A response to David Brooks.
It’s become fashionable in certain center-right circles to argue that small-government conservatism has gained too much power. Tea Party economics, the grievance goes, would seismically shift our social contract and cast everyone onto the choppy waves of the free market. It is, therefore, little better than radicalism.
David Frum usually leads this argument and, judging by his writings, you’d think he was practically alone, heroically steering his starship through a Delta Quadrant teeming with Tea Party marauders. If Frum is the captain, then New York Times columnist David Brooks is his number one. Brooks wrote a piece back in 2007 arguing that it was time for the Republican Party to jettison its limited government wing. Liberty arguments, Brooks declared, weren’t germane to the challenges faced by modern America.
Then the economy crashed, the stimulus failed, the national debt skyrocketed, the government helped pump up a student loan bubble, and the technocratic calculations made in Obamacare started to unravel. And yet Brooks is back with another column contending that economic conservatives have too much influence.
His thesis is that the fusion of traditional conservatism and libertarianism has lost its stick, with economic conservatives seizing all the power. He’s right to an extent. The right’s small-government strain is ascendant right now, expressed most lucidly by the Tea Party. But there’s a very good reason for that. Today’s political challenges are primarily fiscal in nature and the federal government is the biggest offender.
Russell Kirk rightly identified conservatism as a state of mind rather than an ideology or set of principles. But conservatism must also respond to the challenges of its day. Our most critical test is the skyrocketing national debt bloated by entitlement costs and a refusal to cut government spending. Conservatism must offer solutions and the Tea Party has.
Brooks cites Kirk in his piece (or, more specifically, cites Rod Dreher who cites Kirk) and outlines his version of traditional conservatism:
Because they were conservative, [traditionalists] tended to believe that power should be devolved down to the lower levels of this chain. They believed that people should lead disciplined, orderly lives, but doubted that individuals have the ability to do this alone, unaided by social custom and by God. So they were intensely interested in creating the sort of social, economic and political order that would encourage people to work hard, finish school and postpone childbearing until marriage.
He then contrasts this with modern conservatism in which “shrinking government” is “the organizing conservative principle.” “They have taken control,” he writes ominously.
Have they? Is Frank Meyer’s fusion of traditionalism and libertarianism really coming unglued?
Let’s take a look at the vanguard of today’s shrink-the-state movement: the Tea Party. While condensing government is the theme at any Tea Party rally, its members are social conservatives as well. Brooks pines for a conservatism in which individuals need “social custom and…God.” But research shows that Tea Partiers are more united by their common Christian conservatism than almost any other factor.
Like any movement, the Tea Party has its sharp edges and conspiracy theories. Its leaders occasionally quote the radical Thomas Paine. But the group has very little in common with the anarchic Jacobinism that characterizes many revolutions. Instead it’s closer to the Spirit of ‘76, that rare energy that demands established liberty rather than upheaval. Tea Partiers aren’t trying to overthrow America’s government or desecrate its monuments. They’re driven by a deep respect for tradition which they believe is being trampled by an activist government. That was the foundation for the American Revolution, supported by Edmund Burke, the father of traditional conservatism.
Today’s economic conservatives don’t want to overthrow order, but devolve it back to local governments and voluntary institutions. Despite some objectivist hat-tipping, they’re much more Friedrich Hayek than Ayn Rand; more Calvin Coolidge than Gary Johnson.
Brooks’ mistake, I think, is to confuse economic conservatism with a type of pure-market libertarianism unmoored from any tradition or order. It’s a distinction recognized by none other than Russell Kirk in his lecture A Dispassionate Assessment of Libertarians:
[A] number of the men and women who accept the label “libertarian!’ are not actually ideological libertarians at all, but simply conservatives under another name. These are people who perceive in the growth of the monolithic state, especially during the past half century, a grim menace to ordered liberty; and of course they are quite right.
That describes today’s economic conservatives. The old bonds of fusionism have held pretty well after all.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online