Neoconservatives vs. Freedom

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The
winter 2004 issue of The Public Interest contains an article
by Adam Wolfson, the publication's editor, on "Conservatives
and Neoconservatives
." Mr. Wolfson outlines some of the
central ideas of neoconservatism by contrasting them with what he
refers to as traditionalist conservatism, paleoconservatism, and
libertarian conservatism.

Before
World War II, he points out, conservatism was really classical liberalism,
with strong emphases on individual freedom, laissez-faire economics,
and progress through scientific improvement. In the postwar period,
under the influence of Russell Kirk's 1953 book, The
Conservative Mind
, Mr. Wolfson says, American conservatism
was transformed into a political philosophy critical of modernity
and its unreflective belief that social and economic change always
means progress. The Kirkian conservatives emphasized the roles of
tradition, custom, local community, and institutional stability
in maintaining the health and balance of society. The paleoconservatives,
identified by Mr. Wolfson with ideas espoused by Pat Buchanan and
Paul Gottfried, are anti-free trade, anti-immigration, isolationist
in foreign policy, and suspicious of political and social equality.

As
for libertarianism, Mr. Wolfson states that "It is progressive,
and aims at expanding economic freedom and individual choice ever-forward.
Libertarians oppose all regulation, whether of markets or morals."
He says that libertarians have a "love affair" with new
technologies as the path to human happiness. And, in addition, they
discount any role or place for "the general welfare" and
are opposed to democratic decision-making in the shaping of a "public
ethos." Thus in their pursuit of advancing the right of individual
choice, the libertarian, he claims, is happy if citizens are indifferent
to the well-being of their country.

What,
then, does the neoconservative stand for? As summarized by Mr. Wolfson,
neoconservatives recognize the value of traditions and customs passed
down by earlier generations, but have no desire for or belief in
returning to a past that is unrecoverable and unacceptable to the
vast majority of contemporary Americans. Nor are neoconservatives
desirous of a turning inward from the rest of the world, as he portrays
the paleoconservatives; and the neoconservatives are against anything
that would smack of a denial of democratic and social equality.

In
contrast to Mr. Wolfson's view of the libertarian perspective, neoconservatives
are not willing to sacrifice the idea of a public arena in which
the democratic polity establishes standards for the common good
to which all members of society should conform. Specifically, he
says that neoconservatism has no inherent disapproval of the welfare
state, which he suggests the vast majority of Americans desire as
a means of overcoming "insecurity." Only those welfare-state
programs corrupting of family, marriage, and the work ethic should
be opposed. In addition, neo-conservatives believe in U.S. political
and military interventionism around the world to advance democracy;
but the goal of such foreign interventionism, he argues, is to maintain
America's interests as a "great and powerful democracy."

Mr.
Wolfson's portrayal of libertarianism and neoconservativism offers
an opportunity to restate the fundamental premises of what FEE's
founder, Leonard Read, long referred to as the "freedom philosophy."
Over a 300-year history the advocates of human freedom have argued
that rights reside only in individuals, who form the unique "building
blocks" of the social, economic, and political order. Society
should be viewed as the mutually beneficial relationships that individuals
form for the improvement of their circumstances. The role of government,
as understood, for example, by the American Founding Fathers, was
to protect the rights of the individual from invasion by predatory
plunder so each man may be secure in his life, property, and freedom
to pursue his happiness as he sees it.

The
Public Ethos

The
"public ethos" is not created by government and, if it
is to be healthy and consistent with the preservation of a free
society, must not be controlled or manipulated by government. What
is the "public ethos"? It comprises society's guiding
beliefs, ideas, attitudes, customs, institutions, and ideals about
the normative standards and rules for personal and interpersonal
conduct. Its represents what most members of society consider to
be acceptable and moral conduct in the relationships that men have
with each other.

The
public ethos of a free society includes strong beliefs in individual
self-responsibility, the rights and dignity of the individual, and
a sense of the morality of voluntary and peaceful relationships
among men. It also includes the ideal that each individual should
be viewed as an end in himself and not the pawn of others. And it
nurtures the philosophical and religious ideas of compassion and
duty in participating in charitable good works to assist the unfortunate
and the truly needy among us.

The
public ethos of a free society rejects as inconsistent with liberty
any notion that majorities or minorities may use the democratic
process to restrict the freedom of the individual in his social,
economic, and personal actions as long as he does not in any way
violate the rights of others to peacefully go about their affairs.
It does not believe that simply because a majority in society wants
government welfare programs, because such programs give them a sense
of protection from the insecurities of life, that this morally justifies
the power of political coercion to redistribute wealth and limit
the choices of other members of society to determine what is best
for themselves, their families, and others they may care about.

The
advocate of liberty is on guard against all expansions of government
into the private lives and free associations of individuals because
he considers political power to be corrupting and harmful to the
creative potential in man. Political interventions and regulations
intimidate man's mind and conscience, restrict his productive actions,
weaken or eliminate the mutually beneficial and charitable associations
among people, and undermine the moral sense of self-responsibility
and voluntary duty to others in society.

Likewise,
the friend of freedom believes that any "greatness" that
America may possess on the international stage should come from
being an example of individual freedom practiced at home, which
then serves as an ideal for others around the world to emulate.
Furthermore, political and military interventions abroad threaten
the freedom and prosperity of the American citizenry, because of
the costs of these global activities.

These
are the freedom principles and the public ethos that we have been
losing in America, and neoconservatism offers no alternative to
regain them.

May
25, 2004

Richard
Ebeling [send him mail] is
president of FEE. This article is reprinted by permission from the
May 2004 issue of The Freeman.

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