Friday, August 19, 2005

The Conservatives down the road

Austin Bramswell has an interesting read in the latest issue of The American Conservative, in which he warns about conservative triumphalism and identifies three areas where high quality conservative debate is still taking place.
Conservatism has reached an unacknowledged consensus about the outcome of the theoretical debates of the ‘50s and ‘60s. The consensus holds, first, that someone has discovered the Holy Grail that will vindicate conservatism once and for all, otherwise why be a conservative in the first place? Second, it holds that, whatever the Grail actually is, it does not do any good to describe it with too much specificity. These beliefs contradict each other, yet the conservative consensus has proved remarkably stable. Take, as a case study, libertarianism. Unlike most other right-wingers, libertarians have a distinct idea of what they stand for: less government. They also have, in free-market economics, the Right’s most fruitful research program and, in F.A. Hayek, the only recent right-wing theorist to command serious attention from the Left. What libertarians do not have, however, is a comprehensive argument for their ideology. Their failure to uncover this argument stems from no lack of trying. Even more than other right-wingers, libertarians love abstract debates over why their views are correct. Richard Epstein, for example, the brilliant libertarian law professor at the University of Chicago, subtitled his latest book, “A Modern Case for Classical Liberalism.” It is his third contribution to the literature of libertarian apologetics, a somewhat occult genre dating back to the 1920s. To put it bluntly, the genre is a failure. No economic model can prove that government interference in the economy by nature tends to do harm. While economics can show that some government programs will fail—rent control, say, or confiscatory tax rates—it cannot show that all government programs will fail [that would be an inductive conclusion, which libertarians will often refuse to admit as a valid form of reasoning - ed.]. As for the various moral arguments for libertarianism, they are even weaker. Liberal theorists such as Ronald Dworkin and Amartya Sen have long since shown that libertarians simply fail to grasp the full dimensions of equal liberty, which does not demand, as libertarians would have it, that everyone should be equally free to starve, but that everyone should have a fair chance to pursue his goals freely. This principle may require a more active government than libertarians would allow.
Libertarianism failed with me because it is simply unable to deal adequately with the real world and real people, people who are not interchangeable, autonomous parts. Dependency and struggle simply cannot be reduced to the failure to summon the Neitzschian will. Libertarians can't deal with things like children, to name one really obvious example, and do little better when dealing with the aged and the mentally ill. We live in a web of human interaction and at different times in our lives we fill different roles. Sometimes, through no fault, we cannot compete and under no circumstances should that mean we are forfeit. There's probably a reason libertarians are so often young men with no significant attachments. Liberals tend to make the same mistake in the social sphere, where freedom and autonomy are also not without reasonable limits.
Some may read this description of the American Right with bemused impatience. Conservatism doesn’t need a master-philosopher; to the lofty theoretical disputes of the 1950s and ’60s, they say good riddance. Perhaps they are correct: American conservatism doesn’t need a Holy Grail. Nonetheless, conservatives should not let the intellectual restlessness of their early years give way to decadent complacency. It has happened before in American political life—to American liberalism—with unhappy consequences both for liberalism and the nation.
I identify as one of the ones Bramswell speaks of here. I am not convinced that conservatives need the 'holy grail' he writes about, and that without it, we risk succumbing to the sort of triumphalism that American Liberals have struggled with. In fact, the idea seems to me to be pretty much the sort of thing Burke warned against. We work on the small parts, trusting they will come together and be greater than anything we could have planned. Branswell suggests that the conservative cannon consists of "the canon of conservative thought: The Road to Serfdom, Ideas Have Consequences, Capitalism and Freedom, The Conservative Mind, Witness, Atlas Shrugged, In Defense of Freedom, The Closing of the American Mind, and others." These are all works that were written in the period 1940 to 1960, and he wonders where the new conservative classics are. One of the areas he identifies as fertile ground for the conservative imagination is the fascination with technology, particularly the field of biotech. In that, he is almost certainly right. There is a pile-up coming and advising people on how best to avoid it is not only the right thing to do, but it could pay substantial dividends to conservatism's stature in the future.

No comments: