[This article appeared in the October 1991 issue of Conservative Review.] 



For the Incorruptible Scholar, It is the Best of Times and the Worst of Times 

Dwight D. Murphey 

            The precious “thin veneer” that separates civilized from savage life is all that assures us, really, of security in our lives, liberties and property.  This veneer depends upon many things, each of them perpetually put to the test by passion, politics, ideology and corrupting interests.   In jurisprudence, one such mainstay is the ideal of the incorruptible judge, through whose presence we seek to assure justice even when it is most threatened by such forces.  In the world of intellect, a similar ideal is that of the incorruptible scholar, whose steadiness, honesty and competence are to stand like beacons illuminating reality when we would otherwise peer dimly through an obfuscating fog.  Today is “the worst of times” for any serious individual because of the neurotic warpings of our public discourse, which discolor so much of our national life.  But, Professor Murphey says, it is also “the best of times” for a true scholar – because the fog of contemporary ideology gives the honest scholar more stimulus and occasion for deeper, clearer explication than at virtually any other time, and because there is so extraordinarily vast and fertile a field for intellect once the fog is cleared away.

The Incorruptible Scholar, Conservative and Otherwise

            DURING FORTY-SOME YEARS of study into a wide variety of subjects, I have been delighted – in connection with almost any topic – to come upon the work of calm and competent scholars.  These are men (an expression that it is necessary today to explain includes women, although most of the authors I am thinking of have quite literally been men) who have separated themselves from the din, almost as though it didn’t exist.  They have quietly laid out the facts as they have found them, often adding a perceptive and sensible analysis.

            Many such scholars come to mind.  One is Donald Doser, with his honest competence about Latin America.  Today, Steven Mosher brings the same qualities to the study of China. Edward Banfield, Hans Eysenck, Herbert Galton, Henry Hazlitt, Sidney Hook, Walter Laqueur, Karl Popper and Lord Robbins are others.  Almost certainly it is a mistake to name any of them specifically, since countless others deserve to be included.

Often such scholars are conservative, since conservatives seem to be those who have less of an ideological axe to grind in today’s world; but sometimes they are not.  Fortunately, honesty, independence and competence are not the exclusive possession of any one point of view.

            There is a great need for such scholars in every age, but today’s milieu especially cries out for them.  On any issue, it is priceless to find the work of someone who approaches it with the mentality of honest exploration.  Such a mind says, in effect, “let me explore the subject to see what it tells me; let me read what everyone has had to say on it, and to do that with a mind that is open to whatever contribution they have to make; and then let me make my judgments based on the evidence.”

            Needless to say, a description of this mentality forms the basis for an unflattering comparison with quite a lot of writing today.  One of the reasons scholarship that is fair and honest is so valuable is that there is so much that is not.           

Subjects to Explore:  The Cultural War

            THE TOPICS I SUGGEST HERE cannot possibly be exhaustive.  I remember a delightful essay by a man who had spent his academic life studying beetles.  It showed me better than anything I can remember that everything in the world has the potential for fascinated study.

            Many of the issues that during the coming years might well occupy incorruptible scholars, and especially those whose values support a free society, are suggested by the cultural war that has long been conducted, almost entirely one-sidedly, by those who are hypercritical of the United States.

            There is hardly a feature of American life, past and present that has not been attacked so that our young people and future generations will no longer look to it with pride and confidence.  The attack has been going on through the alienated intellectual culture since the early nineteenth century (and therefore throughout most of our history as a nation), but many of the more egregious manifestations have occurred since the explosion of anti-American hatred in the 1960s. 

Displacement of the American Indian

            THERE WAS A TIME not long ago when Americans looked back with pride to the pioneers’ “conquest of the west.”  Families in covered wagons symbolized hardihood and dauntless enterprise.  No longer.  Now we are “made sensitive” to the fact that white expansion involved a tragic and “unjust” displacement of the American Indian.  We are caused to look at the history through the eyes of the Indian and no longer through those of the expanding European civilization.  [Note in 2003: This marks a profound change in the “center of gravity” within the American psyche.  The perspective has shifted from one of European origins to the outlook of the erstwhile unassimilated groups in, or entering, American society.]       

What are we to think of it?  What would an honest look back show us?  Precisely because of the attack on our long-held perceptions, it is a time of challenge and opportunity for honest scholars, who are called upon to take a fresh look.  Why, really, was it justifiable for immigrants from England, Holland, France, Germany and the other European countries to see the new World as a virtually empty continent and to come here to occupy it?  As we ponder this question we are bound to learn something about ourselves, and will find it imperative to explain more profoundly than we have in the past the premises upon which our civilization is based.           

The Negative Cultural Critique

            THE OTHER NIGHT, my wife and I rented the movie Mr. and Mrs. Bridge, staring Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.  In this film, an affluent early-twentieth century attorney is caused to appear joyless, domineering and incapable of expressing affection.  His wife is presented as more likeable – but nevertheless as subordinate, helpless and living an essentially meaningless existence.

            Anyone familiar with the literature of the twentieth century will recognize this as just one more in a long line of unsympathetic portrayals of the middle class similar to that made by Sinclair Lewis in Babbitt and George Bernard Shaw in Candida.  They will see in it, too, the prejudices of contemporary feminism.  But the description doesn’t match my memory, from long ago, of my great-grandparents, one of whom was a judge in Denver who died in 1940.  Unless honest social observers do some real digging into the lives of that era, will we have anything like an accurate collective memory of what those people were really like?           

Men’s Alleged Subjugation of Women

            ON A RELATED ASPECT of our national life, a sizeable literature is telling us that we have a national ideology that supports men’s subjugation of women.  (One off-the-wall feminist, Andrea Dworkin, even asserts that all sexual intercourse necessarily creates this relation.)  As part of this, a newly discovered feminist ideology has come into being since the 1960s, and is being sold to us in highly ideologized social science journal articles and in one popular medium after another.  A great deal of nonsense, based largely on ideological constructions and partial truths, is being built up on the subject.  It imputes a number of “myths” to our society and seeks to knock them down.  In the process, it is creating some whopping-big myths of its own.

            So far as this is nonsense, our cup is no doubt “half empty,” as the pessimist would say, and it is “the worst of times.”  But there is another way to look at it:  that our cup is half full.  There has never been a time that has been more inviting to honest thinkers to grapple with the issues that this attack raises.  Out of it all, we should be able to produce a counter-literature that provides a richer understanding of the relationships of men and women.  The nonsense provides us an opportunity.

            I am reminded that the Old Regime of medieval values and institutions did not receive philosophical explication until it was under severe attack and about to expire.  It was then that Edmund Burke stepped forward to state its premises, which previously had been largely unarticulated.  It seems that social systems receive the most fundamental thought when they are new and fresh (as when Adam Smith formulated the theory of a market economy that underlies free market capitalism, then newly emerging) or when they are under siege.

            The intended causalities of the current cultural attack are both a factual understanding of the past and the national myths that have held us together as a people.  (It may seem, then, that it simply relates to the dead past, but that is a mistake; rest assured that it is the ideological imperatives of the present and the future that are really being served.)  At the same time, new myths and heroes are being created.  What is at stake is our national consciousness, and hence our future existence.  With so much at stake, innumerable tasks are laid out for honest scholars. 

Extending the Theory of a Free Society

            DURING THE PAST FEW YEARS,   despite the cultural attack, there has been an opening to conservatism in the United States.  And now by virtue of the events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, there is an historic opening to freedom in a vast portion of the world.  We are asked, in effect, to put our thinking caps on and to answer, quite imperatively, the question of “what precisely do the advocates of a free society recommend in all areas of a nation’s life?” 

            There are conservatives who assume that the theory of a free society has long-since been complete. They see no need for extensions of – certainly not for amendments to – the concepts handed down to us by, say, the classical and neo-classical economists of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

            But this overlooks a critical fact about the intellectual history of the past century and a half.  When the militant Left sprang up in Europe beginning in the 1830s, most of the intellectual culture went over to it.  The thinkers and scholars who remained behind to defend an increasingly unpopular “bourgeois” society based on the market economy and limited government were a valiant crew, and deserve enormous credit.  But it should also be recognized that in large measure they “went on the defensive.”  This turned much of the thinking of classical liberalism, still in its infancy, into an apologia.  Why be inclined to seek out and campaign for the overcoming of imperfections in mainstream society when the Left and many others were already doing that in excess?  Why, indeed?  It meant that the enemies of capitalism and of a free society were the only ones who addressed a number of important issues, putting their own preferred twist on them.

            What are some of the areas that cry out today for extended theory (or, often just as importantly, empirical investigation) by those who support a free society? 

Need for Conservative Constitutional Theory

            ONE OF THEM is Constitutional theory.  Most conservative aren’t aware of it, but there has been very little theoretical foundation laid for the work of the conservative justices who have been coming onto the Supreme Court in recent years.  We have been so absorbed in the personal and political struggles that have seized public attention about the outrageous confirmation hearings for Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas, for example, that we have given little thought to what it is that a conservative majority on the Court even ought to do.  We take it for granted that they know.

            The closest thing we come to a predominating conservative Constitutional theory today is the “original intent” school advanced by Bork and former Attorney General Edwin Meese (both excellent men).  But it is a theory that, with its virtual free rein to majorities, is diametrically at odds with the limited government Constitutional theory that proponents of a free society favored throughout the first 150 years of American history.  Indeed, it repudiates the pre-New Deal construction of the Constitution in such an area as “freedom of contract,” agreeing with the Left that that amounted to “judicial usurpation” by “activist” (albeit conservative) justices.  The theory of “original intent” would take us back to 1787 and would (to the extent it is consistent, which Bork, despite his brilliance, happens not to be) throw out all interpretations of the more general clauses of the Constitution based on an elaboration of anybody’s philosophy – including even the ethos of individual liberty that guided the country for much of its history.

            For my part, I would have us develop a Constitutional theory that does go back to the pre-New Deal holdings, updating them, adapting them to current realities, and refining the principles of the first 150 years of our history.  For conservatives to turn their backs on the principles and spirit of classical liberalism that prevailed in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is unintended nihilism.  It is true that the pre-New Deal precedents are not instantly applicable, both because the country has changed and because they weren’t a complete formulation in themselves.  And I confess that I have not done the intellectual work myself that is required to formulate an updated theory based on that foundation.  What remains is a massive field of thought and scholarship that beckons those who will undertake it.  In the absence of this intellectual spadework in the law journals and elsewhere, we should expect that conservative Supreme Court justices will be pretty much left to muddle through.  We wish them well! 

The Little-Perceived Crisis in Monetary Theory

            IN 1956, before I went to law school, I attended Ludwig von Mises’ classes and seminar at New York University.  Economics seemed to me a vitally important subject because another Great Depression could sound the death knell of a free society.  Mises, a pillar of the Austrian school of economics, advocated a system of “free banking.”  Despite my affection and respect for Mises, I came to think that Milton Friedman’s advocacy of central-bank control of the money supply according to a foreordained rule-of-law standard was the best way to assure economic stability in today’s world consistently with limited-government values.  (I wasn’t sold on the workability of totally unregulated banking, didn’t think the mid-to-late twentieth century would accept the gold standard or be willing to conform to its ethic, and rejected Keynesian fiscal prescriptions as unacceptably interventionist.)  

            Accordingly, I paid close attention years later when Friedman predicted in a column in 1983 or 1984 that rapid inflation would occur because of the Federal Reserve Board’s vast expansion of the quantity of money after mid-1982.  As the months and years went by, the inflation he predicted didn’t occur.  This created some real concern on my part about how well such things are understood.  Since then, I have read William Niskanen’s book Reaganomics:  An Insider’s Account of the Policies and the People in which Niskanen explains:  “Since 1983 the leading monetary scholars have expressed concern about the high rate of money growth and predicted that the inflation rate would increase substantially within two years.  At least through 1986 the high money growth did not lead to an increase in the inflation rate because money velocity continued to decline.”

            This is a failure of immense importance.  As loath as I am to say it, it means that the economic success of the Reagan years was largely an accident, unforeseen by arguably the world’s finest economists.  But more importantly it casts doubt on our comprehension of the central institution of a market economy.

            Has all of that been worked out now, so that we are assured we have a handle, even as to theory, on how money – very largely the engine at the center of a market system – works?  If not, it is a high-priority area.  True, it is a matter of technical economics.  But it is enough to make a young devotee of a free society go into economics.           

How Far Should We Extend the “Commons”?

            THE AMERICANS With Disabilities Act, passed in 1990, imposes enormously expensive obligations on society to provide access for the handicapped.  In effect, this amounts to a vast extension of the idea of a “commons” – joint space or services provided for collectively to undergird the daily life of the society, such as we provide in streets and parks.  The “commons” is a necessary concept even in the theory of an individualistic society.  But the provision of it is a matter of degree, and if it is carried beyond a certain minimum it can act as a cancer to consume and destroy individual activity and freedom.  “Welfare” and other transfer payments, in all their multitudinous forms, are similar extensions of the concept.

            Are we clear on how far these publicly-assured services are to go?  Do we have any conscious appreciation of their limits?  Socialist doctrines (which inspire most modern “liberalism”) will carry them to the point of universal entitlements, with scarcely any regard for the effect on individual pursuits.  Is there a critical literature from the perspective of a free society that can serve as a form of cancer control, scrutinizing their costs and benefits?  Here, indeed, is a lifetime of activity for a young conservative assistant professor. 

To What Extent is National Sovereignty to be Subordinated?

            IN FOREIGN AFFAIRS, there is a clear trend toward international agencies’ control over national sovereignty.  We went into Iraq in 1991 not in our own name, but under cover of U.N. resolutions; recently, the O.A.S. laid down the law to Haiti after the coup there (a purely internal matter, if such a category is still recognizable).  Just how far is it in the interests of the United States and of a free society in today’s world to pursue this subordination?  It is a matter that should be discussed intensively in thoughtful writing and debated within our body politic. 

The Need to Revisit the Twentieth Century

            IT IS COMMONPLACE to see the events in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union as politically significant.  Are we aware, too, of what a vast arena this opens up for the conscientious rewriting of history?  For over seventy years the world intellectual community largely turned a blind eye to the realities of Communism and to the human tragedies it entailed.  No doubt an enormous literature will come from the peoples and intellectual culture of those nations themselves.  There is much to be done, as well, by Western scholars in assimilating that literature and recasting our understanding of the twentieth century in light of it.  (If done honestly and thoroughly, it will mean the undoing of much of our current mental landscape, which reflects the Left’s selective omissions.) 

The Spiritual Crisis:  For What Do We Live?

            ON A TOTALLY DIFFERENT DIMENSION, we find a profound spiritual issue about which many people today, and most especially the new generation, lack an answer.  What do we live for?  Is the daily round of life in a free and prosperous society enough?  For many, it doesn’t seem so.  So many young people in their late teens and early twenties drift aimlessly, seeing nothing of heroic tasks ahead of them.  It is not that the tasks aren’t there; this article itself suggests a vast array of endeavor for anyone inclined toward the life of the mind.  It is that, given the inanities of contemporary education and of the pop culture that define the inner-being of these young people, they have no sense of the possibilities. 


            OUR AGE is almost terminally neurotic – and so it is hardly a pleasant time.  But it is also a great time for an incorruptible scholar, conservative of otherwise, to be alive.  Virtually all subjects are up for grabs, and desperately need to be addressed.  The pursuit of honest intellect offers a fascinating personal vocation for those attuned to it.  More than that, it is of almost indescribable importance to our society and our posterity.


Dr. Dwight D. Murphey is a professor of business law at Wichita State University.  His book Liberalism in Contemporary America, analyzing and identifying current trends in liberal political thought and activity, will be published in December 1991 by Scott-Townsend Publishers.