Kick-Ass Conservatism

Lew Rockwell’s commentary on the Cincinnati beating of Nathaniel Jones mentions two groups that are happy about the event: the redistributionist political lobby and the law-enforcement centralizers.

But he left out one more group of people cheering the beating on – the so-called “law and order” conservatives who think it’s necessary for authorities to beat people occasionally because it’s either good for them or because some people just need a good beating.

These were the “conservatives” I grew up with in southern California’s inland empire in the late 1970s and early 1980s. They were most of the conservatives I knew as a teenager, and were the main reason I didn’t like or identify with “conservatism” (and still don’t). They make for interesting study: cultural conservatives with a deep dislike for government and taxes, but far too much respect for the state, largely because they work for it – in law enforcement, the military, or as teachers. The closest most of them ever get to the “private sector” is contracting for government with such fine firms as Boeing, Lockheed, General Dynamics or a handful of other now-merged giants — companies that simply cannot make a profit unless a cost-plus government contract is somehow involved.

(Sell stuff? To people? Excuse me, but we have some lobbying to do…)

If the "law and order" types believe anything, it is that people ought to get haircuts and jobs, and that the state should make them if they don’t. And those who don't are suspicious characters who probably deserve to get their asses kicked.

Because most of the "law and order" types work for the state as agents of executive power, war doesn't bother them much. In fact, they see it as the beating that people who misbehave richly deserve. It’s the ass-kicking that keeps them in line.

At best, they believe that a little discipline mixed with love is good (though often they get discipline and love confused), that the state can apply that discipline and love, and that a person — or a society, or a culture — will reform given enough "discipline and love." At best, they believe anyone can learn the value of getting a haircut and a job and become a productive member of society.

For example, the cops are helping people by clubbing them and the US is liberating Iraq by imposing martial law.

This is somewhat akin to disliking guns but loving bullets. Eventually the love of one yields to toleration of the other. It’s hard to celebrate beatings, killings, hangings, and all-round bloodshed, while maintaining an appreciation of liberty in the abstract.

At worst, the most cynical "law and order" types believe some folks simply cannot be reformed. No matter how hard you beat them, they won't learn the value of a haircut and gainful employment. Some people simply need to be beaten every now and again — clubbed by the cops, thrown in prison, bombed, gassed, rounded up and “detained” — because they will never learn to behave.

It’s not a race thing. Long-haired white kids with tattoos always earned their run-ins with the police just as much as the Latino or Black kids. Trailer-dwelling “white trash” have it coming just as much as the bearded weirdo in the turban picked up for loitering in Afghanistan.

These folks may never have heard of Richard Perle, or Michael Ledeen, or Leo Strauss, or "Scoop" Jackson, or might even think that being “reformed” commies gives the neocons some special insight into the nature of evil. (It does, but not the way they think.) And they may not have given much thought as to what the United States should accomplish in the "war on terror.” But they listen to Rush Limbaugh, watch FoxNews, or even read the National Review (same thing, more or less) and give themselves high-fives – “now we’re gonna kick some ass – and about time too!”

Whatever love of liberty they might have takes a distant second place to the glorious moral order of the state. These folks are the GOP’s largest unorganized constituency, and will probably vote for the Republican most likely to wage war as long as their hearts beat and they can tune their radios. They are the reason a couple hundred so-called neo-conservative intellectuals — enough to fill the smallest of DC ballrooms with room to spare — have as much traction as they do.

It’s sad, because many of them have some very solid social values otherwise. But they don’t understand that freedom is the highest political end, and a society full of people striving for freedom creates its own order. A much better order than anything beaten into people can make. They also don’t understand the difference between patriotism and nationalism – that is it possible to love one’s home deeply and not like one’s government very much. If the GOP rank-and-file would grasp these two points, the support for the neocon program would quickly collapse.

December 8, 2003

Charles H. Featherstone [send him mail] is a Washington, D.C.-based journalist specializing in energy, the Middle East, and Islam. He lives with his wife Jennifer in Alexandria, Virginia.