'Going My Way?'

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It usually
begins with William F. Buckley, Jr. The new libertarian with a conservative
bent finds "Mr. Fusionist" to be quite the guiding star:
he has very definite libertarian sympathies, and understands quite
well the link between freedom and free enterprise. Moreover, he
has a persona that is quite easy to identify with; he's an upper-crust
man of the world who nevertheless acts as if he was wronged in some
way. Since the fellow is quite sleek, if rumpled, and his character
type is stout-hearted, not devious, it is easy to conclude that
his political beliefs got him into trouble earlier in life, beliefs
not dissimilar to libertarianism. Both his opinions and his character
do make him a kind of hero, and his public presentation of self
is consistent with a person who got unjustly rubbished because he,
unlike so many of his class peers, refused to sell out to the modern
State. The young Buckley even had the gumption to criticize President
Eisenhower for being too soft on rollback, both foreign and domestic,
which makes him a few cuts above today's typical conservative pundit.

Defections
from his ranks — mostly to liberalism — only added to his staying
power. He does have the gift of conveying the impression that people
who defect from his ranks are less than he, and the means by which
he does so is through writers' bravery, not only with respect to
libertarian causes. What other fellow would maintain a broad-minded
perspective with respect to current culture and yet consistently
pounce on the "pornographer" with full moral rigor from
time to time?

Conservative
libertarians have the sense that they have much to be grateful for
thanks to him and his work. His strength of spirit also comes in
handy. I am sure, also, that his wit and facility with coining ego-deflating
ripostes brought much counter-ammunition to the lover of liberty
in his or her hours of scorn. Given the might of the fellow, it's
saddening to admit that, in the cause of liberty, he hasn't been
very effectual at the policy level. The TVA still lives, and Social
Security is as coercive as ever. Government has continued on its
growth curve, with nary a pullback.

To be fair
to the man, Objectivism hasn't been all that effectual, in terms
of policy, either. Ayn Rand had a more powerful voice, but hers
and his combined have not sufficed to push government out of its
perennial bull market. Just as Objectivism's political efficacy
is hampered by Rand's self-chosen second career as a philosopher,
not as a political activist, so it is that the mental toolkit of
Buckleyism is the cause of this hobble. William F. Buckley, Jr.
is a closet Bismarckian — which implies that the role of the conservative
libertarian in the Buckleyite ranks is the "kept libertarian."

Many conservatives
are Bismarckian, actually. Bismarck is the source of modern "progressive
conservatism," an ideology which took firmer root in Canada
than in the United States. The fundamental premise behind progressive
conservatism is that the young are energetic but foolish. They often
lead themselves astray by swallowing glittering forms of radicalism
whole, ones explained with professor's glibness. Since the youth
are overly impressed with the world of ideas, since they lack the
knowledge and experience to think their way out of bad but internally
consistent political systems, and because they insist upon intellectual
independence to the point of headstrongness, there's nothing that
can be done except to wait for them to grow out of their folly.
The ones who do return to the fold return with wisdom in them, as
well as with a sense of what the politically new is. They supply
the "progress" to the progressive-conservative mix.

Even Bismarck
himself could be held up as a role model for this kind of conservatism.
His making Ferdinand Lasalle his "kept socialist" does
evince a radical past, a desire on his part to "keep socialism."

This seems
all well and good. It may even seem to serve as a solid bridge between
libertarianism and conservatism, with libertarianism serving as
the progressive part of the mix. The fatal flaw in this mix, though,
is found in the other side of Bismarckism, one that Mr. Buckley
himself has pursued with some enthusiasm: greatness is found, not
in politicking and diplomacy, but in "blood and iron."

American conservatism
is suffused with this ethos. To adapt a line from the French version
of Canada's national anthem, conservatives (should) know how to
carry the gun; they know how to carry the Flag. Manhood is found
in valor, and the highest form of manhood is found on the battlefield.
The plain fact that the soldier risks his (and, sometimes, her)
life makes him (sometimes her) a better kind of human, one who should
be honored, not criticized, for accepting such peril. It is de
rigueur to rally around flag and country in the event of war,
and the intellectual has a special duty not to succor the enemy
in those times. Part of that duty is to hold one's tongue; to criticize
a war which is current is plainly gauche and rates being
put below the salt. A well-bred intellectual is expected to know
that the time to speak up is before war is declared. Once the deed
is done, though, it is time to shut up. Publicly saying, or writing,
that any war that America is currently in should not have been declared
at all does render the speaker, or writer, or scholar, anathema.
Such a person belongs in a zoo cage.

This is all
fine and jolly when America's wars are both major and intermittent,
like the crucible-war which got this model up and running, but World
War 2 burst upon the United States after almost a generation's worth
of no military action at all by the U.S. government which was
not linked to WW2 itself. The duty to occasionally hold one's
tongue when the occasional war is being prosecuted implies a deviation
from the norm of free speech. A duty to hold to the Bismarckite
standard when war is all-but-continuous makes self-silencing the
norm, and liberty of speech the deviation from the norm. The policy
of perpetual war has turned the same kind of conservatism from tolerant
of liberty to inimical to it. No need to wonder why so many young
Buckleyites jumped out of the ship during the Vietnam War years:
the risk of being nibbled on by sharks seemed less parlous, by comparison,
than a permanent regimen of the mouth-iron. As the ’60s progressed,
it became more evident that the holy-warriors were not merely the
beneficiaries of a benevolent "Right-Wing Cranks (Except For
Non-Catholic Embarrassments) Welcome" policy, but were also
becoming a kind of role model for what the responsible intellectual
should do.

The ex-"peace
creep" is only let back in nowadays after groveling. It's almost
as if anyone who had questioned the Vietnam War, even on Constitutional
grounds, had to enter into "peace rehab" before being
welcomed back. "I was young and foolish" doesn't cut it
anymore. The conservative mind has narrowed to the extent that any
lover of peace has to follow the same penitent's path as the ex-Communist,
or ex-Trotskyite, does. Mr. Buckley's nascent Bismarckism is now
explicit in all but name amongst his next-generation epigones, and
the followers in his wake of that age. Boomer conservatism is Bismarckian
conservatism, with libertarians being little more than the kept
radicals who supply the cool ideas from time to time. "Blood
and Iron for Freedom and Democracy" is the mainstream.

What, then,
of "slacker" conservatism, the kind of conservatism held
by people aged twenty to thirty-five? The label of "chicken
hawk" doesn't exactly square with the blood-and-iron state
of mind; "strident dogmatist" does. The American conservatives
who are my age, and a little younger than me, are somewhat intermittent
with the war drum, if quite busy elsewhere. Rather than admirers
of the martial way of life, they tend to be managerial in orientation.
Colin Powell, as a hero, has been ditched in favor of Donald Rumsfeld,
who has the same cachet amongst young neos today that Wernher von
Braun had amongst aspiring scientists and engineers in the 1950s.
There is a certain afterglow of the old Bismarckian enthusiasm amongst
the young admirers of Senator McCain, even if a true war hawk would
consider him, in private, to be "Admiral Unreliable" with
respect to war policy. The bulk of the young neos, though, have
put aside Bismarck as a guiding star in favor of another, quite
different, historical figure: Niccol Machiavelli.

Machiavelli
could be described as the ultimate chicken hawk. Efficacious as
a servant and capable as a scholar, he proved to be hapless as a
military commander: the one time he tried to general, his army deserted
him en masse. This rout can be fairly ascribed to his own
personal habits of circumspection, agreeableness, and — most importantly
— his readiness to switch horses in midstream, which his troops
emulated when on the field. What's relevant in Machiavelli for the
libertarian-conservative divide, though, is his praise for cynicism
with regard to principles as part of policy. He praises Ferdinand
of Aragon for cynically using words of faith as a cloak, one that
concealed quite different policies. [The Prince, Chapter
21.]

Where do our
"words of liberty," and us, fit in with this kind of policy
approach?

At the time
when Mr. Buckley was young, fellow conservative Peter Viereck was
famous for his observation that the conservative finds the liberal
to be no threat, but worries over his relativist son and fears his
nihilist grandson. This oft-repeated remark fixed the progression
"pragmatist to relativist to nihilist" in many minds.
It's a shame that a similar warning was not issued about modern
conservatism:

The conservative
is a fine, respectable fellow with a true respect for liberty; he
is not only no threat, but is also a delight to work with. His shadow,
though, is filled by his Bismarckian son, and, later, his Machiavellian
grandson. It is not the conservative who we should avoid, and it
is not his Machiavellian epigone who we should court.

June
9, 2006

Daniel
M. Ryan [send him mail]
is a Canadian with a well-known habit of blundering into fields
for which he is inadequately prepared. He is currently working on
a book on Objectivism. Visit his
website
.

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