Reflection on a Semester with Dr. Steven Hayward

Throughout the fall semester, Buckley fellows had the privilege of engaging with five lectures and five seminars by Dr. Steven Hayward on the rich history of conservatism and its intersection with contemporary issues.

Steven Hayward is currently a Senior Resident Scholar at the University of California Berkeley’s Institute of Government. He is also the Thomas Smith Distinguished Fellow at the John M. Ashbrook Center at Ashland University. Before this work, Dr. Hayward worked as the FK Weyerhauser Fellow in Law and Economics at the American Enterprise Institute. Dr. Hayward has also written many books on topics ranging from the environment to President Ronald Reagan. Finally, he has been extensively published in the National Review, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal, among others. 

By: Jasper Boers

In the months leading up to his death in 2008, William F. Buckley, Jr. appeared on Charlie Rose’s PBS program. Rose asked Buckley what he thought of the modern conservative movement. Buckley’s response? That it was in need of a “repristination.” A decade later, and it appears as if the conservative movement Buckley helped create never did receive any sort of ideological dredging, much less a light touch-up. Instead, it has undergone a political factionalization. Traditional conservatism, American conservatism, libertarianism, religious conservatism, neoconservatism, paleoconservatism, populist conservatism (I daresay it)—these are just a few of the divergent examples which Dr. Stephen Hayward identified as making up the modern conservative movement, if one could even describe it with such a unified term as “a movement.”

Dr. Hayward, a Senior Resident Scholar at UC Berkeley’s Institute of Governmental Studies, brought this fall to Yale’s campus a five-part lecture and seminar series which confronted this embattled plurality of modern conservative ideologies. Administered by the Buckley Program, each seminar involved a selection of readings, a lecture, and a subsequent lunch discussion with Dr. Hayward. Frequently during seminar, Dr. Hayward would remark that those in the seminar were, after all, “here to have fun.” While the content of the seminar was indeed serious and philosophical, Dr. Hayward combined a rigorous intellectual approach to conservatism with lighthearted discussion, the occasional joke, and interludes of commentary on Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, the European Union, energy policy, and liberalism in American universities.

Hayward aptly described the conservative movement in his first lecture, terming it “the search for the unchanging ground of changing experience.” The first seminar comprised a broad overview of what exactly “conservatism” is. A reactionary doctrine? A disposition? A set of common principles? Among the authors we read for our first meeting were Thomas Sowell, Samuel P. Huntington, Isaiah Berlin, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Roger Scruton. In our search to define conservatism during the two-hour discussion, Dr. Hayward stressed the question of whether there exists a conservative idea of utopia. The answer? No, probably not. After all, a utopia on principle is a rejection of prior institutions for the sake of change—a decidedly non-conservative philosophy.

The second seminar, entitled “Edmund Burke: The First Modern Conservative,” offered a historical investigation of modern conservatism’s beginnings amidst the terror of the French Revolution. Eleven readings from Burke’s enormous collection of political writings and speeches encouraged lively discussion of his ideas about religion, institutions, and liberalism. In relation to the idea of conserving institutions, Dr. Hayward emphasized Burke’s distinction between the preservative attitudes of the American Revolution and the destructive attitudes of the French Revolution.

After Fall Break, Dr. Hayward returned with a seminar outlining his views of the predominant conservative ideologies today: traditional conservatism, libertarianism, religious conservatism, neoconservatism, and American conservatism. I found this seminar to be among the most riveting, as Dr. Hayward underscored the types of people who fall into each conservative doctrine—elaborating on what professions they occupy, what books they read, and what academic disciplines they study. Among the readings for this seminar, Russell Kirk’s essay Libertarians: The Chirping Sectaries, stood out as a provocative and humorous account of the libertarian movement’s occasional penchant for unreasonable individualism. A central question which Dr. Hayward raised during the course of the seminar was whether conservatism and libertarianism are compatible, seeing as they have rather opposed attitudes towards individual freedoms and morality.

Post-modern thinking, whether pernicious or innovative, dominates contemporary political thought and social science. Dr. Hayward gave an overview of the philosophy during his fourth seminar, as well as a critique of conservative-leaning intellectuals who use “post-modernism” as a buzzword for anything distasteful. Additionally, Dr. Hayward offered a criticism of “post-modern justice,” asking why any idea of justice today requires a modifier (climate, gender, racial). A central tension which our seminar discussion explored was whether or not conservatism overlaps with post-modernism. After all, both philosophies contain a skepticism, if not a rejection, of Enlightenment rationalism.

For his final seminar of the fall semester, Dr. Hayward spoke on the relationship between equality and conservatism. The seminar began with a discussion of where inequality naturally exists, and whether social policy can or should alleviate those inequalities. No discussion of equality in America would be complete without looking to Lincoln and the Declaration of Independence. This seminar examined the difficult, often controversial topics—inequality of the sexes, inequality of skill, economic inequality—that ground modern political discourse. Dr. Hayward concluded the seminar with hopes of continuing the discussion next semester, delving deeper into whether conservatives should or can endorse a grand scheme of human rights.

Dr. Hayward’s seminar offered not only an opportunity for moral and political introspection, but also a chance to understand how conservatives view culture, history, science, and reason. The spirit Dr. Hayward brought to each meeting was both open-minded and principled, serious and humorous. In searching for a definition, or rather, definitions, of conservatism, Dr. Hayward made clear that to understand the conservative movement is to discern the rich intellectual tradition behind it. Perhaps the best method of achieving a “repristination” of modern conservatism, as Bill Buckley called it, is exactly what Dr. Hayward’s seminar set out to do: read, think, debate, and, most importantly, listen.

Jasper Boers is a first-year in Timothy Dwight College.