Neo-Conservatives: They're Hot, They're Rising, They're Linked to the State

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Now that the Republican majorities in the House and Senate are in doubt, the sheen is likely to come off the neo-conservative movement. Like any faction that runs into a rock, their status as the "ultimate winners," or even their own conceit that they are the "new upper class," is going to come into doubt. The sword that you live by hurts a lot more when it’s stuck into you. (Remember the fate of J.P. Morgan, Jr.? Rightly or wrongly, it’s an unfair world.)

What do neo-conservatives want? What are their political goals? Are they compatible with liberty?

To put it bluntly, the typical neo-conservative wants little to do with liberty. The proper libertarian policy "mission statement" is: peace; individual rights, including civil rights that are not disguised claims on the State for pelf or positive services; freedom of enterprise. If the neo-conservatives had a mission statement of their own, it would be: war; restriction of individual rights for the taming of either foreign or domestic "deviancy"; good economic growth numbers, with little concern as to the source (although tax cuts are politically preferable). When it comes down to it, the neo-conservatives have a lot more in common with the new Religious Right than with libertarians.

By the "religious Right," I mean a movement who believes in: war against the wicked Muslim; subordination of individual rights to "Godly" behavior-modification laws; a better deal for the "Christian" citizen, with little concern as to how this "better deal" is to be arranged. A useful earmarking list of such a person is: rote praise for Bush; hostility to any (unknown) Bushian who counsels moderation in war policy and warns against stereotyping Islam; and, the general opinion that, if Bush erred, he erred by being too dovish.

The commonality between these folks and the neo-conservatives should be obvious. The genteel bellicosity of the neos and the more open bellicosity of the Religious Right make for a perfect match. The continual neo-conservative campaign to flush out the influence of the wicked hippies from American culture, and the Religious Right’s characterization of all things hippie as "dirty," make for a close glove-on-hand fit. The neos propose general policy directions, which the Religious Right are glad to dispose as specifics — right up to the re-criminalization of certain acts between consenting couples, and/or the decriminalization of certain acts done by one member of a married couple to another. Both movements have little more than lip service for free markets, and both define them in a similar way: "free enterprise" means "what’s good for me and for those whom I identify with."

When it comes down to it, though, the neo-conservative’s sense of his or her own glory is little more than bookworm pride. It’s true that they’ve come a long way, baby…a long way from what their fate would have been in the real 1950s, not the idealized 1950s that they continually promote.

Yes, back in the 1950s, there was a much lower crime rate than there is now. Streets were safer to walk on; children had less reason to fear. The culture was more wholesome. Science was respected; fluoridation skeptics were neatly categorized as yet another breed of "nut case." The top athletes actually aspired to clean living, and to high-minded thinking. Even the bohemians were polite and well-dressed.

Sounds like a real paradise to be regained, doesn’t it? Or does it? A look at the time shows a somewhat different picture.

Yes, it’s true the athletes tried seriously to expunge the groadier part of athletic tradition from their conduct. It was also true, though, that most everyone in the schooling system (homeschooling was, of course, nonexistent) wanted to be an athlete, or a cheerleader. Those who didn’t, were basically written off in the high school "rating and dating" game. Part of the reason why the typical neo-conservative has had such an easy ride underneath a "’50s man" is that the typical red-meat-eating, car-tinkering, drunk-driver-tolerating (until the crackdown, of course) ’50s man despises the neo-conservative type. It’s not that hard to characterize the typical neo-conservative as one of these six monikers: dweeb; prig; drip; pill; spaz; dork.

The respect for athletics went all the way up the corporation, too. Vance Packard, in The Pyramid Climbers, reported that there was one insurance company who had an informal but very definite criterion for its CEO. This informal earmark of merit was membership on Princeton’s football team — as a player on it. It was held generally that skill in team athletics — football, particularly — made for a good executive because the football field was the perfect arena for learning gut-level pragmatism. This cognitive skill was something which, it was seriously held, was unlearnable though books. Those "football smarts" are testable, too, and were tested, frequently. Anyone who claimed footballer status, while not having the skills that could only be picked up on the field, was quickly, if perhaps silently, pegged as a towel boy. There was also a certain respect for being "street tough," and that was sometimes informally tested for, too.

Clearly, the 1950s aren’t what a shrewd neo-conservative means by "the 1950s." A year match comes up with none other than this ten-year period: the end of 1957 to the end of 1966. The decade between the launching of Sputnik and the eruption of the hippie movement. The "good old days," when every scholar was a potential National Defense scholar and the raffish didn’t have the self-confidence to flaunt their odd ways. The period when the aspirant scholar could come into his or her own with a nice grant from the U.S. Air Force. The time when a figure such a Robert S. McNamara was thought of as something special.

That’s the truth. The neo-conservative movement came into its own thanks to the Pentagon. Had it not been for those publicity embarrassments in the later 1960s, the Vietnam War would have been the shining showcase of the neo-conservative mythos. There was so much hope for the current one…

Nostalgia aside, it has been the welcoming of the scholarly into the war ranks by the War Party that has given the current neo-conservative insiders their "in." Any neo-conservative with sense knows that the advent of peace is going to mean "back to the treehouse." Thus, the neo-conservative who wishes to maintain his or her social position, let alone improve it, cannot help but be pro-war.

As far as economic policy is concerned, the neo-conservatives are, of course, Friedmanite. An eclectic combination of monetarism and supply-side economics serves as their "enabling myth," to use a crucial concept in Jack D. Douglas‘s The Myth Of The Welfare State. An enabling myth is a narrative that explains why an old ruling class got befuddled, and why the new ruling class is supposedly needed to fend off the supposed terrors that would accompany the (re-)institution of the "System of Natural Liberty." The neo-conservatives’ enabling myth is "The Myth of No More Great Depressions." It goes something like this:

Back in the olden days, the Fed didn’t quite know what it was doing. This lack of policy adroitness led to the Great Depression being prolonged. Had it not been for the accidental discovery of the potency of open-market operations, the Fed would have never gotten its act together, and the U.S. would still be mired in sub-optimal use of resources. Now, though, thanks to good positive economics, the Fed does know what it is doing. The public can rest assured; no more Great Depression is on the horizon. The System is fine, provided that the right people are in charge of it. If those pesky libertarians were right about the causes of the Great Depression, then why have they been so wrong about the emergence of a new one? Were they not wrong in the late ’80s? Were they not wrong in the late ’90s? What more do you need to know about them?

As far as the old econometricians are concerned, they were faced with inadequate mathematical tools; they lacked both statistical econometrics and neural network theoretics — oh, yes; they lacked game theoretics too. Thus, their econometrics was inadequate to the task, as were they. Thanks, though, to the hot new econometrics of the University of Chicago, the theoretical tools needed to properly manage the economy are now available. The public need not worry; the economy is safe in the hands of good econometricians. As far as the risk of monetary breakdown is concerned — well, that’s merely a question of moral hazard. A matter best left to a details man.

And as far as the free market is concerned…didn’t Walter Wriston Himself note that the free market is universal and always asserts itself? Given this premise, it’s obvious that we already have a free market in the here and now! All those regulations are…mere constraints, nothing more. Free enterprise is muscular enough to surmount all. No worries.

[Besides, the stuff that the Tax Institute has come up with is fascinating. Did you know that if you...]

If the neo-conservatives are fated to be the new upper class, then this is what you can expect: policy seminars substituting for the country club.

More to the point, though: if the neo-conservatives are fated to be the new upper class, then they can expect the Religious Right to latch right onto them. As noted above, the two factions make natural allies: both want and even need war; both abhor "cultural anarchy;" both think that tinkering with economic policy is the cure for what ails the economy, including certain lines of work that could be deemed the economy’s linchpins. We have heard little, as of now, from the social-policy arm of neo-conservatism, beyond theoretics. One of the measures that neo-conservatives have pushed hard, though, is already recognized as a policy success: a crackdown on minor crimes as a deterrent to greater crime spilling out of control. This policy was implemented successfully, in terms of its goal, by "America’s Mayor," Rudy Giuliani, in the 1990s — pre-9/11.

What else is coming? Curfews? Rollback of Szasz-inspired de-institutionalization? Restoration of "blue laws?" Common cause with the friendly, neighborly public-health activist?…

Daniel M. Ryan [send him mail] is a Canadian with a known aversion to theocracy, whether real or covert. He is currently burning his pretty pink thumb with pen and paper.

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