George Will and the Neoconservatives

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George
Will's February 1st, 2004 column
struck me as rather
remarkable. From my point of view, Will is himself a fascinating
figure, in that I find it wonderfully entrancing to watch him turn
toward the service of neoconservatism, the unusual mix of Unitarian
and other principles with which he grew up. But perhaps not everyone
shares my interest in the particular religious origins of neoconservatives'
thought. Luckily, the Feb. 1st column seems not merely
interesting biographically, but further seems to shed a lot of light
on the general character of the neoconservative movement.

Neoconservatives
must justify the need for government to move beyond the task of
protecting negative rights, while at the same time arguing that
the government ought not be used to secure an equal set of robust
positive rights for each citizen. It isn't easy to do this. Neither
is it easy to develop criteria for explaining just what the government
ought to do beyond protecting basic rights, if social equality or
a u201Cbasic needs” approach is not the goal.1
So I am willing to be sympathetic to the neoconservative intellectual
plight. Be this as it may, neoconservatives such as Will disappoint.
What they point to time and again is the issue of “the practical,”
as in, well, a libertarian society be wonderful, but it's just not
practical, because the poor would never go for it; or because of
the War on Terror; or because society needs government-enforced
cohesion; or because people are just evil.

Thus
neoconservatives are reduced to designing principles that simultaneously
treat the public as being defective and thus in need of government
control, and also as being defective and thus in need of governmental
deference to their frightening, media-driven wants. What they come
up with is two-fold. First, neoconservatives favor “national
unity” under a military-espionage aegis, with the jettisoning
of any cultural elements not deemed necessary for this goal, such
as loyalty to particularist ethnic or religious currents that fall
below the level of “Western civilization.” Second, neoconservatives
favor the pacification of the lower classes through government welfare.
(Here they sometimes draw explicitly from Bismarck.)

Will's
column works on this second point: Bush's spending spree makes sense,
Will claims, because Republicans can spend in a way that is better
than Democrats can. But to do this, they certainly have to spend.
And, apparently, spend, and spend, and spend….

Will
writes: “Today “strong government conservatism” – “strong” is not
synonymous with “big” – is the only conservatism palatable to a
public that expects government to assuage three of life’s largest
fears: illness, old age and educational deficits that prevent social
mobility…. Republican strong-government conservatism contracts the
dependency culture and expands the sphere of choices, thereby enhancing
the individual’s competence and responsibility. This validates Republicans’
claims to power ….”

Will's
analysis rests on two key assumptions. First, there is the assumption
that a majority of Americans do not believe that it would be better
if the federal government largely removed itself from the tasks
of providing for healthcare, retirement, and education; where it
is not reasonable to expect that a majority of Americans could be
convinced otherwise. Second, there is the assumption that Republicans
will tax, borrow, and spend in ways that are better for Americans
than Democrat methods would be.

Neither
of these assumptions are at all credible. It is true that Bush is
unwilling to cut spending. But (as with immigration) Bush is here
totally out of step with his GOP base, which believes in overturning
FDR and Great Society expansions of government, not simply transforming
such expansions to “contract dependency culture and expand the sphere
of choice.” Will's assumption that one could not add to this base
to achieve a majority in favor of limited government is not sustainable.
If the GOP leadership was pushing for limited government, but a
majority would not follow, then we might be able to speak of real
evidence for Will's claim. But we have nothing to talk about until
the GOP leadership enunciates a strong vision of limited government
to the American people. This vision would have to include the gradual
phasing out of Social Security, Medicare, the Department of Education,
et al, over a multi-decade period. Until such a vision is
offered, we have no way of distinguishing true majority preference
from simple accession to the political reality of neoconservative
dominance.

As
to this idea that the GOP could somehow refrain from limiting government,
but still make government spending less damaging than it would be
under Democrat rule – well, I suppose here much depends on
one's perspective about what it is important not to damage. Let
us assume that one's major concerns are preserving an economy that
allows the flourishing of a wealthy, jet-set group bleached of all
strong cultural connections with any historically-viable society.
If such were the case, well, then I say, vote Bush till the cows
come home! However, if one is actually concerned about the life-prospects
of the majority of Americans, one might very well argue that Democrat-managed
spending on education and healthcare would be preferable to GOP
spending on NASA, wars fought under false public pretences, and
the corruption of private education. In any case, I see no reason
to assume that the GOP would be noticeably better spenders of citizens'
wealth.

More
to the point, if the GOP abandons the goal of limiting government,
a sizeable number of Republicans are going to refrain from voting
for Republicans, even if they were judged to be “better” spenders
than are Democrats. This is because such voters will want to rub
the GOP-leadership's nose in the fact that it has betrayed the central
conservative impulse of limiting government. Such voters will continue
to rebel until GOP leadership comes to its senses. Moving to the
middle costs you at least as much on the right, as moving to the
right costs you from the middle. No song-and-dance about “better”
spending is going to change this.

Given
the shaky nature of Will's assumptions, I doubt he actually believes
them. After all, Will is a smart guy. Moreover, neoconservatives,
being as a group rooted in Strauss's Platonic doctrine of the conflict
between truth and custom, tend to be somewhat circumspect about
their true motives. When we find neoconservative arguments being
offered publicly, we thus get a wonderful opportunity to think about
human love of the state, as the neoconservatives do not so much
explain their state-worship, as hint mysteriously as its’ nature.

Why
do neoconservatives so love the state? Toward what goals do they
wish to direct the trough-spillage of state-spending? Mere goals
of social equality are for the liberal; something else is desired.
But what? Do neoconservatives have dreams of constructing a grand,
monochrome civilization that reaches for the stars, all the while
under their control? Is the simple extinction of traditional culture
a sufficiently grand goal? Is it more about just having power that
one does not have to share with the other, liberal talking heads?
Or perhaps it stems from a belief that the providential function
of America is to bring the gods of Democracy and Semi-Market Economics
to the world? All of the above, plus some? Who can say!

My,
one can wonder at such possibilities for hours. Neoconservatives
certainly do bring up fascinating questions about what one is to
want, if not simply safe and peaceful lives for all of one's fellow
humans.

I
conclude, then, that Straussian roots are real. Because thinking
about what neoconservatives want is not totally un-like thinking
about what the pre-Socratic Greeks desired to achieve; or about
what Aristotle valued in praising “the great-souled man.” What unites
Ancient and “Post-modern” here seems to be that the concept of Christian
humility is equally opaque to the Ancient Greeks, and to the present-day
neoconservatives. And so neither has the attending knowledge that
“striving for greatness” can only be done when one clearly sees
how this furthers love of God, and love of one's neighbor.

  1. The central
    “basic needs” approach I have in mind here is that advocated
    by Martha Nussbaum. Neoconservatives cannot endorse these kinds
    of proposals, because they would involve a massive expansion of
    government that, for the neoconservative, is “too much.”

February
3, 2004

Marcus
Verhaegh [send him
mail
] is an instructor in philosophy at Kent State University.
Here is his philosophy website.


        
        

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