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From the Notebooks

When the first anti-liberal thinkers started publishing widely-acclaimed books–Friedrich Hayek's Road to Serfdom in 1944, Richard Weaver's Ideas Have Consequences in 1948, William F. Buckley's God and Man at Yale in 1951–liberalism had by and large come to control American thinking, especially in academia and Washington D.C. Indeed, liberalism looked like the only viable intellectual school in America in the years immediately following World War II, so much so that in 1950 the liberal Lionel Trilling wrote, with sincerity and good reason, that “liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.” Liberalism's ultimate victory, and the extinguishment of ideas that would come to be equated with conservatism, was a historical foregone conclusion to many people. It was fitting that William F. Buckley wrote in the first issue of the conservative magazine National Review that the publication “stands athwart history yelling Stop . . .”.

Due to liberalism's nearly-invincible ascendancy, it's not surprising that conservatism has been defined by liberalism. Liberalism has been the prey of conservative hunters from Friedrich Hayek to Walter Williams, Barry Goldwater to George W. Bush, Russell Kirk to Richard John Neuhaus.

One of the major frustrations for these hunters has been their prey's elusiveness. Conservatives have repeatedly complained of liberalism's misty ways, its tendency to maneuver and shift, making it hard to pin it down. In the words of the conservative publisher Henry Regnery, “What the liberals want, what they stand for, is more difficult to describe precisely, all the more so because their position often changes, is not consistent within itself, and not every liberal spokesman agrees with every other.” It's not surprising, then, that conservatism has also tended to maneuver and shift, changing emphases, sometimes changing its stances, in efforts to grapple with the amorphous and shifting giant of liberalism.

As a result, conservatives have never been able to agree on a definition of conservatism. The historian of modern conservatism, George Nash, concluded that it is “misdirected” to try to formulate a definition of conservatism: “I doubt that there is a single, satisfactory, all-encompassing definition of the complex phenomenon called conservatism, the content of which varies enormously with time and place.” There have been many competing definitions of conservatism, and most of them are valid, depending on the aspect of liberalism at issue. If it's responding to government attempts to control the economy, a free market definition of conservatism sounds good. If it's responding to the free-fall of morality in contemporary society, a Christian-based definition of conservatism sounds good.

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