Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Fall of Conservatism

George Packer has written a long essay in the New Yorker called, "The Fall of Conservatism." Dan Flynn has written a post on Packer's essay. AmSpecBlog has some interesting posts on the essay here, here, here, here and here.

To sum up the essay up briefly, Packer concludes correctly that conservatism has failed, then talks to big government conservatives like David Brooks and David Frum, who suggest that the solution is for conservatives to embrace big government.

Although it is predictable that Packer, a liberal, thinks the right should become more liberal, the essay is interesting for being packed with information about the last 40 years of politics.

One thing I must object to is the idea that Nixon won over Democrat voters because he...

...adopted an undercover strategy for building a Republican majority, working to create the impression that there were two Americas: the quiet, ordinary, patriotic, religious, law-abiding Many, and the noisy, élitist, amoral, disorderly, condescending Few.

I have read elsewhere the notion that the Republicans appealed to racism and other dark passions to steal voters from the Democrats.

Nixon certainly worked hard to get Democrat votes, but even if the Republicans had not noticed that there were Democrats out there for them to steal, the Democrat Party would have lost those voters anyway. The Republicans did not so much win those voters as the Democrats lost them when they became a party of New Leftists. No way culturally conservative, pro-American voters would stay in a party that moved away from them. The real "dark side" that pieces such as Packer's never mention is the darkness of collectivism and statism adopted by the Democrat Party.

I must also object to the ever-appalling David Brooks, who calls small government conservatives "un-American." As Philip Klein responds,

But conservatives believe in limiting the size and scope of government not because of some random whim, but because it is a necessary way of preserving liberty. Unlike anarchists, we believe that government is necessary to protect individual rights -- through a police force that catches criminals, a court system that prosecutes them and settles disputes among individuals, and a military that protects us from foreign threats. Far from being "fundamentally un-American," these are precisely the principles on which the nation was founded. The Declaration of Independence reads that "governments are instituted among men" to "secure" our unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit --not attainment -- of happiness. The U.S. Constitution also envisioned a federal government of limited scope.

The welfare state that Brooks supports came from Bismarck's Germany. Bizarre, isn't it, that he sees this foreign import as the essence of Americanism?

Of course, neither Packer nor his conservative critics get close to the fundamental reason for the failure of conservatism: the political movement has been undercut from the beginning by the ethics of altruism. Capitalism cannot be defended by an ethics of sacrifice, only by an ethics of rational self-interest. Conservatism was doomed when Buckley made religion an integral aspect of the movement.

One of the key moments of the last 40 years, the government shutdown of 1995, is a perfect example of how conservative politics are undermined by altruist ethics. The Democrats stood firm with moral righteousness -- because they knew the morality of altruism that they shared with the Republicans was on their side. Once the TV networks started showing sob stories of government workers not getting their paychecks, the Republicans collapsed like a cheap lawn chair.

After '95 came the defeat of Bob Dole in 1996. In 1997 Brooks wrote his first piece on "National Greatness Conservatism." The fight was over. The idea of limited government had lost.

Where does the fall of conservatism leave America?

It leaves us waiting for next crisis. How we respond will determine our course into the 21st century. As Mises has written, crises caused by government intervention in the economy tend to lead to further intervention and eventually dictatorship. Hayek called it the road to serfdom. I don't want things to get worse, but I expect they will.


Patrick Joubert Conlon said...

I'm a conservative who agrees with Hayek - but some of us have to pull back while the lunatics push forward.

However those who pull back too much are not conservatives. They are reactionaries. True conservatives know that "progressives" will always be pulling us leftwards and we will say: "Whoa! You're re-inventing the wheel!"

Anonymous said...

My two biggest issues with Packer's piece are (1) his conflation of conservatism as a set of philosophical ideas with the Republican Party and (2) his reliance upon the subsequent misidentification of the Republican Mr. Nixon as a conservative -- Mr. Nixon was nothing of the kind -- to serve as a bogeyman lietmotif for his piece.

Mr. Packer is in need of a premise check.

As Dan Flynn rightly points out, there is no conservative movement at the present time. But the disappearance of conservatism did not begin with Mr. Bush: Ayn Rand wrote the obituary on conservatism more than 40 years ago (prior to the "start date" of Mr. Packer's analysis), and what was true then continues to be true today.

Jim May said...

Where does the fall of conservatism leave America?

In a similar place to where the fall of liberalism in the 1960's left it -- increasingly undefended.

As Dan Flynn rightly points out, there is no conservative movement at the present time.

There is no liberal movement at the present time -- liberalism here being used in its original Enlightenment meaning of limited government, free markets and individual rights. It is these values specifically which are dying here -- not conservatism, which is at core a reaction against the Enlightenment -- and not the Left, whose sole claim to "liberalism" is the word.

Those like Bill Quick who insist that those values are "conservative" values now, are ignorant of the fact that conservatism's adoption of liberal values was born of political expedience -- and that these values are as incompatible with conservatism's core as they are with the Left's.

What is happening to conservatism now, is the same as what happened to liberalism in the 1960's -- it is being purged of Americanism. The only difference is that the latter was evicted from its liberal home by the Left -- and was only ever an adoption of convenience on the Right. No longer so convenient, it is.

Theocracy to Right of us, Socialism to Left of us...

Anonymous said...

There is no liberal movement at the present time -- liberalism here being used in its original Enlightenment meaning of limited government, free markets and individual rights.

Yes . . . and the true "convervative" in America is the individual who works for a revival and restoration -- a conserving -- of that liberalism. There can be no other kind, and there is no "movement" of this nature at the present time.

Anonymous said...

"Liberalism", in the classical sense, fell long before the 1960s. I date its demise from the early 20th century rise of Progressivism/Fascism (i.e., collectivism/statism) as the country's dominant principle. All of today's so-called "conservatives" and so-called "liberals" are nothing more than the descendants of their Progressive predecessors, and the two major political parties nothing more than very minor variations on the same theme.

Jim May said...

Last anon: you are correct, except that the Progressives were the beginning of the process. Woodstock, two generations later, is the point where the culmination of the process became clear to all. What the hippies signalled to the world was that there was no longer any shred of the old liberalism left in the new generation. From that point forward, all the new "liberals" being minted by the socialized education system were (and are) now socialists of some sort or another.

Earlier anon: the problem with that is that "conserving" without regard to what is being conserved, is a definition-by-nonessentials. If you seek to restore or "conserve" liberalism, you are a liberal; if you seek to "conserve" or restore the monarchy or theocracy, you area monarchist or a theocrat.

The essential variable I use to measure political positions is liberty, understood as the principle of absolute individual rights; it is the desired "destination", proximity to which is how I measure politics.

When tyranny reigns, those who fight for liberty are radical capitalists, fighters for freedom -- while those seeking to "conserve" the ruling government are monarchsits/fascists/theocrats/communists/whatever.

When liberty reigns after the revolution, those same people are now "conserving" freedom, while their defeated enemies (and their like-minded competitors) scheming to establish their king/Fuehrer/High Priest/whatever, are now the ones seeking radical change -- and yet the actual political ideas of the actual people involved in each case have not changed.

"Conservatism" defined as "conserving" is thusly not an essential characteristic of politics, but a mere incidental descriptor.

Moreover, Russell Kirk makes clear that what is being conserved under conservatism, is not just anything one wants; on the contrary, what has been clear to me so far in my investigations, is that what core conservatives seek to conserve, in culture, society and the human mind -- is a place for arbitrary, made-up BS (faith) against the onslaught of reason.

If you wish to "conserve" Enlightenment liberalism, be my guest. I sincerely wish you well in that endeavor. But to the extent that you actually do so, you will actually be a liberal.

mike18xx said...

You're much better off calling yourself a "small (l) libertarian" than a "liberal".

To start with, not too many people will be familiar with the phrase, so they can't make an immediate (and erroneous) conjecture as to what kind of horrible, baby-eating monster you might be. So, if they care enough, they'll actually have to ask you.

Anonymous said...

"If you wish to 'conserve' Enlightenment liberalism, be my guest. I sincerely wish you well in that endeavor. But to the extent that you actually do so, you will actually be a liberal.

I'm fully aware of it. In fact, I make it a point of reminding my so-called "liberal" AND so-called "conservative" friends and acquaintances that I am the only true Liberal amongst us.

Jim May said...

Unfortuantely, Anon, Mike is right; the terms are so mangled these days that I would recommend that you not rely solely on the term to identify your views; you'll have to be more descriptive. Even the term "libertarian" is problematic thanks to some of the odd ducks tagging along that movement.

Neologisms are little better, as now you have to explain why you are using words you "made up".

My inclination is to investigate some of the terminology used by Enlightenment intellectuals -- for instance, before the Marxists coined the term "capitalism", what Enlightenment liberals said they supported was simply "the system of natural liberty". But until I have a more detailed understanding of the Enlightenment philosophers, I'll not be putting that to the test just yet.

It is an important question though -- the bastardization and inversion of terms is part of the Left's assault on the Enlightenment, and as such should be fought.

mike18xx said...

"...the bastardization and inversion of terms is part of the Left's assault on the Enlightenment..."

Part of? It's their *primary weapon* -- to destroy concepts by polluting their definitions. Ever looked at a dictionary lately? Half the words now have multiple definitions, many of them completely contradictory.

Case in point, vis-a-vis ye olde familiar "love it or leave it" fallacy: When arguing a point for liberty, the proponent of a statist outrage will inevitably remark, "Well, you're 'free' to leave!"

Jim May said...

Mike: no doubt, you are right that it is their primary weapon.

As far as conservatism goes, Jon Henke over at Asymmetrical Information puts up two quotes which make quite clear that it is time for the real conservatives to please stand up.