It is hard to imagine anyone today having a career like Robert Nisbet’s: professor at Berkeley, Arizona, and Columbia; dean and vice-chancellor at the University of California, Riverside; author of widely used sociology textbooks; and co-founder, along with his friend Russell Kirk and a few others, of postwar intellectual American conservatism.
Nisbet greatly admired Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville. Like them, he combined liberal sympathies with deep respect for tradition and the varied local communities in which it finds its natural home. The combination, together with his intellectual acumen, made him a favorite of the early neoconservatives, who were a group of leftist intellectuals shocked out of complacency by the ’60s and looking for ways to limit the excesses of what was called progress.
His great theme is the tendency of the modern state to absorb all social functions and reduce the people to an aggregate of unconnected individuals. Nisbet argues that the state justifies this as a process that supposedly liberates individuals from parochial oppression. But Nisbet saw the state as depriving individuals of a connection to a community, of a place to stand from which to exercise their freedom—so that ultimately freedom becomes useless. The free and equal individual created by the modern state turns out to be its victim.
In opposition to the state, Nisbet places the institutions of...