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So you’ve decided to dive into the world of conservative books. Perhaps you’ve just become interested in politics or you’ve recently been converted to conservatism. Heck, maybe you’re a liberal looking to get another perspective on the world. There’s certainly no shortage of places to begin or tomes to explore, so where do you start?
Well, fear not. If you’re looking to start out on the path of conservative knowledge, we have a list of seven books that every conservative — or those wishing to understand them — needs to read. Some are newer than others, but all contain timeless wisdom that we would all do well to integrate. There’s fiction and fact, free markets and people desperately wishing to be free, and — most importantly — an inveterate belief in the sanctity of the individual.
We’ll begin where any serious exploration of conservatism should: our Constitution.
#1 “The Federalist Papers” by Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay
A mere eight days after the first draft of the United States Constitution was sent to state legislatures for approval in the autumn of 1787, letters began appearing in New York papers denouncing the new document signed with names like Cato, Brutus and Centinel. These have mostly fallen into obscurity, but the responses to them have become a thing of legend.
Alexander Hamilton — one of the chief promoters of the document, now enjoying a revival of public fortunes thanks to a certain Broadway musical — issued a measured response to the anti-Constitution propaganda. He and his other contributors would call themselves “federalists” and sign all the essays under the name of Publius. Thus “The Federalist Papers” were born.
“A modern op-ed piece or newspaper column usually runs about 750 words,” Richard Brookheiser noted in National Review. “The Federalist essays are each two thousand words long. A modern columnist appears, at most, twice a week. The Federalist essays typically appeared four times a week, occasionally five times, once six times (NB: remember the Sabbath). And of course the typical op-ed or column is gone with the wind as soon as it appears, sometimes even as we read it. But the work of Publius still marches on.”
Hamilton wrote the majority of the 85 Federalist essays, although James Madison and John Jay also wrote a goodly number. The papers were heavily influential in the state of New York, which had been a holdout in constitutional ratification. The papers cover any number of topics as to the advantages of the new Constitution over the Articles of Confederation, including the checks and balances, minority rights, common defense, foreign affairs and numerous other subjects. The papers are the closest thing to a definitive insight into the framers’ intentions that we have.
This may all sound a little intimidating to the modern reader, but it’s an insight into the exciting battles that took place over the ratification of our founding document. It’s impossible to say here just how influential “The Federalist Papers” have been since the last one appeared in May 1788. Among the best known of the Federalist essays is No. 10, where Madison lays out the cause for minority rights as opposed to direct democracy.
“The inference to which we are brought is, that the CAUSES of faction cannot be removed, and that relief is only to be sought in the means of controlling its EFFECTS,” Madison writes. “If a faction consists of less than a majority, relief is supplied by the republican principle, which enables the majority to defeat its sinister views by regular vote. It may clog the administration, it may convulse the society; but it will be unable to execute and mask its violence under the forms of the Constitution.”
Then there’s Federalist No. 51, where Madison famously argues that “Ambition must be made to counteract ambition … It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
Or perhaps the best recommendation to begin with “The Federalist Papers” came from French aristocrat Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord; when he found someone who hadn’t read the papers, he simply said, “Read it; read it.” We agree.
#2 “The Road to Serfdom,” Friedrich Hayek
Friedrich Hayek is probably best known to conservatives as either the foil to Keynesian economics or as someone Glenn Beck was pushing pretty hardcore on his show during the Obama administration. If you skipped reading the book at the time because, hey, Austrian economists are boring, or you thought that Beck’s blackboard explication of the fact was enough for you, now’s your time to read the real thing.
Austrian economics is a libertarian school of thought that focuses on the actions of individuals and an a priori approach to economics — essentially meaning that economic maxims should proceed from theory as opposed to experience. Hayek himself believed that government intervention in economies would only lead to worse outcomes and that the business cycle of boom and bust (or at least the bust part) was merely the economy purging itself of poor investments. Government bailouts, he said, simply delayed the reckoning further. This is wildly unpopular with liberal economists; Paul Krugman of The New York Times wrote that “Hayek essentially made a fool of himself early in the Great Depression, and his ideas vanished from the professional discussion.” Milton Friedman, meanwhile, called “The Road to Serfdom” “one of the great books of our time.” (Given the sources, both probably ought to be endorsements as far as this writer is concerned.)
Hayek wrote “The Road to Serfdom” during World War II. The book was released in 1944, a time when academics in Hayek’s adopted United Kingdom believed that fascism in Italy and Germany had been a capitalist reaction to socialism. The economist, who had decided not to return to his native Austria after it was taken over by the Nazis, was deeply worried that the free-market system was going to be trammeled by democratic governments throughout the world after the war. In his theory, totalitarianism on both sides of the political spectrum sprung from the same impulse. Worse, he thought, was the threat of something much in the news of late: democratic socialism.
“There can be no doubt that the promise of greater freedom has become one of the most effective weapons of socialist propaganda and that the belief that socialism would bring freedom is genuine and sincere,” Hayek wrote.
“But this would only heighten the tragedy if it should prove that what was promised to us as the Road to Freedom was in fact the High Road to Servitude. Unquestionably, the promise of more freedom was responsible for luring more and more liberals along the socialist road, for blinding them to the conflict which exists between the basic principles of socialism and liberalism, and for often enabling socialists to usurp the very name of the old party of freedom.”
He also argued that “democratic socialism, the great utopia of the last few generations, is not only unachievable, but that to strive for it produces something so utterly different that few of those who now wish it would be prepared to accept the consequences, many will not believe until the connection has been laid bare in all its aspects.”
Hayek, who died in 1992, probably can take some solace in the fact that his free-market school of thought played a large part in Margaret Thatcher’s plans to end the postwar consensus in Great Britain, as well as serving as an inspiration to conservatives, classical liberals and libertarians the world over. In the age of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Hayek’s arguments in “The Road to Serfdom” are more urgent than ever.
#3 “Atlas Shrugged” by Ayn Rand
We had other business to attend to, so I had cut short the conversation, but I had thought that considering one of the best-selling and most visible conservative books of all time as “underrated” was a bit, well, daft. Never underestimate your editor, though. The more I thought about Ayn Rand’s magnum opus, the more I realized that it doesn’t get the plaudits it deserves.
Yes, everyone talks about its unique (and divisive) philosophical system of objectivism, something that even conservatives will debate. The general consensus, however, is that the book as a novel isn’t classically good. After all, it’s certainly not your usual novel, anchored by several major expository speeches, and it’s all heavy on a very anachronistic romantic vibe.
It may be unusual in terms of structure, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Rand, who emigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1926, was never particularly fond of modern (and subsequently postmodern) literature. Yet, “Atlas Shrugged” has all the hallmarks of an experimental novel written by someone who didn’t particularly like experimental literature. The odd structure — John Galt’s climactic radio address takes up considerable real estate in the back half of the novel, something almost no other traditional novelist would ever consider doing — works to Rand’s advantage, as she’s able to explore her ideas and themes more fully and clearly than she did in “The Fountainhead” or any of her other previous fiction.
A loose description of the plot, for those who aren’t familiar with it: In the unspecified near future (or the unspecified near future of 1957, in any event), industrialists, scientists, inventors and the other brightest minds are disappearing as society decays and bureaucracy metastasizes.
Dagny Taggart, a railroad executive, and Hank Rearden, the head of Rearden Metal, begin fighting both against the “destroyer” who’s making the productive members of society vanish as well as the bureaucrats who want to leech on whatever productivity remains. They’re stymied by a whole retinue of people with various motives. James Taggart, Dagny’s brother, is pretty much in league with the new bureaucracy. Francisco D’Anconia, Dagny’s former lover, seems determined to use his company to wreak havoc on those productive individuals who remain. And then there’s that mysterious (or not entirely mysterious, depending on your powers of deduction) John Galt.
The real star here, however, is Rand’s philosophy of objectivism — essentially that rational self-interest and pursuit of one’s own happiness is the only proper moral objective for humans, and that the only moral system that facilitates this is laissez-faire capitalism with strong individual freedoms. While Galt’s speech is usually considered the most memorable, I’m personally partial to D’Anconia’s address at James Taggart’s wedding, prompted when someone says he’s the product of money and money is the root of all evil:
“‘So you think that money is the root of all evil?’ said Francisco d’Anconia. ‘Have you ever asked what is the root of money? Money is a tool of exchange, which can’t exist unless there are goods produced and men able to produce them. Money is the material shape of the principle that men who wish to deal with one another must deal by trade and give value for value. Money is not the tool of the moochers, who claim your product by tears, or of the looters, who take it from you by force. Money is made possible only by the men who produce. Is this what you consider evil?
“‘… money is only a tool. It will take you wherever you wish, but it will not replace you as the driver. It will give you the means for the satisfaction of your desires, but it will not provide you with desires. Money is the scourge of the men who attempt to reverse the law of causality — the men who seek to replace the mind by seizing the products of the mind.'”
Rand’s philosophy will always be hotly debated, even (especially) among conservatives. She certainly wasn’t what one might call a family values person. (Indeed, it’s oft noted that children feature so rarely in Rand’s fiction, and when they do it’s usually to show how stoic and superhuman a character was even at a young age.) Her ideas on God, altruism, selfishness, relationships and the very nature of reality are always going to be controversial. They oughtn’t be dismissed, though, particularly given how influential her work was on modern conservative and libertarian ideas.
And even people who disagree with some of Rand’s tenets still embrace her unique vision. Paul Ryan, certainly no down-the-line objectivist, gives out copies of “Atlas Shrugged” as Christmas presents and makes his interns read it. If you’re not on the speaker of the House’s Christmas list or interning for him, however, we advise you to buy it posthaste. You may not agree with it, but we can almost guarantee you won’t be bored.
#4 “God and Man at Yale” by William F. Buckley
It’s interesting that actual academic freedom — that which not just allows but encompasses conservative thought — takes up so much of the conservative discussion these days. Few seem to remember that what we know as modern conservatism began simultaneously with the battle against the liberal conformity of academia. And it all began with a single book written by a new face in the American political milieu — a 26-year-old “violent, twisted, and ignorant young man” by the name of William F. Buckley.
When Buckley published “God and Man at Yale” in 1951, “conservative” was considered a deadly insult and the Republican Party — just a watered-down version of the Democrats, arguing that we should be a bit less statist than the FDR crowd — hadn’t held the White House or any lever of power in Washington since 1932.
So here was William F. Buckley — young, unapologetically conservative and a Yale graduate, convinced our institutions of higher education were doing irreparable harm to our youth.
“During the years 1946 to 1950, I was an undergraduate at Yale University. I arrived in New Haven fresh from a two-year stint in the Army, and I brought with me a firm belief in Christianity and a profound respect for American institutions and traditions,” Buckley began.
“I had always been taught, and experience had fortified the teachings, that an active faith in God and a rigid adherence to Christian principles are the most powerful influences toward the good life. I also believed, with only a scanty knowledge of economics, that free enterprise and limited government had served this country well and would probably continue to do so in the future.”
This had been considerably eroded by trends in government, Buckley argued, but the biggest threat at the time could be lurking in the halls of academia — including Yale, then an explicitly Christian institution that supposedly was the seat of conservatism in America.
“I propose, simply, to expose what I regard as an extraordinarily irresponsible educational attitude that, under the protective label ‘academic freedom,’ has produced one of the most extraordinary incongruities of our time: the institution that derives its moral and financial support from Christian individualists and then addresses itself to the task of persuading the sons of these supporters to be atheistic socialists,” Buckley wrote.
And expose it he did.
Buckley wrote how professors at the university would teach students there was no limit to how much the government could spend; debt was mostly illusory since all you needed were people to buy bonds. Extracurricular activities, including the newspaper and political union, were designed so as to encourage collectivism. Religious values — and keep in mind, this was when Yale was a religious institution — were often ridiculed by those paid by the university. And all of this was being done in the name of a hoax called “academic freedom,” according to Buckley.
The result of all of this was a massive backlash by Yale — particularly in the form of a savage review in The Atlantic by McGeorge Bundy, who was the originator of the “violent, twisted, and ignorant young man” quote and whose savaging of the book was used as a sort of official response by Yale. This was probably a mistake, considering the invective was often ad hominem in nature and relied significantly on anti-Catholic bigotry.
“Most remarkable of all, Mr. Buckley, who urges a return to what he considers to be Yale’s true religious tradition, at no point says one word of the fact that he himself is an ardent Roman Catholic,” Bundy wrote.
“In view of the pronounced and well-recognized difference between Protestant and Catholic views on education in America, and in view of Yale’s Protestant history, it seems strange for any Roman Catholic to undertake to define the Yale religious tradition (and Yale has thousands of Catholic alumni and friends who would not dream of such a course); it is stranger still for Mr. Buckley to venture his prescription with no word or hint to show his special allegiance.”
Meanwhile, Henry Sloane Coffin, former president of Union Theological Seminary, posited that Buckley “should have attended Fordham or some similar [Catholic] institution.”
Those attacks didn’t age very well. They also didn’t accomplish the primary objective, which was to obliterate Buckley and end his 15 minutes of fame prematurely. Instead, Buckley used the controversy as a springboard to 57 years of conservative activism, during which he wrote countless books, started National Review and helmed the show “Firing Line.” Good work, McGeorge.
In the meantime, as academic freedom again becomes a battlefield in the culture wars, every conservative would do well to read the book that started the fight — and is still remarkably relevant today.
#5 “Witness” by Whittaker Chambers
No less than our last author, William F. Buckley, called Whittaker Chambers “the most important American defector from communism.” Indeed, few defectors arguably suffered more — and yet affected more change that they would never live to see.
Chambers, a reporter for Time, first became a national figure in 1948 when he was subpoenaed to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee. In his testimony, Chambers admitted he had been part of a Soviet spy ring and that Alger Hiss — a former high-ranking State Department and U.N. official who was then serving as the director of the Carnegie Endowment for Peace — had also been a member.
Hiss initially denied the charges, and since he was a dashing patrician and luminary of the American left, most people were inclined to believe him. Chambers, meanwhile, was seen as a schlubby reporter of dubious social background. As David Halberstam wrote in his book “The Fifties,” “At first even the general public thought that Hiss, so eminently respectable, might be wearing the white hat and Chambers, so unattractive, the black, but slowly, as evidence mounted, the tide of public opinion shifted.”
That evidence involved Hiss’ testimony, which became legendary. Shown a picture of Chambers, he steadfastly denied knowing him. He later changed his opinion, saying the man might have been someone he knew as George Crosley but with whom he had minimal contact. Chambers was prepared for this; he produced a trove of not only documents showing extensive communication between the two but also State Department papers copied in Hiss’ handwriting or typed out on his typewriter.
After two trials, Hiss was eventually convicted of perjury for denying his knowledge of Chambers before the HUAC, but he was never held accountable for his alleged espionage. He remained a cause célèbre among the establishment; his supporters included future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, 1952 and 1956 Democrat presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson and Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, among others.
Chambers, meanwhile, set about exonerating himself via a brilliant tome called “Witness,” published in 1952 to commercial success and a withering critical glance from the liberal press.
In “Witness,” he laid bare not only the details of his testimony, his espionage and his conversion from Marxism, but also what he saw as the real threat to come for America. For Chambers, we would not be conquered by communism qua communism. Instead, it would be communism lite in the form of secularized leftist ideology that eventually would eat away at Western democracy. The only antidote, he said, was religious faith — and he was profoundly unconfident that would work.
“(M)y century,” Chambers wrote, “is unique in the history of men for two reasons. It is the first century since life began when a decisive part of the most articulate section of mankind has not merely ceased to believe in God, but has deliberately rejected God. And it is the century in which this religious rejection has taken a specifically political form.”
Capitalism may be a fine thing to fight for, Chambers wrote, but we were focusing on the wrong problem.
“Economics is not the central problem of this century,” he wrote. “It is a relative problem which can be solved in relative ways. Faith is the central problem of this age. The Western world does not know it, but it already possesses the answer to this problem — but only provided that its faith in God and the freedom He enjoins is as great as Communism’s faith in Man.”
When Chambers died in 1961 — his health weakened by a series of heart attacks that eventually felled him — he was far from exonerated. And he didn’t expect to be, either.
“I know that I am leaving the winning side for the losing side, but it is better to die on the losing side than to live under communism,” Chambers wrote.
A funny thing happened on the way to that ignominy, however. A great number of individuals who may have been on the fence about the true nature of the communist threat read “Witness” and were convinced that maybe it was time to fight and ensure we weren’t on the losing side. One celebrity read the book around when it was published and years later said that Chambers was “the focus of a momentous controversy in American history that symbolized our century’s epic struggle between freedom and totalitarianism … in which the solitary figure of Whittaker Chambers personified the mystery of human redemption in the face of evil and suffering.”
That reader didn’t just end up seeing Chambers posthumously take his place on his winning side. He made sure he did his part to make it happen. A curious thing how getting one simple book in the hands of a B-actor named Ronald Reagan could make so much of a difference in establishing that shining city on the hill, the city Whittaker Chambers would never get to see.
#6 “The Conscience of a Conservative” by Barry Goldwater
While the movement that William F. Buckley started was well underway by the turn of the ’60s, it still didn’t have a definite legislative voice coming out of Washington. That changed when Sen. Barry Goldwater — arguably the most famous truly conservative politician in the nation at the time — published “Conscience of a Conservative” in 1960.
Goldwater was elected to the upper chamber in 1952 as a long-shot candidate; Arizona was then considered a Democrat stronghold, and he became only the second Republican to represent the state in the Senate in its history.
While Goldwater quickly became known as the most outspoken conservative in Congress, he was little-known outside of the nation’s capital. That quickly changed when “The Conscience of a Conservative,” ghost-written by longtime Buckley (there’s that name again) collaborator L. Brent Bozell Jr., hit the best-seller lists. Alfred Regnery, writing in The Washington Times, said that it “transformed American politics … it took the ideas that were, at the time, mostly discussed only by a few conservative intellectuals and presented them in a way that made them accessible to a more popular audience and laid out what conservatives believed and what their plan of action should be.”
In the book, Goldwater enumerated a vision in which the Republicans weren’t just a slightly less statist version of the Democrats, but instead a power restoring the country to its founding ideals of limited government, private enterprise and personal initiative.
“The legitimate functions of government are actually conducive to freedom,” Goldwater wrote. “Maintaining internal order, keeping foreign foes at bay, administering justice, removing obstacles to the free interchange of goods — the exercise of these powers makes it possible for men to follow their chosen pursuits with maximum freedom.
“But note that the very instrument by which these desirable ends are achieved can be the instrument for achieving undesirable ends — that government can, instead of extending freedom, restrict freedom.”
He urged Americans to remember the “first principle of totalitarianism: that the State is competent to do all things and is limited in what it actually does only by the will of those who control the State.”
Instead, he saw conservatives as a force fighting for the individual.
“Conservatism therefore looks upon the enhancement of man’s spiritual nature as the primary concern of political philosophy. Liberals, on the other hand — in the name of a concern for ‘human beings’ — regard the satisfaction of economic wants as the dominant mission of society.”
Some parts of the book admittedly have not aged as well as others; Goldwater’s argument that the 10th Amendment mandated the states of the South must be allowed to integrate in their own manner, even as they should obviously be forced to integrate, will come across as odious to modern readers. It’s important to remember this wasn’t an uncommon view among conservative or liberal alike in 1960, sadly; the moonlight-and-magnolias myths of the South began to evaporate in full just years hence, when the racial violence the region had done so well to keep hidden was splashed on every TV screen for America to see.
However, Goldwater’s overall message was a clarion one: “(R)elease the holders of state power from any restraints other than those they wish to impose upon themselves, and you are swinging down the well-traveled road to absolutism. The framers of the Constitution had learned the lesson. They were not only students of history, but victims of it: they knew from vivid, personal experience that freedom depends on effective restraints against the accumulation of power in a single authority.”
Four years later, Goldwater had the Republican nomination. Twenty years later, a man who would run on a platform nearly identical to the one the senator proposed would win the whole thing.
#7 “A Conflict of Visions” by Thomas Sowell
We pretty much could have assembled Thomas Sowell’s collected bibliography, thrown a dart at it blindfolded and come up with something that ended up on this list. That’s how much we love the conservative economist and thinker who’s defined so much of the movement over the past half-century. However, as right as he’s been on so many things, he has never been right on so central of an issue as he was in 1988’s “A Conflict of Visions.”
In any society, people should theoretically have a whole panoply of viewpoints. However, Sowell noticed that, much like in America, people tend to coalesce around two separate poles, each with similar views on the world. Is it because they’re sold a lot of goods at the ideological workshop by crooked politicians? Or is there something deeper at play? It won’t surprise you to hear that Sowell believes that the latter is the case.
Sowell thinks that the differences between our natures are the “unconstrained” and “constrained” visions of humanity.
In the unconstrained vision, we’re all good — all little Clarence Darrows, or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes if you insist. There’s no reason, therefore, for the government to take any interest in things like individual freedoms or anything like that — without the evil influence of society, things will work themselves out, so why not let government do the heavy lifting? Because, after all, it will eventually become nothing at all, like a certain philosopher *coughcoughMarxcough* insisted. There is no need to constrain our soul or our activities … except, of course, through a state until we get things right.
A constrained vision, meanwhile, realizes that our imperfection necessitates a government that must exist but that must also maximize freedom.
“The constrained vision takes human nature as given, and sees social outcomes as a function of (1) the incentives presented to individuals and (2) the conditions under which they interact in response to those incentives,” Sowell wrote.
“In the unconstrained vision, human nature itself is a variable, and in fact the central variable to be changed.”
Sowell was writing as glasnost was the latest attempt to change that variable, and not working as well as one might have hoped. His vision of the social contract in the waning years of the 21st century, however, is one of the more enduring ones.
“Each new generation born is in effect an invasion of civilization by little barbarians, who must be civilized before it is too late,” he wrote.
And that’s why you’ve already bought all of these books for your kids already.
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