Daniel McCarthy

Does Liberalism Mean Empire?

Map of the World Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886.  Walter Crane - http://maps.bpl.org/id/M8682/. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Map of the World Showing the Extent of the British Empire in 1886. Walter Crane - http://maps.bpl.org/id/M8682/. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Two libertarians familiar to TAC readers—Robert Murphy and Sheldon Richman—have lately offered critiques of my “Why Liberalism Means Empire” essay. Libertarians consider themselves liberals, or at least heirs to classical liberalism, and have been among the most outspoken opponents of “empire” in contemporary American politics. So on the face of it, they have good reason to object to the connection I draw between their ideology and global power they abjure. The trouble is, the objections don’t stand up, and liberalism remains deeply implicated in the security conditions of empire.

Murphy attacks my argument at its strongest point, the case of World War II. “Look at what the Soviets did to Eastern Europe after the Americans provided them with all sorts of aid and attacked Germany from the west,” he writes. “If we dislike that outcome—and McCarthy and I do both dislike it—then to have achieved a more balanced outcome, surely the US should not have jumped in on the side that ended up winning.”

Soviet domination of half of Europe after the war is certainly an undesirable outcome. Can we imagine a worse one—or three? Easily.

Without the U.S., the outcomes available to Europe as a whole in World War II, West as well as East, were a.) Nazi control, b.) Soviet control, or c.) divided Nazi-Soviet control. Would any liberal prefer one of these outcomes to what occurred with U.S. intervention, namely d.) divided U.S./Western-Soviet control?

U.S. intervention certainly did strengthen the USSR. But strength in international affairs is a relative thing. A weaker USSR still strong enough to prevail against Nazi Germany without American help would have been more than strong enough to subdue war-torn Western as well as Eastern Europe. Stalin had fifth columns at the ready among resistance forces in France and elsewhere. As it happened, the USSR was in no position to claim France, Italy, West Germany, and Greece after World War II because the U.S. and the allies America rallied stood in the way. Without that check, little would have prevented Stalin from doing to Western Europe what he did to the East.

Alternatively, had a weaker USSR fallen to Hitler, the Nazis would have had an even easier time consolidating control of the Continent. What force could resist them? Franco and Salazar were not about to do so, whatever their differences with Hitler. Finally, had a USSR not supported by the United States fought the Germans to a standstill, the result might have been the worst of all worlds, with all of Europe unfree and the internal resistance to each totalitarian bloc being drawn toward the ideology of the other totalitarian bloc. A Cold War between the USSR and Nazi Germany would by any measure be worse than the one we had between the USSR and United States.

What of the hope that a draw might have brought anti-totalitarian revolution to Nazi Germany and the USSR? Murphy, Richman, and I all agree that war is bad for liberty and liberalism—but for that very reason, wars fought between totalitarian powers are unlikely to have a liberalizing effect on them. Quite the contrary: wars and crises tend to create conditions that allow totalitarianism to arise in the first place, and war is one environment in which the totalitarian ethos seems to thrive. The idea that the USSR and Nazi Germany, fighting one another, would each have collapsed, giving way to some tolerably liberal government, could only be believed by someone whose ideology insists that he believe it. It’s Lysenkoism applied to history.

Richman has better arguments, but they tend to be tangential to my points. He writes:

McCarthy has a rather liberal notion of liberalism—so liberal that it includes the illiberal corporate state, or what Albert Jay Nock called the “merchant-state,” that is, a powerful political-legal regime aimed first and foremost at fostering an economic system on behalf of masters, to use Adam Smith’s term. (The libertarian Thomas Hodgskin, not Marx, was the first to disparage “capitalists” for their use of the state to gain exploitative privileges.)

What Richman calls a loose, “rather liberal notion of liberalism” is intended to be a broadly accurate description of real-world, actually existing liberalism. A few years ago I commissioned Richman to write an essay on “free-market anti-capitalism,” a term that might sound like a contradiction to people who equate capitalism with free markets. What we have here is a parallel case: just as capitalism in practice is often antithetical to market freedom as understood in theory, so liberalism in practice—a state system involving capitalism, free trade, representative government, legal individualism, religious liberty, etc.—often falls short of the tenets of liberal theory. The problem is, practice comes first.

My essay claims that the security provided by the British Empire and later U.S. hegemony—or American Empire, if we want to be indelicate—has promoted liberal practice, and liberal practice, messy and imperfect though it might be, has promoted liberal theory. The claim here is not deterministic at the individual level: it’s plainly not the case no one can come up with liberal ideas amid an illiberal environment. Rather, a liberal environment is more conducive than an illiberal one to the extension and refinement of liberal thought among a populace.

This is why the largest concentration of classical liberals in 19th-century politics and the greatest volume of classical-liberal literature were to be found in Britain, and it’s why libertarianism today finds the most followers and is most strongly institutionalized—in think tanks, magazines, and a nascent political movement—in the United States. Liberalism is a luxury security affords, and hegemons have the security in the greatest abundance.

Security by itself is not enough, of course: a state that enjoyed tremendous international security, as Japan did for centuries, might or might not spontaneously develop broadly liberal ideas. Given the presence of liberal seeds, however, security seems to encourage their growth—this was true even in the Soviet-dominated Eastern Bloc during the Cold War and in the USSR itself.

The extended Soviet Empire was distinctly illiberal in ideology but enjoyed supreme security: there was never much prospect that NATO would simply invade Eastern Europe. (Just as NATO deterred the Soviets themselves from doing any invading of the West.) What liberal ideas survived Soviet repression or otherwise made their way through black-market channels into Soviet-controlled domains often met with a welcoming audience, and over decades, under conditions of peace, those liberal ideas grew stronger while the totalitarian ideology of the USSR grew weaker, including in Russia itself. Ironically, the Soviet Union’s greatest success—its conquest of Eastern Europe and guarantee of Russia’s security—contributed to its undoing. It created conditions in which liberalism could grow.

(And note, alas, what is happening in Eastern Europe and on Russia’s periphery now that security competition has returned: nationalism and even fascism is gaining ground.)

Anyone as an individual may be able to hold almost any idea at any time. But of the many ideas to which our minds give rise, only a few find substantial political expression. “McCarthy is wrong in thinking that power, that is, force, rules the world,” Richman writes. “There is something stronger: ideas.” In fact, only some ideas rule the world—the ones that succeed in acquiring power.

But power is a protean thing; it doesn’t just mean state power but any kind of hold over human beings. This highlights one of the paradoxes of liberalism: the ideology gains more power in terms of popular appeal at the expense of the states that make it possible. This is a good thing to the extent that liberal attitudes check abusive government. It’s a bad thing to the extent that liberal attitudes deprive states and populations alike of the wherewithal to combat external threats when they do arise. Pacifism, as a cousin or acute manifestation of liberalism, is a case in point. It’s one of the ideological luxuries made possible by security, but if adopted generally there would soon be no security left to leave it a choice for anyone but martyrs.

What’s more, radical liberals may call for complete nonintervention, but most self-identified liberals, including a contingent of libertarians, favor humanitarian warfare and aggressive efforts to “liberalize” countries that are insufficiently liberal and democratic. This is another irony of liberalism: it was fostered by non-ideological empires—Britain obtained hers in a fit of absence of mind; America acquired hers with tremendous reluctance and a troubled conscience. But once non-ideological empire has promoted the growth of liberal ideology, that ideology takes on a more radical, demanding character: a liberal minority adopt the anarcho-pacifist position, calling for dismantling the empire today; while a larger number of liberals call for using the empire to promote liberal ideological ends. Reining in empire thus requires reining in the demands of liberalism—realism as an antidote to ideology.

Murphy and Richman both point to the ways in which war and empire have made the United States less liberal in practice. War’s illiberal effects are indeed a major part of my argument: war is the opposite of security, and conditions of war—i.e., the absence of security—are dreadful for liberty. The question is what minimizes conditions of war and maximizes conditions of security.

That’s not a question that can be answered in the abstract; it’s one that must be answered in the context of particular times. In the case of 19th-century Europe, a balance of power safeguarded by the British Empire as an “offshore balancer” seems to have done the trick. In the case of 20th-century Europe, a 45-year balance between the United States and a contained USSR kept the peace from the fall of Nazi Germany until the collapse of the Soviet Union. One thing I hope my essay will do is prompt libertarians to think more seriously about historical security conditions and what viable “libertarian” options there may have been in the foreign-policy crises of the past. If there were no viable libertarian options, that’s a problem for libertarianism.

It’s a practical problem being confronted by Rand Paul right now. What liberal or libertarian thinkers can he draw upon for practical foreign-policy advice? There are a few, but most radical libertarians are simply not interested in real-world foreign-policy choices. And once libertarians do engage with reality, they start to seem a lot less libertarian.

Richman compares the hazards of foreign policy to those of domestic economic planning. In the case of the economy, the libertarian alternative is the free market; no planning. In the case of foreign policy, is the libertarian alternative also no policy? How can a state in a world of states—all of which, as libertarians know, have a coercive character—have no foreign policy? It’s true that the less power foreign-policy planners have the less trouble they can get up to. This is something on which libertarians and realists who favor restraint can agree. But realists recognize that this tendency for too much power to lead to abuse must be weighed against the dangers of other states’ power. Libertarians seem to see no danger in that direction at all.

Any people that has ever been invaded might find that perverse—indeed, my libertarian friends are often confounded by how their fellow libertarians in Poland or Ukraine can be so hawkish. But the U.S. is in an exceptionally strong geostrategic position. Invasion is highly impractical, if not impossible. My essay, however, notes that world conditions can have a dangerous influence on the U.S. even without foreign boots on our soil. On the one hand, foreign ideologies exert a certain attraction to Americans; and on the other hand, Americans have historically been rather paranoid about foreign ideological influence. Threats both real and imagined attend insecurity, and both kinds lead to illiberal policies.

Luckily, there are at present only a handful of geostrategic positions around the planet that offer secure bases for power projection and ideological dominance. North America is one of them. The second is the European continent. And the third is East Asia, which of the three is by far the least island-like and defensible.

Preventing a hostile power from dominating Europe and keeping a balance in East Asia is “empire” enough. Beyond that, prosperity and industrial strength, along with our nuclear arsenal, are the keys to our security. This is a historically realistic vision, one that solves the great problems of the past—what to do about Nazi Germany or the USSR—and the otherwise insoluble problems of the present, such as what to do about the Middle East: namely, minimize our exposure to crises that we cannot fix and that do not affect the top-tier distribution of power. Today what is most ethical and what is politically and strategically realistic coincide reasonably well: we should not seek to enlarge our commitments; we should preserve our naval power; we should use diplomacy and economics to advance our interests and contain disruptive powers.

This is not a strategy of hard-heartedness toward the oppressed peoples of the world. A secure and prosperous U.S. is in a position to be an ideological counterweight to any illiberal state or insurgency, and it can act when necessary only because it does not act when not necessary. Morale is as limited as men, money, and materiel, and wasting any of these—on a strategic level, we wasted them all in Iraq, as the present crisis demonstrates—is bad for our prosperity, our security, and everyone else’s as well.

Realism and restraint are the watchwords. If libertarians have a stronger strategic argument, I’m eager to hear it.

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Help The American Conservative Win the Peace

Cover of the TAC's inaugural October 2002 issue
Cover of the TAC's inaugural October 2002 issue

You don’t win a war unless you win the peace. This ought to be clear enough—the situation in Iraq illustrates it perfectly. The U.S. won the war, both in terms of deposing Saddam Hussein and in withdrawing troops from a country nominally at peace in 2011. But that peace was lost from the start: the U.S. had not created institutions that could keep order and prevent the next war from happening.

It’s an old story, and it applies at home as well as abroad. Last year the antiwar movement thought it had won its own metaphorical war—by preventing Obama from launching a real one against Assad’s Syria—yet the subsequent peace was lost. No institution had arisen that could prevent another round of mass-media sensationalism from taking America to war again. No noninterventionist think tank or peace organization commanded the attention or imagination of policymakers, whose minds remained filled only with possibilities provided by interventionists. Neoconservatives and humanitarian interventionists are still almost the only players at the table in Washington, despite their decades of failure.

If peace is to be a reality rather than a dream, its institutions must be built—not in the Middle East but here at home, above all in the precincts where foreign policy is actually made. Policymakers must have more on their menu than the dishes prepared for them by Bill Kristol and Samantha Power.

The American Conservative, in a small but steady way, has been trying to win the peace since 2002, when we were founded to oppose the impending war against Iraq. A decade ago the situation seemed hopeless, even if the fight was as noble as ever. In the 2004 presidential contest, Democrats rebuffed even the mildly antiwar Howard Dean in favor of a hawkish John Kerry, who went down to defeat in November at the hands of the president who had launched the Iraq War.

Movement conservatives closed ranks to silence critics even before the war began. On its eve, National Review published an attack on the most outspoken figures of the antiwar right. And while its author, David Frum, claimed “Unpatriotic Conservatives” was not aimed against all antiwar conservatives, the only one he typically exempted from his charges, Heather Mac Donald, kept her dissent almost entirely to herself. As Alexandra Wolfe noted in the New York Observer on March 10, 2003:

Heather Mac Donald, a fellow at the right-wing think tank, the Manhattan Institute, is that somewhat rare breed, an anti-war Republican. Among the “pro-war fanatics” she dines with regularly, she said, “you’re confident in your opinion, but why bother when it’s a futile gesture anyway?” So she mostly keeps quiet.

“I have a friend who works at The Wall Street Journal on the editorial side,” said Ms. Mac Donald, “and he’s anti-war and he won’t even mention it, because there the unanimity is so strong.”

Such unanimity prevailed across the conservative movement, and there was a price to pay for breaching it. Donald Devine elicited outrage when he merely failed to stand and applaud for Bush at an American Conservative Union banquet. For actually criticizing the Republican president and his policies, foreign-policy scholar John Hulsman was fired from the Heritage Foundation. And economist Bruce Bartlett happened to lose his job at the National Center for Policy Analysis just as his book Impostor: How George W. Bush Bankrupted America and Betrayed the Reagan Legacy was about to be published. No wonder the adminisration’s right-leaning critics kept their mouths shut.

Before 2006, The American Conservative stood alone in D.C. as a conservative institution that refused to surrender its principles to the Bush administration and its wars. Traditional conservatives who had minds of their own that they refused to yield up to any party or president came close to being deprived of a presence in the nation’s capital and conversation. But we wouldn’t go away, no matter the financial hardships we faced.

And then a remarkable thing happened: the public lost its patience. It threw the president’s party out of the House Speaker’s chair and the Senate Majority Leader’s office. Conservatives long disgusted not only by Bush’s policies but by the right-wing omerta that protected him began to speak out loudly and forcefully, even if it cost them their standing in the movement.

Ron Paul soon rallied a new antiwar base on the right. His son was elected to the U.S. Senate in 2010. And today in the House of Representatives there is a liberty caucus with realist and noninterventionist leanings—Justin Amash, Thomas Massie, Mark Sanford, the stalwart Walter Jones. They reinforce Jimmy Duncan of Tennessee, the last of the Republicans who voted against the Iraq War over a decade ago.

What once looked like token resistance from a small institution like TAC helped keep alive a debate and a point of view that otherwise lacked expression. And once the political climate changed, that point of view became a force that could rapidly grow and gain further institutional footholds.

Consider the careers of some of the young people drawn to work at The American Conservative who have gone on to bring something of its sensibility to other outlets. Michael Brendan Dougherty is now at The Week. Jordan Bloom and James Antle are at the Daily Caller and Daily Caller News Foundation. An ocean away, former TAC literary editor Freddy Gray is managing editor of The Spectator in London. Former interns John Glaser and Matthew Feeney are at Cato. Lewis McCrary, now a Robert Novak Journalism Fellow of the Fund for American Studies, was before that managing editor of The National Interest.

The American Conservative has been happy to be an institutional force multiplier—a farm team for a new generation of conservative talent, and during the dark days of the last war fever both a shelter and a megaphone for traditional conservatives unwelcome in the pages of movement magazines and websites. What’s more, The American Conservative will be here even when a future Republican president demands “unanimity” for his wars and other follies. Keeping TAC alive and growing is vital institution-building work, and not just for TAC itself.

To build peace, you have to build institutions. Those institutions will have to be complex, durable, far-sighted, flexible—not ideological, brittle, and simplistic. They will have to confront the realities on the ground, hard political, economic, and strategic realities.

Based on the evidence of more than a decade, this is beyond the abilities of the United States in the Islamic world. So we might try building institutions of peace and civil balance here at home. Institutions that favor restraint. Institutions that encourage conservatism in its most basic sense, a defense of what we have and are in danger of losing: self-government, a strong middle class, national security not existentially jeopardized by even the bloodiest terrorists, and liberties hard won over many generations.

The American Conservative is intended as just such an institution—a small but indispensable one. The scope of debate and dialogue in our pages, online and in print, is part of our mission. This is not a conversation for traditionalist conservatives alone or for libertarians alone or even for the right alone. Our core sensibility is a capacious one, grounded in realism and a Burkean constitutional temperament.

The side of peace can’t repeat the errors of the zealots of war: a with-us-or-against-us mentality, oversimplified analyses, and an ideology to be forced upon the world without regard to the realities of human life and security.

Whatever you donate to The American Conservative helps not only TAC itself but a discourse that was almost silenced ten years ago. No single institution can win the peace alone, but The American Conservative has since 2002 been a foundation stone upon which much more can be built. Help us continue and grow—and win.

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Who Supports Reality-Based Conservatism?

You do—you’re supporting it just by reading The American Conservative. Support it some more by making a donation, so a journal you enjoy lives and thrives.

Traditional conservatives have an obvious interest in seeing their ideas presented in the most articulate, passionate, and realistic fashion possible. Bold men and women of the left, meanwhile, enjoy a thoughtful challenge from the right that keeps them on their toes. And independent minds who identify with neither side appreciate principled pluralism in our national discourse, a pluralism made possible by reasonable voices that don’t scream from a box or reduce difficult questions to partisan cliches.

This is why you read The American Conservative. It sharpens, it clarifies, it informs and provokes—as a good magazine should, online or in print. (And in our case, both.) TAC heartens and encourages and invigorates, sometimes by ticking you off. That’s also what a good magazine does.

We are reader-supported, and most of our readers don’t have deep pockets. But there are a lot of you, and you’re a committed and generous group. If you can give, I think you will.

The military-industrial complex has big money—you can see it splashed on subway posters in the D.C. metro system and throughout the pages of all sorts of public-policy magazines. Corporate America has big money—and a devotion to free enterprise that extends only as far as crony capitalism’s bottom line. We’re opposed to war and Pentagon pork; we’re also opposed to an economy that’s increasingly hostile to the middle class, and indeed almost all Americans. So the big advertising bucks will not come our way any time soon.

We don’t need them; we have readers. Their support—your support—keeps the lights on and keeps The American Conservative‘s mindshare growing.

You aren’t alone in this struggle: small foundations, especially, are there to help, groups that support such unfashionable but deeply human and conservative causes as beautiful architecture and livable cities. TAC is very much about small voices and small institutions fighting back against the monotonous reverberations of the big media and partisan outlets of big business.

You know why you read The American Conservative. Help us continue bringing it to you—and to wider audiences—by contributing to our fall fundraising campaign. I thank you for it.

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How Obama Learned to Love the Bomb

ISIS

Barack Obama has adopted Bill Clinton’s policy toward Iraq: bomb it until it gets better. Clinton—and before him, George H.W. Bush—bombed Saddam Hussein’s Iraq to safeguard the Kurdish north, degrade Saddam’s military capabilities, and perhaps weaken his regime to the point of collapse. Twenty years later, Obama is bombing the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham to “degrade and ultimately destroy” ISIS, while protecting the Kurdish north and what remains of the Iraqi state until recently ruled by Nouri al-Maliki.

We are well into the third decade of U.S. military operations against Iraq—dating back to 1991—but a free, stable, non-sectarian state has yet to emerge. Maybe a few more bombing sorties will do the trick.

George W. Bush got one thing right: he recognized that what his father and Bill Clinton had been doing in Iraq wasn’t working. Rather than continue indefinitely with airstrikes and sanctions that would never tame or remove Saddam, Bush II simply invaded the country and set up a new government. In the abstract, that was a solution: the problem was the regime, so change it. But change it into what?

Iraq is a patchwork of tribes and blocs of Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. A dictator like Saddam could keep order, but since the end of the Cold War America has found dictators distasteful, so Iraq would have to be democratic—which means, no matter how intricate the electoral system might be, one faction would dominate the others. So Iraq plunged into years of sectarian violence, and when it was over, the Shi’ite Maliki was in charge. Sunnis were never entirely happy about this, and they only became less so over time. Once ISIS surged across the border from neighboring Syria—experiencing its own (almost) post-dictatorial disintegration—many Sunnis welcomed them, and the bloodshed resumed.

Obama doesn’t want to answer the question that Bush I and Bill Clinton also avoided: namely, what kind of government could Iraq possibly have after Saddam that would satisfy the United States? Bush II had an answer, and it proved to be the wrong one. Obama knows it’s a trick question. There is no realistic outcome in Iraq that will not involve violence and repression. Either the country must have another dictator (unacceptable), or it must be dominated by one sect or the other (in which case it risks becoming the Islamic State or another Iran—also unacceptable), or else we have to pretend that it’s about to turn into an Arab Switzerland (entirely acceptable, and also impossible).

ISIS is an exceptionally violent revolutionary group, but it’s only a symptom of the more fundamental disease: the lack of a government strong enough to keep order but not so sectarian or tyrannical in temper as to persecute anyone. If Obama is successful against ISIS—as George W. Bush was successful against Saddam—how long before a new evil congeals? ISIS itself is a successor to another terrorist group, al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia, that was beaten once before in Iraq. The rise of yet another terrorist or tyrannical force is a virtual given, a fact established by more than one cycle of history: as surely as AQIM followed Saddam and ISIS followed AQIM, something else awaits to follow ISIS.

Unable to break this cycle, Obama resorts to bombing because our pundits demand that he “do something.” Leaving Iraq to its own devices, to suffer, burn, and ultimately rebuild, is too cruel, and ISIS with its spectacular propaganda videos makes a great cable news bite and social-media campaign. It’s evil, it’s scary, it’s on YouTube, so what are we going to do about it? Obama would be weak and callous if he did nothing. That he can’t actually do much that matters in the long run is unimportant—our humanitarian urges and Islamophobic fears will be satisfied as long as we get some kind of action right now. So we bomb.

There’s no political risk in bombing, as there is in putting “boots on the ground.” There won’t be too many body bags shipped home to Dover AFB to trouble voters. What’s more, bombing can be of any intensity political conditions demand: if John McCain is howling louder than usual on “Meet the Press,” just drop a few more bombs. That shows you’re a real leader.

This may sound grotesque—not the reality of what Obama is doing and the politics that lead him to do it, but to my saying it out loud, when there are real human beings in Syria and Iraq for whom none of this is abstract. ISIS is a deadlier threat to their lives than American bombing is, and real men and women can make choices about violence and politics that anyone’s fulfill anyone’s grim projections. There may be no ideal “moderate resistance” to Assad or ISIS itself, but there many degrees of better and worse, and they are matters of life and death to the people of the region.

All of which is true, and opponents of our 23-year policy toward Iraq, such as myself, should not be complacent about far-away people’s lives. If this is something that war critics must keep in mind, however, supporters must be equally serious about political realities—not immutable realities, but probabilities so strong as to require that our hopes and ambitions take account of them. Peace and tolerance depend on order, and under these circumstances order depends on a strong state. It would be foolish for Obama or anyone else to name in advance what kind of state, under whose control, will emerge victorious, but whenever the Iraqis and Syrians themselves give rise to a leader or faction capable of maintaining order, America must be prepared to accept the result and demand only the most basic concessions to our own values and security.

During the Cold War, it was often enough that a state or faction be anti-Communist for it receive American approbation. Dictators and sectarians as well as democrats passed the test, sometimes to our regret. After 1989, with our own security unassailable, we raised our expectations of others: we could afford to moralize and cajole. This proved to be disastrous in many cases, as botched attempts at democratization and economic liberalization urged on by the U.S. led to unstable regimes and countervailing extremism. If the U.S. no longer wishes to apply as crude a test for regime acceptability as it did during the Cold War, it must nonetheless devise criteria more realistic than those that prevailed over the past 20 years.

Obama’s bombs and other measures may or may not lead to regime change in the territory now controlled by ISIS. He can’t control that, and he cannot even do much, given the way our media and politics work. But what he can do is begin the long process of clarifying America’s understanding of how much like or unlike us we really expect other regimes to be. If U.S. can arrive at non-utopian answer to that question, we can perhaps again have a strategy that matches means to ends—rather than one that falls back on air power as the ever-present means to impossible ends.

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Hobby Lobby, Pluralism, and Privacy

Of the many foolish things said about the Hobby Lobby case, a contender for most foolish is the “Buy your own contraception!” snark on the right that runs parallel to the left-wing exaggerations about bosses dictating contraception choices to women. What the snark disguises is that the principle at stake is the same for both sides: if you’re compelled to purchase a service, you—whether “you” are a business or an individual—want to have some say in what it is you’re buying. Since it’s no longer a market transaction when government insists that it must take place, the question of just what is being bought has to become a political and legal question. Women who say that they should get a basic service when they are forced to buy an insurance plan are in exactly the same position as a company that says it has religious objections to certain kinds of services. Neither claim is risible; both arise from the straightforward notion that you should get what you want, and not get what you don’t want, when you have to buy something.

If sex and religion are too polarizing to offer a clear illustration, consider whether “buy your own!” would make sense in a different context. If Washington commanded that everyone must purchase a car through his or her employer, but employers didn’t offer, say, headlights with the vehicle, would having to pay extra out of pocket seem reasonable, or would most people feel ripped off? Conversely, if employers were told that they had to offer, say, gold-plated hubcaps with all cars, wouldn’t they be entitled to object?

With auto parts, it might be possible to come up with a public consensus on what features were reasonable. That’s simply not possible, and not even desirable, where the questions at the heart of the Hobby Lobby case are concerned. Despite the best efforts of ideologues, sex and religion are still personal rather than political matters for most people. Americans do not want their relationships or beliefs supervised by the federal government, or by any government—not by a bureaucracy, not by a court, and not by the democratic process. Why should anyone get to vote on your faith or whether your insurance covers contraception? But the problem with the HHS mandate, and with Obamacare itself, is that it makes these very personal matters unavoidably public as well: matters for bureaucrats, judges, lawyers, politicians, Rush Limbaugh, and the people you do business with.

Apologists for the mandate can say that there’s already a public dimension to these things, which is true. There’s no wall of separation between the people as a political actor and citizens’ personal feelings about sex and religion, and there’s obviously not supposed to be a wall of separation between the people and their government. But there’s a difference between the indirect, tiered influence that private persons exercise on the public and the public exercises on the state—and vice versa—and the kind of simplification that ideologues wish to see, in which individual, community, and state are all harmonized according to a single, unchanging set of values. The trouble with ideologues left or right isn’t just what they want, it’s how oblivious they are to their own excesses: they can’t imagine that anyone could have a reason not to want to subsidize someone else’s contraception or that any woman might feel cheated and demeaned by a company failing to provide insurance that covers birth control. You don’t actually have to agree with the metaphysical apparatus behind either side to see that something conscientious and intimate is being traduced by closing the gap between government, business, and private life.

Public policy is going to involve a clash of values one way or another, and even when one side “wins,” the political fighting doesn’t stop—the stakes are much lower, in practical terms, than ideologues can afford to admit. Popular governments aren’t meant to attain a steady equilibrium; opinions are always in motion, and thus so is politics. In pointing out the overreach that characterizes the simplifiers on both sides, the objective isn’t to arrive at a uniformly agreeable middle policy—some ideal formula for what’s personal and what’s political—but to maintain a certain space, however compromised, for life and feeling at a distance from politics. No house is completely private and invisible to the outside world, but that doesn’t mean we should let ideologues tell us that our walls might as well be transparent. Religion and sex ought to remain more personal than political, imperfect though the separation may be, and policies that more thoroughly mix these things are simply bad.

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Ralph Nader, Tim Carney, and Me: at Cato Tomorrow

If you’re in the D.C. area, drop by the Cato Institute at noon Friday for a panel discussion of Ralph Nader’s new book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance to Dismantle the Corporate State. Nader, AEI’s Tim Carney, and I will be taking part, with the Kauffman Foundation’s Brink Lindsey moderating.

The American Conservative excerpted the book—specifically, the chapter on the forgotten distributist conservatives of the 1930s–in our May-June issue. There’s much else in it that conservatives and libertarians will find fascinating, as Nader explores what figures as disparate as Frank Meyer, Peter Viereck, and Murray Rothbard have had to say about the conjunction and centralization of economic and political power—and what the alternatives might be.

(While I’m touting books, let me also mention that the distributist/agrarian classic Who Owns America?, which Nader discusses in the TAC excerpt, is on sale now from ISI.)

A few weeks ago, Cato’s Christopher Preble and I attended a conference Nader organized, and the two of us participated on a panel to discuss left-right approaches to trimming the defense budget. Here’s the video:

And here are all the panels from that event, including remarks by Grover Norquist.

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Writers Who Change How You Read

Yale's Sterling Memorial Library. Arthur Connors / Shutterstock.com
Yale's Sterling Memorial Library. Arthur Connors / Shutterstock.com

In late 2008 I put myself through a crash course in the works of Willmoore Kendall, the “wild Yale don,” as Dwight Macdonald called him, who had been one of the founding senior editors of National Review. This was research for an essay that would appear in The Dilemmas of American Conservatism. I’d read some Kendall before—a desultory stroll through The Conservative Affirmation in America, at least—and hadn’t profited much from the experience. But the second, more attentive perusal was different. Kendall himself had told of how R.G. Collingwood had taught him at Cambridge to read a book by asking what question the author was trying to answer. I didn’t find that approach too insightful, but I picked up something else from Kendall’s own methods—the habit of asking “What conditions would have to be true in order for this author’s arguments to make sense?”

That’s a more productive thing to ask of a serious work than simply, “Do this author’s arguments make sense?” The latter invites the reader to supply a misleading context: the author’s arguments may not match up with reality, but they must match up at least with his own view of reality, and that’s something worth figuring out and contrasting against whatever the reader thinks he already knows.

Stated so plainly this isn’t likely to strike anyone else as particularly insightful, just as Kendall’s report of how Collingwood reshaped his thinking didn’t do much for me. But that’s a lesson, too: it’s the act of thinking along with a text or teacher, and the new context created by that act, which makes a dead question come alive.

I thought of this when I recently came across Peter Witonski’s 1970 NR review of The Basic Symbols of the American Political Tradition, a book that began as a series of Kendall lectures and was finished after his death by George Carey. The review doesn’t do justice to the book—it elicited a sharp letter from Carey, who thought Witonski hadn’t even read what he purported to be reviewing—but Witonski does capture the effect Kendall can have, even decades after his death, perfectly:

What Kendall is all about is thinking—thinking about theoretical problems in politics. The device is that of the master professor, the man who by definition professes because he is wise, and is wise because he professes. The failure to convince, the difficult prose, are the essence of this device. In not convincing, Kendall makes you think the problem over again and again. I recognized this for the first time several years ago, when I met Kendall, for the first and last time, in a suburb of Paris, and spent many hours arguing with him.

The man, like the writer, was convincing and unconvincing. That night he spent a good deal of time propounding the general idea behind a book he had been engaged in writing, dealing with the American tradition. His argument was, of course, brilliant. But when I left him I was as unconvinced as ever. As I walked away from his flat I found myself thinking about what he had said. Suddenly I realized that I was thinking about such things as the Federalist Papers and the Declaration of Independence with a new freshness and vigor. I was rethinking them. I still did not agree with Kendall, but in his own perverse way he had taught me a great deal in a short period of time about subjects in which I had long since considered myself to be expert. Kendall was a master teacher.

Kendall and Collingwood are by no means alone in this heuristic impact. But it’s a rare thing: there are many memorable books and teachers that impart facts or insights; there aren’t so many who change the way an interlocutor reads.

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RT ≠ Endorsement

On air, Liz Wahl quits Russia’s English-language propaganda network.

She’s been getting a bit of snark from Twitter over her belated realization that maybe RT is a less than rigorously objective news source. Yet I’m more exasperated by RT’s viewers than by hosts who are, after all, only making a living, however dubiously, by reading from the Kremlin’s script.* In particular, how can certain libertarians or government-skeptical leftists think that as long as the spin is coming from a government other than America’s it must actually be the truth?

Unfortunately, the answer is all too plain: if you think that the U.S. federal government is the source of all evil in your life, your country, and the world, then it stands to reason—almost—that whatever contradicts Washington is on the side of truth. Moscow and Beijing therefore become beacons of light. The ideologues who fall prey to this don’t necessarily hate America—there’s a distinction between the country and its government, after all—and they don’t think of themselves as pro-authoritarian or, in the case of the Middle East, pro-dictator. But they do think, ultimately, that foreign authoritarians and dictators are really more liberal than the liberal-but-really-authoritarian United States. It’s a sour love affair: the U.S. fails to live up to liberal ideals, or even to come close, so regimes that have no intention of abiding by them must be no worse, or indeed a great deal better. Read More…

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Leo Strauss and the Right’s Civil War

University of Chicago

I recently reviewed Paul Gottfried’s Leo Strauss and the Conservative Movement in America for the University Bookman. Paul responds to my review here. Note that in addition to Paul’s book being available as an affordable paperback, the Kindle edition is now going for just $12.49—if you’re interested in this topic, be sure to read it for yourself.

In the review I say that whether or not Strauss was in some sense a “conservative” is not the most interesting thing about him or the debate over his work. Gottfried may be correct that Strauss is better understood—if he needs to be situated in the context of late 20th century politics at all—as a Cold War liberal. The deficiency with that approach, however, is that it fails to account for why Strauss and his disciples are more often seen to associate with the conservative movement than with the leading figures and institutions of liberalism. Strauss and Straussians have been a presence in National Review since the 1960s. They have never had a similar representation in the New Republic, let alone The Nation.

Paul points to the importance of Strauss’s critique of relativism to explain the affinity that conservatives, especially conservative Catholics, have felt for him and his disciples. He also, however, calls attention to the Strauss circle’s apparent preference for Democratic presidential candidates in the 1950s and 1960s as evidence of a left-leaning disposition. In the Bookman, I challenge he idea that presidential voting counts for much—I cite the preference of Murray Rothbard and Peter Viereck, two other ambiguously conservative or right-leaning figures, for Adlai Stevenson over Dwight Eisenhower as an indicator of how voting is not always a sure sign of ideological alignment. I chose those figures because they happened to agree with Strauss (according to Stephen Smith’s account of Strauss’s voting) in the elections of the 1950s and because they, like Strauss, are not easy to pigeonhole. The point can be expanded, however: Russell Kirk, a conservative’s conservative, liked Eugene McCarthy as much as Barry Goldwater, and James Burnham—an important influence on Gottfried’s fellow paleoconservative Sam Francis—strongly preferred liberal Republican Nelson Rockefeller over Goldwater.

The “relativism” question is far more important than presidential voting, and taken together with personal and institutional associations creates a much stronger case for placing Strauss among conservatives than among liberals like Louis Hartz or A.M. Schlesinger. National Review‘s William F. Buckley Jr. and Willmoore Kendall considered Strauss a comrade, as did Russell Kirk—though he came to have a more negative view of Strauss’s disciples after the 1980s.

This is worth stating explicitly because less historically informed commentators than Gottfried—who touches on such associations just briefly—may think there’s some mystery as to how latter-day Straussians came to occupy a prominent place in the conservative movement. The simple answer is: they inherited it, both from Strauss himself and from Harry Jaffa, who is ideologically idiosyncratic but has been influential in right-wing Republican and NR circles since the early 1960s. Read More…

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Can Liberals Understand Politics Anymore?

I’m baffled by liberals who don’t actually support Obamacare themselves—they want single-payer—but are furious at Republicans for voting against it. (Several comments here illustrate the phenomenon.) Let’s consider the logic. A great many Republicans actually do oppose Obamacare for bona fide reasons. Others are indifferent, and some might opposite it only on partisan grounds while liking the law in principle. Which of these groups of Republicans do liberals think would have had reason to vote for the law?

Those who secretly liked the law were going to see it passed anyway by a Democratic majority—they got the policy they wanted without having to risk blowback in a Republican primary. You’d have to be extremely idealistic to believe that taking a serious political risk to make no policy difference is a prudent move. Indifferent Republicans faced an even starker calculus: risk your career for a policy you don’t care about at all or that you think has as much chance of turning out badly as well. Finally, Republicans who did oppose PPACA out of principle surely can’t be expected to have a reason to vote for the law anyway absent something to change the equation.

This was the ex ante logic, and it proved to be correct: any Republican who had voted for Obamacare would have faced the wrath of the Tea Party, and if he had survived past 2010, he would still have to survive a 2014 midterm in which even Democrats risk losing their seats over their association with the law and its disastrous implementation.

Liberals are so politically inert that I don’t waste much time criticizing them. The Democratic Party, to the extent that it’s liberal, wins nationally because the GOP is a basket case. The hard left, which knows that Democrats are about as neoliberal as the GOP, lives in a nonsense world in which puppet-wielding protesters shape policy, or would if only they built more and bigger puppets. I know some very well meaning, otherwise intelligent antiwar leftists who are nonetheless the most politically infantile people you will ever meet. Politics is just magic to them. (Some of this comes of drawing the wrong lessons from Alinsky and Gramsci—wrong lessons the activist right is now busy committing to memory.)

What drives liberals’ political inanity is the same thing that accounts for why the Tea Party can’t govern: just as the grassroots right is against a lot of things but doesn’t feel much urgency about figuring out what it’s realistically for, liberals go hot with rage over Republican bad behavior and stop there, indulging in outrage rather than thinking about how to change the GOP’s incentives.

The Obamacare saga is the clearest example of the left’s failure to think politically. Lefties defend a law that they don’t even like, and which cost the Democratic Party enormously in 2010 and looks set to do so again in 2014. This would be like conservatives defending Medicare Part D if it had caused Republicans to lose the House in 2004. To their credit, most right-wingers, even the hawks, have the good sense not to attack anyone today for failing to support the Iraq War in 2003.

The only way to get a party or a politician to act against its interest or its principles is to change what those interests or principles are through powerful incentives. Offer X in return for Y, and if X is a higher priority for the other party than not-Y, you will get your way. Such negotiation isn’t always easy or even possible—the alignment of interests (including self-preservation) and principle involved in Republican opposition to Obamacare may have been insurmountable. At that point, a politician or party has a choice: press ahead with the policy knowing that you will bear 100 percent of the blame if things go wrong, or put your wager on something else and bide your time on this issue until the other side is more tractable. Obama, Reid, and Pelosi made their choice—fair enough—and they’re living with the consequences. The Republicans did the only thing that made sense in their position; and now they might reap a reward.

Liberals can comfort themselves in one respect, however: the Republicans have blown opportunities as good as this many times before. That’s why Harry Reid is still majority leader.

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