Anti-State v. Anti-Left Posted by: Dale Franks
on Friday, October 21, 2005
Jonah Goldberg comments on the fractures in conservatism by pointing out that there are two main division of conservatism.
Within conservatism, however, there are enormous philosophical arguments about the proper role of the state. This debate isn't merely between libertarians and social conservatives. It's also between conservatives who are "anti-left" versus those who are "anti-state." Neoconservatives, for example, are famously comfortable with an energetic, interventionist government as long as that government isn't run by secular, atheistic radicals, and socialists (I exaggerate a little for the sake of clarity).
Think of it this way. One line of conservative thought says that public schools are bad because they are run by inefficient government bureaucrats who drain resources. Moreover, they might say, running schools is simply not the proper function of the government. Another line of conservative thought says that public schools are fine (and they're not going anywhere anyway). But they shouldn't be teaching crazy left-wing stuff about how America, traditional religion and capitalism are the unholy trinity of the world's problems. Don't get rid of public schools, they say, just make sure they get their values and priorities in order.
Now, no conservative can be a full-blown statist, and very few conservatives subscribe to one of these lines of thought to the exclusion of the other. Some libertarians probably don't mind government funding of museums but take offense at the idea of taxpayer-funded pornographic blasphemy. And, there are certainly many social conservatives who'd love to privatize the U.S. Postal Service. But the relevant point is that Bush is definitely more of an anti-left guy than an anti-state guy (his valiant efforts at Social Security reform notwithstanding). He's comfortable with a conservative welfare state, hence his expansion of Medicare. Recall that he famously declared that "when someone hurts, government has to move."
Libertarians spontaneously burst into flames when they say things like that.
Libertarians will also probably spontaneously burst into flames when I say that Libertarianism is essentially anti-state conservatism
This explains why, when someone like Sidney Blumethal comes out with one of those, "George W. Bush is the most conservative presidents of our lifetime" lines, a good number of people who consider themselves to be conservatives or libertarians gape with slack-jawed stupefaction and disbelief. But, while those of us on the libertarian side are firmly anti-state, much of the Republican Party is really anti-Left.
The thing is, that those of us who grew up during the Goldwater-Reagan era are far more infused with viewing anti-statism as the sine qua non of Conservatism. To the extent we are anti-Left it is because the Left tends so strongly towards state solutions for economic and social problems, and to varying degrees, distrusts free markets.
But, anti-Left conservativism is a very live brand of conservative thought, and one which I oppose in many ways much as I do Leftism. As an anti-state guy, I believe that the use of the state to pursue preferred social outcomes leads to tyranny. Conservative tyranny might, in many ways be different from Leftist tyranny at the detail level, but, by the same token, tyranny is tyranny.
As a practical matter, it makes little difference to me whether I am coerced by the state to attend worship services on Sunday morning, or mandatory gender and racial sensitivity training on Monday afternoon.
It’s so hard to put lables when any thinking person will have a half dozen views which are out of sink with other views. I prefer to call us the "leave us alone" coalition. Leave me alone in the bedroom, leave me alone in my business, leave me alone with how I teach my children, ect. Of course, most of us are intellectual heirs of John Locke, so we value a sometimes strong, and efficient government for those things that are its legitimate calling. We would disagree on exactly what are those things with President Bush.
Well, no bursting into flames here, but I still think it’s not right to say that "Libertarianism is essentially anti-state conservatism." Conservatism is by definition in favour of whatever the status quo is or was within the last several decades. To use William Buckley’s famous formulation, conservatives can only stand athwart history yelling "stop." But like Uncle Fritz says, that is not enough:
Let me now state what seems to me the decisive objection to any conservatism which deserves to be called such. It is that by its very nature it cannot offer an alternative to the direction in which we are moving. It may succeed by its resistance to current tendencies in slowing down undesirable developments, but, since it does not indicate another direction, it cannot prevent their continuance. It has, for this reason, invariably been the fate of conservatism to be dragged along a path not of its own choosing. The tug of war between conservatives and progressives can only affect the speed, not the direction, of contemporary developments. But, though there is a need for a "brake on the vehicle of progress," I personally cannot be content with simply helping to apply the brake. What the liberal must ask, first of all, is not how fast or how far we should move, but where we should move. In fact, he differs much more from the collectivist radical of today than does the conservative. While the last generally holds merely a mild and moderate version of the prejudices of his time, the liberal today must more positively oppose some of the basic conceptions which most conservatives share with the socialists.
But, anti-Left conservativism is a very live brand of conservative thought, and one which I oppose in many ways much as I do Leftism. As an anti-state guy, I believe that the use of the state to pursue preferred social outcomes leads to tyranny.
There is a major difference, however, between supporting the existing culture and it’s values, versus rippping that down and replacing it with some other social ideal, as both Hitler and Stalin did, and as the supposed American l;eft has spent the last 80 years trying to do.
I don’t see, under my ideal of conservatism, the state being used to pursue anything. (As in your example of being coerced by the state to attend worship services on Sunday morning) All I ask of it is to not run itself directly afoul of the culture that gave it life... as it so often has done, under the control of the left...Such as for example, outlawing community expressions of Religion.
And I will suggest to you that were such a government in place, you and I would have far less to argue about. (grin)
I agree Bithead. I would also say that the American Left has been doing that since at least the 1890’s. When the ’Progressive’ party couldn’t win directly, they took over both the GOP and the Democrats. Conservatives and libertarians have had increasing influence with the GOP since the late ’50’s. Our high water mark was the 1980 election. Since then, we’ve lost ground with only the short lived Gingrich era of the mid ’90’s as the most recent high point.
For most Republicans, "anti-Left" really means "anti-Democrat" with nothing underpinning the position other than sheer partisanship. Very few active politicians have a philosophy beyond (a) keeping themselves in office (b) getting/keeping their party in power (which gives them more opportunities for personal power). If it were otherwise, Gingrich would have been able to accomplish a lot more.