Friday, February 29, 2008

American Conservatism, RIP?

On the occasion of the recent death of William F. Buckley, libertarian David Boaz, writing in the San Francisco Chronicle, wondered if Conservatism itself has died:

In the 1994 Contract with America, conservatives declared that they would deliver "the end of government that is too big, too intrusive, and too easy with the public's money." Then in 2000, for the first time Republicans took control of both houses of Congress and the White House. At last, conservatives believed, they would be able to deliver on the agenda they had been advancing for decades.

What happened? Republicans increased federal spending by a trillion dollars in six years. They passed the biggest expansion of entitlements since the LBJ years. They federalized education. They gave unprecedented power to the executive. They launched a massive nation-building project thousands of miles from home, to do in Iraq what conservatives would never expect government to do in the United States.

Even worse, the conservative intellectual movement abandoned its limited-government roots. The neoconservatives, who drifted over from the radical left, brought their commitment to an expansive government intimately involved in shaping the social and economic life of the nation. They transformed conservatism from rugged individualism to "national greatness." The religious right demanded that government impose their social values on the whole country.

I just ran into a sort microcosm of this phenomenon. I happen to be co-director of something called the Center for the Study of Liberal Democracy, the organization that sponsored the Wendy McElroy-Harry Brighouse event the other day. Someone I know, a conservative activist prominent in the area of academic issues, called me to ask me to write a letter in support of a bill now passing through a committee in the US Senate. I had to warn him that I am not a political conservative; I'm basically an anarchist. With that understood, go ahead and make your pitch. I figured I would interrupt him if I realized that he was wasting his time on me. The bill, it turned out, would make public funds available to centers like ours. The idea seemed to be: ones that are doing things that conservatives can support. He was telling running through the names of some good people from my own state who are behind the bill when I interrupted him. I'm sorry, that's not the sort of thing I can support. "May I ask why," he said politely. Well, I'm against governments giving tax money to things like this (for several reasons, but I didn't go into that), and I'm also against the Feds getting any further into education than they already are (notice the tactful understatement!). I admitted that if such a program already existed, I might apply for funds, but that's only because, having been subjected to the injustice of being forced to pay for such things, I would want some of my money back... He interrupted me. I think he could remember hearing this line of thinking somewhere before.

After we hung up, I realized what was so odd about this: a conservative promoting what basically amounts to a welfare scheme.

Back in 1959, when Buckley wrote Up from Liberalism, American conservatism was lean and scrappy. They had some good ideas -- less government, with constitutional limits on state activity and more individual initiative -- and they took a lot of abuse for it. It was the heroic age of their movement. Over the years they forgot about self-reliance and the constitution, and morphed into one more gimmie-group, another piglet sucking at the teats of the welfare state. What the hell happened to them?

They came to power, of course. Acton, as everyone knows, said that power corrupts. I'm starting to see why it does so. It's not just because power is power. It's also because with power comes loot, and loot corrupts.

States are giant extraction devices. They enable one to consume the products of human effort without producing anything oneself, and without winning the voluntary consent of the producers. Once you start living this way, it is very hard to stop. State power is one of the most highly addictive substances known.

After 14 years with its snout in the public trough, the American conservative movement stands, hideously bloated, sadly no longer what it once was. They say that Buckley died after a long illness. Maybe it was a broken heart.


Craig J. Bolton said...

This Blog entry is 80% accurate, and that part which is accurate is very well written.

The part that isn't accurate is the generalizations about what American conservatism was like at the time that Buckley came on the scene. The truth is that conservatism was half and half even at that time, and Buckley consistently promoted the dark side.

Part of what use to be known as conservatism was a vestige of the libertarian ideals of the American Revolution. The other part was an exaggeration of British Toryism. Buckley and his fellow "traditionalists" consistently opined that rationality, consistency and ideals in politics were evil and that freedom should be subordinated to virtue. The virtue, of course, was whatever was being promoted by the "statesmen" of the hour [i.e., whoever was nominated by the Republican Party].

No, Buckley was not a representative of "tough and lean conservatism." He was the main force behind the transformation of conservatism into a principleless variety of corrupt patronage collectivism generously intermixed with xenophobia and puritanicalism in the fond tradition of the prohibitionists.

Lester Hunt said...

Craig, With your underlying point I agree: a major cause of pragmatic drift is lack of clear principles. One reason the conservative movement lost its bearings was that they weren't any too clear about their bearings in the first place. These people were often openly contemptuous of "abstract" theories, after all. ... Where I guess I disagree is on your interpretation of Buckley. Though I haven't been a fan of his since the early sixties, I see him as a more mixed and equivocal figure than that. Buckley wasn't Kirk.

Will S. said...

I've long believed that a consistent, true American conservatism, is a theoretical and practical impossibility, because of the paradox that lies at the heart of such an undertaking. That is, namely, the fact that America was founded on liberal ideals and liberal principles, and hence, all attempts to put forth a case for an American conservative tradition, amount to special pleading to preserve the original liberal goals of the Founders, but not follow the logical implications that flow out of such. In other words, let's conserve 18th century liberalism, but go no further down the liberal road. I truly admire the paleoconservatives, but I think they're on a fool's errand.

IMO, the only internally consistent true conservatism that can be, is indeed, the British, collectivist, anti-liberal, Tory tradition, best exemplified by the likes of Canadian philosopher George Parkin Grant, who didn't identify in the least with the radical individualism of American conservtism, and its uncritical acceptance of unbridled capitalism. Alas, even Grant's conservatism has proved untenable, politically, here in Canada; Grant's self-described label of "Red Tory" has mutated, and generally come to mean one who combines a belief in wide-open, unfettered, free-market capitalism, with liberal stances on social issues. (Which would have irked the devout Christian Grant, to no end.) No "Conservative" who holds office here in Canada holds to true, traditional Toryism.

Lester Hunt said...


Once years ago the Australian philosopher John Passmore came up to me at a conference we were attending and said, "Tell me! Why do Americans call liberals 'conservatives'?" He meant of course that what we call "conservative" in the US is very similar to what they call a "liberal" in other countries. I think I said something like, "In America, the political tradition is actually liberal. So if you are a conservative, you actually are a liberal. Confusing, isn't it?"

Will S. said...

I do like the honesty of the Aussies, calling their further left party Labour, and their less left party Liberal. (Of course, I wouldn't vote for either, just as I don't vote now; I'm like Ms. McElroy, in that I see it as pointless, a waste of time. I'm an old-fashioned Tory, and since there are none anymore in Canada, running for office, I'm politically homeless, and I don't buy into the 'civic duty' nonsense promulgated by those who feel we have to vote. Freedom should mean choices, and I choose not to participate in the exercise in fraud.)