Power versus (?) Principles

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Tyler Cowan of Marginal Revolution cites the following paragraph from the blog Turnabout, in which its author reacts to George H. Nash's The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945.

As time went on the movement followed the usual shift in emphasis from quality to quantity: from the traditionalist, libertarian and anti-totalitarian ideas that got it started to the forces that gave it the means to exercise power: politic and well-connected neoconservatives, spokesmen and operatives who could influence and mobilize masses of religious and populist voters, and those simply interested in power as such. GWB's big government borderless "conservatism" brought that process to a conclusion: no conservative principle at all, just power, political management, and scraps of liberal and conservative ideology made up into banners. At this point, with the failure of the Bush administration, the whole thing seems to have come to an end. It seems that those who want to resist the reign of quantity and the managerial state, and work toward a better way of life, need to start again from basics. We are back in 1945.
Cowan sees "much truth in this", and links to another post explaining his own views on the matter as well as to C. Bradley Thompson's landmark essay, "The Decline and Fall of American Conservatism".

While I applaud Cowan for linking to Thompson's essay, both the above passage and Cowan's own further remarks indicate a further, more general problem affecting how many pro-freedom Americans think about politics.

If this problem is not addressed, our country will learn the hard way that what Turnabout calls "the usual shift" is anything but a normal stage in the life cycle of an intellectual movement. This shift is instead but a point on one side of the death spiral of our Republic. And this shift -- this falling out of favor of a big government political party with its also evil twin waiting in the wings -- is made possible in part by the very error I am going to point out.

The author of the post at Turnabout makes an observation about the conservative movement that sounds strangely commonplace to me: that it started out as idealistic and energetic, and yet ended up power-obsessed and cynical. Cowan's further post makes the following pronouncement: "The welfare state is not going away." These two statements may appear to be completely unrelated, yet they both spring from this same error. The key to understanding how they do and what this error is, is quite simple. Ask why each writer thinks he speaks the truth.

Why "must" an intellectual movement lose its idealism as it gains political power? My guess is that the author at Turnabout would say that the conservatives, in order to gain political power, started making compromises here and there to satisfy one constituency or another -- compromises made necessary because there are so many things to disagree about that the choice is to yield on the more nettlesome details or never become popular enough to attain political power. Eventually, enough of the original, animating vision has been stripped away that there is nothing left.

I would wager that this sounds like a pretty accurate description of what happened to the conservative movement to many people. I would have probably bought it myself until fairly recently, but it is wrong. For more on this, see Thompson, who memorably gets to the heart of the matter in this way, "Americans must remember what conservatives have forgotten (or never fully understood): that the United States was founded on the idea that individuals have unalienable rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness."

The conservatives initially did appeal to those who wanted to preserve or resurrect that idea -- or at least what they could still remember of it. But the Americans of today are in some respects a far cry from those who fought the revolution. Many hold a wide array of political beliefs at great odds with individual rights. The "liberal" who will fight tooth and nail for intellectual freedom even as he argues for socialized medicine (i.e., the enslavement of physicians) is one example. The "free-marketeer" who feels that broadcast media should be censored for nudity is another. Come up with another 300 million combinations and you'll see why politicians have to compromise, no?

And indeed, most of those combinations favor the welfare state in some form or another -- and yet want a vigorous economy and low taxes. This is probably why Cowan says, "The welfare state is not going away."

Both Cowan and the author of Turnabout make the same a fundamental error: They dismiss principles as politically impotent because a they think a strict adherence to them will cause any intellectual movement to fail to win a stable governing majority for the foreseeable future, and without political power, there appears (to them) to be no way to change society. They both have this completely backwards, even though both are clearly intelligent and both have the evidence directly under their noses.

To see this, we need only ask, "Why is the welfare state (supposedly) 'not going away'?" Obviously, the majority of the public expects to receive some form of governmental aid or regards it as moral for the state to provide such aid to others. They would see a promise to repeal the welfare state as a threat and in that sense, Cowan is right -- about the immediate future. The dominant moral philosophy within our culture has gradually shifted over the past couple of centuries from dominantly egoistic to dominantly altruistic. When people think about politics, they are informed by their moral philosophy.

And unless that dominant moral philosophy changes, the only way for an intellectual movement to govern our country any time soon will be for it to either compromise away whatever elements of egoism it has or for it to be altruist-collectivist from the start. Notice that even as he comments on the fall of the Republicans, we see a libertarian conceding defeat to the welfare state. There will be no fundamental political change in this country until there is a fundamental philosophical change.

This -- the dominant altruistic morality of the American people -- is a big part of why we have an apparent contradiction between holding a consistent, pro-freedom philosophy and the ability to wield political power. This also is a big part of why we have a trend towards increasing size of the government with no end in sight.

How to reverse this trend?

Recognize -- as Thompson points out -- that for a pro-freedom politics to become dominant in America, that it will be necessary to work for a philosophical revolution among Americans. He puts this better than I was about to:
Because they refuse to defend capitalism morally, on the basis of egoism, conservatives have compromised and sold-out the rights of the American people. They have ceded the principled high ground to the Left by accepting the moral rationale for the welfare state -- altruism and its attendant notion that "need" is a legitimate moral claim.

Those who value freedom and capitalism must abandon altruism and the fantasy philosophies that support it (including religion). They must embrace egoism and the factual foundation for individual rights. They must defend capitalism -- not only because it works better than any other social system -- but also, and more fundamentally, because it is the only moral social system.
It is tragically ironic that many who want limited government mistake political rule for "power" in today's intellectual climate, for the real power lies in philosophical ideas, which are what most strongly affect a nation's politics. As a result, too many advocates of freedom lose confidence in the power of ideas, and fail to become familiar with the kinds of ideas they should understand, teach to others, and use as a basis for making political arguments in the meantime. (Our nation's philosophy is a mixture and Americans are open to good arguments.)

-- CAV

No comments: