Thursday, 5 October 2006

Conservatism: A new obituary (part 3) - The "neocons"

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 Four: Neoconservatism. (You can find Part Three here.)

"The era of small government is over." That's the claim of a leading theorist of neoconservatism, "the reigning ideology of the conservative movement and Republican policy makers."

"Over the last 25 years," says Brad Thompson, "neoconservatism has come to dominate the conservative establishment, and, today, it is barely an exaggeration to say that neoconservatism is conservatism." Whatever the influence of "compassionate conservatism" within the ranks of American conservatism (which we discussed yesterday), neconservatism is the ideological top dog.
The neocons are, arguably, the most intellectually active faction of the post-war intellectual Right. They teach at the best universities; they run the wealthiest conservative philanthropic foundations; they control the leading conservative think tanks; they manage the leading conservative journals and magazines; and they have a significant presence in the major media. The neocons have become so influential and so confident of their place in the conservative intellectual establishment that one of their most articulate spokesmen, David Brooks of The New York Times, has declared: “We’re all neoconservatives now.”
Why neo? And how did this variant of conservatism come to dominate American conservatism -- and what has this domination meant for American politics, and what might it mean for ours?
In a much-discussed essay entitled “The Neoconservative Persuasion,” Irving Kristol, doyen of the neocons, sums up their agenda: Their aim is to “convert the Republican Party, and American conservatism in general, against their respective wills, into a new kind of conservative politics suitable to governing a modern democracy.”31
Neoconservatism, Kristol writes, is the first variant of 20th-century conservatism that is “in the ‘American grain.’” What an extraordinary claim! The implication, of course, is that traditional conservatism (including Goldwater conservatism)—with its proclaimed attachment to Jeffersonian principles of individual rights, limited government, and economic freedom—is outside the American grain or even un-American.

... “The era of small government is over,” [neoconservative columnist David] Brooks announces; “reducing the size of government cannot be the governing philosophy for the next generation of conservatives.”
So there you have it, and straight from the horses' mouths (and these are some pretty shabby, big-government-worshipping horses, really): “The era of small government is over ... reducing the size of government cannot be the governing philosophy for the next generation of conservatives.” So much for the Jeffersonian idea that "the government that governs best governs least."

According to Kristol and co., that Jeffersonian idea is "outside the American grain." How so? Because they say so. Small government is out; big government is in; and we are still at war with Eurasia.

So if Jefferson and the Founding Fathers are so clearly outside the pale for these state-worshippers of the right, just who exactly is in their pantheon?
At the top of the neocon’s pantheon of American heroes are three individuals who had a major destructive impact on individual rights in America: Herbert Croly, Theodore Roosevelt, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. [Wouldn't you know it!] This is the same Herbert Croly who bragged that his political philosophy was “flagrantly socialistic both in its methods and its objects,” the same TR who said that “every man holds his property subject to the general right of the community to regulate its use to whatever degree the public welfare may require it,” and the same FDR who insisted that all Americans must act “as a trained and loyal army willing to sacrifice for the good of the common discipline.”33

What unites Croly and the Roosevelt cousins is the idea that the individual should be subordinated to a paternalistic state. That the neocons would turn to such a statist triumvirate for inspiration and guidance reveals much about their plan to “reform” the Republican Party.
Doesn't it just. According to the neocons -- "former Trotskyists in the 1930s and 40s and then liberals in the 50s and 60s" -- these "neocons [who] have never abandoned their deepest moral commitments" says Thompson -- according to these "thinkers" old-fashioned ideas outside the "American grain" include such "eccentricities" as natural rights, individualism, limited government, and laissez-faire capitalism. These, they say, are "ideas better forgotten than defended. The neocons, therefore, follow their hero Herbert Croly’s admonition to his fellow Progressive socialists that 'Reform is both meaningless and powerless unless the Jeffersonian principle of non-interference is abandoned'.” That would depend, as you might expect, on the nature of the reform you are trying to bring about.
Not surprisingly, then, the Old Right’s opposition to the New Deal appalls the neocons.... Ironically, what really bothers the neocons about small-government Republicans is that they are too principled, too ideological, and too beholden to an outdated Jeffersonian conception of government. The neocons regard such ideological nostalgia as “doctrinaire” and as fostering “moral self-righteousness.”36

The problem with the Founders’ liberalism, according to 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. If the growth of the state represented the road to serfdom for Hayek, limiting the state to the protection of individual rights represents the road to nihilism for the neocons. The great political lesson that the neocons have successfully taught other conservatives and their Republican students over the course of the last twenty-five years is to embrace rather than resist the growth of the state.

The neocons are committed proponents of what Kristol calls a “conservative welfare state.”39
Again, straight from the horse's mouth. These people, it should be clear enough by now, are not your friends, not if small government is a value.
Kristol is deeply committed to the moral ends of the welfare state... Kristol regards the “socialist ideal” not only as “admirable” but also as a “necessary ideal, offering elements that were wanting in capitalist society—elements indispensable for the preservation, not to say perfection, of our humanity.” Kristol praises utopian socialism because it is “community-oriented” rather than “individual-oriented.” He admires socialism’s ideal man for transcending the “vulgar, materialistic, and divisive acquisitiveness that characterized the capitalist type of individual.”42 This comes from the author of Two Cheers for Capitalism, regarded (falsely) by some as one of the most important moral defenses of capitalism written in the twentieth century.43 Presumably Kristol saved his third cheer for the moral ideal espoused by his first ideological love, Leon Trotsky.
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:
In our urbanized, industrialized, highly mobile society, people need governmental action of some kind if they are to cope with many of their problems: old age, illness, unemployment, etc. They need such assistance; they demand it; they will get it. The only interesting political question is: How will they get it?45
Tomorrow we'll see what a paternalistic, neoconservative, big-government welfare state actually look likes. And I have to warn all you Jeffersonian aherents to small government, individual rights and laissez-faire capitalism that it ain't pretty.

Tomorrow 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.

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

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

1 comment:

  1. The fundamental premise of neo-conservatism is one's position on terrorism-related issues -- Iraq, treatment of detainees,torture, domestic surveillance, attacks on press freedoms, executive power abuses, Iran, the equating of dissent with treason.

    It is one's positions on *those* issues which determine whether one is a neo-con or not.

    Everything else is mere obfuscation, as you would say.

    I trust your man will address this issue in your next post.


Comments are moderated to encourage honest conversation, and remove persistent trolls.