40 Must-Read Books for the Young Conservative
The conservative tradition embodies centuries of accumulated wisdom from some of the brightest and most inspiring thinkers you’ll find. Yet for the young conservative eager to learn more about this tradition, choosing which books to read can be a daunting task.
Most online lists of top conservative books contain familiar titles of classic tomes that inspire and challenge readers to this day. Yet far too often such lists also include authors such as Charlie Kirk, Ann Coulter, Sebastian Gorka, Dinesh D’Souza, Dan Bongino, and Mike Lindell who, while they may be gifted at inflicting liberal tears, have nothing of value to say on behalf of their supposed conservative convictions. There is so much more to conservatism than owning the libs and brandishing firearms in your social media profile picture. What’s more, many lists are inflated with works on libertarian, patriotic, religious, or cultural topics that, important though they may be, are only tangential to conservatism.
It is particularly challenging for us younger conservatives to cut through the noise on the Right today to explore the deeper, auspicious truths of our rich heritage. As such, I’ve compiled a list of 40 must-read conservative books worth your time and attention. Whether you read all, some, or only one below, you will be getting a healthy dose of conservative thought that cuts through the banality of most political discourse and gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a conservative.
40 Must-Read Books for the Young Conservative
It would be an impossibility to rank these books in order of importance, relevance, insightfulness, readability, etc. As such, I have opted to list the titles alphabetically. There is no perfect place to start; just find a book that strikes your interest and dive in!
“Facts do not ‘speak for themselves.’ They speak for or against competing theories. Facts divorced from theory or visions are mere isolated curiosities. Theories can be devastated by facts but they can never be proved to be correct by facts.”
Thomas Sowell’s classic A Conflict of Visions juxtaposes the competing worldviews of the constrained /tragic/conservative vision with the unconstrained/utopic/progressive vision. While much of Sowell’s writings are pointedly critical of the Left, this book is unique in that Sowell presents a largely even-handed argument for both sides. Sowell quotes frequently from foundational thinkers on the Right (e.g., Burke, Smith, Hamilton, Hobbes, Hayek, Friedman, etc.) and Left (e.g., Godwin, Condorcet, Paine, Rousseau, Jefferson, Bentham, Voltaire, Laski, Galbraith, Dworkin, etc.) as well as other thinkers like Mill and Marx whose views are not so easily segregated into these broad groups. A former Marxist himself, Sowell has a commanding knowledge of both visions and his book is a useful tool for clarifying the underlying assumptions baked into our political worldviews.
“The people who occupy our institutions increasingly understand those institutions not as molds that ought to shape their behavior and character but as platforms that allow them greater individual exposure and enable them to hone their personal brands.”
Levin is, in my humble opinion, one of the most promising voices to emerge on the Right who has a commanding grasp of the unique challenges of our time. In A Time to Build Levin argues that, while sometimes it is necessary to tear things down, the great challenge of our generation is to get to work building up the very institutions that have let us down. His concept that part of what ails our institutions is the fact that they have ceased to be formative and are now largely performative is a concept that, once grasped, is immediately evident in almost every facet of our lives. Once you see it, you can’t help but see it practically everywhere. I had the good pleasure of having Levin on the podcast back in episode 73 where we discussed this concept at length.
C. S Lewis
“In a sort of ghastly simplicity we remove the organ and demand the function. We make men without chests and expect of them virtue and enterprise. We laugh at honour and are shocked to find traitors in our midst. We castrate and bid the geldings be fruitful.”
Widely regarded as one of Lewis’ most important works and listed in seventh place in National Review’s 1999 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century, The Abolition of Man is a devasting critic of relativism and a powerful defense of universal values. In well under 100 pages, Lewis offers a dark and prophetic vision of the world we inhabit today and how “man’s conquest of nature” will ultimately prove to be “nature’s conquest of man”.
“Politics has sometimes been called ‘the art of the possible’ but that phrase applies far more accurately to economics. Politics allows people to vote for the impossible, which may be one reason why politicians are often more popular than economists, who keep reminding people that there is no such thing as a free lunch and that there are no ‘solutions’ but only trade-offs.”
Sowell’s foreboding 600-page Basic Economics is surprisingly digestible. Sowell has a knack for communicating complex concepts to a general audience and this is just about the best “common sense guide to the economy” money can buy. Basic Economics demystifies the role of prices in markets, profits and losses, productivity and pay, monetary policy, international trade, and much more. Common myths about the market and economic concepts are dealt with clearly and persuasively, making this an ideal tool for both the novice and expert in conservative thought regarding the free market.
“To be relevant to our times, history must not be controlled by our times. Its integrity as a record of the past is what allows us to draw lessons from it.”
I swear this list will not be dominated by Thomas Sowell. Evidently, he has a penchant for titles that come early in the alphabet. It also doesn’t hurt that Sowell has authored almost fifty books, so there will be more to come. Black Rednecks and White Liberals was actually my first introduction to Sowell’s writing and what cemented me as a fan. The book challenges much of the “common knowledge” about various people group and long-held assumptions about the history of race relations in the United States and around the world. Read this book and you will never look at history the same again.
“It is not the existence of classes that is new, but the emergence of classes that diverge on core behaviors and values—classes that barely recognize their underlying American kinship.”
Written in 2012, Murray’s Coming Apart prophetically described the growing divide between the haves and have nots of today. Replete with charts, statistics, and studies, the book argues there has been an evolution in American society since 1963 resulting in a degree of class separation that has the potential to end “what has made America America.” As the potential for the average American to aspire to work their way out of the class they were born into withers away, so too does the cultural identity and vitality of the nation.
“I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is ‘needed’ before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents’ ‘interests,’ I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.”
Ghostwritten by William F. Buckley’s brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell, Jr. on behalf of Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative is one of the most impactful conservative books ever written. Historian George Nash (whose landmark work on the history of American conservatism is listed below) contends that “this hard-hitting polemic…galvanized the rumbling popular conservative movement, catapulted Goldwater to national prominence, and helped the Right to capture the Republican Party in the mid-1960s.” While Goldwater would ultimately be defeated in his 1964 presidential bid and his anti-New Deal, libertarian policies would largely prove to be untenable at a national level, his ascendance ultimately led to the Reagan Revolution and cemented the Republican party as the home for conservatives.
“Conservatism as we shall see cannot be mere opposition to change. If that were so, we should never find Conservatives proposing change.”
Kendall is better known for what he did in mentoring William F. Buckley and shaping the early days of National Review and the conservative movement than for the books he wrote. His populist faith in the people seems largely out of place with the dominant forms of the Right throughout the twentieth century and, as such, his name, works, and ideas are mostly discussed by oddballs like myself who delve deeply into this stuff. This is a shame as Kendall’s writings are particularly important in an age where populism has an increasingly Rightward tilt. Whether you agree with Kendall’s populistic stances or not, he presents considerably better arguments than what we’re often treated to today. The Conservative Affirmation features a series of loosely connected essays that outline decades of Kendall’s political thought.
George H. Nash
“If at times it might seem that the struggle naught availeth, conservatives could take courage from their own history since 1945: however entrenched and fearsome the evils of the hour, they are not insuperable. The future does not always belong to the present.”
I have long argued that Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement is the gold standard for understanding the history of conservatism in the modern era. Jonah Goldberg and Matthew Continetti frequently cite this book with admiration. To be fair, Nash’s historical depiction has plenty of critics, from those who believe he downplays the role of bigotry and conspiratorial thinking in the Right to those who don’t share his views on the harmony between libertarian and traditional conservative ideas. But even the critics often take Nash’s framework as a starting point from which to offer their alternative views. While this book is very dense and was originally Nash’s doctoral thesis, it is surprisingly readable. I’ve had the honor of having George Nash on my podcast a couple of times, including episode 84 where we discussed this book in particular.
“Men do not make laws; they merely ratify or distort the laws of God…men have no rights to what they please: their natural rights are only what may be directly deduced from their human nature.”
Speaking of doctoral thesis that were turned into books, Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind did more than perhaps any other book in forming the intellectual conservative movement of the twentieth century that preceded National Review’s movement conservatism. William F. Buckley went so far as to say it was “inconceivable even to imagine, let alone hope for, a dominant conservative movement in America without his labor.” Originally titled The Conservative Rout, Kirk was pessimistic about the prospects of conservatism achieving prominence when he was writing in the 1950s. The Conservative Mind argues that America’s political tradition is not solely liberal. Kirk presents an intellectual conservative tradition in the United States stretching from Edmund Burke and John Adams up to the twentieth century. While not everyone (conservatives included) agree with Kirk’s view of a consistent conservative tradition, it cannot be denied his insights and contributions have made it possible for the emergence of modern intellectual conservatism.
F. A. Hayek
“If old truths are to retain their hold on men’s minds, they must be restated in the language and concepts of successive generations. What at one time are their most effective expressions gradually become so worn with use that they cease to carry a definite meaning. The underlying ideas may be as valid as ever, but the words, even when they refer to problems that are still with us, no longer convey the same conviction.”
Coming in at #9 in National Review’s 1999 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century, The Constitution of Liberty represents Hayek’s clearest views on liberty and Western civilization. Here Hayek isn’t writing about a specific nation or time, but about universal principles of liberty and the perpetual and ubiquitous arguments levelled against liberty. Ever the stalwart opponent to the expanding state, Hayek argues that the surest safeguard for liberty is found in the free market, the rule of law, and the constitutional order.
Alexis de Tocqueville
“I am unacquainted with [God’s] designs, but I shall not cease to believe in them because I cannot fathom them, and I had rather mistrust my own capacity than His justice.”
In 1831, at the age of 26, Alexis de Tocqueville visited America from France to study our democracy. He was here for nine months. He then returned home and wrote the two-volume Democracy in America that shocks the world with its insights and clarity to this day. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Tocqueville’s masterpiece is the greatest book written on America and democracy. American’s from across the ideological divide find much to celebrate in Tocqueville just as Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. have universal appeal. Granted, I’m biased on this front, but I believe there is much in Tocqueville’s work that squares nicely with a Burkean conservatism as the phrase “Burkean/Tocquevillean” is replete throughout conservative writing.
“In modern politics, the task of saving begins with Burke. An intelligent critic honestly may believe Burke to be mistaken; but to deny him the gift of remarkable perception is unjust.”
Russell Kirk may well have been Edmund Burke’s biggest American fanboy. Historian George Nash wrote “it is customary—and correct—to point to Kirk as the principal disciple of Edmund Burke…It was Kirk’s argument, in fact, that the American tradition was fundamentally Burkean.” As such, Kirk’s biography of Edmund Burke offers a glimpse into how this British MP whose lifelong endeavor was to stand athwart the revolutionary spirit of the age can be reconciled to the American Revolution and the founding American ideas. Kirk’s book is less of a detailed biographical account of Burke’s life than an exploration into how Burke’s arguments hold fast. While I consider myself to be a Burkean conservative I readily admit not all of my fellow conservatives are willing to place Burke on such a lofty pedestal as Kirk did. Yet understanding Kirk’s arguments for Burke will, at the very least, demystify much of the historical conservative record since Kirk played such a prominent role in its modern formation.
“Learning how to behave is more the source than the result of insight, reason, and understanding. Man is not born wise, rational, and good, but has to be taught to become so. It is not our intellect that created our morals; rather, human interactions governed by our morals make possible the growth of reason and those capabilities associated with it. Man became intelligent because there was tradition—that which lies between instinct and reason—for him to learn.”
While Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom is better known, (and makes the list here too), it is in The Fatal Conceit that he lays out his most forceful arguments against the planned economy and the “errors of socialism”. The proclivity of our elites to disdain the world as it is and to desire to make the world anew is, for Hayek, the fatal conceit. It is hubris and folly that misunderstands how forces outside of any one person’s control made it possible for the world to exist as it is, and how the effort to take control into our own hands would be, quite literally, fatal to the majority of humans alive today.
Alexander Hamilton, James Madison and John Jay
“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.”
The Constitution of the United States was drafted in 1787 among the delegates of the constitutional convention. Yet it was little more than a lofty recommendation until it was ratified by the states. And many of the states were suspicious of this novel document, fearing it went too far in usurping their power and the power of the people to a Federal government. Three of the delegates at the convention, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, all appearing under the pseudonym "Publius”, wrote a series of essays urging the states to ratify. These essays became The Federalist Papers and they represent the most important source for grasping the original intentions and ideas of the framers of our Constitution.
“When, in the writings of [Theodor] Adorno, I discovered that the alternative to the capitalist system is utopia I congratulate the writer for his honesty, since that is another way of saying that there is no alternative.”
Having written an astounding 50 plus books in his lifetime, it is difficult to narrow them down to only a couple included here. Scruton’s Fools, Frauds and Firebrands is not for everyone as it’s a fairly academic and heavily philosophical read and its focus is on countering the arguments of the New Left. But I am unaware of any other book quite like it in its breadth and cogency, eviscerating the most prominent voices on the modern Left. Scruton is warm, but unsparing in his critics of such thinkers as Hobsbawm, Galbraith, Dworkin, Sartre, Foucault, Althusser, Lacan, Deleuze, Badiou, Žižek, and Gramsci. Anyone looking for a rigorous critique of the most prominent intellectual voices on the Left will find this book an excellent resource.
Milton Friedman and Rose Friedman
“The combination of economic and political power in the same hands is a sure recipe for tyranny.”
Reviving the message of Adam Smith for the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, Milton and Rose Friedman’s blockbuster book Free to Choose extols the virtues of the free enterprise system in providing for lifting the greatest number of people out of poverty and securing liberty. Few public intellectuals endeavored to bring their message to the masses as much as Milton Friedman. And though his previous work Capitalism and Freedom delves deep into his philosophical framework, Free to Choose was written with a general audience in mind.
William F. Buckley Jr.
“I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.”
Several important books have been credited with being largely responsible for launching the modern conservative movement in the post-World War II era for one reason or another: Whittaker Chambers’ Witness in awakening the public to the treat of Communism, Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind in elevating conservatism’s intellectual status, Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative in inciting the political precursor to the Reagan Revolution, F. A. Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom in turning the public against the idea of a planned economy (to say nothing of the works of other authors such as Peter Viereck, Richard Weaver, Robert Nisbet, and probably half a dozen others). Yet Buckley’s first book, God and Man at Yale, is perhaps the most frequently credited with the modern conservative movement. Buckley’s contributions to movement conservatism, of course, stretch far beyond this book and, in some ways, his arguments of higher education using “academic freedom” as a bludgeon to introduce a secularist agenda in a religious setting seems oddly outdated in an era where the most common complaint on the Right about higher education is its failure to provide free inquiry and an open dialogue. Yet the importance of this book in launching movement conservatism cannot be overstated. God and Man at Yale was ranked 44th in National Review’s 1999 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century. Which, by my lights, seems a bit low given this was Buckley’s magazine.
“Is liberalism…a theoretical discovery to be put into effect or a practical achievement to be reinforced and perfected? These two possibilities suggest two rather different sorts of liberal politics: a politics of vigorous progress toward an ideal goal or a politics of preservation and perfection of a precious inheritance. They suggest, in other words, a progressive liberalism and a conservative liberalism.”
I absolutely love this book! In The Great Debate Yuval Levin depicts the contemporaries Edmund Burke and Thomas Paine as sparing partners in a “great debate” over the ongoing revolution in France that would ultimately form the foundations of the modern Right and Left. Understanding the foundational ideas of these two great thinkers and how they harmonized and contrasted with one another puts both the Left and Right on firm footing from which we can hope to have healthier debates. Levin is one of the greatest interpreters of Burke’s ideas as they apply to contemporary American society alive today. He also has a firm grasp on the origins and ideas of the American Left. But Burke in particular—largely because he wrote no systematic treaties on his political views and wrote instead only in particular circumstances—is best understood through a “guide” of some sort. And Levin is certainly up for the task. He’s clearer and more current than Russell Kirk or Peter Stanlis and, as a believer himself, has a greater capacity to understand how Burke’s notion of Providence intertwines with his politics of prescription (a skill lacking in many Burke scholars).
Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn
“If only it were so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago takes second place in National Review’s 1999 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century (First place goes to The Second World War by Winston Churchill which isn’t listed here as it’s outside the purview of conservative tomes). The book is actually a three-volume set that describes life in Soviet labor camps through first-hand accounts of political prisoners and the author’s own experience in the Gulag. Solzhenitsyn’s work, perhaps more than any other, helped bring attention to the horrors visited upon the billion plus people imprisoned in a Marxist state.
“Kendall’s ideas combined Rousseau’s concept of the general will, Leo Strauss’s views on natural right, Aristotle’s ideas on the good, and James Madison’s vision of legislative supremacy. Behind it all lay Kendall’s notion that the American people ought always to govern itself well, lest a dictator or a judge or a bureaucracy arise to govern instead.”
As I noted above for The Conservative Affirmation, Willmoore Kendall is a largely forgotten figure on the Right whose contributions to movement conservatism are difficult to overstate. While his book is worth reading—it made the list here, after all—Kendall’s contributions are better captured in a biographical account of his life that cover his numerous essays and evolution of thought. To that end, historian Christopher Owen’s Heaven Can Indeed Fall offers an excellent summation of Kendall’s life work. Owen’s account follows Kendall’s developing political philosophy from democratic majoritarian to Madisonian populist. Kendall himself had a fantastically colorful and cantankerous life who Owen describes as a man “who never lost an argument or kept a friend.” I had the pleasure of chatting with Owen about his book on my podcast back in episode 99.
“Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created.”
While it’s hard to pick just a handful of the 50 plus Scruton books to recommend, How to be a Conservative is not only my favorite Scruton book, it’s one of my favorite in this entire list. Because Scruton bursts onto the scene decades after the formative years of movement conservatism in the 1950s through 1980s, Scruton’s writings are easy to overlook and may not have as lasting an impact as many of the other books listed here. This is a pity because Scruton was, in my view, the brightest conservative philosopher since at least Michael Oakeshot and twice as readable. In How to be a Conservative Scruton offers not only an argument for conservatism, but compares it to nationalism, socialism, capitalism, liberalism, multiculturalism, environmentalism, and internationalism, stressing the truth found in each of these systems as well as the dangers found in their excesses.
“I, Pencil, simple though I appear to be, merit your wonder and awe, a claim I shall attempt to prove. In fact, if you can understand me—no, that’s too much to ask of anyone—if you can become aware of the miraculousness which I symbolize, you can help save the freedom mankind is so unhappily losing. I have a profound lesson to teach. And I can teach this lesson better than can an automobile or an airplane or a mechanical dishwasher because—well, because I am seemingly so simple. Simple? Yet, not a single person on the face of this earth knows how to make me.”
Okay, okay, so this isn’t exactly a book (it’s an essay), but it was too good not to include. Google “Milton Friedman pencil” and you’ll find that the famed conservative economist was enamored with this essay. In I, Pencil Leonard Read follows the manufacturing process required to produce one, lowly pencil to demonstrate the power of the free market and the absurdity of the planned economy. It’s pithy, powerful, and persuasive. Best of all, you can easily find it for free online.
“The issue ultimately involved is whether there is a source of truth higher than, and independent of, man; and the answer to the question is decisive for one’s view of the nature and destiny of man.”
Ranked at 46th in National Review’s 1999 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century, Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences, written in 1948, was one of the earliest books of the modern conservative movement in the United States. Speaking of earliest: while it is commonplace for conservatives to point to some instance in the distant past to pinpoint when things went off the rails, Weaver takes the prize in rolling the clocks back furthest. He contends the seeds of Western civilization’s destruction were sown clear back in the 14th century! The title of Weaver’s book has become one of the most iconic phrases birthed by the conservative movement. However, just as Lord Acton has been shamefully reduced to his most famous quote (“Power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely”), so too Weaver’s book is far more nuanced and complex than can possibly be contained in a single, pithy phrase.
“Freedom remains the criterion principle, the guide; but the application of principle to circumstances demands a prudential art. The intricate fibers of tradition and civilization, carried in the minds of men from generation to generation always affect the realization of any general principle. Furthermore, no practical situation can be the realization of a single principle, however important. The compelling, if secondary, claims of other principles, though not decisive to judgment in the political sphere in the way that freedom is, do nevertheless bear upon every concrete political problem.”
Ever since the Trump era, Frank Meyer’s views on fusionism—in woefully simplistic terms, the idea that liberty makes it possible to practice virtue and virtue upholds liberty, thereby “fusing” the traditionalist conservative with the libertarian—have been severely criticized from various factions on the Right. Truth be told, this is nothing new. In Meyer’s day fusionism was criticized by the likes of Buckley’s brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell (arguing the elevation of liberty was a distraction from the more important pursuit of virtue) and the famed libertarian economist Murray Rothbard (holding that liberty was the chief political aim and any politics of “virtue” inevitably leads to tyrannical enforcement of the religious or moral preferences of the group in charge). The biggest difference between then and now, however, is that Meyer ultimately won that debate back in the day. While Bozell and Rothbard’s disciples remained in the minority, the fusionist model was adopted by National Review conservatives, the Reagan Revolution, and much of conservatism Inc. up until 2016. As a fusionist myself, I think it’s time we dug back into Meyer’s arguments as we attempt to harmonize the warring factions on the Right. And In Defense of Freedom is the best place to find Meyer’s central message.
“It is far easier to concentrate power than to concentrate knowledge. That is why so much social engineering backfires and why so many despots have led their countries into disasters.”
Alan Wolan, host of the apply named The Genuis of Thomas Sowell podcast, lists Intellectuals and Society as his favorite Sowell book. Sowell defines intellectuals as “idea workers” whose outsized influence on society often leads to catastrophe. Unlike workers who deal with tangible objects—such as an engineer—the intellectual’s products are in the realm of abstractions and ideas. As such, it is significantly harder to hold intellectuals accountable for their failures. When a bridge collapses we can point back to the engineer who was responsible for its safety. When public policy leads to disastrous consequences, it can be difficult, if not impossible, to understand whose ideas are at fault. Ironically enough, Thomas Sowell is probably the closest thing the Right has to an “intellectual” alive today. Though, for understandable reasons, he does not care for that designation.
“The problem of natural right is today a matter of recollection rather than of actual knowledge. We are therefore in need of historical studies in order to familiarize ourselves with the whole complexity of the issue.”
Straussian conservatives pride themselves on careful reading of challenging texts to derive the deeper meanings that are implied. That is, philosophical and political texts of antiquity are scrutinized for their esoteric messages that the author wished to convey but only if the reader looks carefully. Sometimes what an author doesn’t say is just as important as what he or she does say. It’s no smaller wonder then that Natural Right and History, possibly Strauss’ most enduring work, is a challenging read. Strauss contends that we can infer the existence of natural rights from a careful study of ancient, medieval, and modern writings. He concludes with where this “firm foundation” went awry in the modern era by critiquing the views of Hobbes, Locke, and even Burke (yikes!).
“Bourgeois capitalism began with a kind of benign toleration of religion but a firm commitment to Judeo-Christian morality. In this respect, Adam Smith and our Founding Fathers were of one mind, one sensibility. Their fundamental error, doubtless attributable to their rationalism, was a complacency about how this morality relates to its religious roots.”
Irving Kristol—not to be confused with his son, Bill Kristol—was simultaneously one of the most unique thinkers of the so-called neoconservatives while at the same time considered neoconservatism’s godfather. While Kristol never wrote a book, he was a prolific essayist. Neo-conservatism is a selection of some of his best essays that follow his journey from Communist Trotskyist to disillusioned liberal to eventually becoming a “liberal mugged by reality”. That is, a neoconservative. While neoconservatism has come under fire in recent years—largely due to the erroneous belief that it’s predominantly an ideology that advocates spreading American democracy by toppling rogue regimes—critics ignore Kristol at their own peril. Agree or disagree, his arguments and insights are still powerfully relevant today.
“Genuine freedom is not based upon the negative psychology of release. Its roots are in positive acts of dedication to ends and values. Freedom presupposes the autonomous existence of values which men wish to be free to follow and measure up to.”
Coming in at 27 in National Review’s 1999 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century, The Quest for Community enjoyed widespread appeal on both the Right and Left when it was written in 1953. This happy trans-political Nisbet fanbase drifted rightward as the Left ultimately found its “community” in the state in a manner that was antithetical to Nisbet’s vision. New York Times columnist Ross Douthat makes a powerful case for the importance of reading Nisbet today. “Conservatives are cracking open Atlas Shrugged and shouting about socialism,” he writes in the introduction to the 2019 reprinting, “but they seem to have lost the appetite for thinking through the problem of community in an individualistic age—which is, of course, precisely the problem that makes socialism so appealing in the first place.” Particularly for a younger conservative audience, Nisbet’s message of the importance of community to the individual hits home in an age of loneliness and isolation.
“The superiority of an ideology over a tradition of thought lies in its appearance of being self-contained. It can be taught best to those whose minds are empty; and if it is to be taught to one who already believes something, the first step of the teacher must be to administer a purge, to make certain that all prejudices and preconceptions are removed, to lay his foundation upon the unshakable rock of absolute ignorance.”
Yet another contender on National Review’s 1999 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century. Oakeshott’s Rationalism in Politics takes 12th place. For those who prefer their conservatism with a bit more philosophical rigor, Oakeshott is often elevated to the ranks of Burke, Hayek, or Strauss. And, while Oakeshott’s writings are not a particularly easy read, they do offer a depth that’s rarely matched in other conservative writings. Rationalism in Politics is actually a series of essays covering the limitations of reason in politics, critiques of rationalism, reflections on modern politics, observations on poetry, and a lengthy analysis of Thomas Hobbes, whose masterpiece, Leviathan, Oakeshott describes as “the greatest, perhaps the sole, masterpiece of political philosophy written in the English language.” Funnily enough, Leo Strauss had nothing but criticism for Hobbes in Natural Right and History. The Venn diagram of thinkers on the Right who opposed each other is quite complicated.
“We must be aware of the fact that the vitality and the glory of our Western tradition are inseparable from its problematic character. For that tradition has two roots…the Hebrew element and the Greek element…According to the Bible, the one thing needful is obedient love; according to philosophy, the one thing needful is free inquiry. The whole history of the West can be viewed as an ever repeated attempt to achieve a compromise or a synthesis between these two antagonistic principles…The Western tradition does not allow of a synthesis of its two elements, but only of their tension: this is the secret of the vitality of the West.”
Speaking of Leo Strauss, his second book presented in this list is The Rebirth of Classical Political Rationalism. Much like Oakeshott’s entry above, this is not so much a book as it is a series of essays intended to introduce us to the author. While the essays cover a variety of topics from a study of “progress” to critics of relativism and modern rationalism, a significant portion of the book is dedicated to what Strauss is best known for: esoteric analyses of writings from ancient Greece to medieval philosophers.
“A spirit of innovation is generally the result of a selfish temper and confined views. People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”
What began as a response to French aristocrat Charles-Jean-François Depont’s inquiry into what Burke thought of the burgeoning revolution in France circa 1790 turned into perhaps the most elegant and powerful counter-revolutionary text ever written. To say that Depont, who likely believed Burke would be sympathetic to the French cause given his sympathies for the American revolutionaries a decade earlier, was disappointed in this response would be a bit of an understatement. While Burke is a gifted, eloquent, and clear writer, most of his works can be challenging to understand. Abhorring what he called “abstractions”, Burke wrote only about specific circumstances and never provided a systematic framework for his ideas. But a careful study of his writings reveals a consistent, and brilliant, governing political philosophy.
“When you study conservatism’s past, you become convinced that it has a future.”
I mentioned above that George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement is what I would consider the gold standard for understanding the history of conservatism in the modern era. Continetti’s much more recent book takes home the silver. While Nash is primarily focused on the intellectual movement on the Right that begins after World War II (with an original ending written up to the 1970s), Continetti takes a much longer and broader view. He begins his “history” of the Right clear back to the Harding and Coolidge administrations and takes us up through the Trump White House—spanning a “hundred year war for American conservatism”. Further, Continetti broadens his scope to the more populous, bigoted, and odious elements of the Right that present a warts-and-all telling of the story. Nash’s book is highly readable for what was originally an academic text. But Continetti’s book is even more readable as it was written for a general audience.
F. A. Hayek
“It is true that the virtues which are less esteemed and practiced now--independence, self-reliance, and the willingness to bear risks, the readiness to back one's own conviction against a majority, and the willingness to voluntary cooperation with one's neighbors—are essentially those on which an individualist society rests. Collectivism has nothing to put in their place, and in so far as it already has destroyed then it has left a void filled by nothing but the demand for obedience and the compulsion of the individual to what is collectively decided to be good.”
First published in England in 1944, Hayek’s most famous book, The Road to Serfdom, was met with tepid to hostile reviews in the United Kingdom. When it was published later that year in America, however, its widespread popularity shocked both the publishers and author himself, and launched the mild-mannered, Austrian, academic economist into celebrity status. Ever the stalwart antagonist to the central, planned economy, Hayek escaped the totalitarian nightmare descending over Europe in the lead up to the second World War. His contention was that planning leads to dictatorship as directing economic activity necessarily means trampling individual liberty. The Road to Serfdom still enjoys widespread popularity among American conservatives and was ranked as high as 4th place in National Review’s 1999 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century.
“The startling truth is that nearly all of human progress has taken place in the last three hundred years (and for many of the billions of non-Westerners lifted out of crushing poverty thanks to capitalism it’s happened in the last thirty years).”
“Suicide is a choice” writes Goldberg in his bleakly titled book. The Western world, with its reliance on the free exchange of ideas, free market, free individuals, and respect for the rule of law, has produced what Goldberg refers to as the “miracle”. Never before have humans enjoyed as much progress as we do today. And yet, this Western model is not “natural”. That is, it does not fit squarely with our natural tendencies to partake in tribal conflicts. Nature, seeking to reclaim what is Hers, pulls us away from our unnatural way of living and, as a result, humanity is at risk of suicidal regression.
“Today, despite free speech and the mass media, the prevailing social vision is dangerously close to sealing itself off from any discordant feedback from reality.”
Written in 1995, Thomas Sowell’s The Vision of the Anointed serves as a kind of precursor to his 2012 book Intellectuals and Society. Sowell mercilessly takes aim at the “anointed”—those intellectuals who form the elites of society—and provides example after example of how the same destructive patterns emerge. First there is a crisis (though often artificial or an actual problem that’s been improving instead of worsening). Second, the anointed arrive at a solution that’s reinforced by being echoed across the small but powerful elites of society. Third, the “solution” is implemented, usually with disastrous consequences. And finally, the conclusion among the anointed is that the disaster in no way invalidates their solution. Much of Sowell’s work is an effort to show the harmful effects of those who try to force reality to conform to the vision in their head.
“The problem for Millennials is that politicians (elected by Boomers in the 1980s, and then Boomers themselves from the 1990s onward) have consistently gone about trying to boost productivity in ways that distort the economy rather than stimulating investments that would enhance the value of workers up and down the career ladder.”
It may be fair to say that Sternberg is the least famous of the authors listed here. But I wanted to include his book The Theft of a Decade precisely because this is a list for the young conservative. It has long been my pet peeve that conservatives, as a rule, have not taken Millennial and Gen Z Americans’ concerns seriously. With the advent of the Great Recession, in particular, many young Americans are understandably wary of free-market arguments. True, some books make a compelling free-market response to the Great Recession, such as David Bahnsen’s Crisis of Responsibility; but Sternberg, writing as a Millennial himself, has a stronger sense of where younger Americans are coming from. The Theft of a Decade essentially argues that our parents and grandparents, with the best of intentions, have squandered our economic inheritance and much of the economic angst we feel today can be attributed to poor economic policies in the prior century.
“We are in a period of unprecedented upheaval. Community is collapsing, anxiety is building, and we’re distracting ourselves with artificial political hatreds. This can’t endure—and if it does, America won’t.”
Much to Jonah Goldberg’s chagrin, Sen. Ben Sasse’s book Them, was not about the 1954 film of the same name about giant, mutant, man-eating ants that threatened civilization itself. It is, however, largely in alignment with Goldberg’s book Suicide of the West in making a similar case that our tribalistic instincts risk pulling apart the very fabric of the nation. Sasse’s book focuses more on the hollowness of turning our politics and culture wars into our individual identities and ultimately concludes that what’s needed isn’t no tribes, but better tribes and a proper ordering of the value we place on the tribes we inhabit.
“The history of the West has been a history of reason operating within tradition.”
Trying to define conservatism may be too gargantuan an effort for any one person. So, Frank Meyer assembled an all-start team to weigh in on this complex matter. The contributors include Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, M. Stanton Evans, Wilhelm Röpke, F. A. Hayek, Stanley Parry, Stephen Tonsor, Garry Wills, John Chamberlain, William F. Buckley, and Frank Chodorov. Many of the contributors spent a great portion of their lives battling each other’s ideas (Hayek’s contribution is literally entitled “Why I Am Not a Conservative”). Assembling these warring views was quite intentional on Meyer’s part. Meyer provides both an introduction and conclusion to the book, attempting to show that, in spite of their differences, some common themes can be found throughout the book. Whether Meyer’s optimistic conclusion is overstated is up to the reader to decide.
“A witness, in the sense that I am using the word, is a man whose life and faith are so completely one that when the challenge comes to step out and testify for his faith, he does so, disregarding all risks, accepting all consequences.”
Witness is Whittaker Chamber’s autobiographical account of his involvement with the Communist underground, espionage and treason against the United States, turn towards Christianity and rejection of Communism, and eventual testimony against his former Communist counterpart Alger Hiss in the famous 1948 Hiss/Chambers hearings before the congressional House Committee on Un-American Activities. At times fearing for his life and the life of his family, the pessimistic, doubtful, and even suicidal Chambers ultimately emerged victorious over his powerful Communist enemies and their sympathizers in the Federal government. Written in 1952, Witness was cited by such notable figures as William F. Buckley, Robert Novak, and Ronald Reagan as having a lasting impact on their political views. It is ranked as 24th on National Review’s 1999 100 Best Non-Fiction Books of the Century.
Do you agree with my list? Did I miss a book you believe deserves to be mentioned? Did I include some books you feel shouldn’t have made the cut? Let me know what you think in the comments below.