Welcome to First Principles
simply, this book looks at how we view ourselves as citizens and how we
organize as a society. The content—synopses of 44 books presented in an ordered, guided reading list—aims
to explore the relationship between the individual and the social,
governmental, and other
entities that surround him. The beliefs and connections and arrangements
that develop from our cultural constructions lead to political activity, but
politics is not our focus, first principles are.
If you wish to gain a useful
comprehension of the history, philosophy, economics, and political theory
that led to the creation of Western Civilization and the founding of the
—this should be your primary resource.
you wish to serve your community—or more ambitiously, your country—in
the political realm by becoming better and more usefully informed, or
through public activism, you should start here.
who use this book to its full extent will see that it is not for Everyman.
It doesn’t try to be. We’ve attempted to be engaging and moderately
comprehensive, and to be helpful. Some of the readings are demanding, most
are not. They are simply practical and relevant. If you do engage, we
believe that your reward will far exceed your effort.
of you who absorb the books offered here can make a difference in the
world—somehow, somewhere, sometime. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher,
Bill Buckley and David Keene made these works part of themselves. Many, many
more unsung citizens have left their marks on the world after grasping the
essence of what these books offer.
Thatcher observed in 1991, shortly after relinquishing her office as Prime
Minister of Great Britain (and equally shortly after the demise of the
), that the democracies of the West were not quite done on the world stage.
It was her contention that we needed to make the moral as well as the
practical case for representative democracy, the rule of law, and
free-market capitalism. Little did anyone know at that point how prescient
Lady Thatcher was, and little did anyone doubt the accuracy of her
declaration after September 11, 2001.
practical effects of democracy supported by capitalism are self-evident, but
they can become distorted. What we have learned
over time is
that when they are skewed we need to fix the problem, not discard the system. This is what
Lady Thatcher meant by her call for making the moral case—so that when we
got to fixing whatever problems we encountered we might do so by a return to
the noble foundation and fundamental value that experience has constructed
in this arena.
Thatcher understood as well that this economic and political system, which
guaranteed individual freedom and offered a road toward self-sufficiency for
its participants, also had to support those who cannot cope by themselves.
This is the ever-present tug on the free market; where the obligations,
opportunities, and results for each of us are equal neither in size nor
import, judgment is required to help sustain community. The authors and
theories offered here address these issues, and although the answers may
change somewhat from generation to generation and culture to culture, there
is a base line from which any society needs to operate. Here we attempt to
define and order that social commonality.
Our book’s secondary goal is
to help clear away the clutter—the intellectual, emotional, political,
economic, philosophical, and psychological obfuscation that surrounds the subject of
government—usually caused by the machinery of politics coupled with the
effects of mass media.
We start at square one in an effort to make comprehensible the basic pieces,
and outline how they fit together. What
the authors represented here seem to know well is that the job of governing
is easy for those who don’t do it. The
difficult part is in understanding how actual, not idealized or simplistic
governance, is best accomplished.
The conclusion is that human nature must be given its due.
society based on capitalism and freedom could be perfect—except for the
human condition: man’s imperfectability. In order to make the best of
what’s possible after taking into account our limitations, the authors we
study define what should work and then defend what does.
and explaining the who, what, why, where, when, and how of those who
developed the concept and practice of freedom in an open society is our
goal. Through investigation of the books that embody and trace the course of
mankind’s efforts to govern we hope to create an intelligible framework
that leads to understanding, and then action.
both the insufficiency and growing corruption of “politically correct”
public education, and the rising 24/7 information glut—via print, radio,
TV, and the Internet—those not grounded in first principles may become
unwitting victims of demagogues, charlatans, or their own uncertain
judgment. The books offered here are a lifeboat back to the basics, a method
to debunk the politically effective but ever-dishonest free lunch we are
we cut through the information maelstrom and try to reduce the polarizing
effects of rant radio and telemongering, we’re guessing there will
initially be snickers that this effort will simply add to the confusion. But
our intent is to take a scalpel to the chaos and the bloated rhetoric of
boast and demand.
especially that which is electronically distributed, is obviously a major part
of life. This condition is something new for those who grew up before
television became not just ubiquitous, but dominant in the formation of
public opinion. Media changes things for the better, and the worse.
In today’s climate we
oftentimes don’t know what to believe. Sadly, we have too many tools and standards, and seemingly insufficient time to digest what appears
before us. Perhaps the best solution to this problem is to rediscover some
of the basic mechanisms and guidelines necessary to do this job. Instead of
searching for a magic bullet or one-sentence theory to explain our world, we
should reexamine the time-tested and proven philosophies of the past to see
where they might help us clarify the modern era.
note of caution is in order: if you are going to learn and use these ideas,
you must understand them in some detail. None of the components of First
Principles was an immaculate conception; each was derived through
intellectual, and sometimes more bloody struggle. History brought us to the
depths of nuclear destruction and the heights of freedom in the twentieth
century and the roots of these titanic conflicts go back millennia. The
analysis and deconstruction of some ideas and the crafting of others truly
means something. Taken together the books summarized here leave few stones
unturned—they start at A and go carefully to Z. When you finish you will
have the basis of a rational and consistent political theory of how the
world has been proven to work.
it must be observed that any effort to distill five-hundred-page books into
five-page synopses necessarily requires that corners be cut and concepts be
condensed. We have attempted to be true to the authors’ observations,
theories, and themes; however, it may be contended that
some of what is presented is at variance from what any given author said. We
realize the writers who are represented in this volume developed their
philosophies in exquisite fashion in book-length odysseys for a reason. Our
efforts to distill the essence of those efforts will omit some nuance, some
reasoned logic, etc., but we believe the synopses are still true to what is
contained in the authors’ original works. We welcome comments or queries
on the substance of this book if our effort leaves questions in the
are not offering an ideology in a box, only the tools for becoming a
coherent citizen. We hope that you will eventually use what you learn for
civic involvement—from writing letters-to-the-editor or blogging, to
feeling more confident in casting a ballot; from becoming involved with the
campaign of a political candidate, to becoming that candidate yourself.
Do not doubt that a citizen can alter the world. In
truth, that is the only place where change begins.
anonymous sentiment, often expressed (but equally often forgotten when we
hear the public lament: “What can I do, I’m only one person?”), is
basic to the suggestion that what you will learn in this book can make a
difference. Ideas motivate people and inspire them to believe that somehow
things can be better—and that they can make them so.
An understanding of the need for
discipline in maintaining a free society likewise animates us. An example:
it isn’t just that the free lunch of the modern state is hard to sustain;
it is the unrestrained sense of entitlement it breeds that makes governing
difficult. Thus, when distortions
such as this become apparent, when our methods seem sound but our results
appear less so, when negative effects are taken to their logical conclusions
and found to be not just discomfiting but dangerous, that’s when
individuals become active—no matter the cost—and ultimately make a
of the ideas and much of the fervor demonstrated by those who would help
correct contemporary errors, even irrational impulses, first appeared in the
books summarized here. When today’s activists are asked how they became
involved in things political most look back to see their path was lit by
these authors. And that is true not just now, but across the more than two
hundred years of our American experience and earlier in Europe before the
was even imagined.
these books meant to various individuals was often of great import, and what
they portend perhaps cannot be overstated. They are offered not only because
they were consequential to specific efforts in the past, but also for their
intrinsic value that must be tested by succeeding generations. The concepts
in these writings are critical to carrying on the complex business of
governance in a free society. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1835,
There is nothing more arduous
than the apprenticeship of liberty. It . . . is generally established with
difficulty in the midst of storms; it is perfected by civil discord; and its
benefits cannot be appreciated until it is already old.
The books offered here embody the
concepts and theories of what is termed conservatism or classical liberalism
(which are not synonymous but which, for ease of reference, are often used
interchangeably in this compendium; the difference between the two will become
apparent as you read the text.). Our authors, many of whom wrote before
today’s labels were invented (or distorted), address the core ideas of
freedom and justice, rights and duties. Rising above mere politics, every
one of our writers exhorts his contemporaries to guard these values.
is an important lesson here about labels. It must be understood that the
modifier “conservative” is not as important as the subject: government
and the social compact. Conservatism is not an ideology; it is a movement,
and it is a way of thinking. Put simply, conservatism is about principles, not politics. The vitality of the subject is far more
important than the political efficacy of the modifier. This book aims to
present the foundation—the first principles of government and social
interaction—in a manner that will be useful for today’s discussions and
defining for tomorrow’s leaders.
and Action—The Methods
He who endures what he could change acts no less
than he who interferes in order to attain a different result.
Ludwig von Mises
people believe that the most important book of the twentieth century is The
Road to Serfdom by Nobel Laureate Friedrich von Hayek. This work clearly
and concisely explains why socialism and collectivism lead to slavery.
Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan both read the book and were changed by
it. Each subsequently made decisions and took actions that transformed the
modern world. The converted Thatcher and Reagan are examples of an
observation by economist John Maynard Keynes, an advocate of government
intervention in the marketplace. Keynes, whose star rose and then fell in
the early and mid-twentieth century, understood the force of ideas:
The power of vested interests is vastly exaggerated
compared with the gradual encroachment of ideas.
Keynesian interventionism itself was undermined, discredited, and largely
discarded through the power of ideas and their influence on human action.
Ideas define square one. However, it
must be observed that the principles enunciated and investigated within this
book will not be immediately and uniformly applicable in all places and all
times—there are preconditions to any attempt to implement them. If the
cultural base of any given society is not similar to that of the West, then
the creation of a free society will not be as elementary a process as it
otherwise might be. Freedom must be allowed to compete with whatever is
extant before its value will be accepted—or not. As well, the universal
utility of a free society can only be learned; the gates cannot simply be
opened for freedom to be understood, or to work successfully.
For example, freedom is not self-executing, the rule of law must
accompany liberty, or freedom will result only in anarchy.
Without the rule of law the only way to control men is through
But freedom, once planted, does
allow the flowering of initiative and incentive.
When those are present, as day follows night people begin to build
lives. Once life is seen as an
idea rather than just an
existence, as opportunity rather than endurance,
then consensual political institutions will thrive in order that the newly
free populace can protect its gains—tangible and intangible, political
and economic. They will discern
the vested interest they have in the common weal, and democracy and duty
will grow as secondary steps after freedom is established and law is
implemented to protect it.
What conservatism represents was not
inscribed on a tablet in an ancient era. This manner of thinking is made up
of guidelines. Life is too complex and too varied to be reduced to very many
rules. The fact that people will discern the ideas of conservatism, and then
adhere to them as they institute self-government, requires something
additional, something quite intangible—a leap of faith, not religious in
nature, but spiritual nevertheless. It is a faith in those who travel with
us and who will follow us, a faith that each of us will not only ensure
everyone else’s rights, but will voluntarily, and generally without need
for conscious intention, fulfill the obligations those rights imply. The
connection between rights and duties is the
indispensable component in the practice of freedom and democratic
While society may suffer from some
elements of the human condition, it also benefits from the inspiration
embodied in the human spirit. It is this latter characteristic that defines
us (and it is the former that sustains the media; beware the media). Being
ever mindful of our duties keeps the human condition in check. Being ever
aware of our opportunities fuels our spirits. Through both we can wend our
way to a rational endpoint, as we have for so many thousands of years,
improving with each century, each decade.
the eighteenth century’s industrial revolution, as capitalism blossomed
and free societies progressed to modern abundance, the economic and social
authoritarians came to the fore. The authors who investigate the history and
economics of this era and ours, and who were not afraid to comment upon
human nature (an undertaking that is sometimes considered politically
incorrect today) make clear the folly of this cadre.
They shed a revealing light on the relationship between the twentieth
century’s despotism, collectivism, and socialism and the twenty-first’s
time we learned that each of these political fabrications changes the nature
of our relationship with one another.
They stifle freedom
and incentive while attempting to convince us
care has become the state’s obligation.
How the state is to do this when it
runs out of money, because of the political, economic, and psychological
disincentives created by continued paternalism, remains unanswered.
examination of these eras studies everything from the history of political
theory (the first raw steps of which confronted equally raw power) to modern
nuanced administration that deals with the common denominator of political
efforts: the aforementioned human condition. We seek to enable people to
understand the societal ties and interactions that result in government.
Public administration, being the sum of how we conduct our social and
political policy, can then be judged—and accepted or altered or entirely
reconstituted. But it cannot be eliminated--thus our enduring endeavors to
grasp the principles that underlie sound governance.
The authors of the books synopsized here dissect and refute the goals and
theories of myriad monarchists, collectivists, socialists, and, of course,
thugs and other less-than-benign despots who advocate imposing government on
free people—imposing being the operative word. Sometimes the authors
themselves were able to watch authoritarian attempts self-destruct because
of the actions of a small group of committed citizens, sometimes these
changes took many years.
As Hayek observed more than a
What to the
contemporary observer appears as a battle of conflicting interests decided
by votes of the masses has usually been decided long before in a battle of
ideas confined to narrow circles.
job of assessing and improving every government is an ongoing effort.
Collectivist theory (collectivism is universalist government that is
imposed, supposedly for the good of the governed, by an un-elected and
arbitrary ruling class) will always remain seductive to some because of its
superficial equalitarian promises. Reality makes these ultimately empty
assurances look petty. The fact that collectivism’s primary
twentieth-century mechanisms—socialism and its ugly stepsisters, communism,
Nazism, and fascism—have been discredited and discarded seems no impediment to
this phoenix. Less overt collectivist impulses persist in the garb of state
welfarism, and they are somewhat more insidious than their predecessors.
They employ an emotional subtlety in the guise of public guilt or false
Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw point out in The
Commanding Heights (Chapter 29)—their survey of twentieth-century
economic history—the draw of collectivism and government intervention in
both the marketplace and the lives of citizens. This lure persists in spite
of the obvious and enormous public consequences of such schemes, and is
reducible to a natural emotional response:
morality, justice, human sympathy, the shock of confronting poverty, the
vision of a better world—all these brought people into the [collectivist]
perceptive Western intellectuals have observed this impulsive aspect of
welfare-state governance and have understood the emotional appeal of
collectivism and its equalitarian goal. Because our emotional faculties are
invariably more developed than our intellectual capabilities, and because we
first respond emotionally in almost every situation, the appeal of the
apparent fairness of equalitarian results can overwhelm the compelling
evidence that such goals have not and never can be achieved; the effort to
do so, as is amply demonstrated by both history and our authors, is not only
futile and unfair, but inherently unjust. This
comprehension is investigated in-depth in the chapters that follow.
the notions of collectivism and equalitarianism were deconstructed (an
effort that demonstrated such programs created more injustice and poverty
than they alleviated and were equally inept in producing a utopian society)
the question of what should replace them naturally arose.
The answers that were offered ultimately influenced the world-wide
social, political, and economic revolution of the second half of the
twentieth century, and comprise most of the remainder of the book.
and Consequences—The Results
presented in First Principles are
the book’s core. The authors and their writings cover the landscape of
political, social, and economic reasoning and experience. The resulting
combination of ideas—presented and dissected, compared and modified,
discarded or etched in stone—has come to be known as conservative thought.
Principles is organized to allow one to proceed from the basic tenets of
governance to an in-depth investigation of the complexities
democracy. This allows the reader to look at the relationship between the individual and society, with particular
reference to the reciprocal rights and obligations of each.
Around the time of the American
Bicentennial a national newsmagazine published a letter to the editor
commenting on the various festivities and celebrations extolling liberty.
The writer was a newly minted U.S. citizen, a Russian immigrant, who simply
noted that while studying for his citizenship test he was initially curious
and then somewhat surprised to learn that there is a Bill of Rights appended
to the Constitution, but no Bill of Responsibilities.
There are responsibilities, of course,
but they are not codified. And perhaps that is a great failing in the design
of our system. We emphasize freedom without making sure everyone understands
that their freedom ends where the next person’s begins, that their freedom
also encompasses duties. If we focused on the equation between
responsibility and liberty there might be less misunderstanding among
us—and far less need for government. The synopses we present explore all
aspects of this equation. However, it must also be noted that to understand
the totality of both freedom and duty in a complex and shrinking world
discovering the books themselves, not just our condensed overview, is
There is a price to be paid for all progress.
What the free societies have attained and kept has been costly.
In 1984 President Ronald Reagan observed the 40th anniversary of
D-Day at the American cemetery at
France. (D-Day was the massive June 6, 1944 Allied military invasion of Europe to
regain the continent that Hitler’s Germany had conquered earlier during
World War II.) Walking among row after row of the almost ten thousand grave
markers, and remembering the same scene earlier that week at Arlington
National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., he intoned with quiet emotion, as he
faced the enormity of that field of lost soldiers, that their headstones
“add up to only a tiny fraction of the price that has been paid for our
freedom.” A tiny fraction.
Reagan had observed previously,
during his 1981 Inaugural Address, that not only is there a price to be paid
for freedom, but that the cost is borne through individual dedication and
devotion—not through a superficial or faceless patriotism. At that time he
spoke of Martin
Treptow, a young American killed in World War I in July 1918
at the battle of the Marne Salient in
. After the war young Treptow was buried in
Cemetery. His diary was found on his bullet-riddled body when the battle was won. He
had written on the flyleaf:
must win this war. Therefore, I will
I will save, I will sacrifice, I will endure, I will fight cheerfully
and do my utmost, as if the issue of the whole struggle
depended on me alone.
That sense of individual and solitary purpose must transfer whole from
battlefield to back yard for a free society to be successful. James Wilson
(1742-1798), an American born in
Scotland, was one of the few men who participated in both the American Revolution in
1776 and the months-long Constitutional Convention in 1787. As a signer of
the Declaration of Independence and the
Constitution he understood the
pristine simplicity of the personal determination that each citizen must
feel in order for a free society to work. On July 4, 1788 he told those
to celebrate the ratification of the new Constitution:
Let no one say that he is but a single citizen; and that his ticket
[ballot] will be but one in the box. That one ticket may turn the
election. In battle, every soldier should consider the public safety
as depending on his single arm. At an election, every citizen
should consider the public happiness as depending on his single vote.
These sentiments, which are far from
sentimental in their import, are the reason First
Principles has been written. Our country, our society, and ourselves
depend on our individual understanding of the values presented in
Wilson’s words. It is the obligation
of each of us to be willing to ensure freedom in equal measure to what we
receive; freedom is not free. The drafters and signers of the Declaration of
Independence understood this as they began their treasonous course to
liberty. At that time they made a pact with one another, and they closed the
Declaration of Independence with this commitment:
[W]e mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our
Today, as citizens who benefit so greatly, can we offer anything less?
Contemplate for just a moment how much these men risked (and what they lost:
many gave up their lives, many more their fortunes; but none saw their honor
sullied) and then think about how much less each of us needs to do to
preserve what they created.
No one could make a greater mistake than he who did nothing
because he could only do a little.
a step back from the public declamations regarding this or that politicized
event of the day. Find the tools to cut through this often mindless and
directionless chaos by discovering the first principles of sound government
in an open and free civil society.
submit this final note: what is presented here is one judgment, illuminated
by the details of experience. It is expected that a novice will have
questions; as well, however, we encourage the skeptic to penetrate any
reservations that arise. When Martin Luther received a reply from the
pope in 1521 to his 95 theses that launched the Protestant Reformation, he burned the
document in the public square. As
the pages were engulfed in flame he observed: “It is an old custom to burn
bad books.” If you find deficiencies or anomalies or are critical with
regard to the substance presented here, we welcome your
thoughts—incendiary or not. Please voice your concerns by contacting us
via e-mail at <email@example.com>. If you find merit in
what you read here, please contact anyone else you know and commit to your
own participation in the ongoing global experiment in self-governance.