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Andrew Bacevich has a short post on a future conservatism, and Patrick Deneen has a long and very interesting related response to Damon Linker at the main blog. I want to discuss this debate at greater length, but I am probably going to be too busy for most of the rest of this week to give it the attention it deserves. Briefly and not surprisingly, I agree with Bacevich’s prescription:

When it comes to the culture, conservatives should promote an awareness of the costs of unchecked individual autonomy, while challenging conceptions of freedom that deny the need for self-restraint and self-denial. When it comes to economics, they should emphasize the virtue and necessity of Americans, collectively as well as individually, learning to live within their means. When it comes to foreign policy, they should advocate a restoration of realism, which will necessarily entail abandoning expectations of remaking the world in America’s own image.

Certainly, there is a degree of radicalism in this. It is correct to say that self-restraint has to be governed by deference to authority. Deference and the unquestioning, unthinking servility Linker tries to link to it are, of course, entirely different things, and one thing that I think that paleoconservatives, or simply radical conservatives, have shown over the past several decades is a respect for lawful authority that requires resistance and criticism of abuses of authority. In practice, this means that those who defer to lawful authority are less inclined to embrace what one would recognize as authoritarian practices of the state or any other institution, because they do not judge those in positions of authority merely according to their possession of office and power but also according to their right use of these things.

Individual autonomy, based in pride, is the root of our fallen condition. Indeed, it is the cause of the Fall. That is precisely why it has to be restrained and governed. If we do not cultivate restraint and self-government within ourselves, it will eventually be imposed from without. This is why the culture of choice is so antithetical to genuine freedom, and why deferring to lawful authority is the surest protection against tyrannical abuses by all those who hold positions of authority. Prof. Deneen says this more elegantly than I have:

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.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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