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What Is Conservatism?

June 2, 2017 | By: Ofir Haivry & Yoram Hazony

From the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom to Donald Trump’s presidential victory, it appears nationalism is once again resurgent in the English-speaking world. This has sparked a predictable backlash among critics on the Left, but many conservatives have also been critical of what they see as a dangerous turn away from Anglo-American classical liberalism.

These conservatives are mistaken, argue Ofir Haivry and Yoram Hazony. For they fail to see that there is a noble and compelling conservative tradition that both predates Enlightenment liberalism and offers a more realistic assessment of the human nature and human society. In “What is Conservatism?,” published in 2017 in the pages of American Affairs, Haivry and Hazony trace the history of this tradition from the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud through the work of the great English philosopher and polymath John Selden. In doing so, they show what a uniquely conservative—and distinctly Jewish—attitude toward important issues like nationalism and religion can contribute to contemporary political discourse.

Selden thus turns, much as the Hebrew Bible does, to a form of pragmatism to explain what is meant when statesmen and jurists speak of truth. The laws develop through a process of trial and error over generations, as we come to understand how peace and prosperity (“what is truly best,” “the place I desired to go”) arise from one turn rather than another.

Selden recognizes that, in making these selections from the traditions of the past, we tacitly rely upon a higher criterion for selection, a natural law established by God, which prescribes “what is truly best” for mankind in the most elementary terms. In his Natural and National Law, Selden explains that this natural law has been discovered over long generations since the biblical times and has come down to us in various versions. Of these, the most reliable is that of the Talmud, which describes the seven laws of the children of Noah prohibiting murder, theft, sexual perversity, cruelty to beasts, idolatry and defaming God, and requiring courts of law to enforce justice. The experience of thousands of years has taught us that these laws frame the peace and prosperity that is the end of all nations, and that they are the unseen root from which the diverse laws of all the nations ultimately derive…

Selden thus offers us a picture of a philosophical parliamentarian or jurist. He must constantly maintain the strength and stability of the inherited national edifice as a whole—but also recognize the need to make repairs and improvements where these are needed. In doing so, he seeks to gradually approach, by trial and error, the best that is possible for each nation.

Read the entire essay in American Affairs.

More about: Jewish Political Thought