Introduction to Conservatism: Four Book Recommendations

June 11, 2018

The Ben Shapiro Show: Sunday Special with Jonah GoldbergI sometimes wonder (and I’m sometimes asked) what I think would be the single best thing to read, what book I would recommend, to introduce someone to the ideas of conservatism for the first time, or to persuade those not yet persuaded.  (To date, I’m not sure I have an answer.  Mark Steyn’s America Alone and Arthur C. Brooks’s Who Really Cares—and of course C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity—were significant and influential for me, but I’m not sure any of them is a direct answer to that question.)

In a recent interview, Ben Shapiro asked Jonah Goldberg more or less the same question; Goldberg gamely offered some impromptu thoughts on the subject.  Here’s the list:

Here’s a partial (approximate, amateur) transcript:

SHAPIRO:  OK, so, before we take off, I want to ask:  Aside from your book—we’re talking about the creation of good citizens, and the creation of people who believe in the enlightenment—what are the three to five other books that you would have people read, to educate themselves as good citizens who understand these values properly?

GOLDBERG:  Oh, that’s an interesting question.  Well—we’ll put aside the entire Shapiro oeuvre(laughs)

SHAPIRO:  (laughs)  No, no—as well you should!  They don’t fit into this—my next book, maybe, but not the ones I’ve written so far.

GOLDBERG:  Yeah, so—Tom Sowell’s Conflict of Visions, Friedrich Hayek’s The Fatal Conceit—not because I think it’s his best book, but I do think it’s his most accessible book that gets at a lot of this stuff.  I would not say The Road to Serfdom.  Gosh, what else?  You know, I’m a big believer in history; I like—Deirdre McCloskey was a big influence on me on all these books, and I like her books, but I’m not sure they get to the core of raising good citizens.  Whatever the best biography of George Washington is, I think, would be pretty useful, and then as a follow-on to that, Rick Brookhiser’s book on George Washington’s guide to manners and civility, because I think that stuff is really, really important.  And again, you know, this is more of a “gotcha” question than the Trump stuff—

SHAPIRO:  (laughs)  Yeah, sorry, doing book lists is rough.

GOLDBERG:  Yeah, no, it’s just—it’s off the top of your head, and then you spend the next three weeks with that esprit d’escalier thing—Ah!  I should have said this, I should have said that…

SHAPIRO:  It’s a fairly good reading list; so you don’t have to come up with others.

GOLDBERG:  Yeah—so there’s a book I really love that almost no one has ever heard of that I was just reminded of today ’cause his son thanked me for mentioning it on Twitter this morning:  Arthur Ekirch, called The Decline of American Liberalism.  It’s pretty largely forgotten, but it’s a great history about how—charting sort of how liberalism went from meaning classical liberalism in America to meaning sort of collectivism.  I think it’s a kind of a useful thing, and it’s pretty digestible.  But I reserve the right to come up with a whole new list of books when I think about it.

SHAPIRO:  (laughs)

It’s an excellent interview, and The Ben Shapiro Show is an excellent show; listen to the whole thing here.

4 Responses to “Introduction to Conservatism: Four Book Recommendations”

  1. Mordecai Ali Van Allen O'Shea Says:

    By the latest Gallup poll, President Trump has a 70% approval rating among self-identified “conservatives” and a 90% approval rating among self-identified “conservative Republicans.” The ideals, theories, and principles contained in the cited works do not describe 21st century American “conservatism.” I would dearly love to see them catch hold among Republicans in time for a primary challenge in 2020, but I’m not holding my breath. The Trump phenomenon has made clear to me that many left-wing critiques of the American Right–which I long dismissed as crude caricatures or outright strawmen–have a lot more basis than I previously thought.

    Maybe a better title for this post would be “Introduction to Principled Conservatism.”

    • Interesting point, and you know I agree with you in large part on this kind of stuff, but I think Ben Shapiro actually provides some good counterpoints, including in this same interview. My number-one takeaway from him on this subject in this interview: He didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016, and he still has a pretty low view of the man (both in terms of moral character and in that he doesn’t think Trump mostly even understands what his own administration is doing)—he’s not one of what Mark Levin has called the Trump “pom-pom boys and girls”—but he nevertheless suggests he’ll vote for Trump for re-election, not least because Trump’s administration has ended up hiring a lot of good conservatives (in the old sense!) of long standing and intellectual seriousness, trying to use the opportunity of this presidency to get things done—or in any case that regardless, the external results have been a presidency better and more conservative on policy than many of us expected of this president.

      I think reasonable minds can differ (and I do!)—I think Shapiro is a little too generous to people who voted for (or, worse, have resolved cognitive dissonance by becoming cultists for) Trump in pieces like his popular and interesting one on the conservative generation gap—but I also think he makes several great points, and I think maybe you’re being a little too hard on Republican voters overall.

    • Or, more pithily, as Sean Trende has put it:

      “I don’t think you can underestimate the degree to which many conservatives have this attitude: (a) we fought a battle over whether character counts, and got our asses handed to us and (b) liberal leaders always circle the wagons around their guys, and ours always cave.”

      I agree with you that that’s not by any means an entirely good thing, and that voting for Trump (especially in the primaries) was not a good response, and that there’s a lot of bad character among voters on the right (especially these days)—and I think Goldberg and Shapiro agree with all those points as well—but I also think it’s a very different dynamic from saying that the strawman arguments about evil knuckle draggers were right all along.

  2. Tricia Says:

    Good stuff, thanks for sharing.

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