Dissecting Conservative

Dissecting Conservative

THE FUTILITARIAN SOCIETY, by Wiliam J. Newman. George Braziller. 1961.

William J. Newman’s theme can be expressed in a loose syllogism: America’s problems call for change and innovation. But conservatives are “stasis seekers.” Therefore conservative ideas are a “menace” to the nation.

The theme is elaborated through a delightfully breezy and ironic dissection of the writings of Old Conservatives (Felix Morley, William H. Chamberlain), New Conservatives (Kirk, Rossiter, Viereck) and academics who write in a Conservative Mood (Louis Hartz, Daniel Bell). His conclusions are “sound,” and his comments on the implicit conservatism of the Luce-ian national purpose literature are perceptive and amusing. Yet one has some reservations.

It is generally considered bad form to criticize an author for what he has not tried to do, yet Newman’s explicit disavowal of any attempt to examine conservative actions and the sociology of conservatism and his decision to confine himself to the dimension of self-proclaimed conservative thought seem to me to produce an unreal and essentially futilitarian analysis. For example, it may make sense from a purely academic viewpoint to call Russell Kirk probably the most important figure of American conservatism in the twentieth century, but in any wider perspective—and in terms of political importance—wouldn’t Robert A. Taft be a stronger contender for this title? Secondly, can one discuss American conservatism without considerable emphasis on the economic doctrines of the ideology? Hayek may derive his conservatism from “non-American roots” but it is in America after all, that he became a fad and the inspiration for a vast secondary literature of laissez-faire conservatism.