We Have Met the Enemy, and He is UsBy John Médaille for FRONT PORCH REPUBLIC
Two recent articles in this journal bring us to the question of the meaning of “movement conservatism,” or rather, what can be “conservative” about such a movement. The first is James Matthew Wilson’s Libertarian Solutions to Communal Difficulties, and the second is Joseph Baldaccino’s Where Movement Conservatism Went Wrong–And How to Fix It.
Dr. Wilson notes, forcefully, the problems with libertarian anthropology. But he also notes the practical necessity of working with people who, like the conservatives, oppose big government. And in fact, there is in some varieties of libertarianism the same reverence for place that one finds on the Front Porch. I speak as an author whose work has been informed, in no small degree, by libertarians of this sort. However, there are also great problems. In the first place, the dominant—and most well-funded—form of libertarianism is the Neo-Austrian variety, a variety founded by a “man of 1779” who bore a peculiar hatred of religion in general and Christianity in particular.
But the greater problem is that libertarians are not opposed to big government; they are opposed to all government, and that is not the same thing. From the libertarian standpoint, if the government acts at all, it acts unjustly. The only just government is an impotent government. But as a practical matter, this does not result in limited government, but in a government that grows to gargantuan size. The libertarians fail to recognize the gargantuan forces in society that result in a demand for gargantuan government. To put it briefly, the higher the piles of capital, the thicker the walls of government necessary to protect them. As a practical matter, when the government tries to limit the influence of these gargantuan entities, the libertarian arguments are summoned forth will all the solemnity of Holy Writ. But when those same entities want a lucrative contract, a bailout, a subsidy, an exemption, or an increase in their power, the libertarians are dispatched to the corner, to stand there like errant schoolboys until they are once again summoned to do their duty. Many libertarians resent playing this assigned role, but if you want to read a defense of monopolistic and oligarchic capitalism, you will have to go to the major libertarian sites.
Here we can see into the conundrum that is at the heart of modern conservatism: we have tried to marry social conservatism with economic liberalism. For what we call “capitalism” is merely the Marxist epithet for what was originally called “liberalism.” Our situation then is that we keep meeting in the social realm arguments we have already conceded in the economic realm, and we wonder why our social arguments seem to carry no weight. And we are constantly surprised that what we win in elections we lose in ruling; that no matter what the regime, the results are the same: a bigger state, a larger burden, and a smaller sphere for local self-government. The state grows larger, and the access to the public purse for large corporations grows greater, while the role of the citizen is diminished. The spaces that were once occupied by small retailers and manufacturers are colonized by a few large firms, and political life becomes, more and more, the domain of powerful pressure groups quarreling over their share of the public booty. The political and economic freedom of the family shrinks until it becomes no more than a mere client of the state and the corporations.
A recent Supreme Court decision and two recent articles drive home this conundrum. The Supreme Court, which has a “conservative” majority, declared, by a 7-2 margin, that the corruption of the young is a commercial “right.” This is a court which has also determined that saying prayers in schools would be a violation of rights. Some may be impressed with the “conservative” nuances of the concurring opinions, but this does nothing to diminish the fact that the opinions were concurring.
The first article, Stonewalling Marriage, which appeared in the pages of The American Conservative, was by Justin Raimundo arguing against gay marriage. Now, Raimundo is one of my favorite libertarian authors, and he always says much that is useful and sensible. But he cannot be described as a “conservative,” a fact which he seems to acknowledge when he says “there is an effective conservative—or rather libertarian—case to be made against gay marriage.” He is certainly correct to distinguish a “libertarian” argument from “conservative” one. In this particular case, the problem with Raimundo’s arguments is that they are not so much arguments against gay marriage in particular as against marriage in general. Other than protecting children from neglect and abuse, Raimundo would not allow the law to have any role in anything that people care to call “marriage.” His arguments certainly make sense—from the standpoint of liberalism—but they are hardly arguments which a conservative can endorse. Yet, we have already conceded Raimundo’s arguments in the economic realm; how can we then turn around and deny them in the social realm?
The second article appeared in First Things. It was Robert Miller’s attack on Alisdair MacIntyre, entitled Waiting for St. Vladimir. One could fault this article for its manifold misunderstandings of economics in general and capitalism in particular, but the central point here is that Miller makes an irreducibly liberal argument for capitalism, which is the only grounds on which it can be defended. Miller argues that capitalism is an arena of pure freedom which does not have any particular goals of its own. But a conservative might critique Miller’s argument on at least three grounds. The first is that he offers us no clue of what he means by “freedom.” We can only glean from hints in the article that it means doing whatever you wish to do—that is, pure “self-interest.” But such an unrestrained pursuit of desire is not liberty, but license, and license always ends up negating liberty. Christian freedom is always oriented towards the good and is never reducible to pure “free choice.”
To take an example, one has a free choice of whether to take one’s cocaine in crystal or powdered form. One can compare the marginal utilities of both and arbitrate the differences through a price system, and proper marketing campaigns can help us to elucidate the relative benefits of each. However, while this may be a free choice, it is never a choice of freedom, since either choice leads to slavery. Licentiousness negates freedom, yet it is this licentiousness, this “freedom” from traditional moral constraints and authorities which is the essence of liberalism. We cannot endorse such licentiousness in the economic realm and not expect to meet it in the social and political realms; that is simply too much to ask.
Miller roots the “justice” of capitalism in the claim that free bargaining will give to both capital and labor what each actually earns, but there is nothing in capitalism which ensures this. Indeed, Adam Smith himself pointed out the fallacy of this theory. Success in bargaining goes to the stronger side, and Smith noted that this would always be the “Masters” and that such contracts could never ensure that labor would get its fair share of production. Contracts arbitrate power, not productivity.
Finally, we can note that Miller asserts that capitalism has no end in itself, but only provides a mechanism for the pursuit of ends that individuals choose for themselves. So if one wants to pursue the sane and limited ends of what Aristotle and Aquinas understood by “economics,” the proper provisioning of the household and the common goods of society, and another chooses to pursue the infinite acquisition of money and purely individualistic ends, capitalism does not discriminate between them. But surely, there are no “neutral” systems. Institutions reward some pursuits and punish others, and those who pursue insane and infinite ends (and insane because they are infinite) will tend to crush those who pursue sane and limited ends. And this is precisely what we see in the market today. Moreover, firms interested only in the infinite pursuit of wealth and guided only by the “logic” of self-interest will not be able to resist the temptations of “regulatory capture,” that is, of capturing the mechanisms of the state and using them to their private ends; of treating the public purse as a private preserve. Any supposed “market discipline” will be undermined by sheer political power.
But perhaps the real problem with the article may be simply the condescending tone, a tone that begins with the title, which seems to accuse MacIntyre of being a closet commie. And what has MacIntyre done to draw this accusation? He has dared to apply the moral law to the material order; he refuses to divorce ethics and economics. But this contradicts Miller’s claim that capitalism is a “morally neutral” playing field, and Miller instructs MacIntyre as he would an errant child, as if the (arguably) foremost conservative philosopher had no knowledge of such things. Indeed, any attempt to join the moral and material realms is to be seen as a case of creeping communism. Not that ethics are to be excluded entirely, but they enter the economic realm only as a matter of private choice, not public policy. As a private choice, ethics have the same status as any other consumer choice, take it or leave it, as one’s “utility” dictates.
However, this claim of “moral neutrality” hides a practical claim of moral superiority. Most of our actions are, in some sense “economic,” and all of our actions are material; even prayer requires the expenditure of energy, an energy that will have to be replaced, most likely in the realm of economic exchanges. This realm of exchanges is to be guided, according to the predominant theory, by the pure pursuit of profit. Now, since morality is about the realm of actions, and much of this action takes place in the economic realm, then the unavoidable conclusion is that most of our actions should be guided by the pursuit of profit, or at least of self-interest.
The “incarnation” of this division of ethics and economics is given, I think, by the Fox media empire. There, consistent support is given to “family values” on the news channels, while doing everything it can to destroy the family on its “entertainment” channels. The moral message is clear: “Morals are great as a personal or political issue, but they must never be allowed to interfere with the pursuit of profit. Hey, this is just business, and people can make their own choices; we just offer products in a morally neutral realm.”
All this, I think, is the answer to the question of why “movement conservatism” doesn’t work. The reason is that there is no conservative movement, only a movement in which the concerns of conservatism are subordinated to the needs of economic liberalism. This will never work, or at least, it won’t work for conservatives; they will be forever wondering why they can run but cannot rule. They will always wonder why, after getting their friends into office, bad things happen, the same bad things, more or less, that happen when their friends don’t win. The same things happen because the same ideas rule, merely in left- and right-wing variants, which really aren’t all that variant.
All that being said, I would certainly l like to work with such people as Justin Raimundo or Robert Miller, when the occasion arises. But we cannot work as junior partners, lending our efforts to the victory but sharing nothing of the spoils. That is to say, I don’t mind working with them; I just don’t want to work for them. So how does a group gain influence in the politics of a democracy? Such a polity tends to be built around factions, and two collections of factions tend to dominate the system. In America, these coalitions of factions are the Democratic and Republican Parties. In such a structure, a group gains influence by the credible threat to withhold support. Take the case of the Tea Party. Although a minority of the Republican Party, they seem to control it right now. Why? Because they have let it be known that they are not “real” Republicans, and that their support of the Party is contingent on the Party’s good behavior. That means that the Party must be continually “bidding” for their support. Say what you like about the legislative agenda of the Tea Party, they have certainly played their political cards right.
We can do no less. Of course, it would help if there were more of us, and if we had more awareness of our own distinctive character. It may be, in the current circumstances, that we can do nothing, save what a remnant always does: wait, pray, prepare; the moment will come. But what we cannot do is both maintain our conservative identity and exist as a mere adjunct to economic liberalism.
This brings us to the problem of the Tea Party. One certainly applauds their goal of a smaller government, and one must certainly sympathize with their anger and passion. But passion is never enough; one needs some understanding as well. In truth, we have seen this movie before, and we know how it ends. We saw it in 1980, and again in 1994, and again in 2000. “But this time is different,” you might say. But that is what they said all the other times. And all the other times, the passion dissipates and the members of the movement who got into office drift into the routine of party politics, seeking lucrative committee assignments, and retirement into jobs as lobbyists or consultants for the industries they were supposed to control.
The ideology of the Tea Party, insofar as I can locate any, is to assert an individualism against the all-powerful state. But as Patrick Deneen points out, individualism is not something opposed to statism, but rather its prerequisite; the state cannot be everything until everything else is nothing. Individualism erodes every other institution, leaving nothing but the state. You end up with a situation where any attempt to assert a common good gets labeled as communism, as Miller does with MacIntyre.
One final exemplar of the problem. Phillip Blond recently made a tour of the East Coast to garner support for an American equivalent to his “Red Tory” movement among “movement conservatives.” I do not know the outcome of these talks, or how much support he was able to garner. But I suspect that Grover Norquist’s response was typical; he particularly objected to Blond’s criticism of the free market. “There’s zero interest in that in the U.S. – given the regulatory and spending explosion the last 20 years, there’s no sense that there’s runaway market liberalism.” Well, perhaps. Maybe the problem with the markets is a lack of liberalism, but it is not even regarded as odd that a “conservative” activist will root his case in liberal arguments. And I find it interesting that Grover’s critique of Blond is that he is insufficiently liberal. At the same time, Mr. Norquist has been disappointed in the past that his group helps to elect conservative candidates, but only ends up with liberal government. But what Mr. Norquist doesn’t seem to realize is that in any argument between a liberal and a liberal, the liberal will win every time.