a decade ago I was attending the meeting of the Philadelphia Society,
a conservative outfit with some libertarian members. It was founded,
I believe, by, among others, William F. Buckley, Jr. At that particular
meeting the keynote address was given by Irving Kristol, the father
of American neo-conservatism. A neo-conservative is a strange bird,
indeed – the predecessor of the compassionate conservative, as best
as I can tell.
with all conservatives, one cannot give a clear definition of neo-conservatism
because a hallmark of conservative thinking is not to get too wedded
to principles. Conservatism is, in fact, not an outlook with certain
clear principles or ideas but mostly with only a certain method
that is to be used as one forges public policy – indeed, any policy.
The most notable conservative thinker in modern times was Edmund
Burke. The philosopher most often invoked by conservatives in the
West is David Hume. Both of them were very suspicious of principled
thinking – they considered it a kind of dogmatism, ideology or human
conceit to adhere to principles – as if we could ever identify principles
their understanding it is hubris to believe that we mere human beings
could ever come up with lasting, firm principles of politics or
even of ethics. Instead, the best policy is to follow the prevailing
and strongest tradition in one's community. In this sense conservatism
is close to pragmatism – don't fool yourself thinking that any principles
can be identified by you and your pals that can be relied upon to
guide conduct, public or private. The only thing you have is the
authority of lasting (enough) traditional ideas, ones that "work."
reason for the "neo" in "neo-conservatism" is
that there is something new about it, after all. In America, after
all, the most traditional ideas are those sketched out in the Declaration
of Independence. Yet these ideas do amount to principles, something
anathema to conservatism. Thus American conservatism is a bit of
an anomaly. That makes sense, given that the country was born of
a revolution against traditional ideas, such as monarchism, feudalism,
the class structure and mercantilism. Neo-conservatives actually
try to avoid the anomaly of American conservatism by not remaining
very loyal at all to the letter or spirit of the revolutionary American
political tradition, one that's actually more libertarian than anything
else. Neo-conservatives, accordingly, are more statist and much
fonder of government intervention in society than the original American
Kristol, for example, started out as a socialist or social democrat – someone who believes that socialism is fine so long as the methods
by which it reaches policy decisions are democratic (enough). He
then came to see that the goal of uplifting the economy cannot be
achieved by socialist means – central planning, heavy government
regulation and the like. But he never gave up on the idea that some
measure of leadership, if not of the economy than of national culture,
must come from the national government.
this connection Kristol presented to members of the Philadelphia
Society a rather shocking notion: A country needs a war now and
then to maintain its proper spirit, to acclimate its young to the
requirements of national unity and loyalty. American conservatives,
who tended to embrace George Washington's idea of a largely isolationist
foreign policy for the United States, found this a very odd idea.
Many of them, especially those of a strong libertarian bent, consider
it an obscene notion – have wars for purposes of consciousness raising,
inspiring our youth? How crassly utilitarian could one become?
why am I recalling this frightening talk from Irving Kristol over
a decade ago? It is because President George W. Bush is more and
more often being referred to as a neo-conservative. It is not unlikely
at all that one of the reasons for his eagerness to go to war against
Iraq is akin to Irving Kristol's.
Bush may believe that Saddam Hussein is a vicious dictator who has
some intolerable weapons that should be eliminated. But, may there
not well be various other ways of pacifying Saddam beside an out
and out military operation?
however, Bush is smitten with Irving Kristol's idea that war is
actually something useful for a society, he would be disinclined
to investigate those alternative ways of disarming Saddam and focus
exclusively on just what he is focusing on, namely, a war with Iraq
because, well, it may well be good for us all to have a war now
and then. Scary thought, if you ask me.
him mail] is
Distinguished Fellow and Professor, Leatherby Center for Entrepreneurship
& Business Ethics, Argyros School of Business & Economics,
Chapman University, and Research Fellow at the Hoover Institution,