8 Ways to Run the Country: A New and Revealing Look at Left and Right
by Brian Patrick Mitchell
Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2007
We have heard a great deal in recent years about the uselessness of left and right as political labels in America today. There has long been dissatisfaction with the idea of the left-right continuum, since so much overlap is evident among communists on the far left and fascists on the far right, and yet linear models depict them as polar opposites. Some libertarians have taken to conceiving of the political spectrum as a circle rather than a straight line, for the circular model allows left- and right-totalitarianism to meet.
Brian Patrick Mitchell, Washington bureau chief of Investor’s Business Daily, proposes yet another refinement of this model. In 8 Ways to Run the Country, Mitchell suggests a graph whose vertical axis depicts support for the use of physical force (that is, political power), and whose horizontal axis depicts support for voluntarily accepted forms of authority and hierarchy, such as family, church, and the like. He then places various schools of political thought into one of four quadrants on this graph.
I myself have never been particularly interested in attempts to depict ideological differences along a continuum or on diagrams divided into quadrants, although many people will find Mitchell’s proposed division helpful, and perhaps more serviceable than previous models. What to my mind makes his book valuable is less its reconceptualization of the categories of left and right than its usefulness as a political and philosophical primer for those who would like to understand the ideological landscape in America.
The eight ways to which Mitchell refers in his title are the communitarian, the progressive, the radical, the individualist, the paleolibertarian, the paleoconservative, the theoconservative, and the neoconservative. Some people fit into more than one of these groups, I think, but Mitchell’s categories are certainly reasonable enough.
For one thing, Mitchell helpfully demonstrates, in case it was necessary, that "the Left" in America is no monolith but includes a great many interesting characters who defy easy categorization. I particularly enjoyed his discussion of Alexander Cockburn, one of my personal favorites (and whose work on the Balkans in the 1990s was among the only honest writing to be found amid a veritable avalanche of yellow journalism).
Cockburn has been known to annoy readers of The Nation by his "digs" against, for instance, "gays who would censor Dr. Laura, feminists who stood by Clinton."
A few years back, Cockburn had readers hyperventilating over his visit to a gun show in Detroit called "Gunstock." He found the attendees "amiable characters" and suggested to his readers that they start handing out copies of The Nation at gun shows, to open a dialogue with sympathetic anti-establishment types. "There was an absolute torrent of outrage," he wrote later of his readers’ response. "People didn’t think that was a good idea at all."
Consider Cockburn’s observation on the Lewinsky scandal: "What the stuffy left forgets is that sex scandals can be an important component of the seditious ridiculing of Established Power, one of the prime tasks of any leftist worth the name…. [A]ny good leftist should want impeachment to be a staple of every president." Knock out the references to leftism and these could be Murray Rothbard’s words.
No matter how much an author writes he could always have written more, so I feel a little guilty suggesting that Mitchell might have included still other anti-establishment leftists in his section on radicalism: why not Kirkpatrick Sale, for instance, whose thoughts on decentralization horrify establishment Left and Right but resonate so well with traditionalists and libertarians?
Mitchell devotes much attention to the various strains of American libertarianism, from the Libertarian Party to the Washington think tanks, from the Randians (yes, I know they dislike being called libertarians) to the Mises Institute. Decent and honorable people can be found within all these branches and a great many friendships exist across them, but much disagreement over both strategy and substantive matters of policy, to say nothing of simple ill will, continues to divide them.
Mitchell is particularly critical of the cultural leftism that permeates so much of the libertarian world. The Libertarian Party nominates a prostitute for lieutenant governor of California, for instance, and then wonders why no one seems interested in them. (Then the Party decides the problem lay with its uncompromising platform, which it proceeds to water down, making a vote for the Libertarian Party — now much closer to the two major parties — seem more pointless than ever.) Some people, Mitchell among them, have suggested the crazy idea that giving gratuitous offense to simple bourgeois norms — norms that even American Communists of the 1930s and 1940s had no trouble observing — may actually turn people off.
Cathy Young, who has an annoying habit of accusing more consistent opponents of the state than she of ideological impurity, comes in for a little criticism herself:
Cathy Young, a contributing editor of Reason magazine, makes the popular distinction between equal opportunity and equal outcomes, reasoning that force is justified to provide equal opportunity but not equal outcomes. But without equal outcomes we can’t really have equal opportunity, and the reason we pass laws guaranteeing equal opportunity is that we are not satisfied with the present outcomes. When asked at the Cato Institute in 2001 how laws guaranteeing equal opportunity could be justified if equal outcomes were not an appropriate goal of public policy, Young admitted in public that on this issue she is "not that libertarian."
Mitchell’s criticism of Cathy Young is a small subset of a larger point he wishes to make about libertarianism. Although not (to my knowledge) formally affiliated with any libertarian organization, he is very sympathetic to Lew Rockwell, Antiwar.com and the Mises Institute, and relatively unimpressed by Reason magazine, the Cato Institute, and the milquetoast brand of libertarianism they so often peddle. Again, both organizations do much fine work, a point Mitchell concedes, but both can be squishy when the chips are down. On foreign policy, certain personnel changes at Cato in recent years do not inspire confidence. Reason can be simply disastrous on foreign policy, and Cathy Young has actually condemned certain libertarians for opposing too many U.S. wars. (Ralph Raico, a libertarian historian whose knowledge surpasses that of Miss Young by orders of magnitude, was the subject of such attacks years ago.)
Mitchell’s discussion of communitarianism is likewise quite effective. Communitarians make much of their opposition to the language of rights, which they find excessively individualistic and anti-social, and to the free operation of the market, which is said to be the enemy of community. Their rhetoric puts them superficially in the paleoconservative camp, where similar concerns can sometimes be heard. But the "community" in their communitarianism refers not to any naturally occurring, local institution that Burke would have identified as one of the "little platoons" of civil society. They have in mind the "national community," an artificial construct in whose name they propose to act. As Mitchell puts it, "Let others take up the cause of states, individuals, minorities, parents, churches, or chamber of commerce; the Communitarians’ great cause is the nation."
What we need, says communitarian guru Amitai Etzioni, is a "return to we-ness," and not a "retreat from nation." We need compulsory national service as an "antidote to the ego-centered mentality," as well as a "limited extension of the existing category of punishable speech." And we certainly need national educational standards:
One of the reasons for the low consensus-building capacity of American society is that the schools are locally run. They do not subscribe to a common national curriculum, and they transmit different sets of regional, racial, or class values…. As a result, young Americans grow up with relatively few shared values, symbols, or paradigms that many other communities draw upon to form consensus.
And for what is trumpeted as such an original and refreshing school of thought, the communitarians’ policy recommendations are utterly conventional and uninteresting. Etzioni calls for a "massive increase" in education spending (probably because of the wonderful results we’ve seen from all the other massive increases in education spending). We need a "rich basic minimum standard of living, irrespective of [people's] conduct," including food, shelter, clothing, and health care. Totally lost on Etzioni is the insight of Charles Murray that given the disutility of labor and people’s inclination to seek after wealth with the least possible exertion, every attempt to increase the social safety net results in making welfare more attractive than work for previously marginal households. To be perfectly blunt, unless dropping out of the labor force has very undesirable consequences, far more people will do it than the productive economy can comfortably support — a desirable outcome for no one involved.
Hardly a day has passed since September 11 that enough text to fill the Atlanta telephone directory hasn’t been written about neoconservatism, so I shall leave that chapter of Mitchell’s fine book mercifully aside. But I can’t restrain myself from at least this much: Mitchell quotes Max Boot, one of my favorite neocons, as saying in The Weekly Standard that the September 11 attacks were "a result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation." Kind of like Orwell and Kafka rolled into one person, isn’t he?
The last paragraph of 8 Ways to Run the Country is a strange warning about the perils of "unrestrained capitalism," a system in which, we are told, men can grow fabulously wealthy by trafficking in all manner of vices. But it is hardly the fault of "capitalism" that black markets and therefore abnormally high profits emerge in goods and services that the state has banned, so I’m not sure I follow the author’s point here.
But if you’d like to understand and make sense of the various branches of conservatism and libertarianism, as well as the various divisions that exist to this day on the left, Brian Patrick Mitchell has written a useful and worthy introduction that will entertain and inform. Before you know it, you’ll know all the lingo, the key people, and a brief history of all these schools of thought. Not bad for such a quick read.
Thomas E. Woods, Jr. [view his website; send him mail] is senior fellow in American history at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. His books include How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization (get a free chapter here), The Church and the Market: A Catholic Defense of the Free Economy, and the New York Times bestseller The Politically Incorrect Guide to American History.