of the “gifts of the Left” and is part of the poisoned progeny of Jean Jacques Rousseau.  It is therefore the ideological cousin of modern liberalism and that kinship explains why Burnham in Suicide of the West found that, for modern liberalism, there are no enemies to the Left.  While Communists were often contemptuous of their cousins as “useful idiots”, liberals seem to have a warm spot in their hearts for their murderous kin.  I also fear that modern libertarianism shares some traits with liberalism, viz, a belief that human nature is good, an attachment to rationalism over traditionalism, and the hyper-rationalists’ over-confidence in the ability to remake society on these bases. 

As starting points for a couple of social conservative issues (issues because the Left’s agenda has forced them on us and not even through democratic means), the best place to start, to learn the best grounding for the pro-life/anti-abortion position is Francis Beckwith’s Politically Correct Death: Answering the Arguments for Abortion Rights.  Though the title is rather emotionally-charged this book lays out in very clear and logical terms the scientific/medical arguments against abortion.  A close second in this category is The Moral Question of Abortion by Stephen Schwarz. 

The other issue of the day for social conservatives is of course the attack on the institution of marriage posed by the push to legitimize same-sex marriage.  While there are other works on this subject, the author to look for is Ryan Anderson, who has become the go-to expert in presenting these arguments for preserving this core institution of Western civilization.  Anderson was a force of one around the country and often cited, including by Justice Alito in his dissent in the recent Obergefell v. Hodges U.S. Supreme Court decision, by proponents of preserving this institution.  Anderson’s first book on this issue, as one of three co-authors, was What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, which began as an article for The Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, a Federalist Society online publication.  His second is a compelling critique of that decision, Truth Overruled: The Future of Marriage and Religious Freedom, which explores the ramifications for our First Amendment liberties. 

OK, like the dessert list, I couldn’t limit myself.  There are probably a few more than ten above but I believe they make a good starting point for anyone seeking to better understand the political thought of the Right.  As I suggested earlier, there are different elements of conservatism and in fact it can be broken down further than the three listed in Nash’s history.  And neoconservatism and the New Right were barely making their appearance when his book first appeared and so he added them in a later edition.  

Gene Wisdom is an Alabama native but has lived in the Nashville area since 2007. He, his wife Vicki, and their dog Savannah live near Nolensville.  Gene is a conservative activist and leads the Conservative Fusion Book Club.



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