June 20, 2024 Reading Time: 5 minutes
A Statue of William Penn tops Philadelphia’s City Hall.

The Philadelphia Society is one of the most legendary institutions conservatives built in the twentieth century. Founded in 1964, its members have included luminaries such as William F. Buckley, Milton Friedman, and Russell Kirk. In many ways, the Philadelphia Society is responsible for charting the future of conservatism as an intellectual movement more than any other institution. 

Now, the American Institute for Economic Research has brought out a second volume of their Conversations on Conservatism series, collecting some of the most important speeches given at past meetings of the Philadelphia Society. Gathering presentations from meetings between the 1980s and early 2000s, this volume covers the critical period of the movement’s “middle age.” More than the preceding volume, which primarily covered the first twenty years of the Philadelphia Society’s existence, this new one brims with controversy.  

Conservatism will never have a rigid definition, but a core set of principles nevertheless emerges from Conversations on Conservatism. On some level, the diverse authors all object to the dominance of the progressive establishment. The authors may disagree about how to achieve certain goods, and even about their philosophic origin, but they are all in some sense defenders of the American Founding and ordered liberty – and the flourishing families and free economy the Founders sought to secure.  

In his introduction, movement historian Lee Edwards explains that the Philadelphia Society was born principally for the sake of discussion and debate. The founders of the organization knew that infighting or factional politics would spell doom for conservatives after Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat. Instead, they believed that a “fundamental purpose of the Society should be a continuing dialogue between the ‘traditionalist’ and ‘libertarian’ emphases” within the movement.  

The years following saw an ever-widening array of factions join that dialogue. The dueling ranks of traditionalists and libertarians were swelled by those disaffected by the reigning liberalism and brought into the conservative fold by Ronald Reagan. Among the most controversial, of course, were the neoconservatives – the subject of the first section of speeches in this volume of Conversations on Conservatism

Neoconservatives did not fit neatly into either the traditionalist or the libertarian camps. Most were former liberals or socialists who had come to see the limits of ideology in the wake of economic downturn, the rise of crime and decaying cities, and various foreign policy disasters. Unlike earlier conservatives, however, the neoconservatives were fairly comfortable with the bureaucratic apparatus and welfare state erected by the New Deal. And, importantly, they were less motivated by religion. 

One of the most important speeches in the collection is the late Stephen Tonsor’s thundering – and overzealous – critique of neoconservatism. Tonsor was a committed traditionalist, and a critic of modernity in all its forms. Comparing the New York Intellectuals to the Austrian School economists, Tonsor held that neither group had gone far enough in rejecting the baleful effects of the Enlightenment. “What the neoconservatives have done is to divorce techniques from ends,” he said, “in an effort to maintain their cultural modernism while rejecting its social and political implications.” 

Tonsor believed, therefore, that traditionalists could make common cause with the neoconservatives and classical liberals only in certain limited ways. Principally, he viewed the role of true conservatives as evangelizing these converts, directing them to “return to their religious roots” and more broadly the “beliefs and values of our common heritage.”  

But what Tonsor missed was that, insofar as neoconservatives and classical liberals were increasingly embracing the American Founding, they were making precisely such a return to those roots. In part due to their contact with traditionalists in forums such as the Philadelphia Society, prominent members of these factions moved away from Benthamite justifications of freedom on grounds of efficiency, liberal agnosticism about the human good, or revolutionary ambitions to make the world anew. Instead, they were persuaded to make a more ethical and normative case for liberty, grounded in the ideas about man and God found in the Declaration of Independence.  

Take, for example, Midge Decter’s 1991 speech on the question “Should America Be the World’s Policeman?” Decter was among the most vocal neoconservatives, a staunch critic of traditionalists. She often debated them — including at the Philadelphia Society — on the topic of national security. But far from repeating liberal internationalist slogans, Decter came to argue for a strong foreign policy on the basis of America’s commitment to ordered liberty — a commitment she shared with many of her opponents.  

Rejecting the idea that America could democratize the whole globe, Decter nonetheless asserted that the world is “lucky to have us for its leading power” because American society is dedicated to certain philosophical propositions that make us a “decent and generous people.” At least when it came to the source of their patriotism, there is far less distance between Decter and her traditionalist adversaries than there might appear. Both sides could rally around the ideas of the Founding, even if they applied those ideas to circumstances in different ways. 

Much the same could be said about the classical liberals and libertarians in the Philadelphia Society. Although many came to their convictions about markets on the basis of empiricist arguments, the speeches chosen for this volume demonstrate that these are not the only arguments one need make to defend limited government and a free economy. Indeed, the best defense of economic freedom rests not on statistics calculated yesterday, but rather the enduring knowledge of human nature at the heart of Western civilization.  

Even if the Philadelphia Society has produced greater philosophic clarity among conservatives, it never was meant to force everyone into consensus about policy. Thankfully, Conversations on Conservatism does not shy away from the policy disputes that have characterized the Society. Aside from the already-mentioned debates over questions of national security and economics, the editors also included sections on immigration and civil rights. As the Society’s mission statement declares, “We shall seek understanding, not conformity.” 

The most admirable feature of Conversations on Conservatism, though, has very little to do with policy debates or even high philosophic theory. As a book, it cannot quite replicate the feeling of being at a Philadelphia Society meeting in person. But reading Bill Buckley joke about Don Lipsett, or Lee Edwards reminiscence about Russell Kirk does preserve something of the tone.  

The speeches collected here gives one an excellent sense of just how much the Society is a circle of friends.  

I had the opportunity to attend my first meeting of the Philadelphia Society in the spring as a Founders’ Fellow, and this sense of friendship permeated the conference. I witnessed old friends reuniting in the hotel lobby and new friends becoming acquainted in the hallways. I heard stories about conservative icons, but also of the individuals who are half-forgotten now but played vital roles in the movement. And I had the chance to stay up late into the evenings discussing politics, literature, and the permanent things with people who will be lifelong friends. 

Ultimately, it is that sense of friendship that has allowed the Philadelphia Society to endure despite internal divisions. Conservatives may not agree about every particular of political philosophy, let alone the prudential solutions to problems facing the country. But Conversations on Conservatism and the Philadelphia Society prove that the real purpose of the conservative movement is the common defense of the things we love. 

Michael Lucchese

Michael Lucchese is an Associate Editor at Law & Liberty He is the founder and CEO of Pipe Creek Consulting and a contributing editor to Providence. Previously, he was a Krauthammer Fellow with the Tikvah Fund, a visiting scholar at Liberty Fund, and an aide to US Senator Ben Sasse. He is an alumnus of Hillsdale College and the Hudson Institute Political Studies Program.

Get notified of new articles from Michael Lucchese and AIER.