Saturday, July 08, 2006

Conservative leanings

Who among us has not experienced a conservative twinge from time to time?

In high school in the fifties I felt lonely and isolated. I was suffering from what I later identified as “alienation,” a major concern of the period. The answer I thought lay in recovering some sort of organic community that would integrate me into it. Under various names, the organic community was a centerpiece of the arguments of Edmund Burke and his followers, who believed that the French Revolution, and the atomistic individualism it fostered, had destroyed the fragile networks that sustained that community. Or in the words of a German sociologist, Ferdinand Tönnies, the warm embrace of Gemeinschaft had yielded to cold steel of Gesellschaft.

In the way of youth-—always seeking guidance from a mentor who seems to have all the answers—-these longings found reinforcement in the work of the grand panjandrum of the time. Today it is hard to understand the ascendancy that T.S. Eliot exercised over the intellectual world of mid-century Anglo-America. Not only did Eliot’s modernist practice provide a model for many dubious experiments in poetry, his essays offered firm instruction as to what one must approve in earlier work. Forget about Milton and Shelley: John Donne’s the thing. So I duly plowed into Donne, but it was only after I found a book-length explication by a Professor Unger (I think) that I could say that I understood what I had been reading.

T.S. Eliot believed strongly in tradition, and this held true for society as well as poetry. Of course, I could not endorse Eliot’s royalism, which was meaningless in America, and I was uneasy about his anti-Semitic barbs, which respectable opinion tended to gloss over in those days. But I became convinced that there was some sort of fit between respect for culture (including art history, my eventual professional choice) and the quest for the good society.

I went to college and the Eliot wave subsided—-in me and in the country in general. The overall climate among thinking young people in those days was overwhelmingly liberal. Lionel Trilling held that liberalism was the universal horizon of thought in modern America. David Suskind, producer of the leading TV discussion program, said that he could not find articulate conservatives to appear on the show. This was a slight exaggeration, but the few who did exist, such as Peter Viereck and Russell Kirk, seemed more like zoo exhibits—-weird survivors from some previous stage of evolution--than any harbinger of the future. The media relentlessly pilloried Ayn Rand (and indeed subsequent revelations about her personal life have brought out some unsavory details).

In those days it was easy to fall under the sway of liberal triumphalism and intolerance. I remember catching my roommate reading The Wall Street Journal. It was as if he had curled up with Mein Kampf! In retrospect, detecting this intolerance in my former self helped me to identify it later in others-—especially among those who piously intone that liberalism is always the very soul of generosity, compassion, and tolerance. Such folk reserve special scorn for renegades. Woe betide anyone who strays from the liberal plantation.

Maintaining the faith was sometimes difficult. From time to time there were unexpected changes in the Party Line. These were just as sudden and absolute as those decreed by the Kremlin, but it was hard to determine their source. As a teenager I used to carry about a paperback by Marquis Childs called “Sweden: The Middle Way.” I took from this book a highly favorable view of public ownership--of housing, for example. Yet when I came to New York in the mid-fifties I met social activists who decried the housing projects, which I revered as symbols of commitment to social responsibility. I found this demotion incomprehensible. (Later Jane Jacobs would explain it all for me.) The most startling changes fell within the orbit of civil rights. At first desegregation and absolute equality were the unquestioned goals. But then the Party Line shifted. Segregation was OK if chosen by blacks themselves. And we had to become color conscious again in order to secure the goals of Affirmative Action. For a time Martin Luther King’s Gandhian nonviolence was the rule-—until the coming of Black Power and the Panthers.

During the same period it was becoming increasingly clear that many Great Society programs were not working. In some cases they were making things worse. The juggernaut of urban renewal blighted our center cities. And welfare had perverse incentives that broke families apart, while creating permanent bonds of dependency.

Under the Carter administration the forward march of liberalism came to a halt. I remember Donna Shalala (in her youth a second-order member of that administration) telling me that the president had asked her to devise a new social program, one that would require no money. There was the rub, for liberal programs always required throwing vast quantities of taxpayer money at problems. I forget the details of Shalala’s scheme, but whatever it was it failed. Unfunded liberal programs were a contradiction in terms.

Eventually the Democrats hunkered down to defending what they already had. In this way they came to be perceived as the captive of sectors of society—-labor unions, women, blacks, gays and lesbians (even though all these groups had plenty of legitimate complaints about the way the Great White Father was treating them). Paradoxically, the Democrats now seemed to be the conservatives, while the Reagan Republicans were the innovators.

During the summer of 1973, while recovering from a serious illness, I had the pleasure of staying in a friend’s apartment in San Francisco while she was away in Europe. Her shelves were crammed with libertarian literature! I dipped into these forbidden volumes with all the guilty pleasure of a Southern Baptist discovering pornography. As Dante would say, I read no more on that trip, but after I got home I asked Lili for a recommended list. Thus encouraged, I bought and studied many libertarian classics and manifestos. The ideal of limited government seemed in keeping with the approach followed by the Founders of this nation (all, that is, except for Alexander Hamilton, a portent of things to come). It was easy for me to sign on to the social aspects—getting government out of the bedroom and ending the insane war on drugs. Then too, libertarians rightly seemed to look askance at the foreign adventurism that led us to interfere, often by force, in the affairs of other nations. (I note parenthetically that libertarian opposition to the current Iraq war was initially not very vigorous.)

As someone who had been vaccinated by Marquis Childs, at first I felt queasy about privatization. Subsequent experience has shown that it can work, especially in Third World countries hobbled by corruption and overregulation. Still, I cannot be an orthodox libertarian, as I do not favor privatizing parks and highways, nor do I think that resort to the courts, after the damage has been done, is the answer to the ravages of industrial pollution. And we simply must have national health care, if only because its absence is completing the devastation of our major industries, which must compete with foreign companies that do not have to provide this assistance.

These caveats aside, though, libertarianism provided a general standard which one could accept or reject as far as it applied to each individual item. This principled approach is sadly lacking in standard-issue liberalism. Rudderless opportunism is the reason for the sudden changes of front in the areas of housing and civil rights I noted above.

Try this culinary comparison. Liberalism offers a changing menu, and why it changes no one is quite sure. An item strongly recommended one day will disappear the next. The libertarian menu is lean, but consistent.

You are supposed to stick to the menu, but I don’t. When all is said and done I am only a “jack libertarian,” because I do not go along with everything. But the encounter has made me think on these matters on a case by case basis, instead of just relying on a few shibboleths, as the stereotype that business people are always heartless, greedy bastards, while members of ethnic minorities are always noble, suffering victims. (In my youth a “jack Mormon,” was one who drank coffee and alcohol.)

In principle libertarianism is equidistant from both liberalism and conservatism. And yet the approach seems to consort more easily with conservative views. Only in dipping into the new tome American Conservatism: An Encyclopedia (ISI Books, 2006) did I come to understand the nature of this link. It is the doctrine of fusion, as advocated by the later Frank Meyer. As the Editors remark in the Introduction: “Frank Meyer’s well known ‘fusionism’ served for decades as a kind of justification for conservatism as a political coalition. Through ‘fusionism,’ Meyer and those who followed him argued that the great goals of life are freedom and virtue, and that in order for virtue, the special concern of traditionalists, to be authentic, it must be attained in a context of maximal individual freedom, the special concern of libertarians. In turn, argued Meyer, freedom may only claim our moral allegiance insofar as its ultimate purpose is to allow men and women to attain virtue. Thought of in this way, libertarians and traditionalists could be understood to pursue much the same practical ends for human beings.”

This analysis assumes two parties, traditionalists and libertarians, who enjoy a complementary relationship. However, as another article points out, “[t]he Right now includes not only traditionalists and libertarians, but also neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, ‘nativists,’ antiabortionists, and the religious right, among other groups. It is unlikely that any future philosophical alliance will be as successful as the earlier fusionist movement in reconciling the differences between these groups.” In short, there are now too many guests sitting at the table.

The Democrats have their own problems. For some time they have been viewed as having simply hunkered down into a defensive posture, ostensibly acting at the bidding of their constituent client groups, but betraying them at will—as in the support for NAFTA, which labor unions fought. In addition, differences over the Iraq war are tearing the Democrats apart.

Currently the focal point of that dispute is the appalling Joseph Lieberman. He has given new meaning to the old adolescent term “kissie.” Unlike another Senatorial hawk, John McCain, he hasn’t even ventured to criticize Rumsfeld’s blatant mismanagement of the war. In his current thrashings and vituperation, the Senator from Connecticutt seems only to confirm a sad truth about most politicians—-that they will do anything to retain power.

The remedy is another libertarian prescription, limited government. If only it could be--for that aspiration is well-nigh utopian these days.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

So many of us share your alienation. I would add "skepticism" to the mix, a surprisingly conservative notion, even though I am not a conservative.

Robert Nozick, the Harvard professor of philosophy, gored conservatism in a single sentence: Conservatives posits tradition as its raison d'etre. So Nozick insisted: Bring on slavery, despotism, incivility, intolerance, brutality, etc. After all, these are historical traditions. Democracy, of course, has less than a few hundred years of "tradition," and should be excluded by the "tradition" criterion.

Nozick's libertarianism is just as easily gored. No one disagrees with "negative liberty," which libertarianism extols (solely), but who will provide food, clothing, and shelter if I can't? Negative freedom (the freedom "from:) cannot, indeed won't, answer the inquiry about basic survival. Does "survival" trump negative liberty? It trumps everything! Who cares about "freedom from" if one cannot subsist? Even positive freedom ("freedom to") is irrelevant in the face of survival.

Assuming the basic needs for survival have been met, then the questions of negative and positive freedoms enter consciousness. Having plenty allows for the "what if" considerations. But "freedom from" is not sufficient; freedom to is also necessary. The unaddressed "freedom to" leaves libertarianism in the dustbin of history, only marginally superior to Marxism.

No political theory captures all of human wants. They are all deficient. Some theories may be better than alternatives, but not by much. It's not that libertarianism succeeds, it't that it fails. Within its radar of negative freedom, it answers THOSE questions, but leaves unaddressed ALL the others. It's wrong by deficiency, a category it does not accept.

As Ian Shapiro, probably the best theorist ever, suggests, we must start from an empirical concept of human nature, as flawed as that concept is, and claim each political feature on its own merits. Because the construct of "human nature" is flexible, so should be our claims. As problematic as this approach is, it's the least problematic approach available. Just as democracy is the least worst form of government, so this approach is the least worst form of approach.

Dogmatists, Left or Right, will not hear of this relativity. Their theory demands universals, and their universals trumps particulars, regardless of theory, regardless of particulars. "Fit" or be lost, is their demand. Unfortunately, whatever theory of human nature one adopts, "fitting" theory is not human nature, but human nature demands particular its own particular "fits."

I suspect this insight was paramount at this nation's founding. Checking human nature and balancing its demands (against its worst instincts) was written into the Constitution. I also suspect that skepticism of government was intrinsic to the creation of the checks-and-balances to defeat idealistic utopias. Even inalienable rights, an intellectual, not a physical, construct, was meant to defeat utopian schemes. The Founders may not have resolved all issues (slavery being the most obvious), but they accomplished what they could given utopian designs. Their skepticism of government, so obvious, has subsequently been lost. People now implore government to solve their intractible problems, as if government could. People willingly surrender their inalienable rights for the feeling of "security," as if government could provide it, or as if the trade-off made sense.

The Founders' skepticism, perhaps the best guiding principle ever devised, can be, and is, trumped by people's insecurities. "Freedom" becomes what's left when there's nothing left to do. Despite ourselves, we know ourselves only too well. Today's political environment demonstrates this only too well. Sadly.

11:08 PM  

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