Hamiltonian Conservatism: A Third Way in American Politics?

For years New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks has argued for a revival of Hamiltonian conservatism. One writer describes him this way:

Brooks’s charming, levelheaded optimism may be out of style. But he gets to play the voice of reason against a chorus of doomsayers. His moderate conservatism—a synthesis of conservative giant Edmund Burke and Ur-centralizer Alexander Hamilton that has earned him the label of “liberals’ favorite conservative”—may be anomalous, but it allows him a kind of freedom that other, more partisan pundits lack. He’s a party of one, without followers. This is Brooks’s central paradox: He’s both the essential columnist of the moment, better than anyone at crystallizing the questions we face—ones for which there are often no good answers—and also, somehow, totally out of step.

Brooks succinctly articulates his moderate conservatism here:

There are two major political parties in America, but there are at least three major political tendencies. The first is orthodox liberalism, a belief in using government to maximize equality. The second is free-market conservatism, the belief in limiting government to maximize freedom.

Portrait of Alexander Hamilton (1806) by John Trumbull

But there is a third tendency, which floats between. It is for using limited but energetic government to enhance social mobility. This tendency began with Alexander Hamilton, who created a vibrant national economy so more people could rise and succeed. It matured with Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War Republicans, who created the Land Grant College Act and the Homestead Act to give people the tools to pursue their ambitions. It continued with Theodore Roosevelt, who busted the trusts to give more Americans a square deal.

Members of this tradition have one foot in the conservatism of Edmund Burke. They understand how little we know or can know and how much we should rely on tradition, prudence and habit. They have an awareness of sin, of the importance of traditional virtues and stable institutions. They understand that we are not free-floating individuals but are embedded in thick social organisms.

But members of this tradition also have a foot in the landscape of America, and share its optimism and its Lincolnian faith in personal transformation. Hamilton didn’t seek wealth for its own sake, but as a way to enhance the country’s greatness and serve the unique cause America represents in the world.

Members of this tradition are Americanized Burkeans, or to put it another way, progressive conservatives.

This tendency thrived in American life for a century and a half, but it went into hibernation during the 20th century because it sat crossways to that era’s great debate — the one between socialism and its enemies.

– “Ceding the Center” (New York Times)

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