Let's look at those whom Gary North considers the big 4 prominent post-1950 conservative sociologists:
1) Robert Nisbet
2) Ernest van den Haag
3) Peter Berger
4) WIll Herberg
Albert Hobbs(author of The Vision and the Constant Star, the Claims of Sociology, Social Problems and Scientism and Man is Moral Choice) gets an honorable mention, along with Richard LaPierre, author of "The Freudian Ethic: An Analysis of the Subversion of the American Character").
North notes the irony that while most sociologists tend to be either liberals or radicals, it was Edmund Burke in his Reflections on the Revolution in France who laid the starting point for modern sociology. This work of Burke has some of history's most important critiques of the French Revolution, according to which
1) the individual and
2) the government as protector of his rights, are two of society's most important principles.
North notes that Nisbet points to two conservative movements that have returned to Burke:
Burke's affirmation of the legitimacy of intermediate institutions, associations, and loyalties became the touchstone of nineteenth-century European Continental conservatism and twentieth-century American conservatism. But it was not through the conservatives, but through liberals (Tocqueville, Acton) and radicals (Saint-Simon, Compte, Marx) that nineteenth-century sociology developed, with Weber and Simmel in the early twentieth century(North, 2002).
Nisbet "viewed the discipline of sociology as an extension of two theories of society, both as old as Classical Greece"(North, 2002):
1) monism - Nisbet condemned Plato's monism(along with Hobbes and Rousseau).
2) pluralism - he affirmed Aristotle's pluralism (along with Burke)
Nisbet affirmed the traditional threefold division of political alignments:
He condemned radicalism alongside the liberals but believed that the classical economists, themselves liberals, were, contrary to their own political imaginary, anti-conservative(These include Tocqueville, Acton, Hayek, etc.(North, 2002). These closet liberals were individualists, since they "lodged final sovereignty in the individal conscience. For the liberal, institutions are important for maintaining the freedom of conscience and decision"(North, 2002).
Robert Nisbet's "Community and Power":
The thesis of Community and Power was that modern society since the seventeenth century has eroded away ancient institutions that had for millennia shielded men from state power. In the name of individualism, liberty, equality, the free market, science, and progress, modern society and modern social philosophy have undermined families, kinship groups, churches, guilds, and all other local and regional associations to which men had been loyal(North, 2002).
For Nisbet, "individualism and statism are symbiotic"(North, 2002). In attempting to escape the
demands of a multitude of local associations and political units, and in this quest for personal liberty, they appeal for deliverance to the nation-state, which alone has had the power to challenge and even suppress these local authorities. In exchange for their deliverance from local authorities, men transfer their allegiance to the state. In this exchange for their deliverance from local authorities, men transfer their allegiance to the state. In this exchange, they sever tries to those local institutions that for millennia had provided meaning and purpose in men's lives. Strippes of these moral guidelines and restraints, men seek the restoration of community. They seek community in mass politics, especially national politics. The quest for community becomes the quest for political power through large-scale collective association. The state invades and inreasingly replaces all other authorities in a unitary, political chain of command(North, 2002).
This is what happened when former Trotskyites became the driving force behind the neoconservative movement(North, 2002).
But there was one major aspect of Nisbet's social philosophy, not easily visible in his published works in the late 1960's, that separated him from both the Buckley-era National Review brand of conservatism and the post-1965 neoconservatives. Nisbet hated — no other word will suffice — the military-industrial complex. He saw war, from the Pelopponesian war to Vietnam, as the primary means of extending state power, which always involves the uprooting or even destruction of traditional loyalties and institutions. He made his position clear in The Present Age (1988). He had no use for the American empire, as he made equally clear in the chapter, "The New Absolutism."(North, 2002).
Nisbet "defined totalitarianism in the same way that Hannah Arendt did in The Origins of Totalitarianism: a society in which there is no intervening authority between the state and the citizen"(North, 2002). He eventually argued that the first totalitarian state began, not with Lenin, but with Woodrow Wilson and the creation with the advent of WW1 of what he termed the "war state"; America, he believed, was in a state of constant preparation for war. In Nisbet's own words:
I believe it is no exaggeration to say that the West's first real experience with totalitarianism — political absolutism extended into every possible area of culture and society, education, religion, industry, the arts, local community and family included, with a kind of terror always waiting in the wings — came with the American war state under Woodrow Wilson(The Twilight of Authority, p. 183).
According to North, Nisbet was, like (once again, according to North) all prominent Anglo-American "conservative" philosophers, a classical liberal. Why? According to North, a conservative is
a person who believes that the irreducible unit of civil law is not the individual citizen. For a modern Anglo-American conservative, there is no irreducible unit. There are multiple units, each possessing sovereignty within its sphere of legitimate authority. What do I mean by sovereignty? No higher court of earthly appeal. We are all taught to hate the phrase, "the divine right of kings." What does it mean? It means "no higher court of earthly appeal(North, 2002).
What exactly makes Nisbet a liberal in North's eyes?
Nisbet was a self-conscious heir of Edmund Burke. He was skeptical of pieces of paper called constitutions whenever those pieces of paper are not matched by strong, local, voluntary institutions that are outside the jurisdiction of politics. Yet, also like Burke, his concern throughout his career was the maintenance of civil liberty. This is why I regard him as a liberal in the Whig sense. He trusted the free market's ideal of voluntary association and contract more than he trusted the state.
It is in this sense that Nisbet was a pluralist and therefore a political polytheist. Humans are not fundamentally entitled to liberty. They are entitled to nothing but God's wrath, but they are graciously granted the opportunity to serve God rather than be subject to his just wrath.