My thanks to Jonah Goldberg for noticing my experiment, to all of the participants for playing (whether wittingly or not!), and special thanks to Jeffrey Hart for writing a good article that inspired this debate. This post encompasses comments made during the course of approximately 36 hours of blog debate and (due to sanity reasons!) was terminated at around 8pm, EST on 12/28/2005.
Jeffrey Hart has the conservative blogosphere all atwitter over his attempt to summarize and define modern American conservatism:
In "The Conservative Mind" (1953), a founding document of the American conservative movement, Russell Kirk assembled an array of major thinkers beginning with Edmund Burke and made a major statement. He proved that conservative thought in America existed, and even that such thought was highly intelligent--a demonstration very much needed at the time.In the piece, Hart sketched a conservative synthesis (before reading further, read Hart's piece) that was critical of what he considers the inconsistencies within the contemporary American conservative movement. No surprise--he has drawn criticism from a few directions. In particular, disagreements have arisen over five components of his synthesis: 1) his characterization of pro-life conservatives as being utopians; 2) his belief that an excessive reliance on a free-market ideology is harmful; 3) his characterization President Bush's foreign policy as "Wilsonian"; 4) the growing influence of the "anti-intellectual" South within the Republican party; 5) his suggestion of the particular building block on which a new conservative metaphysics should be built.
Today we are in a very different and more complicated situation. Nevertheless, a synthesis is possible, based on what American conservatism has achieved and left unachieved since Kirk's volume. Any political position is only as important as the thought by which it is derived; the political philosopher presiding will be Burke, but a Burke interpreted for a new constitutional republic and for modern life. Here, then, is my assessment of the ideas held in balance in the American Conservative Mind today.
Jonah Goldberg and Joseph Knippenberg (andKnippenberg's commenters) took him to task for describing anti-abortion, pro-lifers as "utopian." To use Goldberg's summary:
On the one hand Hart says that conservatives need to drop their "utopian" adherence to the strict pro-life position (carried down to the human embryo). Hart says that since such a view will never be written into law, to pine for enactment of right to life views is therefore utopian. He may or may not be right on the political question. But there are two problems here. The first, as Knippenberg notes, is that Hart also endorses religion and religiously oriented metaphysics. But, as the Catholic Church teaches, the right to life position is absolute. How is, say, a Catholic conservative to be rightly religious while wrongly utopian? Which is supposed to give way to the other?Ramesh Ponnuru also disgreed with Hart's anti-abortion-as-utopia characterization. Goldberg also wondered:
The second point is more pragmatic. Why should the fact that we will never ban abortion in all its forms be proof not merely of the hopeless utopianism of prolifers, but proof that the absolutist position must be abandoned entirely?
We will never successfully ban murder, theft, or unwarranted violence but we maintain some loyalty to the moral principles which condemn and limit these things. I understand it is not a perfect analogy, but the point remains that one can at least uphold a principle as absolute even if it is necessary to make compromises with reality about how to apply that principle. The fact that the overwhelming majority of pro-lifers who consider abortion a grave crime have remained law-abiding and non-violent is testament to that fact. [A reader subsequently corrected Goldberg: murder (for example) has been banned, just not stopped.]
Is it really "Jacobinism" to find a right to life in the Declaration? If conservatives are wrong to do this, maybe it's because they're simply wrong. Besides, how many pro-lifers are against abortion because of this "Jacobin" reading of the Declaration? Surely, vastly larger numbers of people are pro-lifers first and natural law jurists a very distant second, if at all.John O'Sullivan also disagreed with Hart, stating:
Tellingly, Hart also writes: "Any political position is only as important as the thought by which it is derived." Really? This sounds like an awfully theoretical way to look at the world and one hard to reconcile with his kind words for realism a few paragraphs later. Also, why does he invoke William James of all people as a guide for the conservative mind? James was an admirable fellow, but the patron of much that is not conservative. If Hart's point is to disparage dogmatism and utopianism in praise of "muddling through" in the British sense, one can think of quite a few better authorities to conjure than James.
Jeff's description of the Right's attitude to Roe as "utopian" because it simply is not going to be repealed, for instance, seems to me questionable on two grounds. First, it is surely wrong to use "utopian" as a synonym for politically unrealistic or difficult. The point about utopia is that it doesn't work even when it works--utopias produce perverse results even when they are successfully imposed. Would overturning Roe produce more abortions? I don't think so. Second, opposing Roe might not succeed in the sense that it will be repealed entirely but it might well result in more restrictions being placed on the abortion right. Indeed, that seems to be happening, albeit with agonizing slowness. And if that trend continues, the actual number of abortions might not be very different than if Roe were repealed since, as others have noted, prohibiting something rarely eliminates it entirely.Later, O'Sullivan quoted T.S. Eliot:
Whenever I read something along the lines of what Jeff Hart has just written about the pro-life cause, I find it helpful to recall the words of T.S. Eliot: "There is no such thing as a Lost Cause because there is no such thing as a Gained Cause."John Derbyshire is closer to Hart than the others on abortion, though with a qualification: "I do think Jeff is right about the place of abortion in America's future, though too kind on Roe v. Wade as a judicial imposition."
FREE MARKET UTOPIANS
Peter Robinson (who also agrees with Goldberg, Ponnuru et all re: abortion) then passed along the thoughts of self-described "crunchy-con" Rod Dreher:
the utopian temptation can turn such free-market thought into a utopianism of its own--that is, free markets to be effected even while excluding every other value and purpose . . .such as Beauty, broadly defined. The desire for Beauty may be natural to human beings, like other natural desires. It appeared early, in prehistoric cave murals. In literature (for example, Dante) and in other forms of representation--painting, sculpture, music, architecture--Heaven is always beautiful, Hell ugly. Plato taught that the love of Beauty led to the Good. Among the needs of civilization is what Burke called the "unbought grace of life."Goldberg responded to this idea of "utopian free marketers":
The word "unbought" should be pondered. Beauty has been clamorously present in the American Conservative Mind through its almost total absence. The tradition of regard for woodland and wildlife was present from the beginnings of the nation and continued through conservative exemplars such as the Republican Theodore Roosevelt, who established the National Parks. Embarrassingly for conservatives (at least one hopes it is embarrassing), stewardship of the environment is now left mostly to liberal Democrats.
Not all ideas and initiatives by liberals are bad ones. Burke's unbought beauties are part of civilized life, and therefore ought to occupy much of the Conservative Mind. The absence of this consideration remains a mark of yahooism and is prominent in Republicanism today. As if by an intrinsic law, when the free market becomes a kind of utopianism it maximizes ordinary human imperfection--here, greed, short views and the resulting barbarism.
Jeff goes on to talk about how important Religion is to conservatism, and how we face now nothing less than the need to recover a solid metaphysics. I think the free-market consumerist utopianism on the Right, which Jeff rightly decries as harmful to the cause of authentic conservatism, is in large part due to a loss of metaphysics. As I argue in "Crunchy Cons"...
Where, exactly, are all of these free-market utopians I keep hearing about? I'm not being cute. I do know there are some. Every now and then I'll see something on the web from a radical faction of the Randians or some anarcho-libertarian types (not all of them, for the record).Dreher responded:
But I think in general this is a strawman. As John O'Sullivan notes, it's a bad idea to use "utopian" when you mean "unrealistic" or "unlikely." The vast, vast, majority of hardcore free-market types I know may be unrealitic and their schemes may be unlikely to ever see the light of day, but I don't think many of them are utopians. As I understand the word, utopianism is an attempt to bring about the end of both politics and economics. Both politics and economics are address how to allocate scarce resources and how to best organize society. In religious and Marxian utopias these issues are settled. Everybody has all the bounty they'll ever need. Antagonisms of class, race whatever will have been reconciled. This was the aim of Marxism and other utopian ideologies.
I don't know very many free market absolutists who believe that a complete free market would result in a utopia. They merely argue that wealth would increase, resources would be allocated more justly or, at least rationally, and things would generally be better than under other means of organizing society. But there would still be trade-offs, externalities, conflict, politics etc.
Now, I may agree with Rod or Jeff Hart about the over-emphasis on materialism by some free-marketers and I might be skeptical that social peace could be achieved as easily as they think under their preferred system (or in the process of reaching that system). But none of these objections amount to the charge of utopianism.
Where are they? Lord, Jonah, come to Dallas. In my part of town, developers are tearing down older houses left and right, and putting up McMansions on small lots. Whenever the people who actually live there object to what this practice, at least in the way developers are currently doing it, is doing to the aesthetic character of the neighborhood, the developers invoke the Free Market, as if it were the Magisterium of the Church. I remember watching on the late local news one night not long ago a developer saying that if people didn't want to buy these kinds of houses, they wouldn't be building them. As if consumer desire was its own justification.Goldberg replied:
James Howard Kunstler was here a few months ago, and he said that there's nothing wrong in principle with big houses on small lots. Some of the most beautiful neighborhoods in America are composed of these kinds of houses. What rankles people, he pointed out, is that lots of these new houses are ugly, and put up with no consideration for the aesthetic character of the neighborhood. I would add that they're put up with no thought toward what consideration the individual homeowner owes to his neighbors and community. I don't see what's so conservative about that. Libertarian, yes, but as you know, that's not the same thing as conservative.
At worst Jeff is engaging in imprecise writing by deploying the word "utopian" -- though to be fair, he actually wrote "a kind of utopianism," and it seems to me clear from Jeff's piece that what he means by this is a state of affairs in which the only thing that really matters is what the free market wants. (That's one reason why we'll never get real immigration reform in this country; a lot of conservatives who don't like what's happening with out-of-control Mexican immigration will not, at the end of the day, give up cheap consumer goods and services for the sake of other conservative values that would be served by stanching the outlaw migrant flow). I think you are reading Jeff too literally here. What he decries is the economic
version of the sexual libertinism that many liberals exalt. You might not see this kind of thing advocated on web sites, in think tanks or in gatherings of the intellectual right, but a crude version of it animates a lot of what calls itself conservatism today out here far from the NY-DC corridor.
I have some sympathy for the desire to keep neighborhoods' historic aesthetic character intact. But just for the record, I agree with you that Jeff is being imprecise when he uses the word utopian, because what you describe isn't a kind of utopianism at all. None of the people advocating large houses on small lots are claiming that the world will be perfect if only they can have a three car garage. And I agree with you that there are a lot of people on the right who argue for the triumph of the free market in all things to the exclusion of other good things. My point was that while one may argue that this is a wrong-headed, ugly, myopic or sacrilegious point of view with varying degrees of merit, it is difficult to argue that it is a form of utopianism. Indeed, to the extent people trying to get bigger houses invoke the free market, my guess it is out of opportunism, not utopianism. It has always amazed me how rich people can so quickly become socialists in order to protect their property values.And so did John J. Miller:
One last point worth making, I think. Again, while I agree that some deference should be paid to considerations beyond pure market forces in many situations, most particularly at the local level, I think it's a bit of a dodge to chalk up unwanted changes to the cold impersonal specter of the "free market." "The free market" is an abstraction, to be sure, but in real life it is a means by which we seek to maximize individual choice and happiness in very concrete ways. It is a mechanism by which individual people are allowed to choose what will give them satisfaction and enjoyment. For every neighborhood resident aghast at a big house there is another would-be resident who is overjoyed at finally being able to live in the house he always wanted.
Anyway, my objection (or at least the relevant one) was that Jeff is using the word utopian imprecisely. And I stand by that.
What's conservative about demanding control over other people's property? That's essentially what you're asking for when you speak of "the aesthetic character of the neighborhood." Before long, you wind up with communities that ban people from parking their big white work vans in their own driveways because these are supposedly unsightly. I used to live in a townhouse development where this actually happened (we had parking spaces rather than driveways) and it struck me as a cruel slap at working-class families. And don't get me started about the "architectural committee" and its springtime inspections. When an HOA runs your neighborhood, however, you get to experience a little taste of socialism.Additionally, Ian Murray adds a speech by Michael Crichton to the record, adding:
Crichton's discussion of the problems at Yellowstone Park shows exactly why Jeffrey Hart's article also goes slightly awry in its implicit setting of free markets and the environment against each other. 'Scientific management' of the environment of the sort Theodore Roosevelt propounded is no match for the traditional environmentalism that is founded on the market institutions of ownership and property rights.Goldberg then offered an excerpt from Steven Landsburg's, The Armchair Economist:
Economics is the science of competing preferences. Environmentalism goes beyond science when it elevates matters of preference to matters of morality. A proposal to pave a wilderness and put up a parking lot is an occasion for conflict between those who prefer wilderness and those who prefer convenient parking. In the ensuing struggle, each side attempts to impose its preferences by manipulating the political and economic systems. Because one side must win and one side must lose, the battle is hard-fought and sometimes bitter. All of this is to be expected....NRO commenter "David" criticized Goldberg for his narrow use of the word "utopian":
....Economics forces us to confront a fundamental symmetry. The conflict arises because each side wants to allocate the same resource in a different way. Jack wants his woodland at the expense of Jill's parking space and Jill wants her parking space at the expense of Jack's woodland. That formulation is morally neutral and should serve as a warning against assigning exalted moral status to either Jack or Jill.
The symmetries run deeper. Environmentalists claim that wilderness should take precedence over parking because a decision to pave is "irrevocable." Of course they are right, but they overlook the fact that a decision not to pave is equally irrevocable. Unless we pave today, my opportunity to park tomorrow is lost as irretrievably as tomorrow itself will be lost. The ability to park in a more distant future might be a quite inadequate substitute for that lost opportunity.
A variation on the environmentalist theme is that we owe the wilderness option not to ourselves but to future generations. But do we have any reason to think that future generations will prefer inheriting the wilderness to inheriting the profits from the parking lot? That is one of the first questions that would be raised in any honest scientific inquiry.
Another variation is that the parking lot's developer is motivated by profits, not preferences. To this there are two replies. First, the developer's profits are generated by his customers' preferences; the ultimate conflict is not with the developer but with those who prefer to park. Second, the implication of the argument is that a preference for a profit is somehow morally inferior to a preference for a wilderness, which is just the sort of posturing that the argument was designed to avoid.
The sense intended is obvious, that the “free market utopians” are those that believe that the free market somehow magically resolves all conflict in the best and by definition correct way, in the same way early socialists thought that there would be no more crime or discrimination once the means of production were owned by the workers.Goldberg defended himself:
The obvious problem is that the free market is only one of many effective strategies for resolving competing claims, and one that always makes the individual desire trump the groups so that the whole can never rise above its parts. That may be often good, but when one decrees that this is the only possible good way, one is being some sort of an ideological, hide bound, invoker of The One Perfect Way type of something….utopian fits that pretty good for most people. Its not quite being ‘unrealistic’. One could say one thinks that a new toll road will solve all the traffic needs and be merely ‘unrealistic’, but when one says we must have a toll road because it is a Free Market solution, end of argument, because its implied that this must therefore be inherently the best…then one is what exactly?
If one subs the word utopian for your preferred word, does the argument hold up still? If so, aren’t you picking an awfully small nit?
I think I'm right to object. Jeff Hart is a very serious guy. His piece is intended to be and presented as an authoritative statement on American conservatism. He uses conservative fighting words like "Jacobinism" and "utopianism" not in a conversational way but in a very serious way. Therefore it seems fair and appropriate to engage his assertions seriously. If this was an op-ed about a specific public policy and the author threw in the word "utopianism" as a stand-in for "pie-eyed idealism" or some such, I wouldn't object, but this seems like something very different to me.O'Sullivan added:
Since I think I introduced this particular dispute--Jonah is again right. In a sense there cannot be a free-market utopian since free market economics is positively infatuated with reality. But there are people of a utopian disposition who take up a worshipful attitude to the free market. They are doomed to disillusionment. In the first Gulf War, for instance, some libertarians opposed the war on the grounds that the free market would solve any problem raised by Saddam's controlling all the Gulf oil and setting an astronomical price for it. They were, of course, right. But how would the market solve it? By sucking vast amounts of investible capital into Saddam's treasury, by depressing demand worldwide, by encouraging investment in alternative sources of oil and alternative energy sources, and so on. A decade letter the world would be awash in cheap oil, energy use would be much more economical, and Saddam's vast civil engineering projects would be abandoned only half-completed as his oil revenues slumped dramatically.And:
Problem solved by the market? Sure. But in the intervening decade we would have suffered world stagflation on a large scale with a misery index at Jimmy Carter levels.
How do I know all this? Because that is what happened when the free market solved the crisis caused by OPEC's two oil price hikes in the 1970-80s. (Actually, "The Economist" and I predicted all that.)
Rod might want to consider some of the most beautiful housing estates in the world: London's Georgian estates. These have a aesthetic harmony because the aristocratic landlords who built them insisted that tenants make any changes or decorations conform to the standards they laid down. No one could rent who rejected these conditions; but no one was compelled to rent these houses; there were other options. It was a voluntary market arrangement on both sides--and it has produced a lasting architectural environment far more splendid than any land use planning by government bureaucracies. Such aesthetic landmarks depend, however, on the protection of private property rights--and on renters and buyers who demand such a pleasing environment and are prepared to pay a little more in rent or mortgage payments. I think Dallas has the first. How about the second?Dreher responded:
Jonah, you write:Ponnuru summarized:"The free market" is an abstraction, to be sure, but in real life it is a means by which we seek to maximize individual choice and happiness in very concrete ways. It is a mechanism by which individual people are allowed to choose what will give them satisfaction and enjoyment. For every neighborhood resident aghast at a big house there is another would-be resident who is overjoyed at finally being able to live in the house he always wanted.
Yes, this is true, and I think it should be said that we're all free
marketeers here. My complaint is against those of our tribe who talk as if
maintaining individual rights, vis-a-vis our economic arrangements, are the be-all of conservatism. I'm certainly not advocating against the free
market, only saying that it is one good among several that conservatives
should concern themselves with. This is a point often lost on conservatives
who fetishize the market as the ultimate arbiter of social good. Which
brings us to John's point:Rod: What's conservative about demanding control over other people's property? That's essentially what you're asking for when you speak of "the aesthetic character of the neighborhood." Before long, you wind up with communities that ban people from parking their big white work vans in their own driveways because these are supposedly unsightly.Of course I am, John, because I don't believe that the individual's rights trump the community's in all property matters (nor do I believe the converse). John Tierney, who as you know is a libertarian, wrote in his Times column last month that he's become a convert on the value of neighborhood associations as a private way of empowering people to have a measure of control over what their neighborhoods look like. Of course this power can be abused, but the reason my wife and I chose to move into our neighborhood was we liked the look and feel of the neighborhood, which is not a wealthy neighborhood by any stretch, but is almost unique in Dallas (it's an early 20th century bungalow neighborhood). They don't build beautiful little houses like this anymore, and I think they're worth conserving.
Let me give you another example. My mom and dad live in rural Louisiana. Not far from their house, a landowner who has had trouble getting financing to develop her property is now slated to turn her land into a FEMA trailer park to house 200 families displaced from New Orleans. I don't know that the community can stop this, but they have good reason to, not least because moving hundreds of inner-city folks into a rural community where there are no jobs for them does not fill residents with optimism about the immediate future of their neighborhood. All this landowner wants to do is maximize profits, which is not bad in and of itself, but her private gain will possibly come at the expense of a lot of people who will see a way of life they'd like to protect changed irreversibly. (And this is not primarily a race and class thing; this rural area is already mixed-race, and home to people of all classes). How is it a conservative thing to tell these people who have been there all of their lives that they have no right to do what they can to limit this landowner's ability to use her land for this kind ofdevelopment?
Rod and John Miller both seem to see them as constraints on free markets, with the former approving and the latter annoyed. John O'Sullivan seems to regard them as part of the free market: a way in which a "community" can see its values realized, and individualism tamed, within the market. That seems right to me. And while I don't know the details of the "FEMA trailer park" that Rod mentions, the acronym involved makes me doubt that it's a purely free-market phenomenon.
Jonathan Adler echoed Ponnuru:
I am solidly with Ramesh in believing that neighborhood associations are market institutions. That is, true neighborhood associations -- like all voluntary and contractual associations -- are build upon the very same institutional foundations as markets: private property and voluntary exchange protected by the rule of law. Where these institutions are protected, markets develop and rule economic affairs. At the same time, the existence of these institutions allows for individuals and families to band together in voluntary associations to provide for many of the goods that pure economic exchange does not. This sort of private ordering is the heart and soul of civil society. It cannot be duplicated by government (though, as Jonah notes, under the right conditions local governments may come closer that larger, more distant entities).WILSONIANISM
Efforts to control the market through the political process inherently undermine property rights and voluntary exchange, and thereby weaken the same institutions which protect those non-economic and non-material things that most conservatives hold dear. Limit the freedom of contract and personal control over property, and it has both economic and social effects. It is no coincidence that the likes of Richard Weaver embraced a near-absolutist position in defense of property -- the "last metaphysical right" -- despite having relatively little regard for questions of economic prosperity. This understanding is, in my view, the foundation for a lasting coalition between social and economic conservatives. Alas, I feel it is something that both sides seem to forget. [Insert plug for fusionism here.]
Andrew Morse (who is my colleague on another blog) took issue with Hart's critique of the President's foreign policy as being "Wilsonian":
Mr. Hart believes that Republicans have turned away from conservatism to pursue what he calls a “hard Wilsonian” foreign policy. Hard Wilsonianism is the term often used (improperly, in my opinion) to describe the belief that the US should aggressively promote its ideals in its foreign policy, by force of arms if necessary.John Derbyshire also disputes Hart on this, stating Hart's "anti-Wilsonian arguments need looking at again, too. As I understand actual Wilsonianism, it would have divided Iraq into three separate nations by now." Matthew Yglesias thinks that "the core complaint is clearly supposed to be with the general notion of armed democracy-promotion as a core foreign policy tool."
This definition -- consistent with Mr. Hart’s essay -- too broadly construes the meaning and the dangers of Wilsonianism. Wilsonians want to do more than just promote (classically) liberal, democratic ideals in the conduct of foreign policy. They want to promote those ideals using specific means -- by endowing supra-national institutions with a legitimate right to coerce sovereign governments into behaving in a particular way.
This doesn’t really describe the foreign policy of George W. Bush.
No version of “Wilsonianism” would have allowed the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s government of without UN, or some kind of formal, supra-national permission. You might argue that the foreign policy of George W. Bush is overly idealistic (I would disagree), but calling it "Wilsonian" stretches the definition of "Wilsonian" beyond any useful meaning.
For his part, Morse later added:
Hart states that…Finally, Joe Knippenberg links to an earlier article by Hart ("The Evangelical Effect," which was highly critical of President Bush's foreign policy. The title summary blared "The Bush presidency is not conservative. It is populist and radical, says Jeffrey Hart, its policies deformed by the influence of Christian extremism."). As Knippenberg implies with this link, this particular line of critique by Hart of Bush is nothing new.George W. Bush has firmly situated himself in [the Wilsonian] tradition, as in his 2003 pronouncement, "The human heart desires the same good things everywhere on earth." Welcome to Iraq. Whereas realism counsels great prudence in complex cultural situations, Wilsonianism rushes optimistically ahead.If Jeffrey Hart is claiming that realism is the true conservative path, then it is he, and not George Bush, who is the conservative iconoclast. Hart is certainly aware of “realism” has a very specific meaning when applied to foreign policy. If realism is conservatism, then uber-realists Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger should be counted amongst the great conservative leaders.
Students of conservatism should feel free to correct me if I’m wrong here, but I know of very few conservatives who trace the lineage of conservatism through Nixon/Kissinger. Nixon, in fact, is generally considered a major example of the non-conservative Republicanism that troubles Hart so.
At this point you might rightfully ask if it matters how conservative foreign policy is labeled, as long as people understand the ideas being discussed. But that is precisely the point. Because Hart chose to criticize W‘s foreign policy for being “Wilsonian” instead of being “idealistic”, I cannot tell if Hart believes that there is any role for ideals in foreign policy. The praise of “realism” implies that he believes that foreign policy should be ideals-free. The fact that Hart chose to criticize a specific version of an ideals-based foreign policy, instead of idealism in general, implies the opposite.
Ramesh Ponnuru asked, "Does Jeff really believe that the South and the Sunbelt are dumber, less educated, and less prudent than the Northeast?" (Remarking later, Richard Brookhiser thinks this would be an intellectual "u-turn" for Hart). Jonah Goldberg responded to Ponnuru:
I think one can make the case -- from a standpoint of enlightened elitism -- that the shift to the South and West hurt traditional European culture (classical music, painting etc). But the other seemingly invidious adjectives struck a sour chord with me as well. Also, since the East Coast is a disproportionate producer of our most degrading cultural wares, even my friendly reading is hard to sustain.Matthew Yglesias agreed with Hart:
Can anyone seriously dispute that the vast majority of America's premiere institutions of education and high culture are located in the "blue" areas? That's not to say the South is some kind of total wasteland -- I visited the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum earlier this year and it's first-rate, albeit a bit small -- but on the whole this stuff is primarily in the Northeast and to a lesser extent on the Pacific coast. At the same time, these institutions used to be bastions of conservatism and now -- as conservatives are wont to complain -- go the other way politically. There's a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem here, but this is clearly entangled with the rise of a kind of populist anti-intellectualism as an increasingly prominent strain of American conservatism and that, in turn, is a non-trivial break with the past, albeit a break that's been useful to conservatism's electoral success.Jonah Goldberg responded that:
I don't think you can dispute this. But I would have more sympathy for the point if that was all there was to it. I have criticized the creeping populism of the right many, many times. But there's more to be said about the blue areas. Much of the truly successful anti-intellectualism in this country comes from blue areas. The low culture typified by the worst products of television and music come from the coasts, from rap music to trashy movies and sitcoms. Moreover there is a self-styled "sophisticated" strain of anti-intellectualism which runs through our premiere institutions of culture as well. The Vagina Monologues may sound brilliant to those inclined to think talking genitalia and bullwhip infused rectums is highbrow stuff, but you're stealing a base or two if you're going to call such fare "high culture." While the culture war arguments about the relevance of the canon have subsided a bit, it's still worth remembering that "red staters" weren't prattling about the irrelevance of the sort of high culture Jeffrey Hart misses. Sure Kansas school boards fight about Darwin, but Social Text is a very blue rag.Andrew Sullivan also opined:
The alliance between conservatism, as it was once understood, and the historically Democratic American South is, in my view, a brilliant maneuver for gaining political power, but something that has mortally wounded the tradition of limited government, individual rights, balanced budgets, political prudence and religious moderation that were once hallmarks of conservatism. But I should get back to writing my book, which does its best to make a somewhat similar case for the Republican party's replacement of conservative constitutional balance with a fundamentalist, financially leveraged, unchecked and forever expanding executive power. Hart's rather beautiful summary of conservatism,To which Ponnuru offered a retort:
"a philosophy always open to experience and judging by experience within given conditions--the experience pleasurable or, more often, painful, but utopia always a distant and destructive mirage,"
is as eloquent a damning of the current Republican hegemony as any I know of.
Sullivan's own indictment leaves out the Sunbelt. Either way, it seems unlikely that limited government would have been advanced if Ronald Reagan had never been president and Newt Gingrich had never been speaker.Goldberg also offered a rebuttal to Sullivan:
The Medicare vote in 2003 provides a test case. Were Southern Republicans less likely to vote against it than non-Southerners? No. One-third of the limited-government dissenters in the Senate GOP were Southerners, as were a third of GOP senators generally. Southern House Republicans were slightly more likely than non-Southern Republicans to vote against it. And these numbers understate the limited-government proclivities of Southern Republicans, since some of the dissenting non-Southerners wanted a more generous benefit (e.g., Lincoln Chafee) or had other objections to the bill (e.g., Gil Gutknecht).
It's important for Sullivan to leave out the West for another reason: Barry Goldwater. Were it not for Goldwater, the GOP would never have been infused with small-government conservatism in the first place.John O'Sullivan added:
But all of this is fairly nonsensical. Geography doesn't explain much in terms of the problems with the GOP and conservatism that Hart and Sullivan lament and/or exaggerate. Yes, the GOP liked balanced budgets in days of yore, and would that it still did. But the Republican Party had vastly more social-do-gooders and big government types before conservatives and red state yahoos took over. Does any historically literate person believe that Nixon and Rockefeller wings of the Republican Party were stauncher defenders of individual rights and limited government than Reagan and Goldwater? Do any of the people harkening back to the Teddy Roosevelt GOP remember that he was an imperialist of the first order abroad and social-meddler at home?
In fact, this whole analysis turns history on its head. Not only did the infusion of the South and West into the GOP make it less favorable to big government, but the political story of the last forty years is the decreasing relevance of geography in political parties. Both the Republican and Democratic parties were once homes to leftwingers and rightwingers. The parties represented regional coalitions, so you had progressive Republicans in the same party as conservative Republicans and progressive Democrats in the same party as conservative Democrats. Much of this had to do with trade and taxation (hence those incomprehensible 19th century battles over silver and trade). Today almost all the liberals are in the Democratic Party and almost all of the conservatives are in the Republican Party (I'm not talking about voters, but elected officials).
Yes, there is a serious tension between the GOP leadership and traditional conservatism (and, contrary to much ill-founded ad hominem, NR has denounced this trend regularly), but it's not because the GOP is better tanned and has a southwestern accent, it's because it is a majority party in power and majority parties in power by their very nature become enamored with power and its many uses for good and ill. Majority parties deviate from orthodoxy because they can and, sometimes, because they must in order to govern. Minority parties tend toward purity because they have nothing else going for them and the desire to get back in power encourages unity.
The dispute over whether or not "Red" or "Blue" states are the more cultivated reminds me of nothing so much as a line by Clive James from his review of the Nixon memoirs. As I dimly recall from thirty years ago, he wrote something like this: "Kennedy was always being praised by liberals for having Vivaldi concerts in the White House but it was Nixon who could play the piano." I think the remark is self-explanatory on the side of Jonah and Ramesh, but I can happily rattle on for hours explaining it for those who disagree.Knippenberg also had further thoughts:
Hart’s argument seems to be that the "modern" (post-1964) Republican Party--the party of Goldwater and Reagan--gained votes and power at the expense of its contact with "prudence, education, intellect, and high culture." Given the fact that these four attributes are going by and large to be the preserve of a relatively small minority, any party that gains voters, wherever it gains them, will lose some of its cultivated aspect. As recently as the brouhaha over the Miers nomination, some commentators noted tensions within the Republican coalition between the intellectuals (neo-conservatives and NR traditionalists, among others) and the base, whether it be the business class or the evangelical social conservatives. What I’ve found remarkable, however, is how well they’ve gotten along over the years. "Cowboy" that he was, Ronald Reagan provided the principal conduit for the influence of conservative intellectuals of various stripes in Washington.Meanwhile, Ponnuru offers some thoughts on the effect of Goldwater:
Of course, Professor Hart might reply that a policy wonk or an economist isn’t the same thing as a painter, poet, or critic. But not all the conservative intellectuals in Washington, D.C. were trained at Virginia Tech or George Mason. Some came from places like Harvard, Toronto, Claremont, and Chicago. (I hasten to note, lest I offend, that these are not the only universities in the country and that the study of public choice theory does not necessarily render one incapable of appreciating the good, the true, and the beautiful, nor, for that matter, does the study of Plato and his successors render one simply unappreciative of the way in which interests are often, if not always, appropriately understood.)
Now on to Yglesias, who makes a more narrowly geographic point, but one not properly informed by history or demography. Yes, the great museums, symphonies, and universities are by and large located in blue states. When you’re settled first, established first, and start building collections and endowments a century or more before the competition, that’s going to happen.
At the same time, it’s worth noting that most of those institutions, wherever they’re located, are now essentially national in their outlook. The top figures in Atlanta’s "regional" theatre, for example, are recruited from, or leave for, other parts of the country. To take another example from my little slice of the world: my department, consisting of seven full-time faculty members, counts Ph.D.’s from Harvard, Penn, Chicago, Ohio State, Toronto, and Emory; my colleagues hail from Cambridge, Providence, Eugene, Chicago, southern California, and Paris. In other words, you have to dig pretty deeply before you find a pronounced regionalism in cultural and educational institutions in even as red a state as Georgia.
Finally, Yglesias celebrates what I would hope Hart would deprecate as a kind of "treason of the clerks": our great cultural and educational institutions by and large no longer regard themselves as transmitters of a tradition, but rather as deconstructors and ironic critics of that tradition, often in service of a political agenda. By contrast, for example, classical learning is quite alive in "classical and Christian schools", the majority of which are located in red states. Higher education and the patronage of fine cultural establishments are certainly not inconsistent with a genuine appreciation of "the permanent things," but they have long since ceased being guarantors of that appreciation.
Had the Republican party not made the Goldwater turn (and then a few more turns that followed from it), I suspect that the Democratic party would have remained a majority party for longer than it did--and, maybe more interestingly, would have been a more socially conservative party. The '64 election (and to a lesser extent the '74 election) brought liberal Republicans into the Democratic fold, where they combined with home-grown liberals and then drove conservatives out of the party. If you could unwind this history and take a different path, would the result have been a more or less socially conservative country?And Grim's Hall defended the South:
I shall gladly dispute what Yglesias attempts as his main point. When asserting that "high culture" is a blue-state thing, he says, "That's not to say the South is some kind of total wasteland -- I visited the Fort Worth Modern Art Museum earlier this year and it's first-rate, albeit a bit small -- but on the whole this stuff is primarily in the Northeast and to a lesser extent on the Pacific coast."Ross Douthat also offered his opinion:
Well, now. If "high culture" means modern art, you've got a point.
On the other hand, if modernism is precisely the rejection of the classic high culture of the West -- as practitioners of modernism have often argued, and as has likewise been argued by those who reject modernism since at least the time of G. K. Chesterton -- then the location of modern art museums is not particularly telling. Rather than an absence of "high culture," the South is almost the last bastion of traditional Western high culture, both in its intellectual and its cultural foundations.
In the 19th century, Harvard produced Francis Parkman, who wrote the following on the proper education:[I]f any pale student glued to his desk here seek an apology for a way of life whose natural fruit is that pallid and emasculate scholarship, of which New England has had too many examples, it will be far better that this sketch had not been written. For the student there is, in its season, no better place than the saddle, and no better companion than the rifle or the oar.If you follow that link, you'll find also a bit of scoffing from today's Harvard over the fact that MIT recognizes riflery as a "varsity sport." "Hey!" says a living Harvard graduate. "I was on the Harvard varsity rifle team," once upon a time:In fact, MIT claims to have 42 varsity sports, one more than even Harvard. Of course, Harvard scoffed snootily, "Hearing that MIT was claiming 42 varsity teams, officials at Harvard, which has 41, chafed. They point to MIT's varsity pistol and rifle teams as evidence of MIT's skewed vision of varsity sports."The problem is that, rather than being a bastion of high culture, Harvard etc. has abandoned the traditional conception of a complete education. From the time of Plato we have seen that conception expressed as a need to educate the whole man, both mind and body, so that he possesses a complete understanding of virtue and also the capacity and will to enact it and defend it in the world. One of the earliest of Plato's dialogues, according to the usual methods of determining their age, is the Laches, which treats the importance of developing courage and the question of whether or not it can be developed by practicing fighting in armor. The union of philosophy and valor is so important that, even in his most developed writings, Plato considered it central to his conception of the soul and the best kind of society. He suggested that society be divided into "golden" Guardians who would be philosophers first, their "silver" auxiliaries who would be warriors first, and the rest of mankind who would be workers first. But this only mirrored his conception of the soul, with philosophy and valor separate from and superior to the rest of the human nature.
Hey, wait a minute! I was ON the Harvard Rifle Team in 1973! The team capitan, a member of my "freak fraternity" and now owner of a software company in Houston, had the key to the Harvard rifle range and we would go down there in the wee hours under the effects of whatnot and invent weird games like hanging tootsie roll pops from shoelaces tied to the mechanized target holders. When we rolled 'em back down the range, the lollypops swung around wildly and were wicked hard to hit. Or even see, for that matter.
We lost all 12 matches that season. Most of the guys we were shooting against were steely-eyed vets with thousand-yard stares just back form Nam and trying to finish college on Uncle Sam, while we were just a bunch of Ivy freaks who liked to play with guns.
In the Nicomachean Ethics, the first virtue Aristotle treats is bravery. The whole point of Aristotle's ethics is to develop the right kind of fighting, thinking citizen. Like Plato, he felt that correct politics grew out of that ethics: the city should mirror the man, as he explains in his Politics.
That philosophy has served as the foundation of the Western understanding. Indeed, we date the rise and fall of the West by the rise and fall of that philosophy: when it perishes, and the rational fall beneath the unthinking, we call it the Dark Ages or the "Low" Middle Ages in spite of the fact that communities of thinkers and monks survived and even flourished. When it arises, so that Medieval society is cleanly divided between Oratores, Bellatores, et Laboratores, we call it the "High" Middle Ages. When capitalism causes a rising middle class to blur the lines again, we call it the Late Middle Ages.
That, gentlemen, is the high culture of the West. In the South, foremost, is it preserved. In the South, alone, do its institutions flourish. The three American military academies are maintained elsewhere, but only the South has native ones of similar prestige: VMI and the Citadel. While the great institutions of the northeast and California maintain instruction in philosophy, they have cast aside the role of educating men who are bellatores as well as oratores: that is, men who know how to fight as well as to pray -- or, as is more and more commonly the case, simply to orate.
Thus we have institutions like Harvard, which once scoffed at the pale 'emasculate scholar,' and now seeks to produce him above all. These are institutions that -- not to put too fine a point on it -- prefer to reject military recruiters out of preference for another cause. Institutions that once instructed men in riflery as well as philosophy now scoff at riflery.
Yet the division of society was always meant -- in Aristotle, in Plato, in the Middle Ages, and now -- to mirror the division of the individual soul. Western high culture envisions a man who is a thinker first, a fighter second, and everything else third. He must be all of these things, or he is not a Man of the West. The Medieval nobleman was meant to be educated as well as a fighter; he was to know tactics and the art of heraldry, at least; and as the High Middle Ages progressed, became expected to know poetry and the rules of courtly behavior. The monk was expected to be a soldier against the devil's cause, if he was not a solider in fact -- as were many priests in the Church Militant.
Do not tell me that the blue states are the seat of Western high culture. By and large, they have rejected it.Compare those statistics above with these, which break down recruiting by geographic region of the United States. The South is far and away the leader in recruitment, although it is the poorest region of the United States. The wealthiest region, the Northeast, trails in recruitment.No, gentlemen, the seat of high culture is not the blue states. It is the solid South.
That suggests that the media picture is even less accurate. The military maintains these levels of representation in the richest and second-richest quintiles, while drawing 40% of the force from the poorest region in the country and only fifteen percent from the richest region.
That suggests that military recruitment is heavily disproportionate among the upper and upper-middle class everywhere but the Northeast...
Of course the bastions of intellect and high culture in the U.S. are primarily located in the Blue States, and most of our intellectual mandarins tend to be Democrats and liberals. But this is hardly a change from the 1950s, before the South-Sunbelt shift took place, is it? Conservatism of any stripe has always been a minority view among the American intelligentsia - and if anything, the Southern turn of the GOP coincided with a dramatic increase in the number and caliber of conservative intellectuals, as various once-liberal thinkers abandoned a Democratic Party that seemed to have drifted too far left. (I probably would have been one of them, had I been around back then, and possessed of the same grab-bag of ideas and prejudices that I have now. I suspect I would have voted for Eisenhower and definitely would have subscribed to NR - but I probably would have called myself a Democrat, and a liberal, at least until 1968 and possibly deep into the '70s.)And responded to Sullivan:
So while I don't mean any disrespect to the Willmoore Kendalls and Richard Weavers, I think that Hart's nostalgia from a pre-1964 East Coast conservatism is misplaced, and it's far more reasonable to locate the intellectual peak of conservatism not in the early days of National Review, but after the Goldwater campaign and the Southern Strategy - in the 1970s and '80s, when the early neocons rubbed shoulders, and ideas, with paleocons, quasi-cons and the emergent Christian Right, and when Ronald Reagan gave the Right an articulate and intellectually serious political spokesman. (How do we know it was a golden age? Well, in part because most of the big-name conservative intellectuals of today are holdovers from that twenty-year span - which speaks well of that era, if not necessarily of this one.)
Now I suppose Hart could argue that the yahoo-ization of the Right had only just begun during the Reagan era, and the drop-off from Losing Ground to The War on Christmas embodies the slow working-out of conservatism's South-West sashay. But isn't it more likely that the drop-off is mainly a result of 1) larger cultural trends toward quickie-books, shortened attention-spans and cable news shoutfests, and 2) the exhaustion and corruption of intellect that almost inevitably coincides with taking over the business of governing? There's a lot more pressure to come up with new ideas when you're on the outside looking in; once you've taken power, it's easy to become convinced that history is going your way, that your enemies will remain in disarray forever (which they may, admittedly), and that it's okay to accept a small sinecure from Jack Abramoff or the Deparment of Education in exchange for some columns or radio spots that you would have written anyway. It's easy, too, to assume that political victories are a substitute for cultural change, to let domestic policy wither on the vine, to substitute populist slogans for new ideas, to seal yourself off from criticism . . . but I don't really see how any of these Bush Era problems, however real, can be traced directly to the pernicious influence of the Sunbelt or the South.
Andrew, meanwhile, uses Hart's argument about the GOP's turn in the South to advance a similar but by no means identical claim:And Ponnuru responded:The alliance between conservatism, as it was once understood, and the historically Democratic American South is, in my view, a brilliant maneuver for gaining political power, but something that has mortally wounded the tradition of limited government, individual rights, balanced budgets, political prudence and religious moderation that were once hallmarks of conservatism.As Ramesh notes, this analysis leaves out the more libertarian Sunbelt, whose Goldwater strain of conservatism is closer to the kind of right-wing politics that Andrew usually champions. But more importantly, it leaves out the fact that the GOP's geographic shift in the 1960s and 1970s made the party more concerned with small government and individual rights and tax cuts and all the other "hallmarks of conservatism" that Andrew favors, and less inclined to favor the liberalism-lite exemplified by (ahem) northeasterners like John Lindsay and Nelson Rockefeller. This is one of the two difficulties that I see with Andrew's theory of what conservatism ought to be, and that I hope his book addresses - namely, that the constituency for his preferred kind of small-government conservatism tends to be the same people he regularly attacks, sometimes justly and sometimes not, as religious zealots and betrayers of the old Oakeshottian faith. The small-government purists in the House of Representatives, by and large, are also the people who want to ban cloning and defund stem-cell research, outlaw gay marriage and keep Terri Schiavo alive. If you want a more libertarian GOP on size-of-government issues, as Andrew clearly does, then you have to make some kind of peace with the Religious Right and its concerns.
So that's one difficulty. The other problem is that a more libertarian Republican Party - and a more libertarian conservatism - probably wouldn't be able to cobble together a governing majority, at least for the foreseeable future. There's a reason for the GOP's big-government turn in the last decade, and it's not just malice, corruption and incompetence - it's that some kind of a big-government turn is what the American people wanted from the post-Gingrich Right. Bush defeated (or at least nearly outpolled) Al Gore in 2000 not in spite of, but because of his willingness to promise spending increases, to co-opt Democratic ideas on health care and education, and to invent a silly-but-useful language of "compassionate conservatism." This move has had a variety of dreadful consequences, from the explosion of pork to the outrageously overpriced prescription drug bill - but it was politically necessary, and still is. The conservatism that Andrew wants would be ideologically pure and intellectually respectable, but the public wouldn't go for it - and if conservatism expects to govern the country, it needs to find a way (and a better one than Bush's) to meet the public halfway.
John O'Sullivan offered his final thoughts:
I think Ross Douthat's post "The Limits of Libertarianism" is largely right. (The caveats, fwiw: I have some quibbles about his characterization of how public opinion drove the shift from Gingrich to Bush meant, and some reservations about his prescriptions for the future.)
Douthat wonders whether a majority could really be formed for Andrew Sullivan's brand of libertarianism. The same question could be asked of the conservatism that Jeff Hart implicitly proposes. Could we really have had (assuming it were desirable) a successful conservatism that was based in the Northeast and Midwest, balanced the budget, shrank the government, protected the environment and beauty, and made its peace with legal abortion? Hart speaks of a politics of actuality, but that implies choosing among actually available alternatives. What he has actually done is sketched his version of a political ideal. To assume that this ideal could be realized politically is at least as utopian as anything he criticizes.
Have those conservatives who take a hostile view of the GOP's gradual rise in the South (not a reference to Ramesh) quite realized what cause it is they are championing? If the GOP had not become first competitive and then dominant in the southern states, the region would have divided between the Democrats and a new Dixiecrat ( i.e., Wallaceite) party--the shifting line of division being dependent on how "progressive" the national Democrats were on race. Either the Democrats or the South would then have taken much longer to accept and entrench the civil rights revolution. National politics on race would have been much more disturbed and harsh as a result--which is saying quite a lot. By bringing the South into the realm of two-party politics, the "southern strategy" ensured that the debate over civil rights would take place between two parties that had both a major stake in the region and national reputations to consider. Given the nature of democratic politics--in which you have to persuade your constituents to accept social changes they don't like instead of being able to bully them in an enjoyably moralistic way--both Democrats and Republicans sometimes sounded grudging and reluctant in their acceptance of civil rights. But those were the techniques of political persuasion that effected a revolution without provoking a civil war. Trent Lott was part of this relatively peaceful but inevitably shifty transformation--which is one reason why the attacks on him a few years ago were so mistaken. Equally, Ken Mehlman has internalized the Left's view of the southern strategy and now apologises because the GOP did not leave the South in the control of the party of Jim Crow. Conservatives should stop being defensive on this score.CONSERVATIVE METAPHYSICS
Oh, incidentally, will anyone deny that some of the finest American literature in the last hundred years has emerged from the South?
Jonathan Adler had his own favorite influence:
I agree that The Conservative Mind was a terribly important book in the history of American conservative thought. Nonetheless, I much prefer the late Frank Meyer to Russell Kirk. Meyer contributed to NR from the beginning, and his In Defense of Freedom is, in my view, the seminal articulation of an authentic American conservatism -- what Meyer called "fusionism." The entire monograph is included in this collection of Meyer's writings published by Liberty Fund. Among other treats, it includes Meyer's critique of Kirk and other "new conservatives" of the post-War period. I also recommend this biography of Meyer, which includes many interesting tidbits about the magazine's history.John Derbyshire especially disagreed with the form of Hart's new conservative metaphysics:
As a founder member, with Tom Wolfe and Jonah Goldberg, of the We-Really-Need-A-New-Metaphysics school of modern conservatism ("Metacons"?) I was disappointed in Jeff's suggestion: "What the time calls for is a recovery of the great structure of metaphysics, with the Resurrection as its fulcrum, established as history, and interpreted through Greek philosophy."Knippenberg also critiqued Hart on this point (and--again--be sure to read some of his commenters):
We are, for better or worse, long, long past the point where a metaphysics can be grounded in the tenets of Christianity even taken in their most general interpretation. We are even further past the point where an event like the Resurrection, which does not meet the evidentiary standards modern man has become accustomed to -- in law and, especially, in science -- can serve as a "fulcrum" for a general outlook on our place in the universe. It may do so for individual Christians, of course; but the common understanding we Metacons seek should find favor with the one-fifth to one-quarter of our people (not to mention much higher proportions of our intellectual elites, and of our fellow Western Civ brethren in Europe and elsewhere) who are not Christians.
Professor Hart also invokes the shade of William James, whose philosophy was "always open to experience and judging by experience within given conditions." But isn’t Jamesian pragmatism an "enemy of the permanent things"?Ken Masugi adds that "Conservatives' failures to sort out these first principles make it all the more difficult to put this theory into practice."
I could say much more, but this seems sufficient to provoke some discussion. Can Professor Hart have it both ways, appealing to the power of the magisterial religious traditions and accommodating to "the reality of the American social process"? Is prudence the equivalent of Jamesian pragmatism, or is it informed by high principle, attempting to instantiate and embody it in ways consistent with "the facts on the ground."
To conclude, I'll let Hart have the last word:
The Conservative Mind is a work in progress. Its deviations and lunges to ideology and utopianism have been self-corrected by prudence, reserved judgment as an operative principle, a healthy practical skepticism and the requirement of historical knowledge as a guide to prudent policy. Without a deep knowledge of history, policy analysis is feckless.
And it follows that the teachings of books that have lasted--the Western tradition--are essential to the Conservative Mind, these books lasting because of their agreements, disagreements and creative resolutions. It is not enough for conservatives to repeat formulae or party-line positions. The mind must possess the process that leads to conservative decisions. As a guide, the books, and the results of experience, may be the more difficult way--much more difficult in a given moment than pre-cooked dogma, which is always irresistible to the uneducated. Learning guards against having to reinvent the wheel in political theory from one generation to the next.