Conservatism and the free market

by Corey Robin on May 19, 2018

National Review just ran a review of my book, which Karl Rove tweeted out to his followers.

The review has some surprisingly nice things to say. It describes The Reactionary Mind as “well researched and brilliantly argued” and praises my “astonishingly wide reading…masterly rhetorical abilities…wizardry with the pen.” But on the whole the review is quite critical of the book. Which is fine. I’ve gotten worse.

But I couldn’t help noticing the appositeness of this.

Here’s the National Review on my book:

At no point in his book does Robin make any effort to account for the influence of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism on modern conservatism….[Adam] Smith’s influence on later conservatives is ignored.

And here’s Bill Buckley, the founder of National Review (and the modern conservative movement), to me, as quoted in my book:


The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.



LFC 05.19.18 at 10:17 pm

Apologies for this not being a substantive comment, but on clicking through and glancing at the NR piece, I see it’s written by someone identified as an editorial intern — very, um, non-hierarchical of NR to give an intern this kind of space. ;) OTOH, NR (along with other political magazines) probably doesn’t pay its interns much, if anything, so I guess this takes the place of remuneration…


Alan White 05.20.18 at 4:58 am

In criticism the review says of Robin’s book “. . . it is a work that opts for the tendentious over the persuasive.” But what is “persuasion” by right-wing lights? Claims about fake news? Media-targeted dog whistles about race and misogyny? What intellectual honesty stands behind this claim?


bad Jim 05.20.18 at 5:38 am

I shouldn’t comment about this, since I’ve been celibate most of my life, but I once had playful girlfriends, thus “so repetitious. It’s like sex” strikes me as amusing.


GW 05.20.18 at 12:16 pm

Note that “so repetitious. It’s like sex” was written by an anti-abortion Roman Catholic father of exactly one child.


Glen Tomkins 05.20.18 at 1:29 pm

Gravity — such a boring explanation for why the sun rises every day. Let’s chuck boring old gravity as an explanation for celestial mechanics to make way for fascinating new theories. The sun rises every day because our job creators have been given a tax cut. Better cut their taxes some more if we want the sun to rise tomorrow! Cut the taxes on the owners in good times to make the prosperity even more prosperous, and in bad times to bring back the prosperity that was only lost because we taxed them too much.

Tax cuts for the wealthy are sempiternal. We are always for tax cuts for the owners, but this does not make them boring. Advocating for them brings in an ever-changing bounty of goodies dropped from the tables of the wealthy. Hammering away at gravity as an explanation for things, or the idea that conservatism exists to justify the owners’ ways to man — that gets you bupkis. Boring!


Emma 05.20.18 at 6:44 pm

Well, I tried to leave this comment on that National Review article, but it wouldn’t let me unless I subscribed to the magazine (really? maybe I’m just too dumb to find the sign-up page), so now I’m mad.

I haven’t read Reactionary Mind — I bought the ebook, like a good American leftie leftist progressive socialist monster, but I haven’t had the liberty to read it yet. But that review was an undergraduate term paper representing the writer’s ability to create a long-form biased argument.

Modern history for Robin, then, is the tale of an unceasing leftist struggle to defeat the Right; presumably, once that defeat is accomplished, human societies can finally set themselves to the task of turning capitalist depravity into socialist utopia.

The National Review author person thinks of history as the Avengers vs. Team Ultros, or whatever, because that’s how we like to frame our current political environment — and ignores the fact that revolutionary leftist movements, once successful, become invested in protecting their new hierarchies and positions, and become “conservative.” The fact that the French Revolution ended up leading to the ascension of a brutal dictator doesn’t mean the Revolution itself wasn’t leftist or successful; just that the right usurped its legitimacy (and Napoleon wasn’t Pinochet, either). I assume something similar happened to the Bolsheviks. He also makes this baby-fights mistake when he points out that some individual conservatives spoke out against racism or slavery or whatever form of categorical oppression, in their eras. That doesn’t say anything about what “conservatism” is, or what it does. Most of us operate on an ad hoc vision of political utility — we like Wikileaks (which we don’t know much about) when it does things we agree with, and we don’t like Wikileaks (which we still don’t know much about) when it does things we don’t agree with. A person might spend his professional life humping the free market, and still think segregation is a bad idea. Any sane person would fine slavery abhorrent. None of that has anything to do with conservative political projects. It’s absurd to hold history, with its cascades of complex and opaque motivations, to the standards of a narrative.

After all, few would deny that classical liberalism has played an emancipatory role in modern history — it liberated the state from religious constraints, made devastating arguments against monarchical absolutism, and embedded the principles of democracy and individual rights into the constitutions of many countries, most notably the United States.

And France. During the Revolution. All of that is the direct result of the French Revolution.

I don’t understand how a person arguing in good faith could pretend that Abolitionist movement was primarily a religious phenomenon — or that “religion,” by definition, is necessarily oppressive or conservative.

But. The expectation that any political movement — or individual member of any political movement — would be unilaterally one thing or the other is fantastical. I don’t know how aptly he rebutted the book, but he did a garbage job of defending his team.

…And I would’ve said it right to his face, too, if the National Review had let me.


Suzanne 05.20.18 at 6:48 pm

@4: Buckley and his wife would have liked more children, but Patricia Buckley was prone to ectopic pregnancies and so childbearing was risky for her. In that generation I think they were the only Buckley couple with an only child. Buckley was anti-abortion, but he was not anti-contraception and disagreed with Humanae Vitae in that regard, although not too loudly or publicly.

Bill was reported to enjoy nude swims with young gentleman friends, so perhaps it was marital sex he found tedious. Pat Buckley was a beautiful and lively woman, so go figure. Not a very diplomatic thing for him to say, in any case……


PatinIowa 05.20.18 at 9:56 pm

Speaking of the market, anybody here give National Review money when they beg for donations?

I got into a back and forth with Jonah Goldberg once when I pointed out that if NR can’t make its nut every month, why not admit that the market has spoken and fold up the operations?

He said that NR was like the boy scouts or the Catholic Church.

And now, nude swims with young men? My stars and garters. Maybe he was right.


Waiting for Godot 05.20.18 at 11:22 pm

Oh yeah, Wild Bill Buckley the phony intellectual who represented and popularized post war American fascism and the precursor to Ted Cruz. Look up Gore Vidal and Buckley at the 1968 Democratic convention.


Will Boisvert 05.21.18 at 4:31 am

“Gravity, such a boring explanation for why the sun rises every day.”

It’s angular momentum, not gravity, that keeps the earth spinning on its axis and the sun rising. Gravitational/tidal interactions with the moon and sun are gradually slowing the rotation and in theory might bring it to a halt after many eons–no more sunrises.


Paul 05.21.18 at 12:01 pm

“It’s angular momentum, not gravity, that keeps the earth spinning on its axis”

My initial thought also. But then gravity creates the momentum in the first place?


Glen Tomkins 05.21.18 at 1:04 pm


At the risk of creating further tedium, celestial mechanics requires gravity to keep the earth from continuing on a straight path away from the sun. While it is true that humanity has somehow survived the existence of any capital gains tax at all, I don’t think we would survive sunrise being nothing more than the rise of some star thousands of light years away.


CJColucci 05.21.18 at 3:19 pm

There has always been a clever sophomore feel to attempts to intellectualize conservatism, the real appeal of which — to the extent that it isn’t the frank and naked protection of vested interests — is aesthetic or emotional and, generally, better presented by world-weary old farts sipping port in worn, overstuffed leather chairs rather than slick young interns. I was, therefore, not surprised to find that this production came from a slick young intern.


GrueBleen 05.21.18 at 3:20 pm

Will Boisvert @10

But then gravity might just be the reason why the Earth is still close enough to the sun to be able to have a sunrise at all.


J Rob 05.21.18 at 6:06 pm

Poor Mrs. Buckley.


Donald Pruden, Jr. a/k/a The Enemy Combatant 05.21.18 at 11:09 pm

@Will Boisvert.

“It’s angular momentum, not gravity, that keeps the earth spinning on it axis and…..”


Just tell me why it is that when I accidentally drop the slice of bread that I just put jelly on, it ALWAYS hits the floor on its jellied side?

Explain THAT, will ya?!

Explain THAT, will ya?!


Paul 05.22.18 at 3:49 pm


Dave Trowbridge 05.22.18 at 4:10 pm

@ Donald Pruden

You put the jelly on the wrong side of the toast.


Chet Murthy 05.22.18 at 7:12 pm

I wish I understood all this “classical liberal” bullshit. Maybe it made sense when The Man was a king who could take away your life and liberty with a wag of his pinky? It doesn’t seem to be relevant these days, except in the sense that billionaires can do the very same th…. I’m sure those “classical liberals” are right on that case.


F. Foundling 05.23.18 at 10:46 am

From the review:
>’Since its inception, conservatism has devoted itself to producing theoretical justifications for power, privilege, and hierarchy.’
>Conservatives, naturally, would disagree with Robin’s rather uncharitable interpretation.

Not necessarily. For instance, the Right’s most popular thinker at the moment is actually quite *openly* a proponent of hierarchy, he identifies the Left as the force that attempts to flatten it, and he justifies his defence of it with the social life of lobsters. And he is by no means exceptional – conservatives of all times have often stated that themselves more or less openly.

>It is important to bear in mind not just that Robin’s implicit approval of far-Left movements and governments is morally questionable but that it is indispensable to the arguments of The Reactionary Mind. … His theory of conservatism is grounded in an interpretation of violent, revolutionary irruptions as “emancipatory” and of counterrevolutionary thought and practice as “oppressive.”

Actually, no, conservatism does not simply get to be defined as the movement that opposes the violent excesses of the Jacobins and Bolsheviks – it has its own programme and practice, which preceded and existed independently of said excesses, and should be judged on its own terms. There is absolutely no logical contradiction between admitting that left-wing movements have, for various reasons, sometimes acted in an oppressive way, and recognising that conservative theory and practice have been devoted to the defence of power, privilege, and hierarchy, and oppression all along. One can very well observe the undeniable historical fact that Cromwell ended up establishing his own unaccountable hereditary regime *and* observe the equally undeniable historical fact that Charles I was all about an unaccountable hereditary regime from the very beginning.

>At no point in his book does Robin make any effort to account for the influence of Enlightenment-era classical liberalism on modern conservatism … classical liberalism has played an emancipatory role in modern history… Modern conservatives claim the legacy of classical liberalism for themselves … the legacy of classical liberalism has given conservatism a language with which to oppose social injustice …

The last sentence is remarkably precise and astute – provided that one removes the prefix ‘in-‘ from the last word. The legacy of classical liberalism has given conservatism a language with which to oppose social *justice* – while pretending to be doing the opposite. That legacy is not an ‘influence’, it is a tool. Yes, classical liberalism used to be a force *against* the hierarchies defended by the conservatives of its time, and yes, now it is an instrument used by conservatives to *defend* the hierarchies of our time. Again, there is no contradiction here – ideas and practices don’t exist in a void, and context and circumstances change their significance. Present-day conservatives are trying to claim, in the US, even the legacy of Martin Luther King for themselves; that fact is not evidence of their profound commitment to racial justice.

In general, ever since Early Modern times, conservatism has been a profoundly hypocritical and rhetorically incoherent movement, frequently engaging in tu quoques, concern trolling and criticising the left ostensibly with left-wing criteria in mind. I disagree with the suggestion that a fair assessment of it requires taking its alleged concern with (certain) injustices and (certain) hierarchies at face value.

On some specific examples: as for slavery, it’s true that even some 19-th century conservatives opposed it for various reasons, but all those who did defend it were conservative – often using religious arguments – and all leftists were opposed to it. As for Czechoslovakia – communist movements and regimes were repressive in certain ways, but emancipatory in other ways. Their unofficial structures of privilege were combined with a general reduction of inequality with respect to income, living standards, healthcare and education. It was always because of their emancipatory aspects and rhetoric and the threats they posed to traditional hierarchies that conservatives fought them (and many leftists sympathised with them). The same applies to conservative criticism of ‘violent, revolutionary irruptions’ – the repression and violent excesses provide conservatives with rhetorical ammunition against the left, but the real reasons for the conservative opposition to these irruptions are precisely their emancipatory objectives and initiatives.


Procopius 05.23.18 at 11:51 am


I don’t understand how a person arguing in good faith could pretend that Abolitionist movement was primarily a religious phenomenon — or that “religion,” by definition, is necessarily oppressive or conservative.

Well, see, you assume the intern person is arguing in good faith. Conservatives don’t do that.


Will Boisvert 05.24.18 at 2:49 am

@ 11, 12, 14

As for gravity creating the initial angular momentum of planets, hard to say. It’s true that the congealing cloud of gas and dust that birthed earth would have had an aggregate angmo, but that would have changed over time from the momentum of space rocks that collided with it–like the rogue planetoid that knocked the moon out of the earth and into orbit, with drastic effects on the infant earth’s angmo. That would have been a kinetic rather than a gravitational input.

Yes, gravity is the source of the earth’s revolution about the sun, so it causes the seasons, which are different from the sunrise–except at the Poles, where the sun rises but once a year; there you could say that the orbital revolution caused by gravity also causes the sunrise.

Still, the original sunrise-gravity link was proposed as an analogy for obvious, workaday explanations that are being obfuscated by silly, politically motivated explanations. Over most of the earth’s surface, the obvious, workaday explanation for the sunrise is angmo.

It’s also true that without gravity the earth would fly away from the sun. But there would still be a sunrise, though it would increasingly look like just another star-rise as the earth moved away.

More generally, yes, without gravity the sun and earth would not exist, so no sunrise. But without Newtonian mechanics the solar system would also not exist, so still no sunrise. Like gravity, angmo is causative on a cosmic scale–but unlike gravity, it’s also causative on a proximate scale.

All in all, angular momentum is the appropriate cause, and the appropriate causal level, for explaining the sunrise.


Ebenezer Scrooge 05.24.18 at 11:12 am

I note that the NR intern made the common mistake of viewing Adam Smith as a neoclassical economist. His methodology was much closer to modern sociology than modern economics. He was indeed anti-mercantilist, but by no means laissez-faire.

Ahh, the deep respect for history displayed by the American Right!


Collin Street 05.24.18 at 9:06 pm

As for gravity creating the initial angular momentum of planets, hard to say.

Apparently it’s pretty clear in the bowels of relativity that inertia — and thus angular momentum — derives from gravitational interactions, but (obviously) I don’t understand the details.


Donald Pruden, Jr. a/k/a The Enemy Combatant 05.24.18 at 9:36 pm

@ David Trowbridge:

OMG, thank you for that!



M Caswell 05.24.18 at 11:44 pm

Seems somehow strange to credit inertia as a cause of anything. Maybe one could say that that the real question is: “why hasn’t the sun failed to rise some day?”, for which the answer would be, “because no force has altered the spinning of the earth.” Then the absence of the cause can cited to explain the absence of effect.


SamChevre 05.25.18 at 1:34 am

For instance, the Right’s most popular thinker at the moment is actually quite *openly* a proponent of hierarchy, he identifies the Left as the force that attempts to flatten it, and he justifies his defence of it with the social life of lobsters.

That seems to me to be inaccurate. Saying “hierarchies are inevitable, so managing them is critical” and pointing out that the same brain chemistry that runs human hierarchies is observable in multiple species all the way out to arthropods like lobsters is hardly “advocating for hierarchy.”


F. Foundling 05.25.18 at 12:05 pm

@Emma 05.20.18 at 6:44 pm
>Any sane person would fine slavery abhorrent.

Hmm. That would appear to exclude entire cultures and epochs from sanity. The fact is that humans *can* be OK with huge power disparities, we differ a lot in the degrees of power disparity that we find acceptable, and that is a source of a lot of our political conflicts.

> Most of us operate on an ad hoc vision of political utility

Indeed, it’s true that many people are guided solely by their own interests and their practically useful strategic alliances and not by the consistent application of general moral or philosophical principles such as supporting or opposing oppression. It is possible to oppose the oppression of natives, but not of foreigners, or the imperialist warmongering of Bush, but not of Obama and the Clintons (as seen in the attitudes towards Wikileaks). Yet such inconsistency is far from being the rule; the specific stances that we take and the alliances that we choose to form often do reflect the logic of moral or philosophical positions to a great extent (even in the absence of a real-life connection, humans just like rules, among other things they like). Conversely, the same types of arguments and moral and philosophical positions tend to be espoused by groups that are in typologically similar situations in their society/societies. Consequently, the most general patterns of political conflicts tend to be broadly aligned with such positions. And general moral and philosophical positions and arguments are precisely what CR is discussing.

>SamChevre 05.25.18 at 1:34 am

Saying that X in general is inevitable and using that as an argument against efforts to minimise X in general and to eliminate specific instances of X is precisely advocating for X.

Almost anybody would agree that *some* minimal forms of hierarchical relationships and *some* minimal degree of power disparity – teachers vs students, elected representatives vs the represented (however much we limit the arbitrary power of our teachers and our representatives, as we should) – remain inevitable. They remain inevitable not because our hardwired brain chemistry demands them, but for practical reasons of organisation. Attributing them to supposedly innate psychological needs for hierarchy is objectionable, because it entails that *minimising* power disparities or objecting to people’s seeking to *maximise* their power over others is an unnatural and hence condemnable endeavour. Using the inevitability and alleged naturalness of hierarchy as a political argument for the preservation and justification of the existing hierarchies and inequalities in our society and against economic egalitarianism, redistribution, socialism, feminism and so on is a classical reactionary position, and that is exactly what this man does (like so many others before him).


F. Foundling 05.25.18 at 12:36 pm

Just to clarify: ‘Even in the absence of a real-life connection *between typologically/logically/morally/philosophically similar phenomena* (which is very often present)’ is what I meant in the previous comment.

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