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Against Authoritarianism, Rightly Understood

Damon Linker at TNR attacks Andrew Bacevich’s recent response to Sam Tanenhaus’s essay on the demise of conservatism, and more broadly various iterations of what he calls “paleo-conservatism” (including, I’m somewhat honored to note, a link to my site “What I Saw in America” as well as to the writings of Rod Dreher and Daniel […]

Damon Linker at TNR attacks Andrew Bacevich’s recent response to Sam Tanenhaus’s essay on the demise of conservatism, and more broadly various iterations of what he calls “paleo-conservatism” (including, I’m somewhat honored to note, a link to my site “What I Saw in America” as well as to the writings of Rod Dreher and Daniel Larison). In particular, he seeks to warn of the dangers of authoritarianism that he detects lurking at the heart of this radical philosophy.

Linker engages in no little amount of misdirection and sleight of hand by attempting to link arguments by Bacevich – including his critique of American irreponsibility in the realms of personal morality, finance, and militarism – exclusively with aspects of Catholicism that, for him, represents the end station on the road the “paleos” propose we travel. The attempt to forge this link is so strained that it really doesn’t deserve much further comment. That he thinks a critique of moral, financial and military irresponsibility – aimed at conservatives and liberals alike – can be dismissed by attempting to paint on it the facade of Church scandal reveals most deeply Linker’s fears that he can’t really argue with the substance of Bacevich’s points.

Still, there is an important point in Linker’s argument that does bear consideration – namely, that “paleo” conservatism (a term I don’t at all like, in large part because it suggests something that was large, lumbering, is now extinct, and had small brains to boot) has at its base an authoritarian dimension. It is peculiar to be painted with this brush, particularly given the widely shared mistrust toward centralization and “bigness” that pervades the thought of the arguments that Linker points to. Critiques by Bacevich, Larison, and others against the pervasive military mobilization and imperial ambitions of America hardly seem an endorsement of authoritarianism. Arguments for fiscal responsibility, for thrift and living within one’s means may strike some as “authoritarian,” but I think most would conclude that it would be preferable to our current financial situation. Linker’s fears of authoritarianism would seem to boil down to his fears that someone will seek to restrain him from exercising personal moral (and, based on his examples, specifically sexual) license. This is an argument always certain to rally liberal forces, as certain as demands to rein in “judicial tyranny” are sure to energize conservatives. But it really, really misses the point.

The three examples – not exhaustive – offered by Bacevich are deeply connected. Each of them speak to the modern American inability to govern appetite. They rest not on a call for the imposition of authority – how could one demand authority to suppress the imperial impulse? – but seek the encouragement of self-government and self-control. Such arguments rest on a fundamentally different conception of liberty than that assumed by Linker: not the absence of restraint, but self-government resulting in freedom from the self-destructive slavery to appetite.

What Linker further misses is the extent to which the three are connected. The personal liberties we seek to enjoy rest upon, and are made extensively possible by, a growth economy. The success of the financial system as currently ordered rests extensively upon the expansion of the State, and thus, its military capabilities. This was an argument made long ago by Machiavelli in his Discourses on Livy, the book that fundamentally redefined the concept of “republicanism” away from its ancient Aristotelian and Ciceronian forms – with a stress upon res publica, or “public things” – to one in which the polity is ordered in a manner to guarantee sufficient power and stability for its populace to attain the things it wants – that is, private liberty. Machiavelli understood that ancient republics could not achieve the conditions necessary for private liberty, being neither rich nor powerful enough to afford the stability or prosperity that made widespread private liberty possible. Rather, he argued on behalf of a new form of republicanism – modern republicanism – that was premised upon expansion and dominion. It rested on the two pillars of dominion – the mastery of nature and the exercise of power over a wide expanse of territory, a trajectory of expansion that, in fact, could know no natural limits. The project of expansion was the only option for modern republicanism, for not to expand was to become subject to the expansionist designs of other regimes. Expand, or die. Expand, and be free.

The irony of this argument – one that underlies the thought of aspects of our own Constitutional system – is that the very achievement of private liberty is premised upon the expansion of public power. We do not necessarily experience this form of public power as “authority” in the traditional sense, but surely it orders our lives in innumerable ways, and infiltrates our daily existence in ways that may be more extensive than any old-fashioned monarch could have dreamed of. The power that is now wielded by central governments in the modern industrialized world goes far beyond anything that has ever existed before, and we come daily to rely more and more upon its increase of power in order to sustain our pursuits of private liberty. We are, of course, seeing this with renewed clarity in the daily increase of government power and authority in the realms of military and financial activity, resulting in ever-greater concentration of power for the sake of our capacity to live as thoroughly as possible lives defined by private liberty. The State will demand ever more power to sustain this self-centered aim, and in our incapacity to conceive of a different form of liberty – based in self-government – we assent to its continued concentration and expansion. What awaits us at the end of this road is too horrific to contemplate.

Working within this reigning paradigm, all obstacles to the achievement of private liberty represent unnatural and undesired restrictions upon one’s liberty. All restraints are considered to be repressive authority – even, were it possible to conceive, if it were exercised by oneself. The paradigm only can operate along a spectrum of “unrestrained” or “oppressed,” wholly oblivious to the alternative capacity of self-rule. Again, the irony is that self-rule is the means of preventing and thwarting the expansion of the military-industrial State. It is, in fact, the greatest avenue of preventing the likelihood of an all-encompassing Leviathan. Such an alternative conception of liberty is deeply premised upon the very anthropology that Linker claims it to be uncognizant of – our propensity to “depravity,” including self-deception, pride, greed, self-aggrandizement and a willingness to reduce good to those things reducible to the monadic body. A culture that would seek to reign in our propensity to depravity would not rest either on private liberation nor “authoritarianism,” but the inculcation of the faculties and abilities of self-government. Only one who seeks private liberty in all respects would regard such cultivation of self-government as oppressive, and would ultimately have to face the reality that such thoroughgoing private liberty is purchased by means of the expansion of public power and a truly frightening prospect of authoritarianism. Already we can see that much of the American public would be willing to sacrifice liberties in the name of sustaining a growth economy that encourages near-infinite, but never fulfilled, personal satiation. This, however, is not liberty.

It is time to think differently and beyond this reigning paradigm: to think of liberty in terms of self-government; to consider that freedom is best preserved when institutions are smaller and less concentrated with destructive power; to live within the means that nature affords, without seeking its pillage or mutilation; to act with stewardship and responsibility in the world and toward our neighbors and future generations. There is one part of Linker’s argument that I hope is right: that arguments such as these “may gather force over the coming years.” That’s change I can believe in.



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