Neo-Conservatism Explained

Commentators across the spectrum have finally clued in to neo-conservatism as the intellectual framework of the Bush administration. We are suddenly faced with long think pieces on the role of political philosopher Leo Strauss in influencing the architects of the Iraq war and Bush’s governance in general. We are also learning about the ideological path taken by former college Trotskyites into the Republican Party of the 1970s. It’s an instructive example of tenacity and dedication in translating ideas into practice.

Along with the political victory of the neocons (by victory I mean the reality that they now control many levers of power) has come shock and alarm of those who disagree with their policies. Their critics left and right regard their use of domestic police powers as contrary to constitutional guarantees, and their foreign policy as nothing but untrammeled aggression that violates human rights and makes us ever more vulnerable.

Despite its political victory, the future of neo-conservatism rests with the war on Iraq and its aftermath. They brought about this war over the objections of most of the world, and relied heavily on the crudest form of chauvinistic sloganeering to sell it to the American people. Iraq has been destroyed, with most people living amidst appalling wreckage that neocons apparently failed to anticipate. Their raw military power unleashed utter chaos, barbarism, and fanaticism in what was once the most secular and liberal Arab state.

The neocons had a limitless faith in two tools: bombs for destruction and dollars for reconstruction. With their appalling ignorance of the complexity of society, they believed that these two tools were enough to reconstruct the region, and maybe the whole world. It was only a matter of political will, so they believed. The bombs caused the regime to flee, but the dollars have not been able to put it back together again. As only a slight symbol of the Pyrrhic victory, the Saddam dinar is now at its highest value relative to the dollar since 1996. No WMDs were ever found, and terrorism in the region is getting worse.

Seeing this disaster, and sensing that they are losing the propaganda war, neocons are scrambling to control the spin. This has taken several forms: 1) defending neocon policies, 2) denying that such a thing as neo-conservatism exists, 3) admitting that neocons do exist but claiming that they represent nothing really new and thus pose no threat, and 4) accusing critics of neo-conservatism of bigotry.

That these claims cannot be reconciled is hardly surprising: the goal is to relieve the new pressure, not to sort out confusions. For years, they’ve labored in journals and journalism, and their sudden defensiveness is precisely what one would expect now that they have seized and exercised power with such awful results. Naturally, the critics go to great lengths to examine the ins and outs of the neocon philosophical orientation to discern what disaster we can expect next.

However, very little commentary on neo-conservatism deals with the crucial question to ask of any non-libertarian ideology: to what extent does it seek to use the welfare-warfare state to achieve its end? The answer with regard to neo-conservatism is clear in the actions of the Bush administration:

  • it has increased overall government spending by more than any administration since LBJ;
  • it has unleashed government spies like never before;
  • it has unleashed a series of wars against foreign countries that posed no threat whatever to the US, laying waste to their economies and cultures.

Now, this is remarkable given that the essence of conservatism in America is skepticism about political power, though it is true that all conservatives (a word that only became common parlance in American politics after the Second World War) have been excessively friendly to the state.

Yet conservatism did mean a desire to jettison utopian schemes and to defer to the tacit wisdom associated with what is. Conservatism was an unstable ideology, and, in fact, not an ideology at all. It was a predilection to preserve rather than innovate in matters of public policy. Generally speaking, conservatism offered valuable critiques of the left, but had no positive program apart from its endorsement of Truman’s Cold War. In order to ensure support for the Cold War, conservatives came to terms with Leviathan and systematically resisted the libertarian implications of their domestic program in foreign and military affairs.

It is often forgotten that it was not only American conservatives who backed anti-communism. Another group of anti-communists of the period was variously called Scoop Jackson Democrats, Cold War Liberals, Democratic Socialists or Social Democrats, or simply the anti-Stalinist Left. They favored big government at home and abroad, and had a particular distaste for the Reds in Russia because they saw them as having discredited the great dream of socialist planning (and killed Trotsky). They were passionately for the Cold War but saw it as less an ideological struggle than a political one. They favored New Deal-style planning but rejected the excesses of Soviet-style totalism.

Of them, Mises wrote:

What these people who call themselves ‘anticommunist liberals’…are aiming at is communism without those inherent and necessary features of communism which are still unpalatable to Americans. They make an illusory distinction between communism and socialism…. They think that they have proved their case by employing such aliases for socialism as planning or the welfare state…. What these self-styled ‘anticommunist liberals’ are fighting against is not communism as such, but a communist system in which they themselves are not at the helm. What they are aiming at is a socialist…system in which they themselves or their most intimate friends hold the reins of government. It would perhaps be too much to say that they are burning with a desire to liquidate other people. They simply do not wish to be liquidated. In a socialist commonwealth, only the supreme autocrat and his abettors have this assurance.

He continues:

An ‘anti-something’ movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. Its passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program that they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be. They must, without any reservations, endorse the program of the market economy.

After Vietnam, the Democratic Party became home to an ever-more influential group of Cold War skeptics, so many leftist Cold Warriors gravitated to the Republican Party, where they sought to cement the GOP’s attachment to welfare and especially warfare. As Max Boot admits: “It is not really domestic policy that defines neo-conservatism. This was a movement founded on foreign policy, and it is still here that neo-conservatism carries the greatest meaning, even if its original raison d’être — opposition to communism — has disappeared.”

Now, it would be wrong to say that the neoconservatives had not undergone any kind of intellectual change. They became less enamored of formal socialism and more at home with mixed-economy capitalism. They grew to hate much of the egalitarian-left cultural agenda of Democratic Party special-interest groups. Many of them wrote treatises decrying the excesses of their ex-brethren.

But the transformation was never complete, and the core of their ideology never changed: these people had then and have now a remarkable faith in the uses of state power, at home and abroad. Their intellectual formation in Straussianism convinced them of the centrality of the elite management of society by philosophers, and their background in Trotskyite organizing kept a ruthless political strategy as the operating mode.

As David Gordon sums up Rothbard’s early analysis: “As Strauss sees matters, classical and Christian natural law did not impose strict and absolute limits on state power; instead, all is left to the prudential judgment of the wise statesman.” The younger generation absorbed this tendency as much as the old.

Thus with neoconservatism, we have the statist aspects of the old conservatism minus the libertarian aspects that led the old conservatives to favor decentralist political institutions and free enterprise. Add to that the natural tendency of anyone in power to use the tools they have at their disposal. What we end up with is a danger to liberty as fierce as any ever posed by the left.

But by the standard of loving Leviathan, today’s neo-conservatism is worse than every brand of conservatism that preceded it. It is worse than Reaganism, which included some libertarian impulses, and worse than National-Review-style conservatism from the 1960s and 1950s. One expects pro-state affections from socialists, but the puzzle of neo-conservatism is how it could exist within a group of self-professed non-socialists who even claim to despise what the collectivist left has done to the world.

Thus the great fallacy of neo-conservatism is the one that afflicts all non-libertarian ideologies: they believe that society can be managed by the state in both its political and economic life. They believe this to a lesser extent than some left socialists, but to a far greater extent than most thinkers on the right.

What they miss or do not want to face is precisely what the socialists never wanted to accept: that society is made up of acting, choosing human beings with their own values and ideas and plans, and it is they and not the state who do the hard work of creating civilization, a creation that is easy to destroy through statist means but impossible to rebuild through such means; that many social forces like culture and economics are beyond the final control of state power; and in the long run, it is people, and not philosopher kings whispering in the ears of gullible statesmen, who will determine the course of history.

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