Friday, October 06, 2006

'CONSERVATISM: A NEW OBITUARY.' Part 5: The "neocons" in practice -- adding cynicism to love

Continuing the series of excerpts from Prof. Brad Thompson's article 'The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism,' first published in The Objective Standard. Today, Part Five: Neoconservatism. (You can find Part Four here.)

Today we look at the neoconservative welfare-warfare state. How does it work? How does it differ from a liberal welfare state? And how exactly do the neocons reconcile Adam Smith and Karl Marx, Hayek and Trotsky.

"Neconservatives reject the fundamental principles of a free society," says Thompson. They would view an attempted return even to to the pre-New Deal world of Franklin Roosevelt "as not only impractical and fanciful, but, more importantly, as immoral." So for them the founding principles of the United States are just anathema.

The problem with the Founders’ liberalism, according to [neoconservative theorist Irving] Kristol, is that it begins with the individual, and a philosophy that begins with the “self” must accommodate and allow for selfishness, choice, and the pursuit of personal happiness. A secular capitalist society—a society that enables its citizens to pursue their self-interest—inevitably degenerates, he argues, into a culture of isolated individuals driven solely by the joyless quest for creature comforts. A free society grounded on the protection of individual rights leads inexorably to an amiable philistinism, an easygoing nihilism and, ultimately, to “infinite emptiness.”38

In other words, according to Kristol and friends, the principles espoused by John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison lead inevitably to the Marquis de Sade, Abby Hoffman, and Jerry Springer.
It should be no surprise that neocons and cons alike should be opposed --ideologically opposed -- to any idea of rational selfishness. As a colleague of mine points out:

It is important to understand that Conservatives don't understand the American Revolution as a revolution of ideas. They regard it more as an evolution.

The original credo of conservatives is accordingly, not as laid out by the Founding Fathers, but by their Pilgrim forefathers. The character traits that the New Conservatives want to establish harks back to the ones that the Puritans regarded as virtuous. Accordingly, the ideas that generate their policies are the ones in Jefferson's Bible, and not the ones contained in his philosophy of Government. For those interested in pursuing this thought futher, here is a speech by Robert Cushman, one of the original pilgrims The Sin and Danger of Self Love

Note that his premise is the exact opposite of Rational Egoism

Just as it is for the neocons.
Neocons agree with the underlying moral principles of the socialists; they disagree merely over the best means to achieve their shared ends. As do all good socialists, neocons hold that welfare should be regarded as a right because it is grounded in people’s “needs”—and, as Kristol explains, for the neocons, “needs” are synonymous with rights...
So how does a conservative welfare state work? And how does it differ from a liberal welfare state? Behind all the rhetoric, the shabby secret is that there is very little difference except how and by whom the readies are doled out. Both liberals and neocons opposed Clinton's refoms of the welfare state. Both liberals and neoncons promise cradle to grave nannying. The neocons, who (like Roger Douglas) talk about socalist ends through capitalist means simply insist that the all-powerful state should provide, but people should be allowed some "choice." The state will continue to put its hand in your pocket, increasingly so say neocons, but "the people choose their own “private” social security accounts; they choose their own “private” health and child-care providers; and parents receive vouchers and choose which schools their children will attend."
The choices, of course, are not the wide-open choices of a free market; rather, the people are permitted to choose from among a handful of pre-authorized providers. The neocons call this scheme a free-market reform of the welfare state.
Socialist ends through capitalist means, you see (or at least "conservative" means, capitalism not being the process so described). And as far as the neocons' "big idea" goes, that's it. George Bernard Shaw observed years ago that a government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always rely on the support of Paul. The neocons rob Peter, rob Paul, and channel that money to the providers pre-approved by the ruling party (who can expect to show their gratitude in the appropriate way), clipping the ticket on the way on behalf of the paternalitic state.

As Thompson observes of this roundabout of venality,
If compassionate conservatism injected love into the hardened arteries of Republican politics, then neoconservatism infused blood-thinning cynicism into the Republican blood stream. Neoconservatism is a political philosophy concerned with, above all else, power. Like socialists, neocons want political power to create a certain kind of society—a virtuous society guided by the right purposes—purposes that they are very reluctant to share with the general public. They also believe that if government is in the hands of the wise and good, it ought not to be limited too much by constitutional rules and boundaries. The neocons are much more concerned about “who rules” than they are about the limits of political rule.
In the end neocons eschew principles for pragmatism. This is what neocons laughingly call a "governing philosophy."
The most remarkable issue about the neocons’ notion of a “governing philosophy” is that it is a strategy for governing without philosophy. The neocons unabashedly describe themselves as pragmatists; they eschew principles in favor of a mode of thinking—and they scorn thinking about what is moral in favor of thinking about what “works.” For over twenty-five years, they have fought an ideological war against ideology.
I did tell you this wouldn't be pretty.

The neocons urge Republicans to drop their limited-government principles and to consider only the immediate problems of the present, unconnected to all other problems, and without reference to principles. According to Irving Kristol, “there are moments when it is wrong to do the right thing.” This is Kristol‘s “First Law” of politics:

There are occasions where circumstances trump principles. Statesmanship consists not in being loyal to one’s avowed principles (that’s easy), but in recognizing the occasions when one’s principles are being trumped by circumstances. . . . The . . . creative statesman, one who possesses some political imagination, will see such occasions as possible opportunities for renewed political self-definition.50

In other words, Kristol’s advice to Republicans is: Stop taking your principles so seriously (as if that were ever a problem). The successful statesman, he argues, is chameleon-like in his ability to redefine his principles in the light of changing circumstances. Don’t concern yourselves with principles; concern yourselves with acquiring and keeping power.

Never mind "the vision thing" -- about which George Bush Sr. agonised -- give yourself over instead to absolute rule, and let the other side seek out new visions . That's the neocon ticket. The three most important rules for aboslute rule: Compromise, compromise and compromise. The fourth rule: if visions arise that are going to happen anyway, then just roll over and make sure you take the credit.
If liberals launch a national campaign for socialized medicine, Republicans should steal the issue from the Democrats and advocate a system of universal health care but one that allows people to choose their own doctor or HMO. If liberals commence a public campaign against the profits of “big business” or the salaries of their executives, Republicans should neutralize liberal pretensions by encouraging “greedy” and “profiteering” corporate executives to voluntarily donate their profits to charities. If radical environmentalists launch a public relations campaign against global warming, Republicans should encourage American companies to hire environmentalists as advisors. If feminists propose to nationalize pre-school child care, Republicans should go along but insist that parents be given vouchers to send their children to the day-care facility of their choice.

This is what it means to “think politically.”

Why would anyone support neocon government if this is all they have to offer? Well, you tell me. They offer leadership, but in a direction to be set by their opponents. They offer the free market, but only one shackled to provide "vouchers" for the welfare state. They offer vision, but only of ever bigger and ever more paternalistic government. As Ayn Rand said of the American conservatives back in in 1960, "If the "conservatives" do not stand for capitalism, they stand for and are nothing; they have no goal, no direction, no political principles, no social ideals, no intellectual values, no leadership to offer anyone." Today's conservatives stand for and are nothing.
Their advice to the Republican Party is to compromise and accept the moral ends of liberal-socialism, but with the caveat that conservatives can do a better job of doling out the goods and services.

Observe who is being asked to compromise what here. Conservatives are being asked to compromise their principles. Liberals are being asked to compromise only the way in which welfare is delivered. Moral appeasement of this sort serves only to embolden the Left, a lesson that conservatives seem constitutionally unable to learn. They fail to grasp that compromising one principle inevitably leads to hundreds of compromises in practice. In this relationship, liberalism will always have the upper hand and will always dictate the future...

According to Kristol, the “idea of a welfare state is in itself perfectly consistent with a conservative political philosophy—as Bismarck knew, a hundred years ago.”56 In addition to TR and FDR, the neocons add Bismarck to their list of statesman-like heroes. The neocons’ new Republican Party seeks to restore not a Jeffersonian model of government, but rather the Prussian welfare state.

This, according to the neocons, is what it means to be “in the ‘American grain.’” This is their contribution to “the stupid party” and to American life.

So "the stupid party" rolls on, while its ruling ideology rolls over any principles it once might have had.

But hasn't there been any successes to speak of? Any runs on the board? Have the big government neocons sold out so abjectly to their liberal-socialism of their opponents that there is nothing whatsoever to celebrate? Tune in tomorrow and find out.

'CONSERVATISM: A NEW OBITUARY,' THE SERIES SO FAR: LINKS: The Objective Standard, a journal of culture and politics.
Cartoon by Cox and Forkum
The sin and danger of self love - Robert Cushman (Plymouth, 1642)

RELATED: Politics-US, Politics, Objectivism, History-Modern, History-Twentieth Century

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