Will the Prodigal Son Return?


Published May 26, 2022

Law and Liberty

Among the many sayings of Jesus that have echoed down through the ages, perhaps none still retains as much hold on our post-religious imagination as that of the “prodigal son.” This young man, impatient of restraint and eager to make his mark in the world, demanded of his father his share of the inheritance, journeyed into a far country, “and there he squandered his property in riotous living.” Soon the inheritance was gone, a famine was on the land, and he found himself ignobly scraping out a living as a swineherd, “longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate.” Finally, he came to his senses, exclaiming “How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger!” He resolved to journey back to his father’s land and plead for a second chance.

The parable has much to offer as an allegory for the state of American society today. Impatient of restraint, our forefathers took the rich inheritance of British law, religion, and culture, and squandered it in the riotous living of liberalism. Today, the capital is all spent and our society is slouching toward the servitude of economic dependence, addiction, and anomie. No doubt, before his epiphany, the prodigal fortified himself with thoughts that perhaps he could retrieve his situation by practicing a bit more self-discipline, working a bit harder for his employer, or cultivating an entrepreneurial spirit—much as various watered-down brands of “conservatism” have thought that the decadence of late liberalism could be reversed with a few moralistic or market-friendly tweaks. But no—we must return to our father’s house.

Yoram Hazony’s extraordinary new book, Conservatism: A Rediscovery, proposes exactly this: that the only way forward is through repentance and return to an older vision our fathers once cultivated. William F. Buckley may have famously said that “a conservative stands athwart history yelling ‘Stop!’,” but during the seven decades since, conservatives have been reduced to jogging alongside the runaway train of history shrieking “Slow down!” Many, indeed, by privatizing religion, dismantling authority, and embracing market fundamentalism have helped speed it on its way. And in the past few years, desperate “Trumpist” conservatives have seemed prepared to blow up the tracks, with no real plan for what to do when the train careens off the rails. Hazony refuses all of these false conservatisms, proposing a return to conservatism as a genuinely positive vision for what society is and how it should be ordered.

The Liberal Myth

The work consists of roughly equal parts theory and history, with a powerful autobiographical section at the end to drive the lessons home. All of these are valuable, but easily the most impressive is the theory of conservatism that Hazony outlines in the book’s central chapters. Conservatism, argues Hazony, is rooted first and foremost in an epistemic stance—a historical empiricism that attends to how human beings actually behave and how societies actually flourish. According, the theory he offers is first and foremost a descriptive one, and it is only normative he insists, to the extent that this description proves sound, illuminating the conditions for a stable and flourishing social and political order.

At the heart of it is the massive chapter three, “The Conservative Paradigm,” which constitutes an astonishing essay in political anthropology that is worth the price of the book. Three key claims anchor the wide-ranging argument of this section. First, liberal man is a myth: human beings are not born free and equal, but embedded and dependent. Second, it is true that people act in pursuit of self-interest, but crucially, the “self” in question is always an extended one: “the human individual regards family members such as his parents, husband or wife, and children as an integral part of himself, and strives to protect them accordingly. This attachment to others whom I experience as a part of myself is called loyalty.” This extended self can be expanded to the clan, the tribe, the nation, and even in some measure a family of nations, but not to a universal abstract humanity. Third, human beings do compete and jostle for position, as we all know from Adam Smith, but this is competition is not for wealth (except occasionally as a means), but forstatusand honor—as Smith himself discerned in his Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Hazony’s remarks in this section are profoundly illuminative, proving the strength of his theory by its remarkable ability to make sense of an immense range of phenomena both historical and contemporary, lofty and mundane. Like Jordan Peterson, Hazony insists on reminding liberal society that for all its obsession with egalitarianism, hierarchy is an inexpungible feature of human existence:

Take any number of human individuals and set them to work at a given task, or at multiple tasks, or at merely amusing themselves without any particular goal, and their relations will immediately take the form of a hierarchy, or of two or more competing hierarchies, in which individuals are ranked in accordance with their importance in comparison to one another.

If the tribal affiliations and hierarchies of traditional society are erased, new tribes will quickly take their places, as individuals gravitate toward charismatic party leaders, adopt their views, and defend them with fierce loyalty:

No less than the most ardent defenders of tradition, liberals and Marxists tend to move with the herd, painstakingly embracing every new opinion, gesture, and turn of phrase that is adopted by the leading figures of their tribe, party, or profession, even as they proclaim themselves to be reasoning freely and deciding things for themselves.

A conservative society is one that simply acknowledges these realities and seeks to work with them, ensuring that the powerful forces of loyalty, honor, and competition are channeled toward the preservation of order and the transmission of tradition. Not because all order is good order or every tradition is sound, but because the maintenance of order is a prerequisite to the pursuit of justice and because the human mind is much too frail to discover the true and good anew for itself in every generation. The task of government within this social order is not one of protecting and adjudicating the rights of abstract individuals, because society is not composed of individuals. It is, rather, “the cultivation of bonds of mutual loyalty among the rival tribes that constitute the nation, and these bonds, in turn, depend on the conservation and transmission of particular traditions of speech and behavior that allow rival tribes and parties to compete while, at the same time, honoring one another.”

A conservative renewal, he argues, will demand of us not merely adherence to conservative ideas, but a self-sacrificial willingness to live a conservative life and learn anew “to give honor where it is due.”

As this all-too-brief exposition shows, Hazony’s renewed “Anglo-American conservatism” or “national conservatism” has something in it to offend everyone. Liberals will deplore its willingness to baptize “structures of oppression” as the necessary glue of social order. Libertarian “conservatives” will be shocked to find “freedom” demoted from the status of “highest political end” to but one of eight main purposes of government. And the more “red-pilled” agitators on the Right today will surely be unhappy with his insistence on mutual loyalties, and the need for conservative and liberal parties to treat one another with honor. Consider for instance this passage:

. . . a nation becomes dissolute where the heads of the various tribes or factions do not give honor and weight to one another. Then every disagreement becomes an excuse for insult and anger, accusations and slanders proliferate, and when mistakes are made there is no forgiveness, because each has lost the capacity to think of the other as a part of himself. When contempt and humiliation have dissolved what loyalty there once was, the nation moves toward violence between these brutalized tribes, and strangers appear at the perimeter, waiting for the right moment to invade the country and take what they can for themselves.

To be sure, he does not press this point as vigorously as he could, leaving it to most readers to make their own applications to the current political climate on the Right. One wishes he had not been so coy, however; it is striking, for instance, in his very sharp analysis of the resurgent Marxism in American politics, that the four basic features of Marxist ideology he discerns can be seen as also present in the more revolutionary “politics as war” ranks on the American Right.

American Nationalists

Space does not permit me to properly discuss the important historical sections of the book. Chapter one makes the case for a distinctly English conservative tradition that runs from John Fortescue through Richard Hooker and John Selden down to Burke and the American Founding. Chapter two, “American Nationalists,” holds up the early Federalist party as a model of this nationalist conservatism in action. Chapters six and seven persuasively narrate and analyze the decline and displacement of Anglo-American conservatism by varieties of liberalism and Marxism since 1950. The narratives here are necessarily broad-brush, and professional historians will find much to argue with, but they are in my view basically sound.

However, the chapter on “American Nationalists,” originally published as a free-standing essay in American Affairs, is not as seamlessly integrated with the larger argument as it might be, and can be accused of projecting too much ideological unity onto a diverse (and not always all that Burkean) coalition. Missing almost entirely is any history of the period between 1800 and 1950, which allows Hazony to portray the recent liberal hegemony as something of a sudden diabolus ex machina. He offers a persuasive and richly insightful account of how a traditional conservative vision of society collapsed in the aftermath of World War II as a reaction to Nazism’s horrors, but says too little about how the foundations of the Anglo-American political order had been steadily chipped away at over the preceding century and a half.

Perhaps the biggest flaw of the book is that it is not true enough to its stated empirical method. Although highly critical of the theoretical abstractions of “Enlightenment liberalism,” “in which all human beings, or even most, are capable of attaining universal political insight by means of reason alone,” Hazony cannot resist dealing in theoretical abstractions himself when mounting this critique. Almost any political philosophy, after all, if it is to render itself remotely plausible, must make some arguments from history, experience, or observed human behavior, and most of the liberal philosophers Hazony dismisses made at least some effort to do so. Perhaps he would acknowledge this, but his insistence on a neat bifurcation between the good guys of “Anglo-American conservatism” and the villains of “Enlightenment liberalism” requires him to sort seventeenth- and eighteenth-century thinkers into one of two clearly-defined piles, obscuring the ways in which many key thinkers combined elements of both traditions.

Conclusion

Some of these objections are mere quibbles, while others represent substantive criticisms. But none should be permitted to detract from Hazony’s towering achievement in this work. It is not often that a reviewer reaches for the word “masterpiece”—he is apt to be sheepish about seeming too easily-impressed—but I would hazard that this is one book where the word is warranted.

Given the deeply contested landscape of American politics and the fraught dynamics within the Right itself, it is hard to know whether this volume will find the audience it deserves and re-shape the national conversation as it ought. Although most readers of this review will probably be quick to think up a dozen objections to the arguments I have outlined, they will probably find that Hazony persuasively anticipates and answers these objections, and many more, in the course of this profound and wide-ranging work. To the greatest objection of all—“but how is this realistic?”—Hazony argues in chapter eight that the “conservative democracy” he calls for would demand no constitutional revision in either Britain or America, or abandonment of democratic institutions, but simply a repudiation of “the axioms of the liberal-rationalist system” that have been used to fundamentally re-interpret our constitutional documents and political traditions.

Still, there is no denying the radical character of the repentance Hazony calls us to. A conservative renewal, he argues, will demand of us not merely adherence to conservative ideas, but a self-sacrificial willingness to live a conservative life and learn anew “to give honor where it is due.” And, as with the prodigal son, it will demand that we return not only to our father’s house, but to our Father’s house: the revival of the nation, Hazony declares, will require a rediscovered willingness to honor and serve God—as individuals, as families, and yes, as nations.

Bradford Littlejohn is a Fellow in the Evangelicals and Civic Life program of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, and President of the Davenant Institute, an organization dedicated to Protestant intellectual renewal.


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