Outgoing House Speaker Paul Ryan was recently interviewed by the journalist Jonah Goldberg, and the congressman’s remarks disclosed a curious map of the political landscape. Not an accurate map, mind you, or even an honest map, but an inaccurate and dishonest map of the sort that too many Americans still consult as they stumble, thirsty and fly-bitten, through our political wilderness.
Ryan spoke without embarrassment of a need for “conservatives” to defend the principles of “classical liberalism,” thereby confirming that Republicans are actually “right liberals.” The word “right” is not altogether correct here, since these so-called “right-liberals” are in no sense “men of the right.” As many before me have said, it would be better to call them something like “laggardly liberals,” or perhaps “retarded liberals,” since they are just stragglers at the tail end of the liberal parade.
Conservatism is properly the doctrine that there are aspects of traditional, pre-liberal belief and practice that ought to be protected from liberalism. In other words, there are at least some things that existed before the eighteenth century that ought to be conserved.
Most true conservatives believe that liberty is a very fine thing, but they are conservatives because they deny that liberty is the only fine thing. And this is why true conservatives fear and abhor a world run on exclusively liberal lines. They know that, left to itself, classical liberalism produces a Gradgrindian world of atomized egotists and soulless materialism, and that this Gradgrindian world of atomized egotists and soulless materialism is a tinderbox and firetrap of socialist revolutions.
In the nineteenth century, classical liberalism was also known as “Manchester liberalism” or “political economy,” and its core principle was the universal utility of unregulated competition. This principle was (and is) often indicated with the phrase laissez faire. Contrary to what congressman Ryan and a great many deluded Americans think, to be “conservative” in the early nineteenth century was to oppose the universalization of political economy and unregulated competition. Most conservatives saw the value of competition as a political tool, but they also saw that this was a tool of limited utility. Indeed, they saw competition as a tool that could all too easily become an instrument of destruction.
The American conservative George Fitzhugh, for instance, argued that “political economy” and “free competition” must necessarily,
“beget a war in society that is as destructive to its weaker members as the custom of exposing its deformed and crippled children.”
Fitzhugh went on to say that this war in society rages with special fury in the labor market, where “the fierce competition for employment” leads to “ruinous underbidding,” and to “the rich devouring the poor, and the poor devouring one another.”
“This process of underbidding ends, when wages are reduced too low to afford subsistence, in filling poor-houses, and jails, and graves.”
These lines are from Fitzhugh’s 1854 book, Sociology for the South. That this was written in defense of slavery no doubt explains the unwillingness of many real conservatives to nowadays own Fitzhugh as a precursor. But those who are shy of Fitzhugh will find precisely the same conservative sentiment in Thomas Carlyle.
“This Mammon-Gospel of Supply-and-Demand, Competition, Laissez-fare, and the Devil take the hindmost, begins to be one of the shabbiest Gospels ever preached; or altogether the shabbiest . . . . That I have been called, by all the Newspapers, a ‘free man’ will avail me little, if my pilgrimage have ended in death and wreck . . . . The liberty especially which has to purchase itself by social isolation, and each man standing separate from the other, having ‘no business with him,’ but a cash-account: this is such a liberty as the earth seldom saw—as the earth will not long put up with, recommend it how you may” (Past and Present, 1843)
This is the conservative view of the “classical liberalism” that congressman Ryan and journalist Goldberg say they would like to conserve; and as you can see, in this conservative view, ‘classical liberalism’ cannot be conserved because it necessarily destroys itself along with everything else. Classical liberalism is
“such a liberty . . . as the earth will not long put up with.”
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Congressman Ryan also said that “conservatives” need to “push back” against the “blood and soil nationalists of the alt-right,” who, he said, “have hijacked things like Western Civilization.”
If congressman Ryan would only reflect for a moment on the name Western Civilization, he might detect a faint suggestion that this civilization is connected to the blood and soil of the West. Indeed, were he to dispatch one of his aids to the Library of Congress, he would learn that the idea of Western Civilization arose in contradistinction to the civilizations that grew from the blood and soil of the East. The West was born when Greeks began to see themselves as distinctly unlike the Persians and Egyptians, and when Romans began to see themselves as distinctly unlike the Phoenicians of Carthage.
Western Civilization was not born in some moonshine about Persians, Egyptians and Greeks being all alike!
I think we must include Herodotus in Western Civilization, and he was not condemning the Persians for their blood-and-soil want of cosmopolitanism when he wrote:
“The Persians esteem Asia . . . as their own peculiar possession, considering Europe and Greece as totally distinct and unconnected” (Histories, 440 B.C.).
And here is Hippocrates, a near contemporary of Herodotus, not to mention the father of western medicine:
“I wish to show, respecting Asia and Europe, how, in all respects, they differ from one another, and concerning the figure of the inhabitants, for they are different, and do not at all resemble one another” (Airs, Waters and Places (c. 400 B.C.).
The phrase “blood and soil nationalism” is a bugaboo with which cosmopolitan quacks attempt to frighten timid people who are not accustomed to thinking very hard. The phrase entered our political vocabulary with the propaganda of the Second World War, where it served to denote a shadowy, bizarre and hateful Nazi doctrine that, the propaganda implied, no good man could possibly espouse.
But if good men thought about this for more than half a minute, they would see that attachment to blood and soil is noble and honorable, whereas men who lack these attachments are weasels, skunks and rats. “Blood” is nothing more than the natural affection that every decent man feels for his kin. “Soil” is simply the natural attachment that every normal man feels for his homeland. So, if we will only turn off the spooky music and turn up the lights, “blood and soil nationalism” is revealed as nothing but loyalty to one’s patria, or what is properly known as patriotism.
I do not think anyone will deny that “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” is a patriotic song. Written in 1831, it was as close to an American national anthem as any other song, until the “Star-Spangled Banner” was officially named a hundred years later. There can be no question but that the idea of liberty looms very large in this song, but even here, in this paean to freedom, there are strong affirmations of blood and soil nationalism
“Land where my fathers died
Land of the pilgrim’s pride”
Note, that is “fathers” in the plural, meaning generations of ancestors—and those generations of ancestors appear again in the fourth verse. The author of the song, Samuel Francis Smith, was a Massachusetts man who very likely descended from those proud pilgrims, and so, however highly he may have valued liberty, his patriotism was also tinctured with a loyalty to blood.
It was also rooted in a love of soil, for Smith’s “sweet land of liberty” was not only a political zone or ideological precinct. It was an actual place with its own natural character and its own historical memories. It was Smith’s “native land,” and the spot of earth that he loved best of all.
“I love thy rocks and rills,
Thy woods and templed hills;
My heart with rapture thrills,
Like that above.”
That, my friends, is love of soil.
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Liberty is a very fine thing, but right liberalism is a shabby gospel that earth will not abide. It is a shabby gospel because it mistakes one fine thing for the only fine thing, and therefore fails to conserve all the fine things that liberty destroys. And this is why real conservatives should tear up Paul Ryan’s map of the political landscape and recite with Fitzhugh
“We detest the selfish views of the Manchester school of politicians, and we loathe that hypocrisy which, under pretext of reforming, would destroy the institutions of the country.”