Look What Dropped Out of My Posterior Now, Mr. Goldberg!

by Gene Callahan

After reading Jonah Goldberg’s recent column in National Review Online, apparently written in an effort to steer NRO readers to the most interesting opinion site on the Internet,, I was at first reluctant to respond. After all, did I want to spend more time Goldberg bashing? Then I thought, "Hey, but it’s fun and easy!" So here goes.

Mr. Goldberg is so enamored of my stylistic flourishes that he suggests I emit bon mots from every orifice. Despite this praise of my writing, he feels that I am essentially an angry infant, or, as he puts it: "In the last couple weeks three different have banged their spoons on their high chairs about me."

How Mr. Goldberg gleans so much about me from a single column is beyond me. But perhaps he’s right – after all, on several occasions my wife has expressed the same sentiment. My question is: what in the world would this have to do with the substance of my arguments? So, I’m an angry infant – does this mean I’m wrong? Why not toss in an accusation that my ideas are just apologies for the white male structure of pervasive oppression while you’re at it, Mr. Goldberg?

Such tactics are an attempt to make sure that the substance of your opponent’s remarks is not discussed. And, in fact, Goldberg never addresses my main complaint about neocons. Instead, he accuses me of being overly "pure," not engaged with the practical reality of day-to-day politics.

Now, the issue of how to live in the world of the possible without betraying one’s ideals is a complex one, and many intelligent people have offered many different solutions. I won’t go into that question here, but will instead address the neocon position on a pragmatic, real-world basis.

However, my primary substantive claim in the piece that Goldberg criticizes is that on a purely pragmatic basis, if we accept their stated intentions, the neocons’ project must be considered a failure. The neocons came to conservatives and said, "Look, we think government is too big as well. But dogmatic opposition to anti-discrimination laws (i.e., anti-property rights laws), progressive taxation, wealth redistribution, and so on, is getting you nowhere. We have a better way."

The better way was to haggle with the Left over policy details, to try to eke out little victories on this bill, tiny wins on that one. "The Left," they told us, "did not win its victories all at once, but through tiny, incremental steps. We have to use their strategy to turn the tide."

It turns out that this strategy has at least three problems. The first is conceptual clarity. The most effective arguments of the Right are those from first principle: people have a right to choose how to live their own lives, a constitutionally-limited government prevents a slide into totalitarianism, it is wrong to take money from one person by force just because you’d like to give it to someone else, and so on. Joe Factoryworker from flyover country may not agree with all of the principled arguments of the Right, but he can understand them, and he can sense that someone is trying to engage him in important decisions. What he is not interested in is reading a 117-page Heritage Foundation study on the fiscal impact of social security privatization.

The answer to the puzzle of why the Left does best in elections with those at the ends of the educational spectrum is that the Left’s programs appeal to two groups: those who feel they will be in charge of a "managed" society (i.e., the most educated), and those most easily duped by political demagoguery (i.e., the least educated). By moving the debate to policy details, the neocons have trod onto the favorite ground of the first of these groups: they are attempting to beat the Left at wonkishness.

Secondly, the analysis of interventionism forwarded by Mises, Kirzner, Ikeda, and others illustrates why interventionist policies are inherently unstable, and tend to progress toward socialism or collapse into full laissez-faire. The botched "deregulation" of the electricity market in California is a salient example of the dangers of a "third way" approach. Inevitably, those on the Left (e.g., Paul Krugman, in this particular instance), will point to such examples as "market failure," and use them to discredit the laissez-faire position. Now, the neocons have, post facto, joined in the chorus crying that this wasn’t real deregulation – but isn’t this just the sort of "pragmatic," compromising policy that they continually recommend?

The third problem is that a policy of not making explicit what we’re really going for is contrary to the Right’s philosophical orientation, but is aligned with that of the Left. The primacy of individual freedom, which implies voluntary choices, is a keystone of any coherent philosophy from the Right. But if that is so, then we must confront people with the reality of the long-run choices they face. We can fight for incremental change today, but if it’s the allegiance of free people to our side for which we wish, then we must be clear about our ultimate aims.

Meanwhile, for those on the Left, it is entirely coherent to hide their long-run goals behind a baffling series of single-issue struggles. After all, it is the position of the Left that "choice" is really an illusion, and that people are primarily conditioned by their historical and social circumstances. If the workers are blind to their true interests due to an oppressive ideological superstructure, then it is perfectly justifiable to trick them out of their false consciousness, a little bit at a time. In other words, the Left can dissemble much better than we can!

As we would predict from contemplating the above difficulties, the neocon project has failed to deliver smaller government. We may elect George W. Bush president – preferable to Al Gore, yes! – but he comes into office with a multi-billion dollar list of new government programs. Promising us a "breakthrough new diet, guaranteed to painlessly reduce the size of the Federal Government," the neocons have instead merely slowed the weight gain a bit. But gaining less weight per week is no way to lose weight!

Empirically speaking, the neocons’ contention that, in order to win elections, we must take baby steps toward liberty is also on shaky ground. As I pointed out in the piece that troubled Mr. Goldberg’s sleep, the most stunning and complete Republican electoral victory in recent years was in the “Contract with America” year of 1994. No party-wide position since then has been as ideologically pure, or as effective. When the neocons hopped on board, the “bus of the Right” gained a passenger who promised to show us a short cut to our destination. But after years of following their directions, we just keep getting further away.

There are two scenarios within which we might consider the neocon formula successful. The first is that liberty, at least at present, is a losing proposition, and the best we can hope for is slow defeat. However, if this is true, the case for sticking to first principles seems stronger to me, not weaker. When the survivors of the collapse of the socialist utopia dig out of the rubble, at least they will be able to find a few voices from the past telling them what went wrong.

The other scenario is that the goal of the neocons is not liberty but influence. While I am reluctant to ascribe such base motives to anyone without giving them the benefit of the doubt, this must be held out as a possibility.

In high school, some of us learned that it wasn’t worth compromising our basic principles in return for popularity or influence. Others take longer to learn that same lesson. (And I suspect that none of us ever learn it so well that the temptation to so compromise never rears its ugly head.) Mr. Goldberg, we’d love to welcome you into our "big-tent Right." You just have to grow up a bit first.

March 5, 2001

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