Posts Tagged With: conservatism

What Peter Viereck Can Tell Today’s Conservatives

In later editions of his bookConservatism Revisited: The Revolt Against Ideology, Peter Viereck includes a second part with the provocative title “The New Conservatism: What Went Wrong?” In his provocative post on “cool kids” conservatism, Kelse mentions Viereck fairly negatively in a discussion about just what it is that conservatism is worth. I think Viereck presents a challenge to the libertarians and the conservatives on this blog (as well as a lot of what counts as the conservative right today) in those few pages. It is relevant today, just as it was when it was first published around 40 years ago.

Here are some passages which, I think, require contemporary conservatives to face some unpleasant political realities.

(from page 134 of the Transaction edition 2005)

In America, Southern agrarianism has long been the most gifted literary manifestation of the conservatism of yearning. Its most important intellectual manifesto was the Southern Symposium I’ll Take My Stand, 1930, contrasting
the cultivated human values of a lost aristocratic agrarianism with Northern commercialism and liberal materialism. At their best, these and more recent examples of the conservatism of yearning are needed warnings against shallow practicality. The fact that such warnings often come from the losing side of our Civil War is in itself a merit; thereby they caution a nation of success-worshippers against the price of success. But at their worst, such books of the 1930s, and again of today, lack the living roots of genuine conservatism and have only lifeless ones. The lifeless ones are really a synthetic substitute for roots, contrived by romantic nostalgia.

Such romanticizing conservatives refuse to face up to the old and solid historical roots of most or much American liberalism. What is really rootless and abstract is not the increasingly conservatized New Deal liberalism but the romantic conservatives’ own utopian dream of an aristocratic agrarian restoration. Their unhistorical appeal to history, their traditionless worship of tradition, characterize the conservatism of writers like Russell Kirk.

In contrast, a genuinely rooted, history-minded conservative conserves the roots that are really there, exactly as Burke did when he conserved not only the monarchist-conservative aspects of William the Third’s bloodless revolution of 1688 but also its constitutional-liberal aspects. The latter aspects, formulated by the British philosopher John Locke, have been summarized in England and America ever since by the word “Lockean.”

And he states further (this on page 142 of the previously mentioned edition)

What about the argument (very sincerely believed by National Review and Old Guard Republicans) that denies the label “conservative” to those of us who support trade unionism and who selectively support many New Deal reforms? According to this argument, our support of such humane and revolution-preventing reforms in politics—by New Dealers and democratic socialists—makes us indistinguishable from liberals in philosophy. Shall we then cease to call ourselves philosophical conservatives, despite our conservative view of history and human nature?

So, conservatives, what is your answer to his question?

Categories: 2012, Cultural renewal, Ideology, Rand Paul, Robert Nisbet, The Constitution, Traditionalism, Tyranny | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Conservatism the Cool Kids Will Like

Being a conservative academic can be tough and thankless. On college campuses, all the accolades will go to the Left. When you apply for teaching positions, you have to hide your own convictions just to get the job. If you do get the job (remember that F.A. Hayek won the Nobel Prize but couldn’t get tenure at the University of Chicago), your peers won’t really respect you, or they’ll only grant you the grudging respect of an outsider who doesn’t belong. Intelligent media outlets like the New York Times and NPR will feed your colleagues an endless stream of tidbits on just how dumb people like you really are, and how superior they all are in comparison.

Given the culture we live in, it’s understandable that a lot of conservatives will start longing for the praise that their liberal friends receive, but which is always denied to them. It’s a process that anyone who’s spent any time around conservative students and academics has seen countless times. You realize that you can’t win any praise by pushing conservative ideas, so instead you push liberal ideas from a so-called conservative perspective. People like Bruce Bartlett, David Frum, and Sam Tanenhaus have turned it into an art form.

Ann Coulter recently made a lot of waves by calling libertarians “pussies” for doing essentially the same thing. Libertarians like to focus on their support for gay marriage and legalized pot, which earns them a few pats on the head from liberals. But at the same time they downplay their positions on things like economics and employment discrimination, which would invoke liberal hostility. She’s right to call this cowardly. Drug legalization is certainly important, but so are free markets—and focusing on one and not the other is just a cheap way to court praise and avoid confrontation.

Joe Ptak’s recent string of posts on this blog represents a perfect example of the cloying conservative begging for praise.

Most recently, he tells us that conservatives must accept gay marriage, because, in his words, it isn’t as bad as “some radical left wing gay orgy.” Okaaay. They should also oppose the March for Life because—gasp!—it is “ideological.” And if they object to the massacre of peaceful Branch Davidians at Waco, well, then they’re just a bunch of “tin-foil hat wearing oddballs” who “ignore or deny the fluidity and tension of the temporal that is at the heart of a historical understanding of politics.” (I’ll admit I’ve heard the tin foil part before, but the second part . . . well, that’s a new one.) Rather than attacking the modern state, conservatives are also supposed to “touch the ‘why’ of power.” (I don’t know what that means, or even what a “why” feels like. I just know that touching one doesn’t seem overly important, especially if it takes away from real opportunities to delegitimize the state.)

Oh, and, beyond all that, conservatives should also vote for Barack Obama, because, hey, he decided not to build a Death Star.

Of course, though all of these positions are justified from an allegedly conservative perspective, they all reach conclusions that perfectly align with the Democratic Party platform.

In this kind of “conservatism,” the liberal is the one who makes history; the conservative just lives in it. So, if the world that the liberals made empowers the government to massacre peaceful separatist groups, so be it. Conservatives will just make sure the liberals don’t go too far. (Joe writes: “It’s our thing to keep the society from becoming overwhelmed by its baser instincts.”) But of course, with every successive change, the definition of “going too far” expands. Twenty years from now, we can expect Joe to support “radical left wing gay orgies” as being preferable to pedophiliac orgies.

Here, the liberal is the rock star who passes through town impregnating groupies and trashing hotel rooms. The conservative is the meek lawyer who stops by the next day to settle accounts and smooth over hard feelings. But never does the conservative question that preventing destruction in the first place is a worthy goal. Nor does he question the justice of a world that leaves only destruction in its wake.

No: “Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die.” After all, to call social destruction “unjust” would be radical or ideological or . . . something.

Maybe Michael Oakeshott or Peter Viereck would recognize this as conservatism, but—as Joe asked of the Waco massacre—why should we care? If your version of conservatism just so happens to justify everything the Left does, then what’s the point of even calling it “conservatism” at all? Does it really matter if you like Burke’s epistemology if you also vote for Barack Obama and make peace with the modern state? Why not just drop the pretense and call yourself a liberal?

It’s always respectable to stand up and fight for your principles. So conservatives should be willing to accept the Left’s ire if that’s what sticking to your principles leads to. But to constantly tailor your positions just to fit in with the popular kids—that’s just a middle school morality that should be totally rejected.

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The Philosophers and the Conservatives

Alexander Rosenberg and Daniel Little have written excellent books which introduce to the student of the social sciences the many different philosophical problems that the student will implicitly explicitly confront in his progress towards his mastery of the discipline(s). While both books provide excellent and overlapping overviews of the major philosophical dilemmas that are inherent to the social scientific enterprise, the Little book has one feature that elevates it above Rosenberg’s effort: examples. While Rosenberg’s book provides a philosophically rich discussion of the themes and arguments in the philosophy of social science – whose questions and answers have significant implications for the design, execution and expectations of the practice(s) of the social sciences, his book lacks the kind of (con)textual references which would appeal to the student or practitioner of the social sciences who would like to know how topics and perspectives on matters such as causality; cultural and moral relativism; the other sciences; or, Marx and Freud, have to do with them.

Little comes through where Rosenberg lags. Whereas after reading Philosophy of Social Science, the reader (whether or not he is a student of the social sciences) may be left wondering how the themes discussed in the chapters are relevant to what is placed on the average political science syllabus, journal article or book, very early on and consistently in Varieties of Social Explanation, the reader is made aware of the implicit and explicit relationships between the philosophical themes under consideration and the nuts-and-bolts work that comprises social science. Each chapter of the book contains within it any number of separate and brief boxes highlighting social scientific research, which provides concrete examples of topics of study in order to connect the abstract philosophy of social science with the concrete reality of social science practice.

I recommend both books to any student of political science, political theory or other social science disciplines. In particular, I think the political theorists would have a lot to say in response to the philosophical topics dealt with in the philosophy of social science. The bloggers and readers of would, I think, have many opinions – some strong, others weak – on the philosophical matters that social scientists and social science confront. On whether or not human behavior is rational; whether or not human behavior is best understood as a product of the structure or function of a particular social system; whether or not there are universals in human cultures or whether or not there are incommensurable differences in beliefs, morals and/or cultures; whether or not a science of human behavior is either possible or desirable; and, how the answers to these and other questions affect our study of human behavior. All of this is taken under consideration in both of the books.


So what is a conservative to say to the person who wants to be a social scientist? I think that the answer depends on the conservative. I say this to, I suppose surreptitiously, point out that conservatism per se really has nothing to say to the study of human behavior. After all, conservatism claims to be the anti-system. Anti-ideology, anti-rationalism (enlightenment), anti-change, anti-dreams, fantasies and fancies. The does not leave much for conservatism to say to a person who wants to systematically study and produce conclusions about the social world. Conservatism is not Marxism (some of whom, working in that tradition, have produced some interesting stuff).

I don’t think that conservatives should be looking to conservatism in order to find any guiding wisdom for the study of the social world. The conservative – traditionalist, neo, paleo, christian, etc. – should realize that the self-acknowledged limitations of conservatism imply that the conservative has to search elsewhere if (s)he wants to actually make conservatism matter. Decouple and unpack the assumptions that the individual traditionalist has about the world and then come back to conservatism after the traditionalist has a slightly better understanding of the relationship between his view of the world that is independent from the conservatism that is supposed to be its source. Is it at this level where I think that the conservative theorist can meet the philosophy of social science.

After that meeting, when the conservative has engaged the topics, then return to conservatism with a better understanding of the philosophical issues at risk and then improve upon the presentation of conservatism. Philosophy of social science has the potential to give a great deal to conservatism. I hope that the conservatives will be willing to dialog with it.

Categories: Cultural renewal, Ideology, Libertarianism, Traditionalism, Uncategorized | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Ronny Reconsidered

The good Benjamin David first invited me to Beyond the GOP to provide a view less sympathetic to libertarianism, and particularly to Ron Paul, then is often represented on this site. Indeed, Ben himself has eloquently defended Paul in the past, and it is certainly a testament to his intellectual character to invite some friendly opposition. I have been meaning to join in here for some time anyway, and now is as good a time as any. Though I apologize in advance for being a little long winded and inadequately substantive at times. The medium of blogging is always prohibitive!

First and foremost, I concede that there is more to admire about Ron Paul than there is to dismiss. This is a man who does what he says and lives what he preaches. Such integrity commands my respect, as does his courage to resist the rapid departure in Washington and elsewhere from anything even resembling conservatism. Indeed, resistance is the very foundation of conservatism – as well as constitutionalism. Ron has also been a relentless defender of individual liberty, limited government, and advocates a monetary policy that actually acknowledges reality. Furthermore – and this is where I depart from many of his usual critics—I think he is ultimately right about most of his foreign policy. For some, he seems to be an isolationist and weak; as someone waving the white flag. Yet when one looks more carefully at his position, this is not the case. Ron recognizes—as the imperialistic and ideological neo-conservatives and many liberals do not—that America’s faux-imperialism is doing more harm to our economy than good and is increasingly devastating to civil liberties. This is particularly true with the increasing and terrifying use of drones—something which no person with a historical sense should support.

Still, I voted for Mitt Romney. Why? For self-defense and self-preservation. Romney is not very conservative, nor would he have been able to clean up the devastation wrought by the reckless and ideological Obama administration. But Obama’s government is, I would argue, the worst presidential administration in American history. Anything I could do to help resist his assault on liberty, limited government, and religious freedom was worth doing. I realize that a vote for someone like Ron Paul would be in principle the same thing, but in a practical sense and in a manner cognizant of efficacious political morality, I chose the lesser of two evils. In an imperfect world, that is often the best we can do.

This brings me to my first major objection to Ron Paul. He is neither an ideologue nor a narcissist like Obama is, but his uncompromising commitment to his principles is politically objectionable in my view. Yes, the current political landscape is littered by people who live in a dream world in which money grows on trees and democracy never fails, but you cannot simply ignore such things. The “games” of American politics are utterly corrupt and broken, but the game is the game. It is not a concession to choose to play it when you know you can’t win everything. Compromise is not a dirty word – it is a necessary element of a just and enduring order. The Constitution was a compromise on multiple levels, and this need has never changed.

Ron Paul does not strike me as someone willing to make this concession to the “game,” but he would do well to learn some lessons from Machiavelli and Aristotle. Machiavelli taught us essentially that when we stick to our principles, to moralism in an imperfect world, and ignore mankind’s fallen nature we lose both our principles and ourselves and accomplish nothing. But when we account for human nature as it is, for fortuna, necessity, and historical examples and circumstances, we can achieve greater virtù—a more efficacious political sensibility and morality. Of course, Machiavelli is famous for suggesting rather sinister and violent ways in which this may be realized in principalities and republics—so we need an Aristotle. Aristotle encouraged us to look for a golden mean between two extremes, and to always choose our actions and recognize virtue as doing the right thing, at the right time, in the right way, and so on. Yet, unlike Machiavelli, there were certain lines one ought never cross irrespective of means and ends. Certain means and ends would always be evil no matter the circumstances, and I am suspicious of whether or not Machiavelli ever admitted that.

In other words, Ron Paul rightly sticks to honorable principles, but would ultimately find them undermined at every turn should he ever make it to the Oval Office. This is why Clinton was so brilliant. He understood better than most that political success was more about playing well than about principles. Of course, we do not “play” for the sake of playing—but for the sake of those very principles. The ends do justify the means in politics (though not always). Obama is learning this the hard way, stubbornly blaming everyone else, arrogantly refusing to compromise, and failing in every way to lead. His principles mean more than the game, and though he has had some rather unfortunate victories, it is the game that has kept even worse successes from becoming a reality. Ron Paul would have to work miracles in Washington to acquire the necessary political coalitions behind his efforts—coalitions unlikely to be realized at present.

My second objection to Ron Paul resides in my suspicion of capitalism. Now I do not object to capitalism as such, and though I have been tempted by distributism, I have not given in. I believe in economic freedom and have no objection to private property or free markets. Yet capitalism must be restrained by a healthy dose of suspicion: that it is the least worst option and must always be checked by other forces. Ron Paul, and especially his son Rand, seem to me (based on reading his book The Revolution, his campaign websites, and TV appearances) to subscribe to a free-market fundamentalism that I cannot embrace. Markets will not save us, and an economic arrangement elevated to the position of a moral absolute can become an end in itself, instead of a means. We see this constantly in the utilitarian justifications of morally reprehensible policies advanced on purely economic grounds. There is also a tendency in capitalism to treat people as less human, and more like mere wallets and consumers. Furthermore, big business can be just as hostile to liberty as big government.

A conservative economics then is a reluctant capitalism which resists the exploitation of local communities and rural resources for the benefit of distant and impersonal large corporations. It’s one which favors small businesses, a workforce that accommodates multiple levels of skills, less distance between the producer and consumer, opposes outsourcing, and favors the least amount of regulation possible. Ultimately if limited government is to become a reality, it must be replaced by something, by strong local communities, families, and churches. Government is not merely huge because of top-down power grabbing, but because the intermediary associations formerly disincentivizing big-government have broken down. Ron and Rand Paul’s enthusiasm for economic liberty, though welcome, would be better received if it made these qualifications.

In sum, Ron Paul is an exceptional man and politician worthy of our attention. But his political morality and excessive enthusiasm for capitalism bother me. So when you comment below in defense of him, I hope you will comment on these grounds. Is he more politically effective than I am letting on? Does he qualify his love for free-markets in a meaningful way that I have overlooked? I could have also mentioned the objectionable positions of libertarianism when it comes to drugs and the environment…but that is for another blog.

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. . . Then Why Be Conservative?

In his defense of conservatism and radical change (below), Edmund Babbitt writes:

[C]onservatism is cautious about attempts to reform political society and generally favors limited and incremental rather than drastic and immediate change. . .  Nevertheless, conservatives recognize that uneasiness about change does not translate into adamant and unqualified opposition to all attempts at improvement—even radical ones. . . .

In order to avoid the assumption that the present period possesses a monopoly on wisdom, conservatism tries to consider all the evidence presented by human history.  As a result, conservatives may reject a significant trend which has developed in a given political society over years and decades as inconsistent with the concrete evidence found throughout the vast experience of history.  Thus, the demand for a significant change is not necessarily inconsistent with conservatism.  It may be conservative to reject a major development within a tradition and it may be profoundly anti-conservative to support the status quo.  The ultimate determination of whether an action is conservative depends on the basis for accepting or rejecting a policy and not on whether the acceptance or rejection constitutes opposition to or support for change. (Emphasis added.)

This seems like an uncontroversial definition of conservatism. Still, all it really amounts to is the claim that conservatives are cautious and skeptical about sweeping change, and will evaluate each proposed change rationally and on its merits.

But, who doesn’t believe that? No one really supports immoderate, ill-thought-out change just for its own sake. You can be a radical rationalist and also believe that you should proceed cautiously in practical affairs. For instance, the medieval Scholastics were steeped in their own tradition and come across as humble, moderate folk. But the meat of their philosophy was based on rational deduction from self-evident facts of nature, and had nothing to do with what we would today call “conservatism.”

At best, then, it seems that conservatism is a warning bell, telling us to think twice before we try something new. But if that is true, then I see no reason to accept “conservatism” as a philosophy in the first place. You could just be a careful communist or a cautious libertarian, or whatever else. That is, you can keep the rationalist substance of your philosophy and just adopt the conservatives’ spirit of not going overboard.

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Calvin Coolidge, Morality and Economy

The Acton Institute has an interview with Garland S. Tucker, III the author of The High Tide of American Conservatism: Davis, Coolidge, and the 1924 Election. The book is interesting because it examines the two major nominees in the 1924 election, the last time that both parties nominated conservatives. On why modern conservatives should know more about Calvin Coolidge, Tucker says,

Modern conservatives need to understand Calvin Coolidge because he is the only modern president who actually implemented the complete conservative agenda. Coolidge sharply reduced taxes, while also sharply reducing government spending, the national debt, and the regulatory scope of government. At the same time, he earned the approbation of a huge majority of the American electorate. In the face of a severe postwar recession in 1920, the Harding administration began to implement conservative policies, but the major implementation came under Coolidge (and Mellon) in 1923-1928. The result of lower tax rates and reduced government spending was the greatest sustained decade of economic growth in U. S. history.

But Coolidge is important not just for his economic views, but for what he sees as the connection between the economy and morality.

Coolidge once said, “I favor economy in government not just to save money, but to save people.” He not only believed strongly in the economic efficacy of free markets, individual initiative, and limited government , but he understood these economic principles were undergirded by moral principles. He saw the debilitating dependency created when citizens depend on the government rather than on themselves and their fellow citizens. The Washington Post commented, “Few persons, probably, have considered economy and taxation as moral issues. But Mr. Coolidge so considers them, and his observations give a fresh impression of the intensity of his feeling on this subject. He holds that economy, in connection with tax reduction and tax reform, involves the principle of conservation of national resources. A nation that dissipates its resources falls into moral decay.”

Well, that’s something to which conservatives and libertarians should pay attention.

Categories: 2012, Libertarianism, Traditionalism | Tags: , , , , | 1 Comment

Krugman on Conservative Blogging

With the final exam period approaching, there’s been a sharp drop-off in blog posts here at Beyond the GOP.  I will be back to blogging on a more regular basis in about a week and a half.  In the meantime, here’s some old insight on conservative blogging from Paul Krugman, who one of our authors considers an ally. (H/T Bob Murphy.)

I know we’re supposed to pretend that both sides always have a point; but the truth is that most of the time they don’t. The parties are not equally irresponsible; Rachel Maddow isn’t Glenn Beck; and a conservative blog, almost by definition, is a blog written by someone who chooses not to notice that asymmetry.

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Sir Thomas More and Drones

The New York Times has a nice article on the White House’s push to develop a “rule book” to regulate drone strikes. Apparently, during the campaign the Obama White House was scrambling to develop concrete procedures that would regulate how and when a hypothetical Romney administration could use drones. The article quotes an unnamed White House official admitting “There was concern that the levers might no longer be in our hands.” Once the election was over, however, such an attempt to institutionalize policies suddenly lost their sense of immediacy. The White House is still working on crafting a “rule book” but seem in no real rush to do so.

The overarching message from all of this seems to be: “there need to be clear standards and procedures in place; just not for us.” Rarely is liberal hypocrisy ever so blatant.

While it is reassuring that the Obama administration at least comprehends that their actions have consequences that will continue after them, they don’t seem willing to change their own behavior accordingly. The NYT article points out the very real possibility that other countries will follow suit in developing and using drones. The fact that the Obama administration sees no problem continuing to use drones that kill a startling number of civilians  (including children) without first formulating any kind of institutional regulations for ordering drone strikes shows a contempt for legal procedure that borders on the tyrannical. The fact that the entire drone program remains shrouded in secrecy only adds to the dangerous precedent being set. Set aside what such strikes do to the public perception of America in Yemen and Pakistan; it is this disregard for legal procedure- in effect, disregard for the rule of law- that will come back to haunt America.

All of this reminds me of a scene from one of my favorite movies (and plays). In Fred Zinnemann’s film adaptation of Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More gives one of the most eloquent defenses of constitutionalism and conservatism to ever grace the silver screen.

The Obama administration may think that killing terrorists and protecting America’s security is a worthy enough goal to justify working without specific institutional procedures. But when we begin to cut down the laws that stand between us and whatever Devil we are after, that same law will be utterly unable to protect us from the Devil, as well as ourselves.

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Are Hipsters Natural Conservatives?

The New York Times recently published this article trashing hipsters. Like every other red-blooded American, I also hate hipsters. And indeed, the classic hipster traits that the author points out—the constant use of irony, the listening only to vinyl records, the posting pre-washed digital photos—are easy fodder for ridicule.

Still, as the author herself intimates, “hating hipsters” is itself becoming a hipster pastime. That is, the reason that hipsters love, for instance, finding bands that no one else has heard of, is because it makes them feel like they are somehow elevated above the rest of the vulgar masses. But that same desire to cultivate an aura of intellectual aloofness is now working against hipsterism itself. As more people join the search for that perfect Brooklyn-dive-bar-with-the-extra-hoppy-microbrews, hipsterism becomes an act of conformity. To feel like a non-conforming intellectual, it becomes necessary to disdain the same crowd that you once belonged to. It’s an eternal cycle: you always want to be cool, but now to cling to the thing that used to be cool is itself uncool, just because so many other people think that it is cool. And so it goes.

This same phenomenon has a lot of significance in the political realm, especially as we debate, here and elsewhere, on the futures of libertarianism and conservatism. When leftism first took over the college campuses, it was something new and edgy that could tap into young people’s desire to be different and rebellious. This is certainly no longer so. Is there anything more trite than listening to some college kid tell you how he is “tooootally okay” with all his gay friends? In the 1970s, that might have been shocking. But now it is as nearly orthodox as you can get; to “not be okay with your gay friends” is probably grounds for expulsion under most campus speech codes.

The left-wing has never really given up its 1970s understanding of itself as some embattled, idealistic vanguard. But when the last Republican president signed into law a huge expansion of Medicare, adopted a policy of “spreading democracy” overseas, fought for open borders and amnesty for illegal immigrants, oversaw a then-unprecedented increase in federal spending and national debt, and appointed the Justice who wrote the Supreme Court opinion upholding his successor’s healthcare mandate, it is hard to see leftism as anything but the establishment. And—of particular importance to the college-age hipster crowd—when 95% of college students and nearly 100% of college professors are much further to the left than anyone you’ll ever meet off campus, no reasonable person can deny leftism’s omnipresence over your life.

This means that, if you want to be edgy and intellectually different, your natural home is on the Right. In part, this might explain the high prevalence of hipsters within the Ron Paul movement. Or how Eastern European punk rockers helped spark a libertarian rebellion against communist rule behind the Iron Curtain, even while their trendy American counterparts celebrated Che Guevara and complained about the bourgeois lifestyle.

Regardless, on a college campus, nothing rocks the boat more than to say “I support laissez-faire economics” in your Intro. to Sociology class. When I did it, as a college freshman, the professor politely ordered me to stop talking.

Hopefully, as more people see leftism as a form of conformity, we will see a trend rightward among the young. As countless hipsters have noted, it is fun to be a non-conformist. The intellectual joy that I felt when I first discovered Hans-Hermann Hoppe is much like the hipster’s joy at finding some band unknown to everyone else. And, for people who really enjoy non-conformity, the derision they receive from their professors and fellow students can only be a sign that they are doing something right.

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President Obama and the Future of Conservatism

The re-election of President Barack Obama to a second term of office has sparked some intense debate about the place of conservatism in American politics in particular and in American society more broadly. This blog is no exception in its participation in this post-election evaluation of the state of conservatism at the precipice of a second term for the Obama presidency.

I am, perhaps, in the minority on this blog, because what I am going to say in this post-election autopsy differs from the majority on this blog who express a view which I think could be accurately labeled decadent conservatism. This is a worldview that turns history and experience on its head; it is a view that, to be honest, I don’t recognize as conservative, if conservatism is to be understood, defined and delimited by the Six Canons of Conservatism laid down by Russell Kirk so many years ago in his The Conservative Mind.

  1. Belief in a transcendent order, or body of natural law, which rules society as well as conscience.
  2. Affection for the proliferating variety and mystery of human existence, as opposed to the narrowing uniformity, egalitarianism, and utilitarian aims of most radical systems…
  3. Conviction that civilized society requires orders and classes, as against the notion of a “classless” society.”
  4. Persuasion that freedom and property are closely linked…
  5. Faith in prescription and distrust of “sophists, calculators, and economists” who would reconstruct society upon abstract designs
  6. Recognition that change may not be salutary reform: hasty innovation may be devouring conflagration, rather than a torch of progress

Conservatism at its best is not supposed to be an ideology; conservatism at its best is supposed to be a practical, realistic and empirically-driven approach toward the world. In the lament over the re-election of President Obama, I think some conservatives miss out on being conservative. These conservatives have elevated the pure abstraction of ideology over the brass tacks that makes conservatism so, well, real. Really real, in a way that distinguishes it from and serves as its intrinsic appeal over all of its ideoligical opposites, such as the many varieties of leftism that have had the unpleasant fact of having existed.

However I fear that conservatism or conservatives – at least of some varieties – cannot legitimately or at least convincingly make that reference to reality in the wake of this response to President Obama’s re-election. Not if conservatives are rejecting history and experience in favor of celebrating abstract, vague and circuitous appeals to eras and ideas that are no longer relevant to the American cultural, social or political tradition. Well, a historicist cannot. A traditionalist, I suppose, can.

So, after this long, winding and lamenting encomium to conservatism, what do I think the re-election of President Obama means for conservatism? It means absolutely nothing. This is because conservatism is dying — conservatives are killing it.

If conservatives and conservatism want to begin to digest and respond to the re-election of President Obama, it would seem that we should take a page from Andrew Sullivan and read some Michael Oakeshott

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The Heart Has Its Reasons

Michael Brendan Dougherty has an excellent article on Pat Buchanan’s life and legacy at the American Conservative. One section in particular should interest people who have followed the “conservatism” debates on this blog:

[Buchanan] liked many of National Review’s writers, to be sure. But when Garry Wills asked him if they had any influence, he could recall none. “I was going to say Burnham, but when I read Suicide of the West I already agreed with it,”  Buchanan says before quoting Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, “The heart has reasons that reason does not understand.” Years later he would tell the 1992 Republican convention that the party needed to reconnect with people who don’t read Adam Smith or Edmund Burke, but who remain “conservatives of the heart.”

I’m not sure whether “conservatives of the heart” are a winning coalition any more. Then again, as Buchanan’s books and Dougherty’s article make clear, neither does Pat Buchanan. Still, the idea of playing to people’s hearts and emotions rather than trying to win them over logically can’t be a bad strategy. See here for a convincing argument that this is the same strategy that Obama employed, with great success.

That’s not to argue against the primacy of reason. It is just to say that rationally deduced conclusions can be effectively promoted through emotional appeals. In a sense, it is also what the arch-rationalist Ayn Rand did decades ago, when she promoted her ideas through emotionally-charged books like The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged.

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No Compromise!: More Election Thoughts

In 2008, I was happy to see the Republicans lose. I hoped that a crushing defeat would force them to reevaluate the direction that the Party had taken during the Bush years, and to finally turn against war, the surveillance state, and economic interventionism.

Needless to say, that reevaluation never occurred. If anything, the Romney campaign represented a doubling-down on Bush’s foreign policy–a doubling-down that reached its most absurd when, in his RNC acceptance speech, Romney darkly denounced President Obama for simply “talking to,” rather than attacking, Iran.

Likewise, on the economic front, Tea Partiers are a definite improvement over the rank-and-file from the Bush years. But even still, they tend to only envision a rolling back of the regulatory state to the level it was at in, say, 1982, rather than engaging in a fundamental rethinking of the entire post-New Deal philosophy. They may dislike Obamacare, but they don’t like to question its predecessor, Medicare, too deeply. And their rush to embrace Mitt Romney, who enacted the same healthcare plan in Massachusetts that the Tea Party denounces on the national level, should give any consistent conservative or libertarian pause.

My old hope, then, that the Republicans would reevaluate themselves turned out to be totally misplaced. But if the Republicans refused to reevaluate themselves after 2008 (or 1992, 1996, or 2006), then what reason is there to think that they’ll do so after 2012?

Indeed, even if they did reevaluate and suddenly returned to being the laissez-faire, non-interventionist party of Robert Taft that I’ve been waiting to see, I am not at all convinced that that would bring them any more electoral success than they actually got. However difficult it may be for some of this blog’s intended audience to accept, the masses of people who opposed Mitt Romney did not do so because they thought he was just a watered down version of Barack Obama (as many of us did). Instead, it seems that they voted against him because they actually bought into the Democrats’ caricatures of Republicans slashing government programs, or waging a “war on women,” or something–however little these caricatures actual correspond to the reality of Romney’s political career.

Yes, it is tempting to believe that everything would go swimmingly as long as the Republicans adopted my own beliefs. But I don’t see any evidence to believe that, at this point in time, my own beliefs are nationally popular (despite smaller-scale, encouraging signs).

Many commentators take this electoral rejection of libertarian principles as evidence that the Republican Party needs to give up its appeals to the “anti-government” crowd and go back to being the “moderate” party of Eisenhower and Nixon. Apparently, according to such people, the two-party system already gives voters too many choices–what we really need are two parties that offer only oh-so-slightly different variations of the same liberal platform.

But the argument for moderation misses the hugely important fact that the choice between, for instance, increasing or decreasing taxes on the rich is not simply a question of whether the majority gets to implement its will. Indeed, what is at stake is not really a question of will at all; it is a question of economic law, which can no more be defied than can the laws of gravity.

If the majority believed that the way to achieve social prosperity was to jump out of tall buildings and flap your arms until you fly away, then people who understand physics are duty-bound to demonstrate that the majority program is doomed to failure, regardless of whether people want to listen or not. The same is true regarding economic issues, whether taxation, debt, inflation, or Obamacare. People who understand economics and fear for the fate of their neighbors should not give ground and adopt their enemies’ program. Rather, if they really care about their neighbors’ well-being, then they should continue to expose the fallacies of the majority even more vigorously than before. It was in this spirit that the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises identified as his life slogan, from Virgil’s Aeneid: “Tu ne cede malis, sed contra audentior ito.” (“Do not give in to evil, but proceed ever more boldly against it!”)

As far as economics is concerned, whether the Tea Party decides to moderate its rhetoric or whether Barack Obama can claim a mandate for higher taxes is entirely beside the point. Actions have consequences that democratic majorities cannot abolish. Higher taxes will stifle savings and investment, and therefore economic progress, regardless of whether voters want them. As Mises proclaimed, a failure to understand the economic consequences of certain political actions “will not annul economics,” but will instead simply lead to general destruction and impoverishment. (Human Action: The Scholar’s Edition, p. 881.) (For more detailed arguments on why taxing the rich is economically destructive, see, e.g., herehere, and here.)

Of course, there is little hope that the Republican Party will become an effective vehicle for these ideas. If after eight years of Bush and four of Obama the best they could give us was Mitt Romney, then I take that as ample evidence that they are incapable of changing. That’s not to say that we should neglect the opportunity to elect a Rand Paul or Justin Amash if the chance arises, or even to search for and recruit other like-minded candidates who are yet unknown. But I do believe that placing our hopes for the future on reforming the Republican Party is an enormous waste of time.

Rather, the long-term interests of libertarians and conservatives can only be served by looking “beyond the GOP.” Ultimately, politics is only the manifestation of underlying cultural and ideological forces–what people on this blog call the pre-political. If you can change people’s hearts and minds, then they will cease supporting awful people like Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, and politicians will have to adapt in turn.

Thankfully, culture is the area where libertarian ideas are meeting with their greatest success. Ron Paul became popular among the youth not by channeling Richard Nixon, as the cheerleaders for moderation would recommend, but by presenting a refreshing and radical alternative to the status quo. This is the same phenomenon that catapulted The Road to Serfdom to #1 on the Amazon bestseller list, eighteen years after its author’s death, and that made the fledgling Ludwig von Mises Institute–a tiny think-tank in the Alabama hinterlands, with no source of federal funds–a vibrant and hugely popular educational source for libertarian students and scholars all over the world.

In a sense, it is disheartening to know that there is no viable political party that represents our ideas. But the times that we live in are doing much of our recruitment for us. The manifest failures of statism are becoming clearer and clearer. As people begin to realize that persistent problems of economic stagnation, higher prices, and falling living standards are not going away, they will start looking for non-mainstream political alternatives. We see this now in Europe, although, there, popular dissatisfaction has been translating into support for fascistic parties like the Golden Dawn in Greece and for real, flesh-and-bones socialists in France.

Nevertheless, “more statism” need not be the only alternative to Obama or Romney’s middling interventionism. Our job must be to promote a plausible and humane option that people can turn to as a credible means of improving their lot. Such educational promotion doesn’t have the luster of an election campaign, but, with the political world as it is, it is the only permanent cure for statism.

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I Love the ’90s, But I Live in the Present: Post-Election Analysis, Part 1

One of the great, failed movements of the twentieth century was the attempted “paleo” alliance between libertarians and conservatives. In the mid-1990s, such libertarian intellectuals as Murray Rothbard, Hans Hoppe, Justin Raimondo, and Lew Rockwell joined forces with conservatives like Russell Kirk, Paul Gottfried, Sam Francis, and Tom Fleming to fuse conservative arguments on the importance of traditional and localized culture with libertarian critiques of the state. As Hoppe wrote in his masterpiece Democracy: The God That Failed, statism is highly corrosive of traditional, bourgeois values, which are much more likely to thrive if people are left free to order their own lives in the way they see fit. Therefore, “conservatives must be antistatist libertarians and . . . libertarians must be conservatives.” (p. 189)

Though in a strong sense elitist (the movement centered around the John Randolph Club, whose namesake famously stated, “I am an aristocrat–I love liberty, I hate equality”), the paleos also had a broad populist strain. They based much of their power on appealing  to “Middle American Radicals” (MARs): middle-class, middle-aged, largely white voters in flyover country who felt dispossessed by the bureaucratic and politically-correct federal leviathan.

Ultimately, of course, the movement fell apart, in large part due to its leaders’ outsized personalities. Hoppe gave a speech in the ’90s denouncing then-presidential candidate Pat Buchanan’s economic policies and calling Sam Francis a “national socialist.” As late as 2010, emotions were still rancorous enough that Tom Fleming would write a response to Hoppe with gems like, “I know personal loyalty does not mean much to libertarians, but that is one more sign of their insanity,” and adding that, ever since the libertarians (“impoverished dead beats”) left the Randolph Club, the club could afford to host its events in nicer hotels.

In a sense, the death of the paleo movement is disappointing. But, though I personally wish it had flourished, the election results from Tuesday make me question whether a libertarian-conservative alliance can be politically beneficial at all and whether, even if it were not for personal squabbles, the movement could have realistically lasted much longer than actually it did. (Such an alliance may, however, be culturally beneficial. I’ll have a post up in a few days on the election’s cultural/ideological significance.)

Since election day, many commentators have noted that this country isn’t what it used to be. Mass immigration of Democratic voters, combined with a marked liberalizing of younger voters on issues like gay marriage and abortion have created a sizable voting bloc for socially-liberal candidates like Barack Obama–a bloc that seems impervious to the economic arguments against him. The MARs, by contrast, do not have the voting power they once had, even as recently as the 1990s, when they gave respectable showings to Pat Buchanan and Ross Perot.

In another sense too, libertarian successes in the past few years have materialized from throwing off past affiliations with the paleo-conservatives. Though Ben recently defended Ron Paul’s “conservatism” on this blog, the Paul campaign caught fire primarily through Paul’s libertarian positions on economics, the Fed, war, and civil liberties, and by downplaying his conservative opposition to abortion, gay marriage, and open immigration.

Moreover, the people fueling his campaign’s energy were emphatically not the Middle American Radicals that the ’90s paleo movement thought would lead to a rebirth of antistatism. In fact, from my personal experience, the people most hostile to Ron Paul are those very same white, middle-aged MARs, like the members of my local Tea Party. On the other hand, the people most sympathetic were socially-liberal–or at least socially-indifferent–cosmopolitan college-age kids. Even among Cornell law students (not a demographic receptive to right-wing ideas), people generally treat me with respect when they find out that I’m a Ron Paul supporter. (“Yeah, he’s a Republican, but at least he voted for Paul instead of Bachman or Santorum”). And when Ron Paul came to speak on Cornell’s campus during the primary campaign, he filled up our entire hockey stadium, with at least a thousand or so people left outside. The people who lined up to see him were not the culturally conservative MARs that Sam Francis envisioned.

Pile that on top of the disparity between libertarian election victories and mainstream Republican election victories that I pointed out yesterday and the cultural renaissance that Austrian economics and certain classic libertarian books have been undergoing since 2008. Libertarianism isn’t yet any kind of political steamroller. But nor is it the “political masturbation” that John David derides. It has achieved real progress in recent years, and it has done so with very little help from conservatives, whose star seems ever on the decline.

All of this is to say that, when looking at Tuesday’s election results, it is hard to see how an explicit libertarian-conservative alliance is an effective political path to smashing the state, as Rothbard and Hoppe hoped it would be. I wish this weren’t so. My personal values are much more in line with those of the John Randolph Club members than they are with the average college hipster. But politics should be the art of the possible (as long, of course, as achieving the possible doesn’t contradict your ultimate goal, as would be the case, say, with voting for the statist Mitt Romney). So if libertarians are to continue their political progress, then, demographic changes being what they are, a too-close affinity with conservatives seems more harmful than good.

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President Oakeshott

Joe Ptak believes that, with Barack Obama’s reelection, “we have [a president] who may fit the mold of a [Peter] Viereck or a[ Michael] Oakeshott.”

I have been gleefully waiting for someone here to write something like this. It sheds a lot of light on the debate we’ve been having on this blog on traditionalism versus rationalism. In the beginning of that debate, I tried to make fun of traditionalist conservatives by linking them to Paul Krugman. But for a conservative to link himself to Barack Obama of all people–that’s the jackpot!

Of course, I don’t disagree with Joe’s factual assessment. To the contrary, I think that Obama clearly does fit the mold of Michael Oakeshott.  (I don’t know anything about Viereck, so I can’t comment on that.) In his essay “On Being Conservative,” Oakeshott defined conservatism as essentially just a preference for whatever happens to exist at the present moment. And if there is anything that the Obamaphiles love, it is what happens to exist at this present moment.

But I also agree with Ben when he called this conception of conservatism “deeply flawed.” Indeed, if this is our definition of conservatism, then I’m with the Old-Right journalist Frank Chodorov, who reportedly proclaimed: “Anyone who calls me a conservative gets a punch in the nose.”

Just look at the list of Obama’s “conservative” accomplishments that Joe provides, courtesy of that other eternal defender of the status quo, Paul Krugman. Joe tells us:

  1. Obama’s stimulus bill was half the size that his Keynesian advisors advised. (Gee, thanks!)
  2. He continued Bush’s wars. (Nothing more conservative than demolishing one society and building a new one!)
  3. He put forward a healthcare plan, which all those Burkean Republicans like Newt Gingrich used to support, and which wasn’t even the socialist plan that he originally threatened–err–offered us.
  4. He supports tax cuts and deficit reductions.  That is, he has supported them “in the past few weeks,” after spending 95% of his political career denouncing them.
  5. The New Deal and the Great Society are here, presumably, until the end of time. No use fighting them–a conservative would just lay back and take them.

It is true that these “accomplishments” all fit into the twentieth-century American tradition. But that is also a tradition that gave us the IRS, the Federal Reserve, the Patriot Act, the TSA and body-scanning, indefinite detention of American citizens and non-citizens at the president’s say-so, permanent war and overstretched empire, mass incarceration (much of which stems from the criminalization of victimless conduct), and ever-increasing federal regulation of every aspect of personal and economic life, all accompanied by a decline in the importance of local centers of authority, an increase in single-parenthood and welfare-dependence, a permanent sense of economic instability, high unemployment, and little hope of any improvement in cultural or economic life in the foreseeable future.

One could look at all of that and reply simply, “Yeah, that’s our tradition. Therefore, I support it.” But if conservatism is to be something meaningful, it has to offer something more. It has to be able to engage in a critique of existing social and political structures. (In that sense, whatever my other disagreements with Ben’s traditionalism, it is at least better than Joe’s.) If conservatism cannot engage in that critique, then traditionalists will just end up playing second-fiddle to the Democrats. They will only serve to ratify each new expansion of federal power, with appeals to Oakeshott and continuity.

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Hope, Change and the Staid President

My apologies to readers and fellow contributors to the blog; this is later in the day than I wanted to post. That being said, here it is.

Up to this post, our readers have been given advice (with one notable exception) to behave in a way that in practice results in a repudiation of the two-party system in which we participate. I do not think that voting third-party is an effective behavior; I think it is a radical behavior that is contrary to the tenets and the practice of conservatism. So, like Chuck O’Shea, I advocate the support of one of the major two-party candidates in this election. The candidate I support will be the one running against him. I believe that a conservative should support President Barack Obama for re-election in 2012.

This post is broken up into two sections: the first section will provide an anchor for the argument by way of description of a practical conceptualization of the kernel of conservatism as uncertainty; the second section will shift to a description of a case (through secondary sources) for why President Obama has governed as a conservative and why this should be sufficient to persuade conservatives to support him for re-election.

Part 1: Conservatism as Uncertainty

The arguments that have dominated this blog revolve around the definition of conservatism and the corollary of who and what qualifies as conservative today? Many of us on this blog have input time and energy into answering a question that pundits more important than we are
have dwelt. This suggests a broadness, perhaps more accurately and precisely, a foundational uncertainty to be the characteristic which is hallmark of conservatism. Conservatism, in a sense, is so dysfunctional and confused (or at least antifoundational) that a prominent conservative magazine is subjecting itself to an identical tortured process that we are conducting at the same time we are conducting it.

This uncertainty can be understood as an effect of a fluidity the vocabulary of the traditionalist-historicist conservative would recognize as the universal being expressed in the particular; further, in its vocabulary, it is what the rationalist would recognize as a fundamental abstract principle being applied to or filtered by and through reality: it is a cornerstone of a conservative case to support President Obama for re-election in 2012.

Part II: President Obama as Conservative, or the Prudence of Practice

Let me move to the second portion of this post, which lays out a case for the conservative support of President Obama by a brief examination of his policies in his first term.

Bruce Bartlett summarizes the case for Obama the conservative in the following bullet points (h/t to paul krugman

His stimulus bill was half the size that his advisers thought necessary;
He continued Bush’s war and national security policies without change and even retained Bush’s defense secretary;
He put forward a health plan almost identical to those that had been supported by Republicans such as Mitt Romney in the recent past, pointedly rejecting the single-payer option favored by liberals;
He caved to conservative demands that the Bush tax cuts be extended without getting any quid pro quo whatsoever;
And in the past few weeks he has supported deficit reductions that go far beyond those offered by Republicans.

I think that list makes a compelling case for the conservative to support President Obama for re-election in 2012. This is not about abstractions such as ideological purity, pro-life bona fides or any other conceptualization of conservatism whose essence exists outside of time and space; rather, this is about an on-the-ground, historically contingent conservatism which recognizes that history puts us in a set of circumstances in which liberal “big government” of the New Deal and Great Society are essential, defining characteristics of the relationship between a citizenry and its government; furthermore, that to recognize this relationship is to be cognizant of the historical concreteness that is, allegedly, at the core of conservatism. Such that this historical reality of post-New Deal and post-Great Society liberalism means that President Obama is the one conservative candidate running for President during this election. The other choices you have – which have been discussed on this blog – occupy positions on the ideological branches of the left and the right. When the pundits recognize a continuity between the two major parties’ candidates’ policies; and, when progressives recognize you to be a conservative and make a case against your candidacy for re-election, then you must be doing something right behind which conservatives (no pun intended) can throw their support.

If other conservatives want to make a convincing case that Obama is a liberal or a left-wing President of any type, then they will have to respond to the policies that he has implemented by effectively demonstrating how they represent a liberal rather than a conservative style of governance. References to a vague, amorphous, and essentially content-less notion of history or tradition will not be a strong foundation for a persuasive case against the conservative’s support for President Obama’s re-election. Nor will an effective case be made by attempting to demonstrate that his policies are contrary to certain principles (free-market, big government, etc) which are inherently conservative, at least not in an American sense of the term; nor is it sufficient to argue (however effectively one does make the argument), that in certain instances he has been an advocate, instigator or ally of policymakers or policy proposals that are contrary to alleged tenets of traditional culture (e.g., religious freedom or individual rights in the example of the health care reform bill): cherry picking is left for the fruit, it does not belong in a philosophically abstract or an empirical argument against a case for the re-election of President Obama.

The responses the economic crisis, the policies of reform, and the foreign policy that President Obama has pursued and implemented during his first term in office, point to a candidate for re-election who chooses to maintain a steady course and extract a limited amount from the circumstances given to him. That is to say, his presidency has been a conservative one. Stories of his past notwithstanding, he makes a poor example of a radical liberal, and an even poorer boogeyman of conservative critique, analysis and alarm. President Obama has governed with restraint; he has pursued policies with an eye toward the possible and not just purity of principle; he has behaved in a way that conservatives can and should recognize to be in resemblance to the doctrine, tenets and canons of conservatism. It is easy to understand why that is the case if one disregards the rhetoric and emotion that are expended in response to President Obama, and consider for a brief moment the policies he has actually pursued and realize that he is a conservative (or at least a run-of-the-mill Democrat, who is, nevertheless, probably more conservative – in a non-ideological understanding of the term – than most Republicans or self-described conservatives are at this point in our political history).

At the end of the day, the conservative is not left wondering why he should support President Obama in 2012; rather, he is left to wonder why he should not.

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Conservative Obama, Radical Romney

Gary Gutting, a Notre Dame philosophy professor, has a nice article at the New York Times that rehashes a familiar debate from on this blog.  He argues that Obama represents the post-New Deal mainstream, whereas Romney represents a fundamental change for smaller government.  I’m not convinced of the factual basis of that claim, but his conclusion bears repeating:

Thinking in terms of the above framework reverses the standard polarity of the two parties. Those who are conservative in the traditional sense of resisting abrupt major changes in established institutions should vote for Obama. Those who support a fundamental change should vote for Romney.  Oddly enough, Obama’s hopes for a second term may turn on the support of conservative voters.

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“Why I Am a Utilitarian,” or “A Round-About Response to Ben David”

Reason magazine published a review of some new book about the Tea Party, edited by two Berkeley (!) sociologists (!!).  I haven’t read the book, but one passage from the review stands out:

Postel, the author of The Populist Vision, asks whether Tea Party groups are authentically “populist.” Setting the tone for the book, he argues that the Tea Parties cannot be legitimately understood within the late 19th century populist tradition, which he characterizes as “a democratic movement for economic justice,” because they stand fundamentally opposed to many of the original populist reforms. Instead, he says, the movement has to be understood within a right-wing history that includes the likes of the John Birch Society and Barry Goldwater. Authentic populists would address the concerns of the middle class, he continues, while Tea Partiers are free-market fundamentalists in league with a corporate elite, struggling to dissolve what remains of a middle-class safety net. “In this time of crisis of political economy,” he writes, “where is the populism in a movement that demands hard money and to revert to the gold standard?” (Emphasis added.)

This type of argument should be familiar to anyone who has ever spent time on a college campus.  It is also, in my opinion, one of the Left’s most annoying conceits.  It is an effort to win a debate by simply defining terms in your own favor and thereby pigeonholing the other side.  Briefly, the argument (in an admittedly cleaned-up and idealized form) goes something like this:

  1. I support Social Security because it helps the middle class.
  2. You might not support Social Security, and that’s fine, to each his own.  But if you don’t support Social Security, that means you don’t think that helping the middle class is a big priority.  Maybe you think that “only the strong should survive” or maybe you believe in some abstract right to be free from taxation.
  3. Given the above, people who support policies that help people will support Social Security, whereas people who believe in following some abstract philosophy, regardless of the horrible impact it might have on the most vulnerable classes, will oppose it.

Admittedly, conservatives and libertarians often don’t do themselves any favors in these debates.  Often, they will reply with something like, “Sure, Social Security helps people, but ‘helping’ some people by extorting the taxpayers is still immoral!”

I’m not saying that that reply is wrong (in fact, I’m fairly sure that I believe it to be right).  But the vast majority of people won’t find it convincing–most people are practical consequentialists rather than philosophers.  So in defining terms this way, the leftist almost always wins.

One of the most important projects for conservatives and libertarians, then, is not to frame arguments in terms of morality or deontology, but rather in terms of consequences and utility.  It was in this vein that Ludwig von Mises wrote (as I recall) to Fritz Machlup to say something along the lines of: “Socialism is not wrong because it is a form of theft.  If socialism were beneficial we should all hurry to embrace it.  The reason we oppose socialism so harshly is because it is destructive.” (Quoted in Jorg Guido Hulsmann, Mises: The Last Knight of Liberalism.  I can’t find the page number–it’s a very long book!)

In a sense, this is what conservatives have been doing all along (though they might not like the term “utility”).  Edmund Burke’s opposition to the French Revolution was based primarily on the bad consequences that he thought (correctly) the Revolution would engender.  But libertarians tend to get caught up in some of the abstract rationalism of philosophers like Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard and start to miss the point of what they should be arguing all along.  They think that, if they can prove that Social Security is theft, then they have refuted all the arguments in favor of it.

But in so doing, they misapprehend why we oppose theft in the first place.  Theft is not wrong just because it is theft; rather, it is wrong because its acceptance would undermine the basic values necessary to a functioning society.  To a certain extent, this proposition is so basic that it doesn’t need restating.  But it is important to remember it, because, when we phrase things this way, we can easily see that if it were possible to think up a form of theft that actually led to beneficial consequences, it is not at all clear that we should oppose it.

Moreover, I think that this understanding of “utilitarian” libertarianism is pretty much in keeping with Rand and Rothbard’s basic methodology (even if many of their other followers would disagree).  Both of their philosophies are essentially variants of natural law theory, whereby we can deduce both the nature of the human being and the nature of his or her environment, and thereby understand what kind of society is best for human beings.  Rand and Rothbard both concluded that a society that prohibits coercive force is best.  I certainly agree.  But the key point for our analysis is not the coercion is per se wrong.  It is that coercion leads to bad consequences, and, given the nature of humans and of the world, its rejection will leave people better off.

On this note, there is an exciting new undercurrent in libertarian thought–“bleeding heart libertarianism“–which attempts to use the methodology of left-wing statists like John Rawls (most notably, the idea that justice requires that all social institutions should be judged by whether they benefit a society’s least well-off members)  to reach libertarian conclusions.  I plan to have a post on this sometime soon.  Moreover, John Tomasi’s book Free Market Fairness is excellent exposition of this new development–particularly the “Hit Parade” section of chapter 5, where he shows how most of the greatest libertarian thinkers throughout history have been motivated by a desire to help society’s most vulnerable.  The chapter even includes Ayn Rand! (The “everyman” character Eddie Willers of Atlas Shrugged ends the book stranded in the desert after the world has fallen apart, which demonstrates how rejection of Rand’s libertarian philosophy tends to hurt everyone, not just the brilliant and heroic.)

Well, this is a lot to say in reply to a review of an inconsequential book.  But I think it also answers some of Ben’s criticisms of my own rationalism–or at least clarifies what I mean by “rationalism.”  Whereas Ben seems to think of people like Descartes and Diderot when he thinks of rationalists (that is, people who think they can deduce the entire world of knowledge by pondering in their studies), I base my rationalism on natural law theorists following in the tradition St. Thomas Aquinas as well as the later “practical” utilitarians.  That is, I take reason as my means of understanding human beings and understanding the world around them, and then applying that understanding to deduce what kinds of social arrangements are best suited to human beings’ needs.

This analysis will be inherently utilitarian.  And by its very utilitarianism, it also exposes the conceit of certain campus leftists who believe that caring for the poor or worrying about real world consequences inevitably lead one to embrace the nanny state.

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Murray Rothbard on George McGovern and Libertarian Populism

Charles Burris at posted a withering critique by Murray Rothbard on the late George McGovern today–written back in October 1972.

The true reflection of McGovernite “populism” is the statistic that no less than 39% of the delegates to the Democratic convention have attended graduate school! What we are seeing then is a naked grab for power on the part of an eager new elite of graduate students and upper-middle-class “reformers” (those who used to be called “parlor pinks.”) It is a drive to fasten a new Mandarin class of self-styled intellectuals upon the country, a class that would reach for absolute power and the crushing of other groups and indeed of the bulk of American citizens. Our current ruling classes, as reprehensible as they are, at least allow for a great deal of pluralism, and for relatively secure status for most of the groups in the population. We can see from the ruthlessness of their quota system that the McGovernite elite would be far more totalitarian and hence far more dangerous in their wielding of State power. The sooner and the more completely that the McGovernite movement is crushed to smithereens, the more viable will be the long-run climate of individual freedom in America.

The McGovernite movement is, in short, in its very nature a kick in the gut to Middle America. And yet the libertarian movement, in its program for getting the government off the backs of the individual, aims to be the fulfillment of the aspirations of that same Middle America. When Middle America, therefore inevitably responds in November by its kick in the gut to the McGovernite movement, it behooves libertarians to stand and cheer. (Emphasis added.)

Before reading this article, I would have thought that Rothbard would have supported the pro-peace McGovern.  And I’m not sure that others, who see McGovern as a conservative populist, are all wrong.  But Rothbard’s perspective is illuminating as it relates to the so-called “paleo” alliance of libertarians and conservatives, which I mentioned here before.

That is: Given that (1) libertarians want to kick the State out of each individual’s life, so that each individual may order his own life as he sees fit, and that (2) outside of a few coastal enclaves, broad swathes of the country are dispositionally very conservative, does it make any tactical sense for libertarians to ally with the modern-day McGovernite Left, if the typical “Middle American” conservative would never associate with them of his own free will?  If society is generally conservative, then a libertarian society would also be conservative, because a libertarian society would reflect the freely-chosen preferences of its component parts.

The general distaste with which most people viewed the Occupy movement provides a good case in point and indicates that, despite the country’s leftward shifts since 1972, libertarians still have little to gain by allying with the fringey Left, regardless of its views on war and civil liberties.  “Common sense” conservative populism–the kind associated with flyover country–is likely to still be the libertarian’s natural ally.

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Conservatism and the Paul Krugman Paradox

In response to my post calling Paul Krugman a traditionalist conservative, Joe wonders whether there’s anything wrong with that.

I’m not sure whether conservatism is actually, in Joe’s words “worse off” if we consider Krugman a member. But I do believe that the argument over whether Krugman is a conservative exposes the glaring weaknesses in traditionalist conservatism that led me to my ultimate rejection of it.

There are only two resolutions to the question.  The first leads to a conservatism that I find very unattractive, and the second leads to one that I consider nonsensical.

First: we can call Krugman a conservative.

But to do so, we have to take “conservatism” to only mean, as Michael Oakeshott believed, “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, . . . the near to the distant, the sufficient to the superabundant. . . .”  It is in this spirit that the self-described Burkean Sam Tanenhaus considers Obama’s healthcare policy to be “pure Disraeli” (The Death of Conservatism, p. 117), while the Tea Party is full of “antigovernment militants . . . [who] pine for an America that neither they nor most other living Americans can recall” (125).

But this is unsatisfactory.  Though conservatives like to point out the limits of reason, I can’t understand how reason is so limited that it would prevent us from engaging in any critique of prevailing traditions.  For instance, protectionism is one of the oldest methods for the U.S. government to collect taxes, whereas it was generally frowned on in nineteenth century Britain.  Does that mean that I should support protectionism if I live in the U.S. but not if I live in Britain?  If I can understand its bad economic effects, and understand the injustice of prohibiting trade between freely consenting parties, then why should it matter what culture I was born into?  Why can’t I say as an American that, yes, pure free trade has never been tried here (NAFTA and the IMF are more about managed globalization than free trade per se), but that if it were tried it would radically improve society and raise our standards of living, and therefore it should be tried immediately?

I see no reason why not.  I might need to be pragmatic about how I proceed, but I don’t see why human reason is incapable of picking one policy over the other, in a vacuum independent of tradition.

Alternatively: we can say that Krugman actually isn’t a conservative.

To do this, we would have to try to give conservatism a more substantive definition than the one above.  Thus, for some, being conservative means supporting a government of limited powers.  For others, it means having a government that enforces a particular conception of morality.

But either way, I don’t see how tradition plays much of a role in the outcome.  The more libertarian conservative has to argue, for instance, for limits on the federal government’s powers that haven’t existed since the New Deal–that is, which haven’t existed for the most recent third of American history.  Conversely, statist conservative, on the other hand,  might support an aristocratic politics that hasn’t been part of American history since the old Virginia planters lost political power in the early nineteenth century.

I’m not saying that either libertarian or statist conservatism is necessarily wrong.  In fact, I think that they are much more philosophically profound than Oakeshott’s conservatism.  My point is that they don’t depend much (or at all) on tradition.  Rather, they are both manifestations of abstract theory that rely for their proof on appeals to abstract reason.  And that being the case, it is hard to understand how they are really forms of conservatism at all.  They aren’t “libertarian conservatism” and “statist conservatism.”  They are just “libertarianism” and “statism,” and each one can be weighed on its own merits without the confusing appeals to tradition.

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Paul Krugman and the Conservative Demarcation Problem

In his post making a case for the conservative’s (potentially) necessary acceptance of Paul Krugman, I think Kelse hits on a fundamental tension conservatism consistently confronts: how does the conservative determine who (or what) is and who (or what) is not conservative? What criteria or methods are employed in this process? It’s conservatism’s very own demarcation problem. And while Kelse stirs the pot which begins a potential food fight, this is just another iteration of a fundamental problem that conservatives have dealt with in various ways throughout the history of the movement (intellectual and otherwise). As I sat reading the quotes from Sullivan and others that Kelse had marshaled together, it occurred to me that in the 1950s and 1960s, those conservatives such as Kirk and Buckley engaged with other so-called conservatives in an a variety of internecine battles whose reverberations continue to be felt to this day; the case of Peter Viereck and his battles with the then “new conservatives” (represented by Russell Kirk, William F. Buckley and others); or the “reading out” of the conservative movement of the John Birch Society by the National Review are two of the more prominent examples of this attempt at self-definition and delimitation of the boundaries of conservatism. Can a figure such as Paul Krugman be drawn out of conservatism? I question whether he can. A conservatism that is averse to abstractions and rationalism I think will have a difficult time employing history or historicism for the job. Which leads me to think that maybe Krugman qualifies as a conservative. Maybe he meets the criteria. In which case, is conservatism worse off for it?

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Conservatives and History: Does it Matter, I Mean Really?

A popular understanding of conservatism, exemplified perhaps by the likes of Russell Kirk or Peter Viereck, claims a privileged place for history. It is popularly understood that while liberals and followers of other left-wing ideologies reject, dismiss or otherwise hold history in a distant contempt, the conservatives and conservatism recognize the importance of history as a delimiting and constitutive factor that is essential to an effective and real understanding human experience and the politics that would follow from that essential and immediate experience. I will argue briefly, and to the contrary, that that is, to be diplomatic, a debatable point. Furthermore, it will be claimed that the historicity of human experience (as such an idea is sometimes labeled) is overrated and that conservatives should emancipate themselves from their slavish devotion to it .

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Paul Krugman: Burkean?

Paul Krugman has a column up at the New York Times called “Death by Ideology.”

The column doesn’t take on the concept of “ideology” per se, like Russell Kirk or Michael Oakeshott might.  But it is becoming a recurring theme on the Left to emphasize how (1) conservatives are overcome by an extreme anti-government ideology, while (2) liberals just want to continue with all those venerable (and popular) American traditions like the New Deal and the supremacy of the federal government.

I think traditionalist conservatives tend to gloss over their similarities with the Left.  They fail to address the fact that, if tradition is our main guide, things like Social Security and Medicare are pretty huge parts of our American tradition.  And if traditionalists value states’ rights and localism–as many do–they fail to fully address that these haven’t been important values in America since the nineteenth century.  For these reasons, I don’t think that traditionalist arguments can sustain a critique against Obamacare or the evisceration of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments–only a libertarian, rationalist argument can.

But don’t take my word for it.  Here’s what some left-wing commentators have to say:

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Some Cultural Skepticism

Ben David kicked off this blog with a post on “cultural renewal.”  There’s a lot in that post—much with which I agree and much with which I don’t—and hopefully one of the themes of this blog will be to draw out some of the many implications for cultural conservatism discussed in that post.

For my part, however, I am skeptical of the entire project of “cultural conservatism” itself.

To start, it seems that in discussing “culture,” Ben is assigning an objective value to what is in fact a subjective phenomenon.  That is, it makes no more sense to me to say, “culture should follow such-and-such pattern,” than it does to say “you should like to eat lobster” or “you should enjoy Nicki Minaj’s music”—each is just a personal taste which cannot be rationally proven or disproven as right or wrong.

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