From Neoconservative to Libertarian in One Year (or, Why we shouldn't hate the good-intentioned)

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It's quite odd, when I think about it, to realize that little more than a year ago I would probably be among the chorus of voices calling for Ron Paul's ouster from all future Republican debates. In 2004 I threw much support behind George W. Bush's reelection campaign. Incidentally, I do not regret my vote for him, given my own personal feelings on abortion and the fact that Bush has appointed two justices who might overturn Roe v. Wade. However, I regret my sometimes blind support for his campaign. Four years ago I was denouncing fellow students for their opposition to the Iraq war, going so far as to question their patriotism.

Much has happened in the past four years that has pushed me ever so continuously away from neoconservatism, but my own metamorphosis has really occurred within the last year or so. Finally, with the war going so poorly despite the incredibly optimistic predictions by "conservative" commentators, pundits, and officials prior to the invasion, I realized I had to rethink my support for neoconservative foreign policies. But before continuing, I think a quotation from a former ideological ally would help:

In my experience, people join the left out of idealism. Once they see through the deceptions of the left, and break with its powerful set of internal controls, including censorship, they come to hate it. One must fight this hatred in oneself, and try hard to remember how one fell for the left because of one's own uncritical ideals. What defectors come to hate in the left is its pervasive lack of honesty – the constant use of euphemism and linguistic deception (in public, socialists call themselves liberals and liberals call themselves moderates), its black-and-white vision of the world, its intolerance of any questions about its own principles.

This quotation comes from none other than Michael Novak, and is primarily describing his economic conversion from socialist to capitalist. What is striking to me about this quotation is how very true it rings when applied to neoconservativism instead of "the left" (though, really, there isn't much difference).

For all the emphasis on reality among American "conservatives" (American "conservatives" almost all being neoconservatives), so many of their beliefs are incredibly unrealistic. The world is similarly broken down into "black-and-white" with evil on one side and good on the other. The job of good in the world, to the neoconservative, is to root out evil, wherever it resides. In order to root out evil, intervention is necessary, but the consequences of one's actions are never considered. In this way, neoconservatism is incredibly unrealistic. As has been pointed out by many others recently, neoconservatives envision all backlash against American actions abroad as unwarranted and inherently evil. This, of course, makes no sense.

Neoconservatism, by its very nature, requires a large amount of cognitive dissonance. I can recall that even as I decried big government and market intervention I blindly accepted what many in the current administration said concerning Iraq. I saw no problem with the Patriot Act (only wrongdoers need by worried, right?) and favored increased power for the federal government in the non-economic realm. How was this possible? Novak refers to a "powerful set of internal controls, including censorship." To continue advocating both small government and broad government powers for war indeed requires a powerful set of internal controls. Any type of serious introspection poses a serious danger to one's beliefs, and therefore dissent cannot be tolerated. The treatment of such paleoconservatives and paleolibertarians as Robert Novak, Patrick Buchanan and Ron Paul by fellow "conservatives" is a testament to this fact. Simply witness the reaction by "conservatives" to every column these men put out challenging conventional neoconservative belief: relentless ad hominem attacks directed at these fine authors with very little in the way of actual counter-argument.

Saul Anuzis, chairman of the Michigan GOP, has called for Ron Paul's ouster from future debates. Why? Neoconservatives call Paul a "nutcase," and part of the "lunatic fringe." Why are they afraid of someone if he is so crazy? How come, when Giuliani expressed his support for abortion rights, no fellow Republicans jumped in, saying, "That's quite an extraordinary statement. That the government should sanction, perhaps even subsidize, the destruction of innocent unborn children. I'd ask you retract your statement and say you did not mean it." It's because the sanctity of life is not at all fundamental to neoconservative beliefs, so they will tolerate all sort of dissent from that principle. But so much as suggest that American interventionism sows the seeds of violent reaction and you are liable to be hung for treason on the spot.

Despite all this, I think one of the best pieces of advice Novak gives in his speech is this one: "Once they see through the deceptions of the left … they come to hate it. One must fight this hatred in oneself, and try hard to remember how one fell for the left because of one's own uncritical ideals" My initial reaction, upon deserting neoconservatism, is to hate it. But it was not malice that motivated my support for neoconservative policies, but weakness. I was a good-intentioned youth who was unwilling to criticize my own beliefs, too weak to admit that I might be wrong. Undoubtedly, my weakness (and the weakness of many others) would lead to the deaths of countless citizens in Iraq, so I will not try to excuse my past beliefs, only apologize for them. But to accuse neoconservatives of "evil" is to fail to understand their motivations and certainly does not work toward converting anyone. In The God of the Machine Isabel Paterson said that it is the "humanitarian [who] sets up the guillotine" and that "[t]he humanitarian in theory is the terrorist in action." Yet she also said, "Most of the harm in the world is done by good people, and not by accident, lapse, or omission. It is the result of their deliberate actions, long persevered in, which they hold to be motivated by high ideals towards virtuous ends." What better description of the neoconservatives than this?

Since I have rejected neoconservatism and moved to embrace libertarianism, I have constantly had to fight my natural desire to despise the ideology I left behind. The propensity of so many neoconservatives to substitute cheap personal attacks and logical fallacies for reasoned argument has not made this resistance any easier. Still, we have the always rational Ron Paul to look to for inspiration, for even in the face of Giuliani's obnoxious arrogance, Paul did not sink to his sound-bite debate style, but instead simply continued to tell the truth. We would do well to do the same.

John Ostrowski [send him mail] is a graduate student in political science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Visit his blog.

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