Posts Tagged With: liberal

Delusions of the “Reality-Based Community”

Bruce Bartlett has a new article at the American Conservative detailing his estrangement from the mainstream Right. Titled “Revenge of the Reality-Based Community,” it’s all about how the Republicans are supposedly unwilling to listen to arguments from outside their bubble of like-minded pundits, and how Bartlett “paid a heavy price, both personal and financial” for challenging right-wing dogmas.

The article is a mixed bag. Bartlett makes a few good observations. For instance, he recounts this story about some Beltway Republicans’ reaction to a New York Times Magazine article:

Not one person had read it or cared in the slightest what the New York Times had to say about anything. They all viewed it as having as much credibility as Pravda and a similar political philosophy as well. Some were indignant that I would even suspect them of reading a left-wing rag such as the New York Times.

This cocoon mentality certainly exists and it is one of the more annoying aspects of the mainstream, Beltway Right. Equally annoying is their tendency to portray liberals as hippies and communists, which Bartlett notes in Republican treatment of Obama as a far-leftist. (As I’ve argued here before, the liberals are the real conservatives and to be what most people call “conservative” is actually to be radically opposed to the existing order.)

But I think the article is mostly wrong-headed. Here are some of the worse arguments that Bartlett makes:

  1. Throughout the article, Bartlett acts like some kind of martyr for being driven out of the organized Right. But this kind of excommunication is hardly martyrdom. As the comments to the article show, for every Republican that he has alienated he’s gained the approval of ten more liberals who can laud him as someone who has “seen the light” and rejected Tea Party “nonsense.” Paul Krugman has already done this. The center Left holds a much greater amount of power in the media and in academia than does the Right, and it has at least an equal number of powerful Washington think-tanks. So it is hardly martyrdom to convert into a moderate liberal. If anything, such conversion can be a career boost. The real martyrs are people like Whittaker Chambers, who believed that he was forsaking the winning side of history and joining the losing side when he converted from communism to conservatism. Of course, a move like that takes a real personal toll—Chambers was roundly denounced in the media (not just Fox News) and suffered from depression for most of his life.
  2. Though a lot of Republicans remain willfully blind to opposing arguments, these are mostly the rank-and-file activists, not the intellectuals. Conservative and libertarian intellectuals have grown up in a university system where they are constantly opposed, by professors and fellow students, and accordingly are well-versed in their opponents’ arguments. But the same can’t be said for the liberal intellectuals. In fact, most of the people that I’ve met during my years spent in elite universities are totally ignorant of some of the basic libertarian or conservative theories. They will argue, for instance, that libertarianism is about social Darwinism, when even Ayn Rand argued in The Virtue of Selfishness that it is about social cooperation. Most conservative intellectuals can tell you who John Rawls was, but I haven’t met many liberal intellectuals who could tell you who Russell Kirk or Ludwig von Mises were.
  3. Despite his disdain for Republican cant, Bartlett buys into the bizarre theory that modern Democrats can grouped together with the Jim Crow Democratic Party. This is the kind of argument you read on True, the nineteenth century Democrats believed in slavery and then later opposed civil rights legislation. But many of them also supported localized government and the gold standard. The Democratic Party that Bartlett attacks was actually the more conservative party of its time; it has more in common with the modern Republican Party than with the modern Democrats. The old Democrats were certainly wrong to support slavery and Jim Crow, but they also advocated for other good conservative and libertarian policies that the modern Democrats would hate. To try to group the two together strikes me as intellectually dishonest.
  4. Bartlett also writes that, “For the record, no one has been more correct in his analysis and prescriptions for the economy’s problems than Paul Krugman.” If you believe that, please email me. I’ve been in touch with the Crown Prince of Nigeria, who has $2o million that he needs to deposit into your bank account. In fact, the Austrian school of economics has done a great deal of work to show that Krugman’s beloved monetary stimulus and government spending do nothing to cure depressions, but only make the economy worse and more prone to boom-bust volatility.
  5. Strangely enough, given Bartlett’s new-found embrace of Keynesian economics, he also denounces President Bush’s Medicare expansion. I guess that’s the life of a maverick.
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The Liberal Principle of Secession

President Obama’s reelection has people talking about secession again. Unfortunately, because of the historical accident that the last American secessionists were slaveholding southerners, most people today think that secession is somehow reactionary, racist, or right-wing. The fact that Obama’s reelection served as the catalyst for these new secessionist petitions certainly doesn’t dispel that notion.

Nevertheless, the popular notion is totally wrong. Rather than being a reactionary doctrine, secession is a principle rooted in the best of the classical-liberal, Enlightenment tradition. To believe in secession is to believe in liberty, peace, free trade, and self-determination——values that liberals once held, before they fell under the spell of omnipotent government. By contrast, to believe that whatever national borders happen to exist today are somehow immutable and therefore require eternal adherence is the truly reactionary and obscurantist doctrine, more reminiscent of the divine right of kings than of anything that can fairly be called “liberal.”

The foundational principle of secessionism is the same principle embodied in the Declaration of Independence: “That to secure [people’s] rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

The secessionist principle is based entirely on individual self-determination. That is, it doesn’t matter whether people have objectively good reasons for seceding, as judged by some outside observer. All that matters is that they wish to do so. As long as the secessionists believe that a new arrangement will suit their individual ends better than the current one, then we should wish them well and let them leave. It was in this spirit that former UN Secretary General Kofi Anan—hardly a right-wing white supremacist—described the Sudanese 2011 secession referendum as “democracy at its most basic, where people are choosing their future, and how and by whom they want to be governed.”

Nor must secession lead to war or economic isolation. When the left-wing MSNBC host Lawrence O’Donnell advocated secession, in response to President Bush’s reelection, he correctly noted that, “You can secede without firing a shot.” For while it is historically true that most secessions have been violent, that is not an argument against the principle itself. Rather, it is an argument against those who want to hang onto their own power by nullifying their citizens’ freedom of exit. In order to avoid violence, all we have to do is to convince its initiators to not initiate it.

Indeed, as far as peace and trade are concerned, a world of small, secessionist states is much better than a world of large, centralized ones. Small states cannot afford to close their borders to foreign goods, but need to cooperate with foreigners to survive economically. Such international interdependence will also make them much less likely to solve disputes violently through war. Of course, large states also suffer if they adopt protectionist or war-like policies. But they have enough resources within their borders that they can chug along with a much lesser degree of foreign cooperation than can small ones. As an illustrative example, compare the United States or the Soviet Union’s treatment of foreign countries to that of, say, Belize or Liechtenstein.

Finally, secession promotes freedom within a given state’s territory. Because the smaller each state is, the easier it will be for citizens to “vote with their feet” and move somewhere else, small states have an increased incentive to keep their citizens happy and free. When states are smaller they also have less tax money at their disposal to fund gratuitously oppressive programs like the TSA or to imprison one in fifty of their own citizens, as the United States currently does.

It is therefore no surprise that many of the greatest liberal Enlightenment figures also supported secession. Lord Acton, who coined every Bush-era leftist’s favorite phrase (“Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”), wrote to Robert E. Lee to say, “I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will, and secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of Democracy. . . . I believed that the example [of the Confederate Constitution] would have blessed all the races of mankind by establishing true freedom purged of the native dangers and disorders of Republics. Therefore I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.” Likewise, Alexis de Tocqueville believed that the American Union was the result of a voluntary compact that could be dissolved at any time, while John Stuart Mill wrote critically of Southern secession in the specific context of the Civil War, but never denied the right to secede when it is exercised in service of admirable ends.

In response to such intellectual giants, the wise sages at . . . umm . . . Think Progress and the Daily Kos insist that there can be no right to secede. They tend to claim that the Civil War or the ratification of the American constitution emphatically ended that right, whatever it might once have been, and that to continue to advocate for it is unpatriotic.

That is certainly an internally consistent argument. I have no doubt that King Louis XIV would have found it quite compelling. But it is not a liberal argument. The classical liberal theory of government holds that all governments, if they can be justified at all, can only be justified to the extent that they serve their citizens’ ends. Therefore, if people conclude that their government lacks instrumental value, then they have the right to try something else. If they do not have that right, and if governments can create laws abolishing the freedom to leave, then government is no longer an instrument of its people. Rather, it is some kind of end-in-itself, that demands total obedience whether it aligns with all of its citizens’ preferences or not.

Let the Obama supporters argue that government is an end-in-itself that demands total obedience. (The Democratic National Convention came close.) But they have no basis for claiming that secession is somehow “reactionary” and that their nationalism is democratic and “progressive.”

Secession is a principle for those of us who really value peace, freedom, and international cooperation through free trade, and who believe that the sole justification for politics is individual welfare. The anti-secessionists, meanwhile, should stick to arguing as their eighteenth-century forebears did: for the sanctity of throne-and-altar and for the divine right to rule.

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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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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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