What Conservatives Were For

A new book has come my way that reproduces in one of its appendices a table of conservative and liberal credenda from James Burnham's 1959 work Congress and the American Tradition. Take a look at Burnham's last two items:

12. Conservatives hold that the private life of the individual, as opposed to the destiny of the nation or of society, should be the focus of metaphysical, moral, and practical interest.

12. Liberals feel that an expanding sphere of government invovlement — in social and cultural life as well as in the economy — results in the best mode of life for people. Thus, expansion of governmet activity aids in the attainment of a good life.

13. Conservatives favor Congress over the executive branch of the government.

13. Liberals favor the executive branch, with its administrative bureaucracy, over Congress

Even at the time, quite a few conservatives would have objected, and surely did, to the wording of point 12, but Burnham — who was no libertarian himself, not by a long shot — was being descriptive, and the conservatives of the late '50s retained a good deal of the anti-statist flavor of the Old Right. "Individualist," understood in opposition to "collectivist," was still the self-designation of choice for many on the Right. It was what Bill Buckley called himself, and the principle youth arm of the nascent conservative movement was the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (now called the Intercollegiate Studies Institute).

Hardly anyone could object to item 13 — the roots of modern conservatism lay in opposition to FDR's presidency, and committed conservatives remained enemies of executive power even with Eisenhower in the White House. National Review began, in part, as an organ for conservative opposition to Ike and did not endorse him for re-election (though it didn't endorse anyone else either — even then, NR liked to equivocate). And of course the John Birch Society warned of Communist infiltration of the executive branch — JBS founder Robert Welch suggested that Eisenhower was a conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy — and counted a few congressmen among its members. At almost all levels, from the most respectable insiders to the periphery, there was profound suspicion among conservatives toward the president and executive branch.


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